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Story-telling, life and heroism in the time of novel coronavirus




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Journalism and writing in the time of novel coronavirus has turned out to be an experience like no other.

This thing has sucked oxygen from every corner of the world and nearly everything, because all else that’s worth writing about is happening or not happening because of Covid-19.

To write about anything else seems like an egregious form of “Afghanistanism”, the term coined by American journalism to describe the practice of concentrating on problems and stories in distant parts of the world while ignoring more pressing local issues.

We have a long history of stories, histories, films, and art about “love in the time of war”. But I haven’t yet seen a story about love in coronavirus times — if only because you are supposed to keep at least one metre apart.

You can’t take the object of your affection to dinner, go for a walk in the park, send them flowers, or hang out in the club or pub, due to lockdowns and social distancing.

During the deadly post-election violence in Kenya in early 2008 in which 1,400 people were killed, one of the poignant stories was that of artist Solomon Muyundo (aka Solo Saba).


Solomon went around Kibera painting messages of peace on any wide surface he could find to calm the violence. “Peace wanted alive” and “Keep peace and justice” he wrote in white paint. Not in coronavirus times.

Virtually every time some African country is going through a bout of madness in war, or a genocide as in Rwanda 1994, we have tales of heroic people saving targeted groups, or some selfless men and women putting up makeshift classrooms to continue giving the local children an education.

Try that and you will get no students, or you will get jailed. An upmarket school in Kampala defied a lockdown and opened, and parents dropped their kids off to learn.

The police swooped in and arrested the teachers. In wartime, teaching against the odds makes you a hero. In coronavirus times, you will be considered reckless and evil.

In crisis times, churches and mosques are places of sanctuary. In Covid-19, they would be a death trap. Sunday services have gone online. So has education. And museum visits and music concerts.

In many conflicts, there has always been room for sports and play. When in 2000 allies Uganda and Rwanda fell out in eastern DR Congo after they had helped oust thieving dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in Kinshasa, and fought what became known as the “Six-Day War”, the troops on the ground were playing football and board games with each other, oblivious of the deadly politics.

As they tell the story, they were then called to go to war and, minutes later, were shooting and killing fellows with whom they had been playing cards and other games.


During the famed 1914 Christmas Day Truce football matches, British and German soldiers played football against their enemies, although historians have said it happened on a smaller scale than popular myth makes them out to be.

You cannot do that in this coronavirus crisis, let alone with friends. Sport has become some form of pestilence, and the Tokyo Olympics just got scratched, and moved to next year.

In Italy, desperate to shake off cabin fever, people open their balconies and sing the national anthem, or the humble Catholic prayer and song “Ave Maria”.

In Spain, a musician brought his piano to his balcony to play to the locked down street. Opposite, a saxophonist heard him, stepped out with his instrument, and they did a jam. A big cheer went out when they were done.

Music has that power, the ability to defy distance, but it was still disembowelled, because the sense that it was being played into an empty space people couldn’t step into was inescapable.

Some Nairobi malls and clubs are taking the temperature of patrons and members before they enter, to ensure they aren’t suspiciously hot.

And, especially if you look like a “small person”, ask that you also splash on some hand sanitiser.

Just a month ago, we would have thrown up a ruckus, considering that the height of insult, and gone to Twitter and unleashed a firestorm, with the digital lynch mobs deliciously joining in. Today, it gives us a sense of security.

We line up one-and-a-half metres apart to enter supermarkets. Broadband has become more than a lifeline, because the distractions of the internet, streaming services, and remote links to our work places, are all that link us safely to the rest of humanity.

The social media heroes of today are the people who battle human diseases — exhausted doctors and nurses, with mask abrasions on their faces, or crashed out on hospital floors.

The diabolical genius of coronavirus has been to turn humans into the thing we fear most. But not to despair, I think a very clever writer will find a romance story in it.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is curator of the Wall of Great Africans and publisher of explainer site @cobbo3



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Lockdown unwise now, but if people start dying like flies…




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We are in the midst of a plague of biblical proportions, and the government is hardly in a position to mitigate most of its ill effects.

To make matters worse, we as individuals are cooperating more with the virus than with official advisories on this matter.

While it is true that coronavirus deaths are rare in Kenya at the moment, it is also true that the rate of infection is growing exponentially.

We can only hope that the floodgates will not open, sweeping us all into unprecedented misery.

The government must have by now learnt a few useful lessons on how to protect its people from those countries that have gone to hell and are on their way back to the living.

China easily comes to mind. The virus, which is said to have originated there, ravaged the city of Wuhan before the authorities locked it down.


Today, although China is not free from the coronavirus, the pandemic is in retreat. The Chinese could tell us how they went about it.

The example that we cannot dare follow is Italy, the country that currently has the highest number of deaths.

