On the flipside, pandemics unite people to target a common goal

Wednesday March 25 2020

A man wears a face mask, due to the global

A man wears a face mask, due to the global coronavirus outbreak, as he rides his motorbike along a busy shopping street in Dakar, Senegal on March 18, 2020. PHOTO | REUTERS 

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Three months ago, in an age before coronavirus, a receptionist at an office I was visiting in Liberia measured my temperature. “It’s for everyone’s good as we must all care for each other,” she said, drowning out my protests and meticulously writing down the reading next to my name.

When, upon entering the car, a hand sanitiser was passed round, I began to see the utu, Kiswahili for humanity.
Crises are opportunities for change and bringing people together.

How do we seed, once more, the culture of Utu that existed in African societies, in the face of a pandemic that has taught us protection and care go beyond the individual and family and that caring for others is caring for ourselves?

Behavioral change leading to preventing and mitigating coronavirus, provides a common cause for an Utu driven society. A pandemic requires Utu, a collective outreach because the untreated person is a risk to everyone.

Sharing an understanding of what Utu means in practice would be a good start.

Proffered preventive measures for coronavirus have mainly targeted the middle and upper classes, such as those worried of infection through fresh fruit and vegetables in supermarkets touched and put back by previous customers.


These measures include, work from home, keep to the “social distancing” rule of customers standing one metre apart in supermarkets, avoid communal sharing of food unless individually wrapped, use gloves, stay home and self-isolate.

Daily earnings

Now imagine our crowded African markets such as Mwembe Tayari in Mombasa or Nakasero in Kampala where people meet to trade, buy food and catch up with news.

Many rely on daily earnings to survive and share homes with relatives with “social distancing” and “self-isolation” either an impossibility or a looming financial crisis. Utu means we are all in this together.

With schools closed and public gatherings banned, the media, television, radio, print and internet occupy a central role in shaping an Utu approach.

We need simple catchy Utu messages, translated into local languages, breaking down information from government press releases.

When ten priorities are posted people often remember none. The messages could be on people from different backgrounds such as ethnic and religious having similar opportunities to keep each other safe, on preventing and mitigating coronavirus and trusting institutions to act fairly.

Health professionals can advise on where to get tested, how to integrate preventive behavior in daily schedules and setting Utu peer expectations to keep each other safe.

Radio listeners can call in with examples of Utu, seek clarification or repeat back what they understand the messages to mean. Utu examples include, with schools closed, helping out with children of healthcare workers who cannot work from home or running errands for the elderly, classified as most at risk.

Africa is rich in metaphors, proverbs and stories that support children’s resilience on how to deal with turmoil. With children discouraged from intermingling with others, this is a time for imagination, for fireside stories with key takeaways, painting a picture on how fast the spread of coronavirus, which has no cure is, and what to do if one feels sick.

Governments can create contextual, practical Utu activities while ensuring no disconnect between policy makers and implementers.

They can identify community catalysts and opinion shapers and ensure they have correct behavioral change information, encourage innovation and recognise people whose voices are usually unheard in decision making; fix food and hand sanitiser prices to avoid exploitation; enlist existing public health initiatives to use the language of Utu while ensuring local services are responsive to local needs.

Trust networks to help detect outbreaks faster could be built by mapping community groups such as service providers or school parents and teachers’ associations which usually cover several households and interactions, through for instance, WhatsApp, established.

Better response
In the long run, the best Utu approach would be an efficient universal health coverage and systems, building and sustaining resilience, better response, preventing outbreaks from getting out of control and limiting the spread for everyone in society.

In the long term, partnerships and behavioral change activities could be connected with a wider Utu policy addressing inter-ethnic or religious tensions.

Yet we must remember, coronavirus has only stopped the world for some, but not for those wondering where to get the next meal from.

Poverty, racism, ethnicism and wars have not stopped.

A famine occasioned by the recent locust invasion on crops looms.

The pandemics, Ebola and coronavirus are only teaching Africa Utu, is a process, not an event.

Wairimu Nderitu is the author of Beyond Ethnicism, Mukami Kimathi, Mau Mau Freedom Fighter and Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides [email protected]