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Everything Rises and Falls on Communication

Posted on 4 min read

Before I got married, I attended some premarital counselling classes that went on for 12 weeks, having one class per week. One of the classes was on communication, because if you are married you know very well that communication could be a matter of life and death.

In this class, the organizers did well to bring a Professor of linguistics from the University of Nairobi. The key message I can remember from the session is that communication is largely nonverbal.

When I heard the good prof issue that statement, I was astonished. How can you say that most of what I said did not matter as much as other hidden cues that were not verbalized? As a science person, I had a big problem with that statement.

Lessons from Today

Years later, I think I agree.

Covid-19 in Kenya

Communication is turning out to be a nightmare for Covid-19. When Kenya paraded the first people who had recovered from Covid-19, the tables were turned quickly and the prevailing narrative was that the whole thing was fabricated, and that they had never been sick. I do not blame the conspiracist who brought the narrative because they were exploiting communication gaps that showed up when the two recovered people told their stories.

But even with the many media briefings that are going around, miscommunication still exists. This is because people are left to fill many communication gaps that exists, while conspiracy theories keep circulating. It is hard to take control of all the narratives that go out there, unless the government takes this more seriously and dedicates more resources to communication. At the moment, everything that needs to be said out there has already been said, but people are still not wearing masks. This week in Kenya, an army Colonel and a Judge were arrested in a bar drinking, ignoring all the social distancing measures in place. The communication in place has not yet gotten the message home.

W.H.O.

The World Health Organization is also facing a backlash, a lot of which has to do with communication. WHO has issued some conflicting statements about the spread of the virus and care of patients. Understandably, a lot of that is because Covid-19 is a new disease and it is spreading quickly. This means that the best practices keep evolving as more information is acquired. But since the world is hungry for information, whatever information that is given spreads wide, and when it is contrasted later, people feel like they are being taken for a ride.

WHO has not been able to communicate effectively. The organization has not put enough effort in letting people know why directives keep changing. Communication.

Lessons from History

There are two cases of succes and failure that I can mention.

Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis

In the 1840s, Hungurian physician and scientist by the name Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis discovered that hand-washing could drastically reduce the number of women dying after childbirth. This was a radical discovery because the germ theory of disease did not exist then, and therefore no one could understand how washing hands could help (unless of course, if your hands were muddy).

His suggestion received a backlash from the medical community who felt that he was accusing them of being dirty and killing people out of ignorance. His aggressive push for reforms led to a fall out with the medics community, his loss of practicing license, and eventual death when he was sent to an asylum to a mental institution.

A few years later, he was proved right – a little too late. While this guy had a radical reform that could save many lives, he was unable to sell his position to other people in his field.

Andrew Carnegie

Andrew Carnegie was an American industrialist who made one hell of a move. Investing in steel, he went ahead to build a Steel bridge for road and railway on river Mississippi which was much needed for connecting the East of America to the Western Frontier.

At that time, it is said that a quarter of all bridges collapsed, and people were wary of trying to cross river Mississippi. Many had died in the process, and therefore when the bridge was built, it would be hard to sell.

Andrew Carnegie knew what to do. He knew that people believed that an elephant would never walk on any unstable surface (out of natural instincts), and that it was the heaviest animal around. During the opening, Carnegie brought an elephant and it majestically marched through the bridge. People believed in the bridge, and it still stands today.

Conclusion

Communication is hard. If you are to deliver the right message and get people to buy it, it will take more than words.

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The Phantom Coronavirus Disease

Posted on 2 min read

The world is in a pandemic. The Corona Virus disease is swiftly doing a world tour and everyone is a target. While last December the world was reporting that a ‘strange kind of pneumonia’ was killing people in China, today we know the problem, and worse, we have too much information about the novel corona virus disease.

Familiar Symptoms

It is called Covid-19. The symptoms are familiar; fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. The prevention is easy: wash hands, touch not your face, stay home, sanitize.

And there lies the problem. As soon as people learnt of the symptoms of the disease, everybody realized that they possibly 40% positive. The innocent cough that had been going on for days has become a red alert. We are now very conscious of people who sneeze and we can see when everyone touches their face.

Phantom Covid-19

From many conversations I have had with people, so many people have already self-diagnosed with Covid-19. One wore a mask and would not stop sweating, thus assuming that a Covid-19 fever had set in. Another one went to the hospital for mild chest pain which he had ignored for a long time, and the medics tried to stay far from them. Another one had a headache that would not go away and she almost drafted her will.

Ignorance is bliss, and unfortunately, we are no longer ignorant of Covid-19. The symptoms keep showing up and scaring everybody. This is the phantom corona virus disease. As someone joked, fear of corona virus might kill more people than the disease itself.

