Our country is facing the biggest fight in post-independence existence: the lives of its citizens are on the line, its economy is threatened, its culture and way of life is imperiled.
The novel coronavirus threatens to kill us, damage our health, destroy our economy and the very fabric of our families. It will rain pain and suffering upon our unprotected heads in the coming days, weeks and months.
However, nothing shapes and brings out character than adversity and suffering. Great generals do not distinguish themselves in peacetime. The iron in their backbone shines through the smoke, mud and cacophony of the battlefield.
The battle for our lives today will not be won by a powerful, privileged few. Every man, woman and child in this country must become that great general. And our weapons are not necessarily guns and bullets; our weapons are social discipline, sacrifice and caring for the welfare and safety of those around you.
Because we are relatively poor, our governments wasteful and our systems weak, “experts” have been predicting deaths on this continent in the millions. However, there must be reasons why we have survived on this continent for tens of thousands of years and outlived many other species.
To survive we must adapt as we have over the years.
The coronavirus pandemic that has so far infected 179 people in Kenya is changing the way we live, love, and express that love. Our expressions of greetings and farewell no longer make sense in this new world order. The handshake, that universal symbol of camaraderie and mutual understanding, has suddenly become absurd; the hug ludicrous; and walking around without a mask unreasonable. We have to adapt or perish.
However, the changes that Covid-19 is imposing on us at the physical level pale in comparison to the challenges that this disease continues to present to us as a people, and to our government, every day. In his speech to the nation on Monday, President Uhuru Kenyatta noted that “never has our national interest been threatened to this extent before”.
Preparing Kenyans for a worst that is yet to come, the President looked back to how the events of the last one month have changed our routines. “Our families, our schools, our way of life, the way we worship, our economy, our businesses, our workers, every single Kenyan stands threatened by this invisible, relentless enemy that is Covid-19,” he said.
And that is the reason we all must stand up and be counted now. In this disease is an opportunity for us to change the outcomes for ourselves, our families, our communities and the nation at large. They say the greatest obstacle to being heroic is the doubt whether one may not be going to prove oneself a fool, that the truest heroism is to resist that doubt, and the profoundest wisdom to know when it ought to be resisted and when it is to be obeyed.
Yet, in the last few days we have seen varying degrees of obedience to guidelines on how to stop the spread of Covid-19; from instructions by the Ministry of Health to self-quarantine if one has a history of travel, to the announcement of a nightly curfew and incessant calls to wash our hands, keep social distance and wear masks. These simple guidelines are markers as to whether we are willing to gang up against this monster, or want to continue life as usual and allow it to decimate us.
Our greatest calling now is to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. Unlike other countries in the world facing the same challenges, we have the advantage of time to learn from the experiences of those who have walked this journey ahead of us. The safety guidelines issued by the government and the World Health Organisation are the products of expert research and observations on how the virus is spread, and, most importantly, how it is contained.
Just as we have triumphed over many other disasters, our spirit of togetherness, innovation and resilience is once again on display. In Mombasa, people are lining up to donate food to an emergency fund, in Kibera a young man named David Avido is making and distributing face masks free of charge, while in Kisumu a community organisation in Obunga slum is leading a massive sanitisation and sensitisation campaign. These, like many other people around the country who have hearkened to the call to fight Covid-19, are a breath of fresh air to what would otherwise be a very dreary existence. They have shown us that we all have a corner in this boxing ring, a chapter in this story of heroism and sacrifice.
As we strap our boots and fight this monster, we must be reminded of the shape and taste of this beloved country once we emerge on the other side. Like soldiers coming home from war, we are likely to be physically battered and emotionally drained. Our healthcare system, our economy, our education, our agriculture, our businesses and our human resource are already starting to feel the pinch, and, if projections are anything to go by, the worst is yet to come.
Poor and developing countries with fragile economies stand to face the biggest shock from this pandemic, and leaving anyone unprotected will only prolong the health crisis and harm economies more. And so, to paraphrase the WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus’ recent speech to the international community recently, all countries, companies and research institutions ought to find ways to support open data, open science and open collaboration so that all people can enjoy the benefits of science and research, now and in the future.
While business executives and political leaders will offer policy direction in the new Kenya, the millions of hardworking citizens out there in the streets, slums and villages, who are the untiring foot soldiers in this battle, will determine what trajectory we take. But history is on our side, and we believe that the same stoicism we have displayed before will be our saving grace.
In the middle of this sea of fortitude, however, are lessons that we must carry with a mixture of glee and shame. While it is heartening to see this reawakening of our national values and ethos, as pointed to us regularly by Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe, this pandemic has given us a peep into the yawning gaps in our health care system.
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For instance, it is shocking that a country of about 50 million people has about 500 critical care beds, and even more shocking that, eight years since devolution, there are counties with multimillion-shilling governors’ mansions and not a single intensive care unit bed. This, we hope, will force a reorganization of our expenditure priorities in the short term and give our dream of universal health coverage the impetus it needs to take off. Our leaders, we hope, have realised that the world is such a small place, and that a sneeze in faraway Wuhan, China, can make their favourite hospital bed in London unavailable.
As the global economy teeters on the verge of a massive recession, governments around the world are announcing billion-dollar bailout programmes for the most hard-hit sectors. Locally, Kenya Airways, whose planes now sit on the tarmac at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, grounded by the pandemic, has already asked the government to save it from imminent death.
The International Monetary Fund warned on Monday that the global economic impacts of this pandemic will be worse than the global financial crisis of 2008-09, and that the economic damage is mounting across all countries, hot on the heels of the sharp rise in new infections and containment measures put in place by governments. In the last two weeks of March, for instance, almost 10 million people in the US applied for unemployment benefits. Such a sharp and staggering increase has never been seen before, “not even at the peak of the global financial crisis in 2009”, warned the IMF.
It appears, then, that Kenya needs to start having a conversation around bailouts. While President Kenyatta has given tax breaks to individual and corporate citizens, these might not be enough in the long term. Economists are projecting massive job losses as businesses scale down or completely shut down in the year, which, in the middle of a virulent pandemic, sounds like adding insult to injury.
This, once again, is the time for us to be truly Kenyan, to live the spirit of our founding fathers by uniting against this pandemic, and to breathe hope where there appears none. Together we can do it.