PRINCE AND PAUPER

Coronavirus exposes global inequalities

It has forced governments, cities, communities, powerful or vulnerable, to their knees.

In Summary
  • A prince, a peasant, a prime minister, a hawker, a boda boda rider, and a Boeing pilot are fair game for viral attack.
  • But a hawker in Kenya, and his community, cannot respond in the same way to the virus as the British monarch or prime minister.

The March 28 edition of The Guardian newspaper described Covid-19 as a ‘nimble germ without an ego’.  New York Governor Andrew Cuomo calls it an ‘invisible enemy’.

Coronavirus offers equal opportunity infection: It has forced governments, cities, communities, powerful or vulnerable, to their knees. It has changed the world so suddenly—so certainly.

 

A prince, a peasant, a prime minister, a hawker, a boda boda rider, and a Boeing pilot are fair game for viral attack. But a hawker in Kenya, and his community, cannot respond in the same way to the virus as the British monarch or prime minister. It’s a war of survival being fought on an uneven playfield.

 

Meanwhile the World Health Organisation recommends universal preventive measures that put the weak and the strong in one hole. WHO needs region-sensitive desks, with the capacity to contextualise emerging health issues, like Covid-19.

Social distancing, self-quarantine, isolation, stay home, work from home, contact tracing, washing hands, sanitiser, curfews, masks and lockdowns are prescribed. But there is no consideration of the contexts of the royalty in Buckingham Palace, the hawker in a Nairobi slum, or urban homeless.

The hawker stays with his family of five—wife and four children—in a rented ramshackle. A rusting iron sheet, a holed mudwall, or a torn canvass separates one room from the others. The room is one in a line of 20, which form a rectangular shape, with one entrance. Everyone opens and closes the metal gate the way they have always done in Kibera slum. They are oblivious to possible viral deposits on the rusting metal.

About 100 of them share a toilet, which is also their bathroom. There is no running water. The tenants queue for water at a communal tap, which is more often dry. Water vendors come around with 20-litre jerrycans, which they sell for Sh20, to consumers who earn Sh500 a day—when they get a causal job. The families need four 20-litre jerrycans of water daily for laundry, cooking and bathing.      

Reports that China is reconstructing, and its city Wuhan—the epicentre of the virus—is rebuilding, is false optimism. No country, city or community, can be safe while the virus still traverses the global village.

Handwashing with soap was a luxury, but now the WHO recommends water-driven hygiene to flatten the curve of coronavirus infections.

Social distancing does not work in a crowded slum. But Kibera families and the Prince of Wales are fighting the same virus. Social inequalities have been dramatically illustrated.

 

Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, got infected and recovered after a week of self-quarantine. The royal has a number of residences where he could sequester himself. Thai King Maha Vagiralongkorn (Rama X) is quarantined in the Alpine resort town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, with a 20-strong harem.

 

Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel wasn’t in want of mansions for quarantine. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had 10 Downing Street. As did Canadian PM Justin Trudeau and his wife Gregoire, who contracted the virus while visiting the UK.

The contexts of these people of high status give them social distancing advantage over the lowdown victims of the same virus in struggling countries. Commoners have only their crowded, rickety rooms to sequester themselves. They risk viral attack, or spreading it to all their contacts.

The virus exposes inequality among countries: Kenya and Italy, Nairobi and Rome cannot respond with the same force, and means, to save their countries and cities. The US declared a $2 trillion fund to fight the crisis. Germany freed an initial $1.1 trillion. Canada announced a $728m coronavirus response fund. The PM said there would be more money if the situation warranted.

Struggling economies such as Kenya’s will rely on the goodwill of blighted development partners in the West to fight the ‘nimble germ’. The virus must be stopped in all countries for the globalised world to be safe.

Reports that China is reconstructing, and its city Wuhan—the epicentre of the virus—is rebuilding, is false optimism. No country, city or community, can be safe while the virus still traverses the global village.

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