The coronavirus is upon us. What started out as an outbreak in Wuhan, China, soon spread like wildfire across the world, shaking economies, governments and countries to their core.
As I write this, the Johns Hopkins University of Medicine reports 250,618 confirmed cases of Covid-19 across the world (at the time of going to press), with 10,255 deaths and 89,044 recoveries. As I write this, The New York Times is reporting that Covid-19-related deaths in Italy have shot up to 3,405, surpassing China, which has done remarkably well in containing the virus in the past two months.
Stock markets have plunged as governments and central banks across the world scramble to effect policies that seem not to bring any hope. Economists have predicted difficult times ahead, with unemployment rates in countries like the US expected to soar in the face of the shutdown.
Here at home, seven cases have been confirmed although the World Health Organization says Africa may be under-reporting cases as our testing systems are not “robust enough”. That said, it appears to me that our government is doing a pretty decent job. We also seem to have a very able Cabinet Secretary for Health, Mr Mutahi Kagwe, a man who has managed to keep calm in the face of adversity.
Of course, in this global conundrum, we have come to interact with popular phrases such as ‘exponential curve’, ‘flattening the curve’, ‘social distancing’ and ‘contact tracing’.
Today, I want to talk about social distancing, the most practical thing you will ever do in this crisis.
I know you have read tens of articles on Covid-19, but allow me to reiterate a few key points. The common symptoms of the virus include coughing, shortness of breath and fever. The virus spreads from one individual to another through respiratory droplets issued from coughing and sneezing. Sometimes it could be airborne, where tiny droplets with the virus remain in the air—even after the sick person has left that place. Stay at home if you feel sick; wash your hands often, disinfect surfaces and avoid close contact with individuals who are exhibiting those symptoms. The fact that Covid-19 is air-borne and spreads from individual to individual is exactly the reason we must practice social distancing at all costs.
Social distancing, according to Johns Hopkins University, is ‘a public health practice that aims to prevent sick people from coming in close contact with healthy people in order to reduce opportunities for disease transmission.”
Social distancing may include cancelling public events like meetings, weddings and funerals and generally keeping away from crowds.
This practice has helped countries put a leash on new infections, including China where they effected the most brutal lockdown strategy known to man. And it worked. As at Thursday midnight, China reported no new domestic infections, a significant step in containing the virus. In countries where social distancing has been ignored, there are expensive repercussions; in South Korea a certain ‘Patient 31’ failed to adhere to this practice, causing a spike in new infections in the country.
It is for this reason governments across the world, including the Kenyan government, have advised that we observe social distancing. However, it would appear that a cross-section of Kenyans – not all of us – have taken the opportunity to not only go on ill-advised panic shopping sprees, but also clubbing, running errands and going about our normal business as if that warning means nothing to us.
The fact is Covid-19 is a serious pandemic with the potential to wreak serious havoc around the world and especially in Kenya, where our public healthcare system cannot be compared to that of the US, China or even Italy where the virus has ravaged its people. Secondly, Covid-19 is not just a health threat, it is an economic one too.
My point is, this is not the time to express your defiance against the government by going against orders. Social distancing is not a suggestion, it is a necessity. Each of us needs to do our part in ensuring that these numbers do not increase. If it means cancelling church events, weddings and birthday parties, so be it!
Covid-19 is no longer the business of the Ministry of Health or the government. It is not an abstract thing like stocks and bonds; it is about your health and that of your family. Be smart and practise social distancing!
The writer is the director of the Innovation Centre at Aga Khan University Graduate School of Media and Communications. The views expressed in this column are the writer’s own.