• Irungu Houghton

Fight virus but don’t return to rights violations


Listening to the thirteenth coronavirus presidential address from isolation in England provoked new perspectives. The address comes as a resurgence of COVID-19 provokes new lockdowns across England and Europe and may have cost President Trump the presidency.

Very regrettably, the progress Kenya had made by September has been reversed. Positivity rates have quadrupled, and hospital bed occupancy is now at 150%. Like a bad infestation of jiggers, the virus hunts all our toes again. Lamenting “poor leadership” and “public back-sliding”, the President introduced fifteen measures to re-energise public attitudes, control public interaction and re-emphasise the mandatory mask up policy.

After several recent political rallies and drive by mass interactions led by the President, Deputy President and other politicians, the 60-day out-door public gatherings ban is welcome. These Corona spreader events have contributed as much to the breakdown of health safety guidelines and rising infections than anything else. Some of us had begun seeking legal advice whether rally organisers could be sued if their supporters contracted COVID-19. Without this ban, nobody would have taken the other 14 measures seriously.

Citing compelling statistical data, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson also announced a similar set of lockdown measures with a few days of the Kenyan address. Unlike his Kenyan counterpart, the PM emphasised out-door personal exercise to avoid the obesity and depression that comes with isolation and didn’t mention masks. The UK Government also announced funding for small businesses, benefits for laid off employees and homes for the homeless.

Within one week, these measures had been subjected to parliamentary debate and approval. The lack of transparency in the use of the data used to justify the lockdown had been challenged by their equivalent of the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics. Like Kenya, Kshs 28,000 fines are in force for those who violate public health guidelines. However, unlike Kenya, the emphasis is on policing by consent and community based COVID marshals to assist with compliance.

This is where the Kenyan state torpedoes its’ efforts every time. Faced with a real health threat and anticipating public resistance, it falls back on multi-agency security teams, criminalisation and the threat of state violence. After public outcry, demonstrations and policy dialogue, there has been an 80 per cent drop in police brutality between August and April according to the Missing Voices research collective. It would be a disaster if violence and extortion pick up again. With the high levels of violence and extortion earlier in the year, on the spot fines without clear judicial, oversight and complaint mechanisms invite another policy misadventure.

Already scornfully been called the #MaskTax, the reasons why we must embrace the simplest of safety measures may be lost again. Led by Asian countries, mask violation fines are in place internationally. In Africa, it is only Sudan and Somalia that don’t require or recommend their citizens wear masks. Despite US President Trumps’ late personal uptake, 52 out of 54 American states have mask up policies in place. Unsurprisingly, Republican party supporters are half as likely to wear masks than their Democratic counterparts. This may have decisively affected Trump’s re-election. More Democrat voters used the Corona safe postal voting option than Republican voters.

Like the first wave, defeating Corona is all about social behavioural change. At least four audiences - Corona-denialists, Corona-preneurs, Corona-spreaders and Corona-marshals - listened to the Kenyan President this week. Most of us are either preoccupied with resisting necessary behavioural changes, profiting from the pandemic, early 2022 campaigning or how to stop the virus from claiming more lives. Despite calls to “civic responsibility” and “public responsiveness”, little thought has gone into encouraging the leadership we will need across the nation.

Strict policing and the fear of arrest is important, but it is not the primary reason we wear seatbelts, drive sober and keep within speed limits. Until we understand that everyone can be a source of transmission, we will not keep those close to us, the public and the economy safe. If scientific studies have demonstrated near-universal mask-wearing could cut transmission by a third, we need a new line of masks that express this. Perhaps, they could read ‘Shujaaz vaa vinyago’, ‘Vaa kinyago, okoa uchumi’ or ‘Kama unaweza soma hii, rudi nyuma’.

Rather than worrying whether we will be arrested for not wearing a mask, perhaps we should demand the Government provides them, as we carry an extra mask and health advice for the next person who approaches us not wearing one.


This opinion was published in the Saturday Standard on 7 November 2020

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