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February 19, 2019

G-Spot: Of basic hygiene, passing the buck and whipping boys

I’ll begin with an acknowledgment of incredible privilege. My father was a medical doctor with a specialisation in what was known as Tropical Medicine and Public Health, and so for us growing up, we constantly had the tenets of basic hygiene drummed into our heads.

That said, I also grew up in the Nairobi of the 1970s, when the Nairobi City Council service standards in the fields of health and sanitation were comparatively high. So for instance, at my kindergarten, there were regular health visits for inoculations, and so on, from the nearby City Council clinic. There was also a regular weekly council garbage collection across the city.

Denizens of Nairobi paid rates to the council in return for these services, and while I am sure there were complaints from the public even then, things were a heck of a lot better than they appear to be now.

I remember a couple of cholera outbreaks in those days and the very efficient public health alerts about ‘kipindupindu’ that swung into action, reminding everyone of the very basics of hygiene in an effort to avoid contracting the deadly disease. These lessons involved reminding people to boil drinking water (at least for the duration of the outbreak), to wash fruit and vegetables before you eat them and to wash your hands before eating or handling food and after going to the toilet.

It was simple, easy to do and to remember, but in light of the recent outbreak that has hit Nairobi, it would seem that somewhere along the way, these lessons were forgotten or ignored and not taught.

Now, as I take off the rose-tinted glasses that I have been using to look at the past, I realise that even in those days when kipindupindu hit the middle and upper-income earners, the people who would first be targeted were the owners of food kiosks frequented mainly by those in the low-income bracket.

The talk on social media since the cholera outbreak at the Weston Hotel and then after two Cabinet Secretaries reportedly contracted the disease has been of buck-passing. Food kiosks or vibanda have been shut down, even though it would appear there is no proof of the outbreak originating there. Also, no action seems to have been taken on the upmarket eateries, such as wherever it was the two Cabinet members ate. Of course, it is possible, though improbable, that the two just happen to be very careful with taxpayer shillings and like to keep it real with their choice of restaurant.

It would appear society’s disadvantaged are always singled out for blame and punishment. I call this the Whipping Boy effect. Back in medieval times, the British monarchy had a system in which a child was kept for the express purpose of being beaten when the heir to the throne misbehaved. Unconscionable behaviour, of course, and even more so in these days, when the physical disciplining of children is seen by many as beyond barbaric.

Perhaps whomever is elected to run Nairobi and other counties this August will feel the need to improve public health services and so on before improving the state of their bank accounts, just for a change.

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