The country is in a state of a serious sense of anxiety as the numbers of Covid-19 infections take a steep rise.
Whereas experts had predicted the current surge, they seem concerned by the possible impact of the recent easing of restrictions. Of even greater concern is the apparent carefree conduct many Kenyans seem to have adopted towards the pandemic. No wonder some are calling for a return to lockdown, perhaps with more stringent restrictions. The question that begs is why, in spite of the daily updates on infections and deaths, most Kenyans seem least perturbed.
After the release of guidelines on reopening of places of worship, the Interfaith Council on the national response to coronavirus set out on a mission to sensitise religious leaders and clergy across the country on the guidelines and protocols.
Each of the 16 members was assigned three counties in which to conduct capacity building sessions over a three to four-day period.
As a member of the council, I was assigned to visit Homa Bay, Kisumu, and Siaya counties. The trip to these counties marked my first venture out of Nairobi since the dawn of the pandemic. It was eye-opening in many ways.
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As soon as we left the precincts of the city, driving through many market centres, it became apparent that the coronavirus was primarily a Nairobi affair. In almost all the centres we drove through – in over six counties from Nairobi to Siaya – the usual health measures were almost non-existent.
Facemasks that have become a standard part of our dress code within the city were rare. The few who had them, often wore them around their necks or on their chins. The markets were crowded with little concern for social distancing.
At one market centre where I stopped to make some purchases, some children stood staring when I came out of the car with my face mask on – possibly wondering whether I had an injury on my face. I realised how odd I must have looked in my mask – no one else had any. I too almost removed mine in embarrassment. Yet, because I was a man on a mission, I braved the stares. Interestingly, this was the same experience of other members of the council in most counties they visited.
It does appear that with the previous restriction of movement into and out of Nairobi and Mombasa, life in the rest of the country moved on with relative normalcy. No wonder, when we met religious leaders at the counties, they wondered why stringent restrictions were being made for the reopening of places of worship, while the same members of their congregations lived a perfectly normal life out there. Thankfully, after taking them through the dangers and challenges of the pandemic, and the consequent rationale behind the development of the guidelines, the religious leaders readily embraced these provisions, and promised to educate their members and colleagues on the same.
Equally encouraging was that county governments were similarly eager to collaborate with religious leaders to ensure better compliance and education.
It is clear from our experience that if we are going to conquer this invisible enemy, we need to change tack. Whereas the government has done a tremendous job in keeping Kenyans updated on the status of the pandemic, yet for many, it has become mere head knowledge that hardly affects our behaviour.
Thus, even with a surge in the numbers of infections and deaths, Kenyans may not be internalising its true import – especially in the countryside. What is even worse is that there is a growing sense of scepticism and cynicism on the reality and impact of the disease. This can be extremely dangerous, especially in this phase of rising infections. Our brief experience shows that we may need to move from information to education. From factual statistics to persuasive discourse – from feeding the mind to moving the heart. Furthermore, our success with fellow clergy showed that such education should be offered mainly by recognised associates in the communities – not just experts or government officials.
Hence, religious leaders, community elders, youth leaders, and such other “trusted” individuals should be intentionally empowered to educate their followers on such basics as: the need and methods for containment of the spread of the infection, the importance of minimising exposure to the virus, and the necessity of protecting the vulnerable.
In this way, masks, for example, will not be worn when the police or chief appears – as is happening in some places – but for personal safety. As global experience seems to be showing, the best way to beat this pandemic is prevention rather than cure. We can perhaps more effectively achieve this through strategic sit downs rather than lockdowns.