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Life in hardest-hit cities: Kenyans in France and Italy narrate the ordeal

By Daniel Wesangula | April 4th 2020
Mary Mwangi.

It is the simple things of life that Kenyans living in the epicentres of the coronavirus outbreak miss the most.

The little things that define humanity. The little things we take for granted and have never imagined could be taken away. Even as they are surrounded by death and loneliness, the realisation that man is indeed a social being keeps them up at night.

Italy and France have felt the hardest of punches from the pandemic outside China, with both countries featuring on the list of top five countries with the most deaths from the disease.

We reached out to three individuals smack in the middle of the outbreaks. They told us that they are coping, but just barely hanging on as the world continues to change each and every day.

Mary Mwangi’s day never really ends. Instead, it overlaps into hazy moments punctuated by the beeping sounds of Intensive Care Unit (ICU) machines and instructions from attending doctors. The amount of shifts and double shifts she has pulled in the last one month ought to have spent all her energy. But she still keeps going.

“We have to keep working each and every day. We have to try and make as many people as possible comfortable. The patients need us,” Mary says.

Mary is a nurse in the Italian city of Rome, a city she has lived in for the past decade. For her, the thing she misses most is the normalcy of life. The odd moments of walking the streets with your family heading for a sunny Sunday lunch.

“Or going to the park with my children,” she says.

As a medical worker, she walks too close to death every single day.

Fear within

“For us, the fear is within ourselves. We sit together in the wards because some emergencies really make it hard for you to keep distance with your colleague,” she says.

This then brings on another fear.

After every hard shift, she goes back home to her family.

“It doesn’t matter how careful you have been while at work. When the time to go home comes, you ask yourself whether you did enough to protect yourself and whether you picked up something along the way,” she says. “The fear is real.”

It is this fear that led the French President, Emmanuel Macron, to make a poignant address to the nation on March 17, effectively putting the country on lockdown.

“Before the directive, people were still going about their daily interactions; meetings, congested streets, packed metros, cinema visits, eating out, friends and relatives hugging and kissing,” Enock Maiyo, a Kenyan living in Paris, France, told Saturday Standard.

A week later, the number of infected stands at 29,155 from an initial 6,000 with daily cases of 1,500 new infections and hundreds of deaths that have peaked at 675 on one day. Of the total infections, only 15 per cent have totally recovered.

Mostly this is due to quick response and the advanced healthcare system in France. Behind these statistics are real human beings filled with fear of not seeing their loved ones again, grieving loss of parents, children and facing a future of solitude.

“We cannot go out to grocery stores without reason. Only supermarkets, pharmacies and butcheries are open,” Mr Maiyo says. “If your loved one works in another city or even another house nearby, you are not allowed to visit them unless they are ailing and you are going to take care of them.”

Paris, the city of light and love, has become a shell of its former self. The sounds of love and laughter from the Champs-Élysées with its numerous shops or the Avenue de Choisy with its mix of nationalities have been replaced by loud silence. It seems that even joy itself was packed up and shipped to another place.

“When I look outside, all I see is one ambulance after another picking patients. The sound of sirens has become the new normal. These have become the soundtracks to our lives,” Maiyo says.

Then there is the fear of having already been infected by the virus.

“Until the 14 days incubation period is over, I do not know if I am out of the woods yet. The only option for me is to stay isolated and wait for the two weeks to be over,” he says. “I am hoping for good health.”

Back in Rome, Fr Niko Makau stands over the window of his apartment at a mission in Rome looking outside. Ordinarily, he would be out with friends enjoying the cool breeze of springtime, eagerly awaiting the warmth that Italian summers promise.

Although the sleet on the cobbled streets thawed a while back, it feels like winter never really left his city.

“The worst thing about this period for me is the loss,” he says. “I cannot be there to stand with my friends at the time they need me most.”

He had friends in Bergamo, the city north of the country that has been devastated by the pandemic and described by the New York Times as “the bleak heart of the world’s deadliest coronavirus outbreak.”

“I have lost some. The fact I cannot be there for them at such a time has greatly touched me,” the father says. Bergamo, a province of about one million people, has been hit so hard with death that the local newspaper has surrendered all pages for listings of the dead.

As a priest, Fr Makau says it pains him to know that he cannot visit the old, sick and vulnerable at such a time.

National quarantine

Mass, a key part of his daily life, has temporarily been suspended. And he does not know for how long.

On March 9, 2020, the Italian government imposed a national quarantine, restricting the movement of the population except for necessity, work, and health circumstances in response to the growing pandemic in the country.

Even in the times when all that filters in to his phone or TV seems to be bad news -- some 500, 600 or 700 dead every day -- he finds solace in God.

“God has trusted us enough to give us the gift of life,” he says. “In as much as we would like to help, we should not endanger our lives. We should protect lives. This is why we are quarantining ourselves.”

He has grown accustomed to the daily solo 10-minute walk for exercise. But he also looks forward to the weekly shopping delivered by another seminarian.


“Only one of us goes out to shop on our behalf. And when he comes back, he isolates himself from us,” Fr Makau says. Then they let the shopping sit still for an entire week.

“To let whatever viruses that may have latched on to the supplies die,” he explains. “That is why it saddens me to see Kenyans joking about this,” he says.

From Paris, Enock too feels let down by his people but, most importantly, there is hope.

“It’s not too late to act. No one is safe until we are all safe. The words of the Kenyan National Anthem should speak to all of us during this period,” he says.

For now, the love and light of Paris and the romance of Rome are all suspended, waiting for the coronavirus to pass by before occupying the hearts and minds of the residents once again.

Covid 19 Time Series


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