September 11, 2001, changed our lives in unprecedented ways. That day rolled back our privacy. We became more willing to sacrifice our privacy for security. In some cases, this gave way to human rights abuses.
We are checked at airports, at supermarkets, in schools and many other places likely to be targets of terrorist attacks.
The day changed relationships among nations and immigration patterns. Some countries were blacklisted as havens of terrorism leading to wars like that in Afghanistan.
The war on terror was predicted to be a long and slow slog. Before it’s over, another event is about to change our lives more profoundly, Covid-19 or coronavirus as its popularity called.
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It has taken a few months to become a pandemic. And finally landed on our shores after a long anticipation. We are one of the few countries that celebrate bad news even sharing on social media the photo of the first victim, now seen as a celeb.
The pandemic brings out our true selves. We are vulnerable despite show of bravely. At around 8pm on Friday, I visited a leading supermarket. It was full of shoppers. One neighbour even asked me where I had been, creating an impression that I should have come earlier to partake in panic buying.
Panic buying is driven by lockdowns in Europe and USA after China. Curiously just like September 11, I found Kenyans and foreigners buying goods in equal measure. Milk, tissue paper and sanitisers had run out. Looking at the items shopped I wondered if the fridge had suddenly been enlarged.
In the privacy of my thoughts, I wondered what those who live one day at a time, the slum dwellers and other economically disadvantaged are stockpiling. Live, I witnessed, irrational behaviour, Kenyans making a bad situation worse. Panic buying brought lots of people together, the opposite of what’s expected in case of such a virus. Don’t we run to go and witness a bomb blast?
The good news is that prices did not go up as a result of excess demand. No supermarket want to risk its reputation. The government should have indicated there will be no lockdown to reduce the fear. To be fair to Kenyans, we are not sure of the next step beyond the basics given by the minister of health. Communication and PR experts now got their perfect case study.
How will Covid-19 change our lives beyond fear? One wishes there is more information on survival rate. The media is focussing too much on the dead and the infected not the survivors creating an impression that coronavirus is a death sentence. Yet like flu, homa, many will recover the health. The mortality rate is estimated by Lancet in the range 5.5-5.7 per cent.
Back to our lives. How can we not shake hands which is almost a reflex action? Wakorino sect don’t shake hands, so its not so strange. What would have happened if coronavirus came before the handshake between Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga?
What about shows of affection like embraces and kisses? How shall we show it now? Shall we use sign language? What about the feeling resulting from the touch? Imagination?
We love social gatherings from chamas to beer tables, cheering gangs for EPL and other groupings. How shall we desocialise ourselves? Shall some people end up hospitalised for loneliness?
What of matatus? Shall they double their fares to carry less people so as to keep a minimum distance? We could even call each other while seating next to each other to avoid contact.
What of families? How shall we self isolate when most Kenyans have only one home?
Will e-commerce and distance learning flourish as we avoid meetings? What of video conference? Shall faithfuls attend church virtually? What of Baptism and related ceremonies? What of weddings, shall a corona test be ordered before marriage vows? No honeymoons? Will police change the way they arrest you? What of pickpockets? We can make the list longer and more controversial. Imagine a burial ceremony without attendants?
How shall we welcome dignitaries from abroad or elsewhere ? No bouquet of flowers and traditional dancers? With no flights, what will be the new status symbol?
Coronavirus touches where it matters most, interaction with other people, what makes us human. Could we suffer psychological problems because of this virus as loneliness becomes a way of life?
The good news is that the virus can be contained; China has led the way. We are not sure how long it will take elsewhere without a powerful central authority. The declaration of a state of emergency by the US government could provide other governments with a template, but every country is unique in its own ways.
Even HIV/AIDs does not seem to have elicited as much fear. Covid-19 has even made locusts irrelevant. In coming days, the government reaction will be crucial, what directives will be given? How do we ensure no public hysteria and misinformation is reduced? Its time to show leadership, the bridges in BBI should be crossed now.
We better get a cure or a vaccine before our lives and relationships are changed just like the aftermath of September 11, 2001. Finally, let us be sober and reasonable, it is the nearest cure for the coronavirus, for now.
Over reaction and panic rarely solve a problem. The ingenuity of our scientists is at work, we hope that soon we shall be back to our familiar way of life. For now we must make a sacrifice and disrupt our lives- all in good faith.
-The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi.