Will you be remembered if you died of cholera?

Dr Stephen Sitima Wanjala | Photo:MSF

Many will remember Ruhila Adatia and many other souls who died in the Westgate attack. Adatia was a popular television and radio journalist and presenter in Kenya. Maybe we remember the 67 souls from Westgate because they died in a ‘violent’ way or maybe they faced what we would call a formidable enemy. The Kenyan nation mobilized tonnes of resources to focus on this crisis. The newsrooms had all cameras rolling and pitching tent at the Westgate despite the apparent risks that a bullet may stray and hit a reporter. Kenyans and the world were glued to the screen following every development and held various press briefings.  We held national prayer meetings and a good representation of bishops and clergy were there to plead to the almighty for these poor souls and for the nation. You and I believed these victims were heroes and heroines who took the bullet for all of us as the Kenyan nation.

In the past six months, the Kenyan nation has lost more than 80 lives to cholera. Yet, we have dragged our feet in the fight against this manageable and treatable disease. Officers of health in some counties have asked for ‘facilitation’ for meetings and declared our bankruptcy of resources as the main constraint to a well-coordinated and effective response. The first cases of cholera can be traced to December 2014, yet several counties delayed in declaring the outbreak and responding appropriately because they were concerned it would cause shame and anxiety among the population. Some of us have even wondered whether it would keep President Obama away. After all, his visit is more important to this nation than the over 80 lives we have lost and keeping up a good image for him is top priority.

As a nation, we have mourned just a little because; maybe these deaths do not matter as much to us as the deaths at Westgate did. Or maybe is it because the cholera victims went out without much of a bang? Or is the lack of prompt response to the cholera outbreak due to the fact that it is seen as a poor man´s disease? I wonder what attention this deadly contagious disease will be accorded if any famous media personality or the relative to one of our high rank leaders died of it. The list of names that have fallen because of cholera is unremarkable; common Kenyans whom we can easily do without; whom we can easily forget and never miss.

When the cholera storm is over, its story will be written in the obscure pages of history books. The children of tomorrow will be told about the Westgate attack but they will not be told about the cholera outbreak of 2015. The families of Westgate and the nation will come together in vigils to commemorate the souls we lost during this crisis. No one will hold vigil for the cholera victims. Who will call for a national day of prayer for them? Are these lives less important because they did not go out with a bang or die from a terrorist’s bullet? If you were given a choice to die from a terrorist’s bullet or to die from cholera, which would you choose? If you were given the choice to join the ranks of the Kenyan Defence Forces to fight against Al Shabab or to join the obscure army that fights against cholera, which would you choose? This is a simpler war, but we do not like simple; we do not like the unremarkable.

It is time the media, government, non-governmental actors, and the Kenyan society as a whole to rise to the occasion and treat this crisis with the same importance that they did the Westgate crisis. After all, we have already lost more people to it. In particular, national and especially county governments that now bear the responsibility for health service provision need to move to control fully the epidemic or we risk to witness another peak at some point.  If there is such a thing as a fashionable way to die, it would surely be to die in the hands of a terrorist; so pray that you do not get cholera as there will be no national monument left in your wake.


Source: MEDECINS SANS FRONTIERES by Dr Stephen Sitima Wanjala


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