When the history of the Covid-19 pandemic is written, this country will feature prominently, first because its government failed to protect its ageing population, and then because it dilly-dallied, leading to 7,000 deaths since mid-February.

Right now, Italy is in complete shutdown, quarantining 60 million people, but the infection rates have not subsided and many more could die before the virus is contained.

However, even this drastic move pales in comparison with what has just happened in India – all of its 1.3 billion souls have been put under quarantine.

In ordinary circumstances this would sound like an overreaction, because after all, only 10 deaths have been reported out of 519 confirmed cases, but these are not ordinary times.

This lockdown means confining people at home, closing down “all shops, commercial establishments, factories, workshops, offices, markets, and places of worship”, and stalling public transport.

From all this, one could conclude that Kenya, which has reported 31 infections so far, need not enforce such strict orders, but the fact that for too long the country kept its ports of entry open until two weeks after the first case was identified, may mean that the worst is still ahead.

It is true that the raft of coercive measures already announced – closure of places of worship, bars and entertainment joints, and a ban on congregating in public – may work, but only if wilful ignorance and irresponsibility are curbed.


For example, it is disheartening to learn that although the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA) was among the first to ban church worship, some pastors are advising their parishioners to hold Sunday services in private homes.

What these pastors don’t seem to realise is that the virus does not lurk in church buildings; it is spread by people through close association even when the symptoms are not obvious, hence the sensible orders not to congregate anywhere.

Indeed, a spike in the infection rate may be inevitable and the government forced to impose even more draconian measures, a complete lockdown being the most extreme.

Right now, there is a robust debate between proponents of a countrywide lockdown who contend that it is the only way to halt the grim toll of infections, and the realists who consider any move to lock people inside their compounds to be naïve and counterproductive.

What will happen, they ask, to the millions of people who live in shanties and low-rent estates?

Will the government provide them with food and water for the duration of the lockdown?

And since most depend on daily wages to fend for their families, should they expect the government to provide these things?

The answer is no; it does not have the capacity to cushion the effects of a lockdown on already desperate denizens, neither can it watch helplessly as the pandemic decimates the population.

Even those critics whose knee-jerk reaction is to oppose everything the government tries to do offer no solution to this conundrum; should it close its eyes and let the pathogen run its course killing thousands, or risk insurrection from people who believe it is better to die on the streets than cooped up in a hovel watching their children starve.

Unlike those social media pundits who know everything, I don’t pretend to have an answer to this vexing problem.

All that can be said is that if people follow the advisories from the government – to stay home as much as possible, keep a healthy distance from acquaintances, wash hands frequently and avoid crowds – perhaps the Grim Reaper will be discouraged.

Right now, the country cannot afford a lockdown on the Indian scale, but if Kenyans start dying like flies, it would be highly welcome regardless of the repercussions.



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Police should enforce curfew with restraint




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The curfew announced by President Uhuru Kenyatta this week took effect last night as the government intensified efforts to contain the spread of Covid-19.

Unlike other countries that declared a complete lockdown, stopping every public activity and forcing everyone to stay indoors, Kenya opted for a dusk-to-dawn restriction, allowing citizens to go about their business during the day.

Informing this is the understanding that our economy is largely driven by the informal sector, supporting more than 80 per cent of the population, for whom daily work is non-negotiable because that is their only source of upkeep.

For that population, failing to go to work even for a single day means their families going without a meal and rendered unable to meet all other socio-economic obligations.

A complete lockdown would have grave consequences on the economy: production would grind to a halt and that would affect the entire business chain, including sourcing of raw materials and securing markets for them.

A curfew, therefore, is a compromise to enable the economy to run while creating restrictions to limit infections.


In this context, it is hoped that the curfew will cause people to stay indoors and avoid irresponsible activities that would expose them to arrest by the police.

Reckless behaviour that may trigger further and harsher actions has to be avoided.

Simply, citizens have to obey the law and implement the protocols spelt out by the Ministry of Health. With the number of infected standing at 31, all efforts must be channelled towards controlling the spread.

Indeed, the police and other agencies have been roped into this fight, yet, ideally, they are better off dealing with other critical security matters.

Even so, the government has to handle the situation with restraint. It should provide clear guidelines about the curfew, explaining the protocols involved.

For instance, the curfew does not translate into abrogation of individual rights. Whatever the authorities do must be within the law.

On Friday, Inspector-General of Police Hillary Mutyambai highlighted what would be done to those violating the directives.

However, he did not provide details, for example, on how the police will handle the arrests.

Where will they take those arrested, given the government is seeking to decongest police cells and prisons to curb the spread of the virus?

How and where will the cases be handled without compromising public health? What are the safety precautions in the custodies?


There are legitimate fears that, given the characteristic behaviour of the police officers, chances are that some will resort to extortion to cash in on the situation to make money from hapless citizens.

Public assurance is pertinent in this regard. Systems ought to be put in place to eliminate corrupt practices in the entire process.

