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Pandemic on Two Continents


The third week in March was when life came at us like boxcars hitting a broken rail. I had done my usual rounds of grocery stores and gas stations on Sunday. Outside Trader Joe’s, a woman spritzed shoppers with hand sanitizer the way out-of-work actresses used to spray perfume on us at Bloomingdale’s. When I got home, I opened Facebook to discover that my stepsons’ school would be shutting down because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I wasn’t unlike many other parents except for one thing: my stepsons, Jamil and Jamal, live in Kenya. Their father and I live in New York. For three years, we have been battling to bring them to live with us in the United States. The battle is not with their mom. We all agree that the boys will get a better education here. We’re caught in the Kafka-esque U.S. immigration system.

The boys—twins—are fifteen now. As the years have gone by, their mother, Hidaya, and I formed a weird sort of alliance. Weird to me, but probably familiar to some Mormons. Hidaya and the boy’s dad have been divorced for a dozen years but Hidaya comes from a polygamous family and, to my occasional consternation, our relationship has been determined by her culture. The closest description I can come up with is is that we’re teammates. Hidaya, me, my husband, the boys’ Auntie Javo, their headmaster Mr. Steve. We’re all on Team Jamil and Jamal.

Like any team, we play different positions. Hidaya, aka Mom #1, does all the things a mom does. She feeds them, deals with their clothing, keeps them in line and teaches them, through her fine example, how to be decent human beings and contribute to their community.

Their dad is especially useful when logistics or discipline are required. ("Use the man voice," I tell him, handing him the phone.) I coordinate digital communications and badger the kids about reading books. With my American sense of limitless possibilities, I insist that a good education isn’t out of reach.

When they graduated from primary school, I flew to Kenya to take them to visit schools. Most Kenyan high schools are boarding schools, a remnant of colonialism, so travel was a necessity; their mom has a third son with cerebral palsy from her second marriage and a job that keeps her at home.

Parachuting into the Kenyan school system was kind of crazy, especially with two bright, hyper adolescent boys talking in either ear, pretty much non-stop. After a while, I started to figure it out. To put it in American terms, give Education Secretary Betsy DeVos a few more years and she’ll make ours just as unequal.

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It felt like a miracle when we found the Lukenya school, run by an Oxford-educated poet (aforementioned “Mr. Steve”) and his wife, Mutheu Kasanga, the head of the Kenya Private Schools Association. We could more or less afford the tuition, although at times we’ve had to rely on desperate GoFundMe appeals. The good news? The boys love it. The bad news? Because the school is nearly 300 miles away from Lamu, the island they come from, it’s no small matter to get them home.

Kenya’s first case of coronavirus was confirmed March 12, a Kenyan woman who had traveled from the U.S. via London. (Yes, America spread the virus to Africa. Welcome to the post-Empire.)

On March 20, with only three confirmed cases, President Uhuru Kenyatta ordered every school in the country to shut down. Kenya had already stopped inbound flights from affected countries; over the next few weeks, the government clamped down on virtually all travel, national and international.

I realize now that I texted Hidaya before I told my husband. She was the one who would call their Auntie Javo in Nairobi to pick them up. While frantic parents all over the country were scrambling to get kids home, she would find airline tickets. Once they returned, she would make sure they took precautionary measures and did their classes and homework online.

My job? Worry. I’m used to it. In the early years of our marriage, my husband, torn between his kids and building a career in the U.S., commuted between two continents. When the boys contracted the inevitable malaria, Mom #1 would call him. He’d rush to the pharmacy or bring them to the doctor.

In 2018, Lamu was hit with an outbreak of chikungunya, a mosquito-borne illness that causes high fevers and severe joint pain. Both boys got sick. Jamal, the younger and more vulnerable, was delirious with fever and pain. My husband, a stoic type, caught it. He described it as agony.

After the various health scares, we had our routine down. I Google the disease, texting the names of medicines recommended by the World Health Organization. Apart from that, all I could do was comfort them on the phone.

