Disconnected as we are to the rest of the world, the novel coronavirus, Covid 19, took long to get to Africa. But have no doubt, this virus will devastate this continent unless we are ruthless in the way we deal with it. We are vulnerable, with our relatively large HIV infection, our susceptibility to many infectious diseases and the poor state of our health systems. If ever there was a time when personal responsibility was paramount in tackling this challenge, this is it. Government’s capacity to deal with this crisis is limited. Do not forget that government has minimal testing kits so it does not really know the full extent of the epidemic.
That said, the numerous advisories the government is giving on the virus are not suggestions which one can ignore like we do government instructions. They need to be taken seriously. They would however be more useful if their “whys” were explained clearly. That way compliance would not be mechanical. Why regularly wash hands with soap thoroughly? Why use sanitiser? Why sanitise surfaces? Why not touch your face? Why self-quarantine? Why stay at home? The absence of explanations means that most people do not understand the cost of non-compliance. Yet it is broad compliance that will inevitably determine whether we will arrest the spread of the virus long enough to give the government time to manage it’s spread sufficiently and stop it from decimating our population.
Sadly, these advisories, however real, have an economic bias. Many in Kenya, particularly in the informal and lower income settlements do not have access to water. Sanitisers are expensive and hardly available.
People live in crowded areas and the notion of self-quarantining is foreign and impractical. Staying at home when your survival depends on your going for kibarua (work) is suicidal. Unfortunately, we must make do with our sobering reality.
Once this crisis is over, we must have a conversation about the role of governments in providing the most basic services, especially in view of the reality of epidemics.
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This is however not blame season. It is the season to survive. There are things we can demand of government. Like opening some water points in the water scarce areas and providing subsidised sanitisers to those without access to water. Like asking that government considers the use of public schools and similar facilities to quarantine those that may not have self-quarantine capacity if that need arises. But in the meantime, failure to abide in the strongest possible way to these advisories will be at risk to you, your family and your friends.
Fortunately, at a time where trust in government is a critical component of the ability to manage this virus, the plain talking and affable Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe is a welcome relief from some of the bungling we have seen in previous times of national crisis. His team must ensure we do not lose faith in them. This is a delicate season. We need people in authority whose information we can trust so we abide by their directions. We cannot afford panic, and just seeing a government confidently in charge will give much needed comfort.
In the meantime, my greatest worry is the impact that this pandemic will have on our health sector. For a long time, we have invested very little in expanding our supply of primary care professionals, the people we most need at a time like this. This pandemic puts these health care professionals at great risk. In many jurisdictions, this is the profession per capita paying the heaviest price in fatalities.
Many of them are ill-equipped and yet have the greatest exposures. We must do what we can to protect this critical profession. Finally, we need an advisory on what to do if (or is it when?) one gets the virus other than self-quarantine. What remedies and alternative medicines for minimising the impact of the virus exist, knowing that expansive “snake oils” are already being peddled in the market? We need to know what to do so we can live to share our stories when it is all over.
The writer is an Advocate of the High Court of Kenya