By Wallace Kantai via FB
We are now getting to the point where each of us know at least one person who has been infected with Covid-19. We are also probably at most one degree removed from someone who is undergoing a serious infection requiring hospitalisation, or even, sadly, someone who has died from the illness. Covid-19 has stopped being theoretical, or distant. At the same time, however, we have stopped being deathly scared of the virus. Scroll through your Instagram, WhatsApp and Facebook feeds, and see the number of bashes and brunches that people are getting up to. Restrictions on drinking in a bar seem to be applicable only to the naïve. To the rest of us, life in that respect is back to ‘normal’. If you don’t know how to sneak out of Nairobi, why, kuja nikuonyeshe! Kuna karao fulani atakusort na pass. We cannot wait for the 6th of July, for the President to simply confirm what has already been going on.
But this is the point at which we need to be most careful. This is when our guard and defences should be at their highest alert levels. There is, however, a reason why things are developing the way they are, and perhaps that is one of the points of this rather lengthy piece.
First, what many of us is extremely foolish, but perhaps understandable. In the early days of the crisis when the virus first hit our shores, the shock was intense, immediate and galvanising. Some panicked, and understandably so. Remember the overcrowded supermarkets with people clearing out shelves. Remember the mounds of toilet paper that must still be filling up some people’s cupboards. Others were paralysed by terror, and again understandably so. It was a new, lethal and fast-moving contagion. Matter of fact, it is still a new, fast-moving and lethal contagion.
The human mind and the human body are interesting things. We process big shocks fairly quickly. After we get over the immediacy of the problem, we do what we (believe we) need to do to deal with it. The problem is, though, that the human body cannot stay at an elevated alert level for very long. It is like what happens when the body produces adrenaline. In a high-stress situation, the adrenaline makes you hyper alert, enabling you to get through it. If you have ever been in a near-miss as a driver, or even had to give a big speech, you know how you’re remarkably aware and able to cope. But afterwards, after the hormone drains away from the system, you are left exhausted. Utterly spent. And if, for whatever reason, you stay in a high-adrenaline state, the damage to the body is actually tangible. It can lead, in extremis, to the development of tumours.
At the same time, we are remarkably resilient creatures. There are circumstances which we think we cannot cope with, only for us to adapt to a degree far beyond what we thought was our limit. That is why we will visit a slum, wondering how on earth people can live like that. But throw us into that environment, and we will be comfortable within a month, creating coping and adaptation mechanisms that we never thought we had. But the same coping mechanisms become dangerous at a time such as this. The combination of these adaptation mechanisms, as well as a genuine exhaustion after the initial shock of March and April, is what has brought us to this moment.
Now is when the long tail of the crisis begins. And this is where you, my peers, need to sit up and pay attention. Beyond the spectacularly ill-advised brunches, bashes, birthdays and baby showers, we all need to face up to cold reality.
First is the realisation that there is no magic-bullet medical solution to COVID-19. In Kenya, coronavirus declared war on us on Friday, March 13 2020. There shall never be a day when we shall declare the war won (or lost). Instead, we will make stuttering progress, and occasionally regress, depending on our behaviour and the epidemiology of the virus. Any vaccine is many months away, and even then, this is only to get to the starting line: to have a vaccine that prevents infection in maybe 90% of the population, and is safe enough for a significant majority. That vaccine then needs to be manufactured in bulk (if it requires two doses for effectiveness, then it means 14 BILLION doses of vaccine need to be produced). It then needs to be distributed the world over. We will need to hope that it stays stable under all kinds of conditions (and thus does not require cold chain distribution, for instance). We hope that the vaccine will be cheap or free. And in all this, we hope that countries do not show vaccine nationalism, as they declared in the first days of the crisis. To think, or worse to behave, as if a medical miracle is on the way, and one that will take us back to the way it was before, is a dangerous, even fatal, delusion.
