By D. Gumisiriza Mwesigye
“Beware the ides of March!”, the soothsayer cried out to warn Julius Caesar as he moved through the streets of Rome. It was a foretelling to the mighty general of what was to befall him in the coming days.
Caesar was the most powerful man at the time; a fact that scared other senators including Brutus. Though the latter was known to be friendly to him, he dreaded that power would turn Caesar into a dictator. So, he had to be stopped. As the soothsayer forewarned, on the ides of March (middle of the month), he was put to sword by Brutus and his co-conspirators.
Though not all in this anecdote from the eponymous tome, Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare, relate to why I cite it, it is pertinent to the prevailing situation.
The world is talking of hardly anything else but coronavirus, COVID-19 and the effects since the outbreak was reported in December 2019. Wuhan city, of the Hubei province in China, is now regarded the epicentre of the raging pandemic.
Initially, Africa was unscathed as the virus ravaged mostly Asia and Europe, popped up in the Middle East, then the Americas, Australia, New Zealand and parts of the Oceania region.
We acted like Caesar to the soothsayer. Somehow, somewhere from the whirlpool of misinformation and disinformation, came the notion that our black skins (ethnicity) protects us and the weather (tropical climate) keeps the virus at bay.
But it was a matter of when not if. The storm hit… in Egypt, Rwanda, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal; by early March, there were more than 100 cases in 12 African countries.
Then, China Global TV Network (CGTN) reported the numbers were nearly 90,000 worldwide with 3,000+ deaths. Outside China, there was a spike in South Korea. Iran and Italy accounted for the highest spread in the Middle East and Europe respectively.
Wildfire spread of COVID-19 made World Health Organisation (WHO) to declare it a pandemic. This put it at par with Spanish flu that wrecked havoc 102 years ago, leaving millions dead in its wake.
There have been outbreaks before but this one is as novel as aptly tagged. The fear and anxiety that has gripped us in a deadly embrace is global in scale. This is one of those times in human history when we are talking about the same thing in every village, town and city around the world.
Fear of the unknown drives this mass hysteria. It is what drove Brutus; he had an unfounded fear of Caesar’s ambition. Fear is what made the senators, Brutus conscripted into this scheme, put their swords to Caesar. Fear leads us to do things against our better judgement. It propels bias, it abets stigma.
US president Donald Trump called the SARS-Cov-2, a “Chinese virus”! On our local radio station, CBS, it has been referred to as ssenyiga wa baChina (can be translated from Luganda as Chinese flu).
Many of us have begun to look at Chinese in some kind of way, even those resident in Uganda and have not left the country in several months. Note that February marked the Chinese New Year, the Year of the Rat. This is a period when there is usually a lot of travel–from outside China, within China and among Chinese diaspora. Faster means of travel viz. by air has enabled a much faster spread of the novel coronavirus.
Liu Xin, who hosts The Point, a current affairs show on CGTN, took issue with this being seen as a Chinese problem. She advised that COVID-19 be seen as a global challenge.
I agree with her. That is why I wonder why the haemorrhagic fever is called Ebola, after a river in that part of then Zaïre where it was first identified in 1976. The same with West Nile virus (which tends to recur in parts of the US), Crimea-Congo fever (Crimea is a region in Russia) or Marburg (after a town in Germany). Following this nomenclature, we would be having a Wuhan coronavirus [disease]. I know there is an explanation from WHO. It is along the lines of preventing future stigma.
Wuhan is a thriving city of more than 11 million people. It is one of the many cogs in the mega-wheel of China’s economic power house. Hundreds of Ugandans including students are holed up there during this lockdown.
Stigma is akin to a bad stain on a cloth that never goes away completely even after several washes.
In a recent interview with BBC, Sierra Leonean journalist Sorious Samura recounted the story of Salome Karwah, a young woman he met in Liberia. During the 2014 Ebola fever outbreak in West Africa, she got the disease, survived, and then worked as a counsellor at a health facility run by Medicins San Frontieres.
A few years later, in 2017, she was admitted to hospital with childbirth-related complications. But the health workers shunned her. The misconception was that being an Ebola survivor, she would infect them as they worked on her. Unfortunately, she died as the doctor, who came in three hours later, tried to save her life.
Even hundreds of years later, we have immortalised the phrase “Et tu Brute?” that Julius Caesar uttered as Brutus stabbed him. His act has come to symbolise betrayal though Brutus was an honourable man. He probably nipped in the bud the monster that Caesar would have become with a lot of power in his hands. But we will never know.
The ides of March it was. In 2020, mid-March was the harbinger of what we have been dreading. There seemed to be an upsurge in the number of cases in the world.
In the neighbourhood, there was COVID-19 in D.R. Congo, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and South Sudan.
By 15 March, WHO confirmed 153,517 cases. The worst-hit European country, Italy had 26,000+ ill and more than 1,000 dead. France (5,428), Spain (7,753) UK (1,372), Belgium (886). In Asia, South Korea (8,236), Olympics 2020 host Japan (808), numbers rising in Malaysia and Thailand and across the pond, US with 3,244.
For a moment, we were willful like Caesar with the soothsayer yet the writing was on the wall. Dismissing him as a prophet of doom, the victorious general felt insulated from any untoward circumstance.
Just like Ugandans hoped against hope that we would remain a disease-free island in an infected East Africa.
But thankfully, President Yoweri Museveni held a nationwide briefing on 18 March, which was relayed on TV and radio. Among the measures he announced was closure of educational institutions and suspension of all kinds of gatherings–political, religious or social.
The same day, Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Centre was showing a global total of 205,452 infected, another 8,248 dead and 82,091 had recovered.
It was a few days later that the first case was reported in Uganda. The myth of being an island in turbulent waters went bust.
Ironically, this was announced at another presidential briefing a day after national prayers were held at State House for divine protection against COVID-19.
There have been five presidential briefings in a space of a week. The latest being where a 14-day ban on public means of transport, by land, sea or rail, was announced. Uganda has subsequently moved to LOCKDOWN status.
Our toll has risen to more than 20. According to worldometres.info website, the global number was 374,768 cases and 16,355 deaths. The figures are still rising while in China, they have dropped. Even the purpose-built hospitals had suspended operations.
Now, here we are. We are confined to our homes. Rich or poor, rural or urban…. different walks of life, similar situation.
In the clear and present danger of fear-fuelled rumours plus anxiety-fanned fake news, we must guard against being a la Brutus who slay Caesar yet the foe he sought to extinguish lurked in the shadows.
The author is a communications professional with experience in media and public relations. He can reached by e-mail: [email protected] or phone: +256 704 196820 [WhatsApp], +256 781 940790