We Kenyans are averse to the concept of ‘personal space.’ The government has to warn us to stand a metre apart at the supermarket line for good reason. On a normal ‘coronaless’ day, the person behind you on the supermarket queue will ‘feel’ that they are not properly in line unless they are as close to you as possible.
I don’t know if this is because of paranoia (that someone else will swoop in and cut the line if they see the smallest gap) or if it is because we are just communal people who feel safe in a tight knit herd. It seems like we are just happy breathing down each other’s necks in banks, supermarkets and any other space we get a chance to engage in mass huddling.
But we are not alone in our normalisation of public closeness. Recently, on a research trip to Kinshasa, I saw a matatu filling up with passengers at rush hour. And just when I thought it was about to take off, a fresh batch of people boarded the matatu and proceeded to sit on the first group. That is when the matatu finally began its trip. The passengers headed home with strangers nestled on their laps. It’s normal. And a city of 14 million people has to get around somehow!
Someone once said of pandemics and contagion: “Filth is just a symptom. The real problem is crowding.”
As we know by now, we are assisting the virus to travel far and wide. We are providing the coronavirus with the cars, airplanes matatus, bodabodas, the handshakes and hugs to move around.
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We all know that, now that we are weeks into our new reality. “We all know that” is however an assumption. Shockingly, the Catholic leadership in Kenya wants to provide the virus with church services for 11 million Catholics around the country.
Relate less to logic
If there was a time when we cannot afford ignorant, selfish and close-minded leadership, it is now. That is why Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe who so far appears to be a picture of competence, is a welcome relief. But how is he going to execute the biggest proactive operation present day Kenya has ever seen?
Two proposals. The first is to use choice architecture, which is about influencing people’s decisions. Fighting the coronavirus is about changing people’s behaviour. In any context, this is an uphill task. People relate less to logic, graphs, equations and numerical projections on pandemics, and more to stories and demonstrations. Here is an example.
At a school in America, one of those liberal ones where kids wear what they want to school, a group of teenage girls had just discovered lipstick. During their lunch break, they would go to the female toilet to apply it.
And just like in the movies, they would leave imprints of their coloured lips on the mirror. This caused a lot of extra work for the cleaning staff.
The school principal asked the girls to stop. She explained how difficult it was for the cleaners to remove the oily stuff from the mirrors multiple times a day. Of course the teenagers ignored her. So one afternoon, she took the girls to the toilet for a demonstration.
She said “Girls, it takes a lot of work to clean the lipstick off the mirror.” She turned to the cleaner and said, “Please show the girls how much work it takes.” The cleaner dipped her long mop in the nearest toilet, squeezed off the excess water and washed the mirror. Then she dunked the mop in the toilet again and repeated the process. From that day onwards, there was no more lipstick on the mirror.
Like the school principal in the lipstick situation, it falls upon CS Kagwe to communicate the importance of toeing the line in a relatable, proximate way.
Come with provisions
The second proposal is to compel Kenyans. If for example I live in Kibera, social distancing is an impossible concept. My neighbours are always at close quarters, and we share ablution and toilet facilities with many others. The logic therefore is to keep the virus out of the entire settlement.
It therefore follows that a quarantine should be at a geographical, not personal level. If I get it, the rest of Kibera gets it. If the rest of Kibera gets it, pandemonium and chaos ensue. Social disorder becomes the new coronavirus.
For this reason, a lockdown is absolutely necessary. Perhaps one that is enforced by the military as is the case in Spain.
But more importantly, the military cannot come in purely as an enforcer. A lockdown also means the lockout of livelihoods. In the quarantine period, the same military should also come with provisions. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
- The writer is a PhD candidate in political economy at SMC University. [email protected]