The economic element of this is the next one that needs to concern us gravely. Of course everyone wants the economy to be reopened fully, with all businesses going back to full production and sales the day after. But this piece of wishful thinking does not square up to two very solid pieces of reality. First, demand was not lost just because people were asked to stay home. Some people will still be wary of catching the virus, and will thus stay away from places of commerce. Others have lost income and jobs, and thus do not have the purchasing power any more (more on this below). Still others work in industries where demand will be depressed in the long term (think of airlines, hotels and the like), so that even if the announcement is made, they will not rebound in an instant. There are yet others which will be impacted by the ‘new normal’. Think of the lady who brings mandazis to the office, but now half of that office is working from home, and the other half is wary of buying from her. Multiply that by the kiosks and vibandaski and shoeshiners. The second issue is the experience that other countries have had when they have opened up in recent weeks. Cases have spiked, and they have had to quickly beat a retreat, with the attendant desperation that this induces among citizens.
My former industry (and especially my former company) has just announced a far-ranging set of layoffs and buyouts. There is carnage in the media industry, but it is not the only one. Many of you reading this have lost jobs, or have seen your incomes severely curtailed, or is in mortal fear for their job or industry. Airlines, hotels, restaurants, shopping malls, transport companies and even hospitals have been hard-hit, and companies have reduced salaries, asked people to take unpaid leave, and drastically reduced their workforces.
Even if you have not had the unfortunate experience of being laid off, the hairs at the back of your neck are standing straight up, as the full implications of this manifest themselves. You fear that your industry and your job could be next. To begin with, the loss of a job is a tremendously traumatic experience. I speak out of bitter experience. It not only robs you of income, but also robs you of dignity. You feel as if people are discussing you behind your back. Much worse, you feel as if househelps and watchmen (bless them) are the ones discussing you. Some of it is even gender: men feel emasculated when they cannot bring home the proverbial bacon, and when their young children ask them why they are not going to the office (or not getting onto Zoom calls). Women feel that they have taken a gigantic leap backwards just when they were making progress in the workplace. If you were in this particular demographic, then the prizes that you felt you were working towards are being mercilessly yanked away from you – you may have had to sell your car, or move out of your neighbourhood. Thank goodness that school is out, so no one notices that you can no longer afford the fees at the school your children used to go. But school will resume, and they will notice. The anxieties brought about by work and income loss are insidious and cruel, and you never quite get used to it. Much worse in an environment as uncertain as this one.
But even those of you who have NOT lost jobs will suffer some significant angst. The distress of watching your close friends, family members and colleagues go through job loss is traumatic by itself. But there is more. We are Africans. The obligation to come to the financial help of those in dire straits will increase. You will be asked, or will feel a sense of duty, to come to their financial aid. It will be heartbreaking to watch them go hungry, or watch their children suffer. But don’t forget that this obligation will be added to those you already carry, of the sundry relatives and friends we all bear responsibility for. But there is an added factor. You yourself have the anxiety described earlier. Is your job safe? Is your salary going to be reduced? How much of your resources can you spare, and how much of them should you husband in case *you* are the one who might be in need soon?
But there is also something else. Unexpected and almost fantastical, but nevertheless real. It is a variety of survivor’s guilt. You may be watching people being laid off, perhaps even the person who sits next to you, and wonder why *you* were not the one who was not laid off. Perhaps your workmate has younger, or more vulnerable, dependents than you do. Perhaps you feel that they were more qualified, or harder working, than you were. Why were you not the one who was laid off? It is like surviving a fatal accident. The guilt of survival eats stealthily at you. But the worst part of it is that you cannot even express it, not even to close friends, because it will make you sound unbearably ungrateful. But survivor’s guilt is no less real for being so…odd.
What to do? I don’t know, and I am not the expert who is going to give you advice that you can put on a laminated card and stick in your front pocket. But there are things that are clear already. Regardless of whatever announcement is made soon, you are ultimately responsible for your own fate and circumstances. Don’t take this illness lightly. You lose little by keeping the get-togethers on hold for a while longer – your friends are going nowhere (we pray). If you lose your job or your income, it will feel horrible. Like someone has kicked you in the most sensitive of areas. But this is when you must be at your strongest. Do not be afraid to ask for help, or to accept it if it is proffered. If you’re one of the fortunate ones, help where you can. But if you cannot, do not beat yourself up over it.
So, in a sense, this is where we find ourselves, at the beginning of the second half of the strangest year of our lives. As the pithy tweet said, we are tired of corona, but corona is not tired of us. We are bored with Covid, but Covid is just starting with us. Put on your mask. Distance yourself from people. Wash your hands or sanitise constantly.