And worry. My specialty.

What’s different this time is that we’re facing the crisis here in America, too. For the first few weeks of the pandemic, I was almost preternaturally calm, both about the U.S. side of the family and the Kenya side. Primed by Ebola and AIDS, African countries were responding more rapidly to the pandemic than the U.S.

South Africa locked down almost immediately, hiring 28,000 contact tracers to combat the spread; the curve flattened rapidly, although health experts say it’s too soon to tell if that’s permanent.


Then I realized why African countries had done such a good job. Kenya, one of the continent’s wealthier nations, has less than half the number of hospital beds relative to population as the U.S., and most are concentrated in the capital city of Nairobi. But regular hospital beds don’t tell the whole story.

Kenya has 50 million people, five-and-a-half times the population of New York City. There are 300 ICU beds. Let that sink in: 300. In March, Kenya had 256 ventilators; more than half were already in use for non-coronavirus patients.

Most African countries are less prepared than Kenya. Mali has 56 ventilators for a population of 17 million. The Central African Republic has three, South Sudan four, Liberia five. Nigeria, with a population two-thirds that of the U.S. has 100.

Somalia has none. Zero.

According to the World Health Organization, 10 African countries have no ventilators at all. The number of ICU beds per country averages 50. Putting aside high-tech medical care for the seriously ill, millions of people don’t have running water to wash their hands.

If the virus isn’t contained immediately, nobody can stop it. For cultural and economic reasons, social isolation is next-to-impossible in Kenya, and in most African countries, as several friends reminded me.

“At the Lavington Mall, near my house, there are people sitting around a kiosk selling food and vegetables. They’re all close together. It’s no different than it was before the virus,” said Andrew Franklin, an American former Marine and security analyst who lives in Nairobi.

“And people are going to work. There are people working on construction sites. They’re casual labor; they don’t get paid if they don’t work."

In the shantytowns, AIDS, tuberculosis, and malnutrition are rampant. If coronavirus hits Kenya the way it’s pounded Italy and the U.S., hospitals will be overwhelmed almost immediately. Bill Gates warned of 10 million deaths in Africa if the virus isn't contained.

If Kenya is hit with mass deaths and economic dislocation, Franklin fears civil unrest. Kenya is a bit like the U.S., a powerhouse country that has led, to some extent, a charmed existence.

“Kenya has had 56 years of independence,” Franklin said. “It’s never been invaded, never had a war, never had a natural disaster. In ’82 they had a coup attempt, but other than post-election violence, there's no reason for this country not moving ahead. But we had massive corruption starting in the late 1980s, combined with vanishing natural resources.”

Kenya has just enough class mobility to give folks hope, at least the urban folks, even if it means driving an Uber instead of being an architect or schoolteacher. If the economy craters, those hopes may evaporate. That's what's happening in India.

Police brutality is exacerbating tensions. Kenyan police enforcing the government’s March 27 curfew have already shot a 13-year-old boy standing on the terrace of his Nairobi home. In Mombasa, police are accused of beating people waiting on line for a ferry that is the only transportation for workers. An unlucky journalist documenting the violence was reportedly beaten.

Kenya's death toll in early May was less than 500, but repressive measures are undermining the public's faith in the government's efforts -- and those statistics. Two days after the Mombasa incident, three journalists were arrested, allegedly for being out after curfew despite a government exemption for media, according to Human Rights Watch.

So far, a dozen deaths have been attributed to police violence.

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Mourners carry the casket of Yassin Hussein Moyo, 13, killed by a stray police bullet in Nairobi after curfew.

Police officers themselves have neither sanitizer nor masks. Franklin says the national government has not rehearsed disaster preparedness. That’s because Kenya, one of the richest and most powerful countries in Africa, is rife with corruption. That's the country’s real epidemic and it's becoming a pandemic.

Kenya’s story is the story of many African countries: weak civil societies, poor services, joblessness. Corruption flourishes in these conditions. It has hollowed out African societies.

