Why 2020 is the year of shock, awe and even great promise
By XN Iraki | December 27th 2020
One of my hobbies is talking to elderly men and women who lived through the colonial period into the uhuru era.
Their experiences make textbooks and history professors pale into insignificance. They sang ‘God save the Queen’ before ‘Oh God of all creation’.
We are all lucky to have gone through a similar experience, Covid-19, and its aftermath.
We pay tribute to those who fell victim to this virus whose origin is still being debated - surprisingly. Conspiracies aside, I can’t believe we do not know the origin of this virus.
Covid-19 could easily make us label 2020 the year of shock and awe.
Unprecedented decisions were made. Borders were closed and flights suspended.
Schools closed for the first time; restaurants and bars, too.
In Kenya, we cordoned off some counties, but movement within them was not restricted. Was it okay for the virus to spread within?
Curfews followed. These restrictions curtailed economic activities and taught us a simple lesson: economics is about people and their activities. It’s not about money.
Once the long shadow of Covid-19 has shortened, the government should appoint a task force to analyse our response to the disease and the lessons for future pandemics or related disasters.
Did we overreact? My thinking from day one was there was no need for curfews; we should have opened the economy 24 hours and dispersed crowds across these 24 hours.
It seems we lost the economy and Covid-19 still caught up with us. Did Tanzanians know something we did not?
They went against the collective panic that gripped almost all nations of the world.
Has anyone gone to the ground there to see what is working for them?
As we predicted, the shock over Covid-19 would fade with time as we got used to the new normal. That is very human. We can get used to anything.
Why else do we live in slums, in the Arctic and successfully go through traumas like war and other disasters. Our adaptability has kept us masters of this small planet. It’s this ‘getting used to’ that led to the second wave of the pandemic. If we are not careful, things might become worse as we take refuge in the promise of a vaccine. Remember the moral hazard?
Beyond men and women who left us for the beautiful shore, the grief of their loved ones and a shattered economy, Covid-19 had some silver linings.
We learned new vocabularies like flattening the curve and social distancing. I hope that will make statistics a more popular subject of study.
Scientists became our new heroes. Who can’t recall Dr Fauci or Dr Amoth? We hope that soon science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) will have more students in our universities than social sciences. Shall scientists become more recognisable than politicians, actors and musicians?
We saw the full extent of climate change when the skies cleared because of reduced economic activities. That could accelerate the shift to clean and renewable energy and leave our oil underground. We may never suffer the oil curse.
The Covid-19 shock led to lots of innovations. One could suggest that Earth should be ‘shocked’ often to spawn innovation and behaviour change. We got thermal guns, oximeters, ventilators and other medical devices. For once, we realised oxygen is not that free.
Did Covid-19 demystify the medical field? Masks, previously won for fun, became lifesavers. In retrospect, I noted lots of Chinese wearing masks on a visit to Beijing in 2018.
The walls of resistance to some modes of service delivery crumbled. We accepted that it’s possible to work from home.
That we can teach and examine online. We can hold meetings online. Covid-19 demystified lots of things.
We even started accepting digital signatures. Covid-19 also exposed our reluctance to accept innovation. I first used Zoom and Webex in 2014. But we think they came with the pandemic. Some companies blossomed after Covid-19, such as Amazon, Apple and Google.
Other little known firms like Zoom gained prominence so much that we got a new verb, zoom, not on the camera but holding a meeting online even when using Webex or Microsoft Teams. Other firms were restructured or died.
Few can doubt that Covid-19 changed our lives. In the short run, the economy slumped. But the resulting innovations may lead to faster growth in future as we learn to be more efficient.
Think of savings in transport costs as we hold online meetings or classes, never mind the loss of human touch.
The virus also demonstrated that we are not that rational. Why didn’t we stay where we were when the pandemic was declared? Why did we rush home, taking the virus with us?
It seems when in fear, we all rush home, it does not matter your colour or race.
That is why domestic violence must be stopped. Our homes should be places of refuge, even with our unreasonableness. Amid the gloom of Covid-19 espoused by attenuated industries like tourism and air transport, we developed a vaccine in record time, a testimony to human creativity and ingenuity.
Never mind that as usual, Africa is a spectator waiting for the west or east to develop the vaccine. Africa should not lag in biological research and the human body since the biology’s lab is universal!
Another big lesson: if it’s true that Covid-19 came from bats, we must learn to respect other species; they have no fewer rights to this planet.
It’s sobering that after the shock, the year is ending with great promise - vaccines that will reduce the ravages of Covid-19 and give us a semblance of normalcy. Citizens of planet Earth are exhausted.
Is that why there is a rush in space exploration? But I fear we could return to our complacency leading to new pandemics. Did you see the crowds waiting to board buses to visit the countryside on the eve of Christmas and on Christmas Day?
-The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi
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