If coronavirus doesn’t kill us, it will leave us smarter and more effective

Thursday March 19 2020

If you are a fat cat in government, this is the worst possible time to fall sick. If you live in the northern suburbs of age 60 and above, you are the target audience for the coronavirus disease, which has been causing pandemonium across the globe over the last two months.

At the time of writing Uganda still had no confirmed case, but in all probability, it is a matter of when, not if. Say you survive Covid-19 but come down with the ‘usual’ diseases, it will be impossible to fly you out to any of the usual “outside countries” for medical attention.

America and the European Union are out, as are India and Turkey; they are all busy dealing with the pandemic, please try again later. China could let you in if you get an airline willing to fly you there, as might South Africa, but chances are slim.

Kenya won’t, unless you call in favours from very high up, and assuming their own cases don’t explode. DR Congo remains open to all, as usual, but prepare to go in with ‘sugar’ (diabetes) and come out with ‘salt’ (Ebola).

It is likely you would suffer the indignity of being treated at home in Uganda. Think of a lab attendant chuckling over your stool sample, or a ward orderly abandoning you on a stretcher in the hospital parking lot or corridor while they have a cigarette break.

Or, with doctors busy handling more critically ill patients, you could fall under the care of a Musawo, who started out in the hospital as a storekeeper, learnt one or two medical procedures by observation, and strongly believes surgery benefits every patient, whatever the ailment.


If this fate befalls you, I genuinely hope you survive it and become an advocate for better healthcare for all, including health insurance. You see, human progress springs from adversity, not comfort. Many of humanity’s great discoveries fell in our laps; think Isaac Newton and the apple or Archimedes frolicking around in the bathtub.

But I am pretty sure the ancestor who discovered fire was fed up with sharing a cave with crawlies he could feel, but not see, or did so after a leopard snatched yet another child in the dead of the night. We are at our most ingenious and resolute with our backs against the wall.

No one knows how the coronavirus pandemic will end, how many it will kill, if it will come back stronger later and kill even more like the Spanish flu a century ago, or what long-term damage it will cause to the economy and to global order.

All we know is that it will not leave us unchanged. For instance, countries that have been toying with xenophobic immigration policies have found themselves forced to close their borders to all but their citizens. Will they discover that they are self-sufficient and keep barriers in place after the pandemic ends, or will they see the need to be more open to the diversity of the world?

After a fire that started in the world’s factory, will countries redistribute their production and supply chains more widely across the world, or try to manufacture more at home, even at higher cost? Will this pandemic kill the notoriously exotic appetites in South East Asia and save the pangolin, rhino and other endangered species?

If companies discover that employees are more effective working from home or remotely, will this become the default? Will that be a good thing, or will a time then come when (married) people long for the good old days when they escaped to the sanctuary of their workplaces?

If schools can teach as effectively online as in person, will that eliminate the need for pupils to congregate? Will this, and the work-from-home arrangement kill the commute as we know it? How will it affect urbanisation?

Once people figure out they can order stuff online and have it delivered to them, will they ever want to go out to the shops again? Will it kill markets and the art of the bargain hunters?

Uganda has been either very lucky or very good at prevention up to this point. Will this hold? I have absolutely no idea. What I know, however, is that we shouldn’t waste this crisis; we should use it to improve our medical facilities, our border controls, our public health communication, the way we work and the way we live.

And in case the pandemic gets here and hospitals are teeming with patients, and an elderly government fat cat turns up sneezing and wheezing, please carefully help them onto a stretcher, gently wheel them into the general ward, then call a Musawo.

Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man’s freedom fighter.
[email protected]
Twitter: @Kalinaki.