Living in the shadow of a virus

 Flying high: The author during the flight
Flying high: The author during the flight

The day that the Health ministry announced five suspected case of the dreaded coronavirus, a flight full of jittery passengers landed at Sir Seretse Khama Airport, the hot spot entry point for the virus. Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI was on board

It takes very little to spread panic. A scream, loud noise in a sensitive surrounding or even sudden running where running is not called for.

For the passengers of BP 204 from OR Tambo to Johannesburg that afternoon, one quietly spoken sentence from a female traveller was enough.

“Ga re safe gotlhelele. Ke kopa le ipaakanye ka koo. Re etla and flight e tletse bone hela. Le reye ba airport ba re kopantshe; re mo mathateng,” she said with unmistakeable authority on her cellphone to an unidentified person.

About 60 or so of us, including perhaps 20 Chinese nationals, were packed in the shuttle transport from the terminal building to Air Botswana’s plane and in the silence of the short trip, the conversation the woman was having was as clear as a gunshot.

Her authority also added to the sense of panic. Who was she talking to and what was awaiting us in Gaborone? What did she know that we didn’t?

Amidst all the questions, the only thing everyone, or at least most of us, were clear on was who ‘bone’ were. Passengers shifted uncomfortably, everyone eyed their neighbour suspiciously and unfortunately for them, most of the stares were laser-focused on the Asian contingent.

As of Tuesday, China’s National Health Centre had 72,436 reports of confirmed cases on the Chinese mainland, with 1,868 deaths and 12,552 cured and discharged from hospital. More countries were also reporting confirmed cases and deaths, including cruise ships where hundreds of patients were being detected. While the numbers were lower than that by the time we were engaging in our panic-induced staring contests on the shuttle, everyone had a clear idea of the threat and apparent invincibility of the virus.

The woman whose remarks stirred panic, ended her call, looked around and evidently noticed that the atmosphere had changed. Still, no one dared ask her a single question. We were caught in a deer-in-the-headlights moment. Everyone stops in an instant and braces. They assume self-preservation mode. People began pulling out masks one by one.

Prior to that, only the Asian passengers had been wearing them. Now most of the passengers were fishing in their hand luggage and pockets, putting masks, handkerchiefs and cloths around their faces. Previously a picture of calm, I too dipped into my pocket and put on the cosmetic mask my sister had given me for the trip. I handed out my three remaining ones to the hands that suddenly appeared reaching my way.

We trooped onto the flight in general silence, a few mutterings here and there, the Chinese contingent noticeably being given room ahead and behind them, everyone’s face a mask of anxiety.

“Wa go dira jang ha o ka bapa le mongwe wa bone,” a woman on a diplomatic passport asked me with a naughty smile even as I recognised her as one of the hands that had benefitted from my generosity and forward-planning moments earlier.

And of course, I was one of the passengers who sat next to ‘mongwe wa bone’. My fellow passenger was a more-than-middle-aged man who had trouble keeping his elbow to his side of the divide. That’s the thing about fear. It is a primal instinct. It has no time for political correctness or politeness. It is basic.

It makes ordinarily reasonable people brought up with botho say things like ‘e tletse bone hela,’ with the tone of someone describing the most undesirable thing they can think of. It makes usually cordial travellers turn on each other with accusatory eyes and create an invisible buffer around a group of other passengers.

It’s not right. And its worst aspects get on display whenever it surfaces as a result of groupthink. The same groupthink was on display when we unashamedly hurried off the plane in Gaborone, almost running to the health officials who waited to check temperatures and weed out all passengers returning from China.

Fear of the unknown is at the heart of the panic around the coronavirus. When is a person contagious? How long can the virus survive on surfaces? What happens when someone without symptoms is allowed contact with the uninfected?

The coronavirus is not the first global epidemic. In the past, as Chinese ambassador, Zhao Yanbo said, the world has suffered from SARS, bird flu, H1N1, Marberg and Ebola. The Nipah virus, he said, from 1998, had a 78% fatality rate, bird flue from 1997 a 53% fatality rate and Ebola 40%. The coronavirus carries only a 2.3 percent fatality rate and in fact since February 12, the number of people cured daily has eclipsed those infected.

The trouble, as my one-time fellow passengers will attest, is that all those diseases seemed distant and indeed far removed from Botswana. Even the recent Ebola outbreak as close as the DRC, did not induce the panic the coronavirus has. The coronavirus, perhaps because of the suspected cases and the presence and mobility of Asian nationals in Botswana, seems closer and the mysteries around the disease only amplify the dread. That panic is evident from everyday conversations and it is all over Facebook, that digital platform known for fuelling rumours and misinformation, spreading anxiety and generally turning molehills into mountains.

Yanbo and his lieutenants are fighting to encourage calm, assure Batswana that China has the epidemic in check and that victory is in sight. On Tuesday, Yanbo took journalists through China’s efforts to quash the outbreak, detailing the determination, billions spent and high level political commitment to defeat the virus.

 “We know that this is a test of the credibility and responsibility of the Chinese government,” he said. With people united as one, with institutional strength, mobilisation of resources, technological capacity, our research experience in fighting against epidemics and with our determination, we will win the war as early as possible.”

The Ambassador is aware of the backlash against China in the latest epidemic. The global superpower has been the source of some of the world’s deadliest disease outbreaks in recent years. Yanbo is also aware of the apparent ostracisation of the Chinese, the technical term for the ‘e tletse bone hela’ gunshot that contributed to the panic on the shuttle.

“In 2014, China took the lead in helping Africa fight against Ebola.

“By that time, I was the Chinese ambassador in Sierra Leone and saw the bond of China and Africa work at a difficult time.

“In the era of globalisation, everyone is connected. Local issues become global issues.

“No country can prosper in isolation or meet all challenges on its own.”

He was not looking at me, but he might as well have been directing his words to me and my fellow passengers. Primal instinct aside. Self-preservation and survival instinct aside. To some degree, as much as it was a flight of fear, it was also a flight of shame.

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