If we continue to behave normally, this thing will treat us abnormally. That was the genius statement by Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe, as he announced drastic measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus at its dawn in Kenya.
If the actions and reactions to Covid-19 by nations were to be gauged against Kagwe’s mantra, it would be very interesting to see the outcomes. National approaches have been quite varied in dealing with the virus.
At one extreme are those who took immediate drastic lockdown measures, requiring everybody to stay indoors except for brief visits to the grocery stores.
At the other end are nations who chose to continue with business as usual, allowing citizens to move freely with minimal controls.
When the virus landed in Europe, it created great panic among many people. But individual governments had to make their own choices of response. For example, in Denmark, the government ordered immediate lockdown, even closing all its borders to visitors with no essential need for entry.
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They further closed all schools and public offices and urged private companies to do likewise and work from home. Some considered Denmark’s response as an over-reaction based on no scientific evidence of its necessity.
As at the time, many European and other developed nations had taken the position that the best way to deal with a virus such as corona was to let it infect a section of the population, most of who would suffer only mild symptoms. This would lead to a “herd immunity” and thus act as a mass vaccination. But the Danish Prime Minister, Mette Frederiksen, differed.
“We are not in a situation where we as a government can allow ourselves to lean on evidence, because we are facing a new disease that is developing in a way that the authorities have not been able to foresee,” she insisted.
Neighbouring the Danes are the Swedes who chose a totally different path. Prime Minister Stefan Löfven encouraged citizens to use common sense and exercise personal responsibility. They could work from home if possible, and not gather in crowds of over 50.
Protections like masks and gloves were not required unless one was known to be sick. Furthermore, the government kept primary schools open, as well as bars and restaurants. The actions were premised on the belief that Swedes are highly responsible and have a high level of trust in government agencies. Therefore, the Swedes – in the words of Kagwe – continued to behave normally. But, did this thing treat them abnormally?
As at the end of April, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, Sweden had reported more than 21,500 confirmed infections and 2,600 deaths. That means that about 12 per cent of those diagnosed with Covid-19 had died.
In the same period, Denmark had recorded 460 deaths, or about 5 per cent of those diagnosed. Could this thing have actually treated the Swedes abnormally? Well, in politics they say that a day is a very long time, and so it appears to be with Covid-19 – totally unpredictable. Therefore, only time will tell who between Sweden and Denmark made the better choice.
In the meantime, the Swede/Danish scenario seems to be playing out in our region. Whereas most East African nations have applied relatively strict protocols in response to Covid-19, in Tanzania it is business as usual – wanaendelea kuchapa kazi! Tanzanian authorities have made strong claims that corona is on its deathbed in Tanzania, and we have no reason to doubt them.
The challenge, however, is that when Tanzanians cross into Kenya, several seem to test positive for coronavirus. Is this mere regional politics, or could there be something happening in our neighbour’s house?
Back home, debates are raging on whether and when to reopen businesses, churches, and schools. Interestingly, in this discourse there are as many Swedes as there are Danes – let the reader understand.
When the Registrar of Marriages reopened their doors a few weeks ago, there was apparently such an influx of lovebirds who turned up for the services. The good office had to close again to re-strategise! And why not? This has turned out to be an excellent season for inexpensive weddings.
What is clear, therefore, is that many Kenyans seem ready to move on with life. Unfortunately, it cannot be said of us that we are as responsible as the Swedes.
But since I hear that the pandemic is becoming endemic, we must strategise on how to cautiously come out of our bunkers. We must collectively agree on clear protocols for living with this thing. Otherwise, I fear that if we get back kuchapa kazi too soon, this thing could treat us very abnormally – for real!