I am writing this on my tenth day of self-imposed quarantine. I am at home with 50 or so unread books, newspapers, a laptop, iPad, television with as many channels as I can watch and most important, armed with two telephones connecting me to the whole world.
It is as comfortable as it can be – yet it feels like a prison cell. It has only been 10 days. Imagine Mandela served 27 years in prison. It is a miracle that the old man did not go crazy. Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote a beautiful book called “Love in the time of cholera” in which he reflected on love and today I, too, reflect on what corona has done to us and for us.
Like most Kenyans, I underestimated the impact of this pestilence. I felt that the world was overreacting. After all, hadn’t we seen SARS and MERS come and go with so much drama and flair only to fizz away quietly. The idea of a quarantine or a curfew seemed like an outrageous overkill, and wearing masks was for the Chinese. Clearly, we had underestimated the ferocity of this disease. Now we know better.
Restrictions on movement, a curfew and even a partial shutdown may be needed. It is easy to promulgate a total shutdown but then how does the man who depends on a daily wage, commonly known as ‘kibarua’, get food for his family? Think twice before you sentence his family to death by starvation because that’s inviting rebellion and civil disturbance.
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Think twice about reducing the passenger load on a ferry that carries 1,500 to 300 because the 1,200 left behind won't sleep on the road waiting for tomorrow’s ferry, particularly if they crossed the channel to look for their daily bread. While these sensible rules have to be imposed, they need to be done with operational realities in mind and compassion for the people affected.
Whips, bullets and police batons are not the solutions. A better solution would have been to have sanitising containers, like in China and Turkey, and free masks to reduce the risks during the 20-minute ferry ride. The sight of police officers warming up before the coming storm looks like the psyching of warriors going to battle – but these are not the barbarians at the gates, these are our own people. Have compassion.
Coronavirus has done serious damage to our economy, which might take years to fix. It forces us to rethink the running of our economy. We need to reduce addiction to Chinese imports. The risks of depending on China are now starkly obvious. Focus on export substitution and support of local industry must come back to the forefront.
Protect our industries as they protect theirs. The dependence that we have had on diaspora remittances is now seriously at risk as well. As the world economy goes into recession, many of the Kenyans abroad will be coming home. Did we as a country prepare them for their return? For years, I have been calling for special diaspora investment opportunities but who listened?
We have learnt we can work from home. I have had two virtual board meetings and saved two international trips through video conferencing. So unless you are chasing the per diems and travel allowances, we can all reduce travel. Imagine the cost savings and reduced traffic on our roads. If the laptop programme had not failed, our kids would not be wasting time at home now.
Corona has changed how we live and forced us to reevaluate our habits, values and traditions. Corona is an imported disease yet the highest risk falls on poor people, most of whom don’t even have passports. We are told to wash our hands frequently. This is a long call on poor people who have to pay a small fortune to buy and carry a 20-litre jerrycan home. Do you honestly expect them to waste this precious water frequently washing hands – no matter how high the risk? Clearly, we need to refocus on providing running water to our people as a priority.
The call for "social distancing" will change the way we interact with each other. As soon as the scare is over, people will forget this temporary phenomenon and go back to our old ways. That’s nature. Thus we need to re-emphasise prevention and proper hygiene as the new norm. Easy to preach but difficult to implement – remember the water?
Some customs and traditions will have to change. We’ve seen lavish funerals that go on for days. Then soon after the burial, the children of the deceased are kicked out of school due to lack of fees. Had we kept those funds as an educational fund, it would have served us better than feeding multiples of friends and relatives. Yet community leaders would lament and then say "it’s our tradition and we cannot change this". To date, no bodies have been rejected by the spirits. Let us not lose this opportunity to change outdated traditions.
I won't be shaking your hand for a long time, "namaste" to you all.
Mr Shahbal is Chairman of Gulf Group of Companies. [email protected]