It happens that we keep self-diagnosing with Covid-19 because the symptoms are very common. I can remember that at one point last year, I had all the symptoms of Covid-19, including the pneumonia, and was treated for a viral infection. Had it happened today, I would already be in quarantine or hooked up on a ventilator because it would be obvious that I have the disease.

But it was not Covid-19 since it did not exist then, and if you are not aware, I am still alive.

Fear

The endless news cycle about Covid-19, the growing numbers of those who are dead that are updated every minute, and the panic we see around helps make our fear of Covid-19 become a reality. When you expected a gunshot, the sound of someone clapping will startle you. This is why so many people fear that they have the virus and just the government does not know.

I would not want anyone to assume that they do not have the disease while they are not, but that running nose you have is just a common cold. Do not let fear kill you while the virus does not know that you exist. Stay at home, wash hands, do not touch your face, sanitize.

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The lost Art of Hand Washing

Posted on 2 min read

When the Kenyan Cabinet Secretary in charge of Health Mutahi Kagwe introduced Dr Myriam Sidibe who has a PhD in Public Health focused on hand washing to demonstrate to Kenyans how one should wash their hands, mouths were left open.

How did someone do a full PhD that is focused on hand washing? Worse, it was not from a backstreet University in the dark allies of Nairobi, but the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

 The shock and surprise expressed on social media is a pointer that washing hands is something that is never taken seriously. Many times, you see people walk into public restroom and walk out without touching any water, while those who do, most of them simply sprinkle as little water as possible – perhaps a ceremonial washing.

But times have changed.

Covid-19 is reintroducing the world to hand washing, a practice that has been slowly dying. Even for people with means, washing hands is never taken seriously, especially when you consider the immense benefits it would have.

It is estimated that if people were washing hands with running water and soap, infant mortality would possibly be reduced by half. That’s no mean number, for today 800 children die every day due to diseases that have to do with washing hands.

It is said that one factor that saved the world and greatly improved life expectancy is when people learnt to wash their hands. It did not come easy, especially when humans were not aware of the germ theory of disease. One physician and scientist by the name Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis discovered that lives could be saved through washing of hands, but his discovery led to him being rejected by the medical community and his eventual death. Medics couldn’t stand one of their own who said that the reason women were dying after child delivery was because their hands were dirty.

Even current actions betray our little faith in water and soap when it comes to washing hands. People are fighting to get hand sanitizers, when running water and soap could do a better job. We feel like a sanitizer is a superior product.

It is surprising that while for many years, people died of preventable diseases because they did not wash their hands properly. Yet, the secret of handwashing is very open even in the Bible, when people with bodily discharge are advised to “wash his clothes and bathe his body in running water and will become clean.”

I hope that after this pandemic is over, we shall sustain the passion and continue washing hands.

Watch Dr Myriam Sidibe TED talk On Washing Hands

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Living in the Age of Corona Virus

Posted on 1 min read

How are we to live in the times of the Corona Virus?

The same way we have lived in the age of road accidents, landslides, mercury in sugar, aflatoxins, HIV, malaria, collapsing classrooms and other day to day disasters that faced us in 2019 and prior.

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the Covid-19 jumped from bats to humans in Wuhan, was manufactured in the lab, or whichever theory of its origin you chose to believe: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways.

If we have had all these other threats over years, why should we be worried of Corona Virus? We already knew that cancer will kill 0.06% of all Kenyans this year, and at worst, Corona would do a similar thing. What I am trying to say here is that your death is certain, only a matter of when.

Therefore, let Corona Virus disease find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. Covid-19 may break our bodies, but it need not dominate our minds.

Adapted from C.S Lewis “On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948)

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The Problem of Fake News

Posted on 4 min read

Was the world ready for the age where everybody would be a media outlet?

Technology has made it easy for anybody to reach a mass audience. A single social media or website post from an obscure source can go viral and influence the world in large scale. Consequently, everybody is always receiving information from multiple sources, and is always faced with the task of sifting through myriads of posts to separate truth from falsehood.

Tech companies such as Facebook, Twitter, Google and others are now working to solve this problem of disinformation, but as someone recently observed, fake news is not a tech problem, but an information problem. Dealing with it will thus involve more than simply adding a piece of code in today’s tech, and could require a lot of societal transformation.

The Fear of Giving Everyone a Voice

It is not the first-time disinformation is threatening civilizations. Christianity faced the same crisis when the Bible was translated from Latin to other languages which any person could read and understand. The church had resisted the move in the fear that giving everybody a Bible would result to skewed interpretations and rise of cults that would crop up everywhere.

