OPINION: Dr. Ken Ouko, slain by disease many Kenyans still don’t believe is real
- He went on to tell me that for other Kenyans their ‘optimism bias’ had convinced them that even if the coronavirus was real and infectious, there was no way they were going to catch it.
- A contrast to the now famous phrase by Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe, ‘you can gerrit, I can gerrit, anyone can gerrit.”
- During that interview Ken addressed some of the reckless behavior displayed by young people, who continued attending house parties in complete disregard to Ministry of Health guidelines.
I will not pretend to say that I knew Dr Ken Ouko very well. Those tributes I will leave to his family, close friends, colleagues etc.
But the little interaction that I had with him, left a lasting impression on me, an impression that was made very real on August 1, 2020 at 10am when I received the news that this sociology giant at the University of Nairobi was no more.
On June 19, 2020 I called Dr Ouko looking for an interview opportunity.
Kenya was about to mark 100 days since the first COVID-19 was confirmed in the country and I was tasked with speaking to a sociologist about human behavior change and pandemics.
Always the gentleman, he obliged and we agreed to do it at about 2pm at his private office near Globe Cinema roundabout.
By 2pm I was still stuck elsewhere conducting another interview so I reached out to confirm his flexibility and he agreed to wait for us.
We finally got there an hour or so later to find him in a jovial mood, it was a Friday and he was probably looking forward to the weekend.
As my camera-man setup our equipment (as per COVID-19 protocols) he and I chatted about how life had changed since COVID-19 touched down in our country.
He expressed his reservations about the re-opening of universities in the country, asking me how social distancing would apply in a class with 800 students.
I had no answer for him on that one.
Having spoken to a cross-section of Kenyans who still did not believe that COVID-19 was real, I was keen to get his view on how the human mind processes something as distressing as a pandemic.
We spoke at length about it, but in summary he compared how Kenyans dealt with HIV/AIDS when it was first reported in the country in the 1980’s and the current response to COVID-19.
He recalled that when someone contracted or died from HIV/AIDS, the social postmortem was that they had somehow invoked a curse as a result of their behavior.
No one was ready to deal with the fact that HIV/AIDS was the cause of the death of their loved one.
He went on to tell me that for other Kenyans their ‘optimism bias’ had convinced them that even if the coronavirus was real and infectious, there was no way they were going to catch it.
A contrast to the now famous phrase by Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe, ‘you can gerrit, I can gerrit, anyone can gerrit.”
During that interview Ken addressed some of the reckless behavior displayed by young people, who continued attending house parties in complete disregard to Ministry of Health guidelines.
He opined that for some risk is a psychological reward, a thrill in the midst of the danger.
But for the political class, Dr. Ken Ouko was even more vocal, calling them out for setting rules that they clearly were not ready to follow.
And weeks after he issued that warning, politicians continue assembling setting a wrong example for an electorate that believes more of what their leaders do rather than what they actually say.
Little did I know that this interview would be the last one I would conduct with him.
Three weeks ago, I called Ken seeking some information regarding the University of Nairobi.
During that final phone call he confessed that he had not been feeling well and I urged him to take a COVID test as soon as possible.
He promised he would. I texted him a week later to see if he was doing okay and he did not respond.
Now it is confirmed, that he is no more. May God comfort his family and friends at this time. I fear however that his analysis of why some Kenyans don’t take COVID-19 seriously still rings true.
And even in his death some will still say that the coronavirus does not exist. Whatever the case, doubting Thomas’s, you have been warned.
R.I.P. Dr. Ken Ouko
Waihiga Mwaura is a news anchor for Citizen TV Kenya
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