• On two or three occasions at least, Kisumu had to be sealed off from the rest of the country, usually for about a fortnight.
• Armed policemen stood guard at every entry point to Kisumu and turned away travellers at gunpoint
The prospect of the eventual arrival of the coronavirus in Kenya currently dominates all public discussions.
And it seems to me that the thing that most of us fear above all else is that one of our towns, or a significant part of Nairobi, will be on lockdown once the infection lands here and starts spreading.
So, this might be a good time to remind Kenyans that we have actually been through this before.
What I have in mind here is the deadly outbreaks of cholera that used to torment the residents of Kisumu every now and then in the early 1970s.
We still have occasional cholera outbreaks, but nothing as bad as what used to happen back then —when photos of dozens of critically ill patients lying along the corridors of public hospitals would be on the front page of our newspapers.
Cholera is spread by a bacterium, not a virus, but like the coronavirus, is a deadly infection. Its spread can be easily limited by basic hygienic practices such as careful washing of hands.
As cholera is an intestinal infection, it cannot be spread by coughing, but you can definitely get infected simply by shaking hands with someone whose hands carry the infection. And as in the case with the coronavirus, the infected person may not be aware of being infected for some time.
Why Kisumu? One theory is that the colonial-era water and sanitation system designed for the convenience of a few hundred colonial civil servants, simply could not cope with the post-independence demands of the rapidly growing town. So, the amounts of raw sewage being dumped into Lake Victoria increased exponentially – and this is the same water many would end up drinking, one way or another.
So, Kisumu had precisely that combination of a large population, poor sanitation and untreated drinking water, guaranteed to encourage the spread of cholera once it started.
And on two or three occasions at least, the town had to be sealed off from the rest of the country, usually for about a fortnight. Armed policemen stood guard at every entry point to Kisumu and turned away travellers at gunpoint, only allowing in emergency services personnel sent in to deal with the crisis. And elaborate funerals (traditionally accompanied by feasting) were also banned. Luos complained bitterly of having to bury their departed loved ones “like a dog” (ie immediately, and with no ceremony).
At that time, the locals considered this to be governmental cruelty of the kind that town had learned to expect ever since the presidential motorcade of the imperious Jomo Kenyatta had been stoned by the locals, in response to the assassination of Tom Mboya.
But the fact is these lockdowns were sound public health policy.
Just think about it: If you work in Nairobi and you learn that your ageing parent who is seriously ill with cholera has been turned away from the government hospital in Kisumu because the place is overflowing with sick people, what would you do?
In those pre-M-Pesa days, you would presumably empty your bank account and board the first bus to Kisumu, hoping to get your elderly parent into a private hospital. Cholera, if detected in time, can easily be treated.
But is there not a great chance that by the time you return to your workstation, you will at some point have been infected by your contact with this very ill parent? And might you not then proceed to infect your colleagues at work before you even knew that you were sick?
Hence the occasional lockdowns of Kisumu in the time of cholera.
And hence no need to panic if any kind of lockdown becomes necessary in the weeks to come.
Above all, there is no justification for victimising innocent Chinese nationals who happen to live among us just because the coronavirus originated in China.
One day it will be our turn: Some deadly new fast-spreading virus originating from Africa will reach China.
Would we then approve of seeing Africans humiliated and ostracised in China, just as some of us are now doing to their Chinese neighbours here in Kenya?