MY wife’s grandmother comes from that generation that always asks what the surname of a person is, to try and ascertain whether they are a potential relative or not. Somehow, she manages to find some connection and before you know it, you are distant cousins because someone crossed a river decades ago and was adventurous, brave and naughty enough to leave behind a deposit of their DNA.

My wife’s grandmother is now 97. One of the recurring themes in Gogo uNaNo’s stories that go way back is “so and so died of influenza” and she would of course be referring back to the so-called Spanish Flu of 1918. The reason it spread so quickly in Africa, was returning servicemen, unsung African heroes who fought in World War I and were given bicycles and wrist watches as a token of appreciation for their services, as opposed to land for former white servicemen. In fact, there’s a whole place called Burma Valley in the beautiful Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe where white former soldiers who served in Burma, now Myanmar, were settled as thanks for serving the Queen and country.

But I digress.

The deadly post-World War I flu of 1918 spread because there was not enough information travelling fast enough, or at least faster than the infected, to stop them at the harbour or railway station, quarantine them and potentially save lives. About 300 000 South Africans died within six weeks. Writing in the Central African Journal of Medicine in July 1973, IR Phimister of the University of Rhodesia wrote “the first cases of epidemic influenza in Southern Rhodesia occurred among the railway staff in Bulawayo about October 9, 1918, the disease having appeared in epidemic form in South Africa in the middle of the previous month. Bulawayo itself was rapidly infected and from there the epidemic spread equally swiftly to Que Que (now Kwekwe), Umvuma (Mvuma) and Salisbury (Harare), before engulfing the remaining towns and districts along the railway lines. The spread of infection was apparently governed by “the density of the population in any particular centre and the mode of communication with other infected places”. The virus spread faster than information and education about it.

Today, that is not the case.

Love yourself enough to matter. We live in an age where every single person I know either has a smart phone, belongs to a WhatsApp group or both. In other words, we live at a time when we all have access to information and I am convinced that all have heard about the novel coronavirus, but are we listening?

CNN reported that in South Korea, part of the reason for the rapid spread of the coronavirus were entrenched beliefs that do not make time or space for new information. In this case, the entrenched beliefs or practices were religious, but they might as well have been the habits of football fans denied access to their friends to watch their favourite sport together in camaraderie, it could have been the nonsensical “it does not affect blacks” idea that has been circulating in many African social circles or simply, the “it-won’t-affect-me” attitude that educated, uneducated or ill-informed people have. Whatever the reason, the outcome is potentially deadly. Not being religious, I don’t want to quote any religious text but it would appear, the saying “fools die for want of wisdom” is particularly apt here.

Steven Covey in his time management matrix talks about things that are urgent and important, like a phone call from the police saying they have your son in custody (my example) as things that “act upon you”. He also points out the things that are “not urgent, but important” like quality time with your son to prevent potentially errant behaviour that leads to that police phone call (again my example) as quadrant two aspects of our lives that deserve more of our attention than the fire-fighting quadrant one. Covey says, “life is meant to be acted upon”.

Back to your phone and social media:

 Inform yourself: There are enough rumours flying around for you to be curious enough to say, let me check for myself. Your best source is to google WHO information and guidelines. If you don’t have access to connectivity, ask one of your relatives or friends on your WhatsApp group to send you information from that source.

 Regulate yourself: Once you are aware of the guidelines, practise them. I will not repeat them here. The purpose of this piece is to shift thinking so that we can act upon what we need to do.

 Educate others: A common irritating but suddenly useful saying on social media is “If you know, you know”. Well, take that knowledge and spread it far and wide. Your relatives are more likely to be persuaded by you than by politicians they may distrust from years of abuse or a system they no longer have faith in. This is what makes people vulnerable to charlatans posing as prophets with even more deadly advice than mistrusted politicians.

There are many little details to think about, such as standing a metre apart, and change. Africans, like Italians, are warm people who hug, hold hands, and gather in groups easily. The Italians have been forced to stop some cultural habits. Start changing your behaviour today. It might just help save your life and that of others. We are all in this one together. It is a societal matter.

“Light a candle, instead of cursing the darkness.”

 Albert Gumbo is an alumnus of the UCT-Duke University Centre for Leadership. You can reach him on