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Mediascape: Conundrum that’s reporting coronavirus

Finally, coronavirus has made it to the BBI countrywide rallies. This is how it happened on live TV on Saturday: A governor asked Baba to work with President Uhuru Kenyatta to bar the Chinese from all airports and ports.

Notice that the His Excellency the Governor did not want the Chinese barred from all standard gauge railway stations.

But we digress – for these are interesting times we are living in when everything is politicised, and the most recent is coronavirus.

Still, it was a nice effort at trying to introduce coronavirus into the local discourse. For some time now, our mediascape has been copy pasting what other mediascapes have been reporting about coronavirus.

So, if some international media outlet reported that eating a toad could cure coronavirus, we quickly copy-pasted this.

Let’s face it: Few of us in Kenya’s mediascape know, even now, what this coronavirus is all about. Coronavirus was never a page one news item until someone realised that we have some 100 Kenyans right at the epicentre of the outbreak. Then, we struggled (and failed) to Kenyanise the coronavirus narrative.

The initial result was a series of confusing “isms” by fellows who clearly could not define coronavirus, least of all, in their mother tongue.

What is coronavirus in your mother tongue? How many of us scribes in Kenya’s mediascape can break down coronavirus into a language that a six-year-old, or our grandmother can understand?

We reported that our Health ministry had “new coronavirus testing facilities….” How many of us visited these facilities, took pictures and reported about how “latest” they are?

The closest we came to discussing coronavirus in a language that everyone understands was in Kiswahili, and, the only national Kiswahili newspaper (besides the recently launched ‘Pambazuko’) is the Taifa Leo, who gave coronavirus a screaming splash (The Star did too, sometime back, and, gave up amid the Moi death reporting wave).

Taifa Leo ran the screaming splash: “Mwisho wa ndunia” (end of the world). The only problem with the splash was not that it still did not have a name for coronavirus in Kiwahili, but the entire story was based on doomsday conspiracy literature.

Heck, someone tried to tie the coronavirus to the locust invasion (again widely underreported or misreported by fellows who do not seem to know the difference between a grasshopper and a locust).

No one bothered to fact-check this doomsday literature. Instead, we joined in the chorus of doomsayers, and much of what we have been telling about coronavirus ended up as one big rumourmongering.

But hey, maybe we were not alone. Three Wall Street journalists were sent packing by Beijing for an opinion piece that described China as “the real sick man of Asia.”

The Chinese felt this was racist reporting. Maybe they were right.

Sometimes back, a story tucked inside our mediascape reported on how two Chinese workers were almost lynched for turning up at a dam construction site in Kiambu just when the coronavirus rumour mongering machine was beginning its trial runs.

Their crime? One, being Chinese; and two, arriving back to a work site where a couple of fellows, with  deep-rooted anti-Chinese sentiments (especially fanned by our coverage of ‘Chinese loans’ and the standard gauge railway) for once had a chance for payback.

According to the story, the workers refused to go back to work until their Chinese bosses were quarantined.

Those were a bunch of lazy, racist workers that ought to have been fired for using coronavirus as an excuse to skive work, and we, for reporting from their angle, as we did in similar incidences in Kitui and Nakuru, ought to be ashamed of ourselves for reporting rumours.

Look, coronavirus may have originated from China, but all Chinese do not carry coronavirus. Heck, China is not the synonym for coronavirus in the same vein that ebola was not synonymous with Congo or Africa.

Still, in our desperate attempt at Kenyanising the coronavirus narrative, we clung to the narrative that Kenyan students were pleading to come back home from Wuhan. Too late. The BBC was a step ahead of us with the angle that some African students in China were pleading not to come back home before they were certain that they would not be bringing coronavirus with them.

The BBC quoted a Cameroonian student, Kem Senou, saying: “No matter what happens, I do not want to take this sickness back to Africa.”

And right there, we have a lesson on coronavirus reporting: That there is always a fresh human angle to a sad story.

The cue for us here was: Is Kenya ready for a coronavirus outbreak? Sadly, we only picked “he said”, “she said” angle on this one, which makes our reportage on coronavirus, in one word, a conundrum.

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