The fight against the spread of the Coronavirus in Kenya, as in a number of East African countries, will not be won unless public participation and buy-in becomes is prioritised. For now, governments are imposing lockdowns and restrictions that borrow heavily from global Covid-19 hot spots with little or no local contextualization.
The government measures are enforced by an overzealous police force that quite often violate civic liberties and freedoms. Some said the police “will beat you to death to save you from the Covid-19 pandemic”. Some people have been arrested because they were not wearing masks inside their cars – even if they were alone. Inside a car or a home are certainly private spaces that cannot be policed.
At a funeral in Eldama Ravine, a policeman threatened mourners to “spoil this thing for you” when he realized that onlookers were not observing social distancing rules. The family of the disease said they had no control over onlookers. One elder reminded the cop that they were conducting a funeral. They were not partying and there was nothing to “spoil” because death was an ultimate loss.
When the police killed three residents of Lessos, Nandi district, following an enforcement on mask wearing that went terribly wrong, a protester was heard asking: “who will die when I don’t wear a mask- the police or me?” That citizens felt that their rights were being violated- including the right to make bad choices-tells a lot about how risk and crisis were communicated to the public. All we see is tough talking government officials telling the people what the government wants them to do. We do not hear the citizen voice and view. Any wonder that people carry along masks but only wear them when they see the police? They shouldn’t be obey rules to avoid arrest but rather to safeguard their health.
Other than involving the citizens in decision making on Covid-19 strategies, there is need to train the police on how to “catch a virus”. The police do not observe social distancing when arresting those who violate measures on the pandemic. In addition, our view on prevention and managing of the pandemic needs to change. What we strive to achieve really is physical distancing and not social, political or economic distancing. Every effort therefore should be made to ensure the disruption to normal life is at the minimal. Perhaps people will take individual responsibility if government tells them all it wants to do is help them make the best of a bad situation.