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Letter from Africa: The spread of coronavirus prejudice in Kenya


Despite the concerns round the spread of the coronavirus, the best enemy isn't the virus itself, but "fears, rumours and stigma".

Not my words, but those of the Ethiopian who is leading the world effort to minimize the impact of Covid-19.

Despite the concerns round the spread of the coronavirus, the best enemy isn't the virus itself, but "fears, rumours and stigma".

Not my words, but those of the Ethiopian who is leading the world effort to minimize the impact of Covid-19.

On 27 February, a message went viral on Facebook, allegedly posted by a Kenyan member of parliament, calling for his constituency residents to avoid interaction with Chinese nationals who had just returned from China after celebrating their yr.

The post warned that if the govt didn't do enough to guard its citizens, and forcefully quarantine any of those Chinese nationals, then the residents had his permission to bar and stone any Chinese people within their vicinity.

China's embassy responded quickly with a Twitter post calling for a "rational and scientific approach towards Chinese communities" and described the remarks that had been made as racist.

Kenya isn't alone during this prejudice, but what's interesting is that each one the initial cases of the virus in geographical region are linked to European travel instead of China. Yet there's no equivalent anti-European feeling.

Before Kenya has even recorded a case, the fear, mixed with stigma, is palpable.

The prejudice has been fuelled by China and Kenya's entwined economic relationship.

Kenya has borrowed an oversized amount of cash from China for giant infrastructure projects. While the standard Kenyan isn't feeling the benefit, they're searching for someone accountable for his or her economic woes.

Tired of pointing the finger at the govt, some here have re-directed their frustrations towards the growing number of Chinese nationals who have come to hunt economic opportunities.

Coronavirus fears, therefore, have found fertile ground and led to some extraordinary behaviour.

Adrian Blomfield, a veteran freelance journalist here, said that each one the drivers at his local taxistand had agreed to not carry Chinese people as passengers.

One taxi driver told me that Chinese nationals were changing their user names on the taxi hailing apps to avoid their passenger request being declined.

He also informed me that once they are ferrying passengers from the airport, they roll the windows down and even wear facemasks, especially if the passengers had just landed from China.

He aroused his narrative by demanding that the govt provide free face masks to any or all taxi drivers who ply the airport route and to produce more information to the general public.

There has been some criticism here that the authorities are slow in educating the general public about the virus and warning them against prejudice.
The vacuum has been filled by rumours and misinformation. A sensitisation campaign has now been promised, but it should come too late.

Nevertheless, for Chinese nationals living in Kenya, like Lin Yimenghan, who runs a charity, life goes on.

He has witnessed just one worrying incident when someone called him "coronavirus" at a stop in Nairobi.

'Love and understanding'
But his analysis of things is remarkable.

"It is normal for people to fear something they're not awake to," he told me calmly.

The spread of the stigma is quicker than the spread of the virus, he added, and ended with some advice: "People should have more understanding and love for every other."

If only everyone had such an attitude, then this world would be a more peaceful place.

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