A Case for Letting Us Go Back – Before We’re Killed from Within

Early on in 2020, when we had little idea how deadly COVID-19 is, the uncertainty drove humanity into a black panic. As we’ve come to learn more about this virus and how it kills (the average age of a COVID-19 death is higher than the average death age in some countries), we should adjust our precautionary level to match that of the situation as we know it. But people are scared, really scared. And when the news cycle blasts certain news non-stop, most people can’t help but believe it. To them, news is the truth. People don’t check their sources anymore.

COVID-19 has magnified the growing gaps in human relationships– a disconnect that technology has already distorted and magnified. We are traversing what is unprecedented in our history and capable of bringing out malicious human traits concerning power, selfishness, and obliviousness. The repercussions include suicide, spiraling mental health, and abject loneliness. Where are the advocates for mental health at this time, against the physical distancing that is already having untold effects on social fabric everywhere? Who is speaking out against the repercussion of shielding ourselves away from COVID-19? not the veracity or deadliness of the virus? People are dying alone in hospitals, some of the most sterile, lonely, and frightful conditions imaginable. Many hospitals are not even allowing families to see their loved ones off, yet we are gathering in mass crowds to protest? These are not good deaths. I am not speaking to the nature of the protests whatsoever, but to the heart of what is happening. There is something off, and those who question it are shamed, blamed, and silenced.

Intense lockdown makes it impossible to ignore what we’ve always known- that life is meant to be shared, without physical community, the weight of existence can be too much to bear. COVID-19 has brought an unprecedented host of stressors while removing many of the outlets we traditionally use as coping mechanisms. Not only have our routines been disrupted, but we are flooded with the threat of being killed by a disease that still has no cure. And in line with the times, we are making up theories about things we do not know because the desire to hold on to something, anything, can be overwhelming.

Physical distancing is endangering mental health even as it aims to protect physical health. We’ve heard about the increased risks that COVID-19 poses to those who are immuno-compromised and have preexisting conditions. But how many of us are aware that at least in England and Wales, 25% of coronavirus fatalities had been afflicted by dementia? That this virus has also asymmetrically affected veterans, an already shamefully underserved community in the US (a 2016 study showed that roughly 20 veterans commit suicide a day)? It is difficult to draw scientific conclusions at such a time due to insufficient data, but it is still vital that we examine the possible implications that social distancing means for those already coping with cognitive decline. Humans are social animals– we are culturally conditioned to believe that we have conscious control over individual fairness, morality, and empathy, some of our most valued social capacities– teachable qualities we are able to pass from one generation to the next. The isolation and broken routines from lockdown have hastened the cognitive decline that social interaction can help arrest. Lonely people, when alone, become lonelier.

There are several reasons for why people with dementia have been so severely affected by COVID-19– both conditions disproportionately affect the elderly and care homes have been rampaged by the virus.

One of the most common causes of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease 

And it’s not just the elderly who are affected in terms of physical and mental health. The Director of the the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stated that suicide and drug overdoses are killing more young people than COVID-19 itself, epidemics that were not magically resolved in the face of this global pandemic. There has been a 20% increase in substance abuse, while suicide remains the second leading cause of death in the U.S. for people ages 10 to 34. Small wonder, as chronic stress– a phenomenon we are certainly experiencing now– compounded by a lack of healthy coping mechanisms and unprecedented social issues stemming from the isolating qualities of technology…

People are so scared about coronavirus, yet few people are doing the research and work to find out what it actually means to be afflicted. Depending on where you are in the world, some simply lack the means and educational background to do so. A man in Nakuru, in the western region of Kenya, committed suicide as he awaited results from his COVID-19 test after developing symptoms. The test result was positive. In a similar case, a 30 year old man attempted to commit suicide when admited to Mbagathi Infectious Disease Unit in Nairobi for a 14-day quarantine period. 

Several times Kenyans have said to me, corona is dead. And now that I’m back in the U.S. against my attempts at planning and wishes, I’m prepared to be socially shamed for trying to live life as I have been in Kenya. There are several reasons why Kenya has been dealing with COVID-19 better than the U.S.– they have bigger quotidian worries and killers (AIDS, access to clean water, and malaria, just to name a few) and the population is young. Most African countries have been inflating their case numbers for international aid money, which is the least surprising thing about all of this. Regardless of where one is, the numbers are not to be trusted, and we must look beyond mere case numbers. When considering everything that we unconsciously navigate on a daily basis, from car crashes to the endless bacteria in our environments, the act of survival is a miracle in itself.

I’m wondering how much of the difference between East Africa and the U.S. has to do with American moral superiority or the politicization of one of the tensest election seasons in recent history. This pandemic has made it clear that we have to live with a higher degree of uncertainty that we are used to. It’s difficult to take such a plunge. 









I came to Malindi because I didn’t realize how it was entirely separate from Watamu, which is just a part of Kilifi County. Interesting to see how things piece together from what you hear, and how all that beta is different from your actual experiences. 

At first sight, the beach was solidly unimpressive. Nothing like the glow and expansiveness of Diani, a beach so utterly captivating there was no one could renege on awe. It seemed almost like the Atlantic– flat, dirty, and weedy. I fell upon a crowd of women, all dressed up in their loudly colourful coast garments, huddled around a couple of fishermen selling their goods. I walked up there, my previous experiences having finally convinced me that in these situations, being approachable is hardly a bad thing. Indeed, I was rewarded.

I ended up going fishing with the crew of this fisherman for the next following days. In some ways, I fell in with the group, although the obvious differences between us were ultimately too great to be overcome with the normal interactions that otherwise would have been enough to meld together something good and lasting, even if it’s just in memory.