That is exactly what happened. Today, cults after cult seem to spread all over the world with the educated being equally prone to the disinformation as the non educated. It is like half of Christianity today is fake news.

This is not a new problem. Disinformation has always existed, only that it does not go by the name fake news. Many times, we call it lies, falsehood, or even deception.

The Influential Teacher

Even in day to day conversations, a certain level of disinformation exists. Earlier in the year I had a chance to meet a teacher in a rural Kenyan set up and discuss various issue such as politics, locust invasion and education.

One thing you need to understand about teachers is that they are one of the most influential people in the society. Educated, with a captive audience, and evenly distributed throughout the country, it is said that one only needs to win teachers in order to win an election. They will do the campaign for you.

But it was the discussion with the teacher that opened my eyes to know that fake news is not a modern-day tech problem, but something that has been with human beings for ages. I disagreed with many thigs things he said about politics and locust invasion because they were outright lies. Yet, he was confident of what he was saying.

What this influential teacher needed was access to a platform and he would have the media to reach more people with information, and we would all be talking about fake news.

Communities Prone to Disinformation

Why does it appear that fake news is winning compared to truth? In Kenya, it could be a cultural problem.

There are some societies where telling the truth is expected. I grew up in one. It is not really about truth, but a general acceptance that it is very evil to tell lies that hurts someone else. Generally, you would not expect to find normal people openly spreading false information.

Unfortunately, this naïve habit is reflected in people’s expectations when both online and offline. It is the reason why politicians are able to deceive many people with very obvious lies. Very few people are able to pick up such lies.

It could also be the reason why we have a big number of people who believe that everything they read on the internet is true. All the news sources are treated equal, and the most sensational ones receive the highest traffic. Even when content is labelled satire or is served by questionable tabloids, people still end up believing the stories they want to believe. Check the reaction that www.postamate.com gets on social media.

Fueling the Fake Fire

Human beings have a great love for solving mysteries, new information, and being the ones to break news. Perhaps, it is why conspiracies theories always find an audience.

We also like the information that confirms what we believe, whether it is true or false. This is why we quickly share news that are aligned with what we want to be true, irrespective of whether the information is factual or not. If you do not like person X, you will believe anything negative about X, and question anything positive about X.

The problem with fake news or false information is that it receives a lifeline from the audience and goes viral. Friends know it is false. Enemies want it to be the true. Others will share maybe because it is funny. Where it is also shared matters.

WhatsApp groups form a perfect echo chamber where information is shared among like minded people, further amplifying the effect of fake news. The more fake information is shared, the more it is believed.

Fake news is not short term problem.

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Internet Addiction

Posted on 2 min read

The internet is an important platform for today’s communication; that is why you are able to read this article. However, just like any other good thing, the internet is prone to abuse through such things as fueling disinformation, cyber-attacks, online bullying, health issues and even internet addiction.

One common problem among those is the problem of internet addiction. This is where one has an online-related, compulsive behavior which interferes with normal living and causes severe stress on family, friends, loved ones, and one’s work environment.

The internet addiction problem is very similar to gambling addiction or drug addiction that occurs in real life. Drugs have active components that make one addicted to them, be it alcohol, nicotine or cocaine. However, no one starts using drugs to get addicted, but to feel normal.

This is the same case with the internet. No one sets out to get addicted, but the continued use leads to dependency and one has to keep using the internet to sustain the feeling. This could be for entertainment, creating a sense of belonging in online community, or even killing time. One reason for addiction is the psychology behind the design of the internet tools that we use today that are meant to capture attention for the longest time possible. There are other predisposing factors such as anxiety and depression, environmental factors such as unchecked access to the internet, or even genetics.

Signs of Internet Addiction

Is your internet use a habit or an addiction? A habit is not a problem, but an addiction is. Here are signs that you could be a problem with addiction.

  • Increasing or too much time spent online
  • Time management problems due to unhealthy use of the internet
  • Difficulty in doing day to day activities such as work or studying.
  • Health problems such as lack of sleep
  • Dependence on online relationships more than the physical ones
  • Presence of withdrawal symptoms when not using the internet

Most people who are addicted to the internet usually think they are not, and even become defensive when one suggests that they need to reduce on their online activities. Perhaps, the best thing one can do is to seek help if you think you are addicted. Here are a few steps you can take of you want to take charge of your time online.

  • Make deliberate effort to engage with people offline.
  • Monitor the amount of time you spend online. Modern smartphones and computers have tools to do that.
  • Get rid of triggers that lead you to the internet. This could be something like the presence of Apps or notification in your phone.
  • Learn to deal with boredom in a different way. Get creative ways to deal with boredom away from the internet.

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