Thus far, the public has not been sufficiently apprised of what is expected of them or better, their rights and entitlements.

Police will certainly do random checks and arrest those found to be violating the curfew directive.

But unless professionally executed, that is bound to be counter-intuitive and cause bad blood between the public and the police.

Put simply, the police should publish the dos and don’ts to make it easier for everyone to understand and do the correct thing.

Public education is paramount and, in particular, the police service requires new orientation to enable them deal fairly, humanly but firmly with the citizens.

It is noted that although the government has provided a list of the essential services to be exempted during the curfew, there is no clarity of how they will be identified.

This is the first time in nearly 40 years that the country is going through this painful experience and a majority of the population is strange to it.

The last time the country had a curfew was in 1982, following the failed political coup by a section of the military.

Contexts are different and so are the objectives. To date, the country is grappling with a killer medical crisis that requires minimal social contact and which goal is best achieved through limiting movements.

Getting the public to understand that objective is vital. The country is not at war but is dealing with an unprecedented medical challenge that requires totally new thinking.

All said, the public is apprehensive about the way the curfew will be implemented and how their life will change, and they need assurance that everything will be done within the law.

Covid-19 has occasioned unprecedented pain and disruptions in our midst; the way it is handled will determine how far we go in eliminating it and emerging a stronger, vibrant nation.



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Mr President, please serve us more than just sweet words




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This past week President Uhuru Kenyatta finally stepped out of his comfort and mesmerised us with his brilliance at a time when Kenyans were getting increasingly worried that he was spending more time building his tailor than the nation.

We are relieved he finally found airtime to call his economic advisers to justify why they should keep eating public money.

For a long time, we didn’t know we had a president who could play like Messi when he wanted to.

Someone should tell State House that we have forgiven him for deactivating his Twitter account, coming late for press conferences, and chasing night-runners out of business.

Before the president issued his speech on Wednesday, Kenyans had been counting down to the depletion of food stocks, and eventual death by waiting for help.

The coronavirus has made the government address Kenyans every day even when we still haven’t recorded any deaths yet – a feat that leaves malaria green with envy, even when it should be thankful to humanity for sparing its life.


We welcome this new normal, and hope this fresh energy the government has taken up to fight this pandemic doesn’t start with Mutahi Kagwe, or end with coronavirus itself.

Kenyans have suffered for seven years under the Jubilee government; we won’t mind if the next three came with clean water to wash away our tears.

This is why there is a need to safeguard the little progress the government has made towards accountable leadership and a governance that is close to good.

While the president hasn’t been taking questions at his last two press briefings, he has worked on his touch with the pressing issues facing the ordinary Kenyan. He gets an ‘A’ for effort on this.

However, effort alone is not enough to allay the collective fears Kenyans have towards this pandemic that is threatening to teach us a lesson on disaster preparedness, and of working from home.

If we die and go to hell, we will remind the gatekeepers that we have been seconded by Kenya, where we hold the record for drinking from cups of empty promises and surviving on God’s will.

The same God that kept us from dying early cannot now turn his back on us. If hell is real, then there is still no scientific evidence to prove the presence of Kenyan life in there.

This government is used to rubbing our lips with honey and taking away the whole jar when we are about to settle down for the real feast.


We have seen enough to warn us against getting excited over sweet words because we have become accustomed to the lack of substance that follows thereafter.

It is not lost on us that this is the same government that promised us heaven, only for Kenyans to realise God wasn’t aware of this promise and He wouldn’t commit to opening the gates.

A government that can say anything to gain favour with the electorate is not one you can trust with your hand sanitiser during these times of Covid-19.

We still remember their promise to build five state-of-the-art stadiums, which later graduated to 11. Seven years down the line not even a blade of grass has been procured.

The Free Secondary Education, which was supposed to be their flagship project, is still being implemented in droplets.

Children who were promised laptops in Class One will be doing their final exams next year after seeing laptops only on television.

Kenyans cheered when they were told the new Standard Gauge Railway locomotives would be electric; then they saw the first diesel engines offloaded at the port and a part of them died with those grainy pictures.

If false advertising hasn’t killed the Jubilee government, there are no indications that the coronavirus will.

While the president’s speech last Wednesday was laudable, he, however, did not speak about the massive job losses that have occurred due to business shutdowns.

You cannot talk about Pay As You Earn (PAYE) tax to a population who closed businesses and ran back to the village to start life afresh because they could not afford to pay rent or argue with their landlords.

We expected the president to speak to landlords and remind them to sing the national anthem each time they think of evicting tenants.

Kenyans aren’t asking to live for free for this period, but if the coronavirus is the freedom we have been waiting for, then who are we to tell God to keep His philanthropy?

We are asking not to be serenaded with empty promises if you don’t mean it, because had sweet words been effective in eradicating hunger, Deputy President William Ruto would now be the United Nations secretary-general.



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