If I’m being honest, this whole exchange left me feeling a bit deflated. Like I wish things didn’t have to be this way. I woke up, and in the process of regaining awareness of the world and my body once again, was remembering what it is that I have to deal with today. Because there is always something. It feels like everything (well, a great deal of things) have been taken away from me this year. It teaches you how to deal without what you thought you had to have. I read something once that said, take everything that everyone knows about you, and that’s who you are. What sort of veneers do we mask ourselves with? In my time in different places, navigating varied social environments that are at times extreme and hyper focused on my presence as an outsider, I’ve come to pride myself on an ability to bring down certain walls, gather stories, even make some friends or moments worth going back to along the way. How we sat on the dirty sand beneath those piles of dead trees on the beach, waiting for the replacement boat to come in. Chewing khat leaves, Omar handing me a tablet of Wrigley’s gum to help it along. Peter pulling out a knife to pretend to slash away at the crazy boy, saying, his mind is not so good. And when the boat came, I followed them into the water and onto the boat, even smaller than the previous one, and we were off to haul in the nets cast from that morning. 

The first day I had come totally unprepared. Wore nothing except for Matthew’s old tshirt and some shorts, not prepared for the torrential rain that nearly overtook us. It was the coldest I’ve felt for a long while, the rain streaming into our faces as we crashed through the waves. I thought to myself in that moment, soon I will be dry and safe. These are the experiences that teach you to appreciate what all too easily becomes invisible to us– how delicious fish appears beautifully plated when you order it at a restaurant, how dry clothes and a comfortable couch no longer seem like luxuries, how you can spend 500Ksh like it’s nothing. I asked Peter how much they can expect to make, on a good day. And it’s just around that much, sometimes 50 bob, sometimes nothing. I wanted to ask them if climate change has been affecting their work, but I also saw how they were tossing plastic water bottles out as trash and how their nets dragged up corals and small tropical-looking fish that don’t seem like ones that are valued on the market. I had to close my eyes against the rain, hoping my backpack with my camera in it would end up being okay. The guys I were with– Peter, Kevin, and Omar– they were really nice to me, asking if I was okay, if I was cold. Peter offered me his jacket, which I had to decline– it was my own fault for not being prepared. 

Seeing how they cast the nets (they choose depending on how the waves feel) and haul them in, it’s work that is both monotonous and fun, depending on how things are going. By the end of the second day, I was feeling like I had cracked a bit of the edge or apprehension and the guys were more comfortable around me. They knew that I was a journalist and trying to learn about their work. We chatted about where they had come from– both Peter and Kevin hail from Nanyuki, the Mt. Kenya region, settling here due to their parents. I thought a bit about their build- how they are incredibly lean and muscled from their work. I was thinking about buying some fish from them, eyeing the beautiful barracuda they’d scooped up on Friday morning, and also asked them about mkunga, the fascinating snake fish I’d seen laid out on the beaches. Ni tamu, they said, it’s sweet. I asked them what they liked to eat best– ugali and choma, like true inland Kenyans. 

In the evening of that second day- the familiarity of those times having made our period of spending time together seem that much longer -  Safu told me that guys had been challenging him at the boathouse. Apparently there had been fights about who I would go with. In small towns, people always like to talk. There aren’t many visitors in Malindi and my presence amongst the fishermen had definitely been interesting enough to raise some heads. I’m a journalist, I wanted to say even though they knew. I am just so curious about things unknown to me and I want to learn, see for myself.

The greatest misunderstandings coming from Peter. I had always intended to pay them for letting me spend time with them. But he ended up thinking I wouldn’t, lying to Safu about how we’d agreed on something, and saying to him that he didn’t care about the girl, he just wants the money. I’m not going to lie, this really made me a bit sad. It’s too bad that it had to end this way.

Malindi Fishermen

 In the morning, the Yamaha motor had fallen off the boat and became totally waterlogged- too many confluences of water and technology lately, what horrible luck. We flagged down another fishing boat that tugged us back near the bridge. People here help one another, there is no other way. That afternoon, we had to wait for a replacement boat- we sat on the beach underneath a pile of dead trees, chewing khat to pass the time. I kind of like its mouthfeel- super dry- maybe I’ve had it somewhere before but under a different name, perhaps. Memories can be hard to place. Better to take it with groundnuts or gum, they say; Omar shares a Wrigley’s tablet with me. Finally, the boat comes, most fishermen being done for the day. We get on with it, looking for the flags placed earlier. It takes a while to locate them, they’re tiny on the expansive sea… the light is fading, I look over twice at the sun setting and before I can see it off, it’s slipped away. The equatorial light always leaves so quickly. The fishermen are hauling up the nets and it takes longer than I can remember it every taking- a sheer mountain of seaweed and broken corals pile into the tiny boat, filling it to the brim. Like laboring over a Sisyphean task with a magical net that goes on and on into perpetuity. There’s no barracuda this, but there are crabs, flounders, even the same kind of catfish that had sliced peter’s foot open 9 months ago. Finally, they’re done. we head back to shore in the smooth darkness, less water chopping into the boat now that we’re going with the waves. 


Twice a day they go out into the water. At daybreak and then again in early afternoon typically, to haul up the nets and cast new ones. The first time I went on the boat was early, just before sunrise. It had rained throughout the night and we ended up getting caught in a morning storm. unusual for the region this time of year, just my luck. Mohammed tried to call us back but to no avail. Peter offered me his jacket but I couldn’t, it was my fault for not being prepared. As we weathered out the storm, the rain stinging our faces, we saw a diver hunting for octopus. Already fully immersed in the water, he was safe from the rain.

(Malindi, Kenya, 2020)

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