The human cost of corruption is a lesson for the U.S., if only we could hear it.

So I worry. The virus cannot spread in Kenya. It cannot. It must not. Home on the island with their mom, the boys should be safer than they would be in Nairobi, but who knows? During the last election, they were on an even smaller island than Lamu, because their mom thought it would be safer there. Someone threw a rock at a person from the opposing political party. They missed their target and hit Jamil, the older twin. The wound required stitches. Jamil had alarming headaches. The stitches got infected.

Last term, when Jamil got the news that he was ranked first in his class, he crowed that the rock hitting his head had made him smarter. But what about next time?

A few weeks ago, my husband and I got the boys’ report cards. I found myself weeping. Jamal is getting all As in science; he wants to be a doctor. Jamil wants to be a lawyer.

- What’s the matter? my husband asked.

- How the hell are we going to pay for graduate school? I sobbed.

- They’re only fifteen, he reminded me, patting my arm.

I wasn’t crying about graduate school. I was crying I felt so goddamn helpless. Being fucked over by the U.S. immigration system for three years was bad enough. Now we may not be able to see the boys for months or maybe a year. Not only are international flights banned; Kenya just shut down travel in and out of Nairobi.

And immigration? My husband aced his citizenship interview, getting every single question about American history and politics right. The virus hit. He hasn’t been able to take his oath of citizenship and the Trump administration isn’t about to speed the process by using Zoom.

I try not to think about the boys getting sick. This time, their dad won’t be there.

We are back to normal, sort of. The boys have been getting ready for class on borrowed computers. (Those were on the list for when I was supposed to visit in August.) Last term, Jamil wrote an essay on George Orwell's 1984 for his Literature class. Mr. Steve is his Literature teacher and he wasn’t happy with the essay so I insisted that Jamil write a new one over vacation. We’ve been on the phone almost every morning. We talk about 1984. Jamil says Big Brother is like social media: rewriting history, spreading fake news.

“That’s your thesis statement.” I tell him. “Now write!”

It’s almost like regular life. I try not to imagine either of the boys getting sick, or their mom, or their little brother, surely one of the more vulnerable because of his cerebral palsy. They’ll go to the hospital on Lamu, where they’ll be lucky if there is a working X-ray machine, much less a ventilator.

So I worry. I talk to our lawyer. I work. Work is pretty much all I’ve done in my life. When I married my husband, I’d lived a typical American life for a woman of my generation: my career, my writing, those came first. I was ready for it to be different.

And it is. Everything is.

Susan Zakin is one of the editors.

What do you do in quarantine? Bake, of course.

Kids are doing pretty much the same things in Kenya that they're doing in the U.S. Nicole reports:

Nicole Cheruiyot, 16, is in Grade 11 at the Lukenya School in Machakos, Kenya, where she lives in the dormitory called "The Wise." Her headmaster (yes, the oft-quoted "Mr. Steve") asked students to make videos of their life under quarantine. Nicole shot hers with an iPhone 7. She says she watches TikTok but hasn't posted anything yet.

The Dark Side of Quarantine

Life is not so cheery for some dads and moms and kids in Kenya. People violating curfew can be locked in quarantine centers. This doesn't sound so bad but according to many Kenyans, these facilities are unsanitary, more like prisons than hospitals. Parents can be separated from the children, and people are charged between $220 and $100 a night for essentially being incarcerated.

"Thus Africa's behavior," Hidaya wrote to me in disgust.

I couldn't help thinking of the American protesters complaining about masks, social distancing, and restaurant closures.

Read more in the BBC's report.

Kenyan music from Brian, our Music Editor, who majored in polymath at college.

JS Ondara : Lebanon

Fundi Konde : Ajali Haikingiki

The Rift Valley Brothers : Mu Africa

Jamil and Jamal's Picks

Well, Ed Sheehan, of course. Cody Simpson. And this one.