Wild life

Did I catch Covid from a naked-rumped tomb bat?

8 May 2021

9:00 AM

8 May 2021

9:00 AM


Until I promised to slaughter a fat-tailed sheep with a goat thrown in for a feast, the farm cowhands looked doubtful about going for their vaccinations. ‘Come on, it won’t hurt you,’ I cajoled. A panther-like man I’ve seen pursuing bandits with a rifle and reckless courage announced that he was frightened. The others nodded and rubbed their left arms. But at the offer of meat and sizzling fat over an open fire, everybody cheered up.

Time was running short. A village clinic two hours away in Maasai country had phoned to say its supply of doses was sitting there unused and would I urgently muster some people? Vaccine supplies were being distributed to the deserts, jungles and highlands of the country more efficiently than in, say, France or Germany — but north of Mount Kenya I’d heard some local people were less than keen. Take honey instead, they advised. I did not get to the bottom of why some feared the jab, but I heard some conspiracy theories about impotence.

For weeks I had stayed very alone on the farm, having only long-distance conversations in the open. This is because I came down with the virus myself. It made no sense to me, since I live almost entirely outdoors and even in normal times rarely catch sight of a human unless he’s herding cattle on the horizon. In the past year there’s been much talk of zoonosis. I wondered if I’d got it off one of the bats that hang on the veranda beams outside the bedroom. Kenya has more bat species than anywhere in the world — over 100 of them, from hammer-headed fruit bats, to hairy slit-faced bats. Perhaps I got it from a naked-rumped tomb bat. I wondered if my cattle can get Covid. Or elephants and lions. I lay awake at night having Kafka-esque hallucinations that I was transforming into a scaly pangolin. In my personal case, the experience was less alarming than malaria, or tick fever, or the fever I once caught in Western Equatoria, when my entire skin turned grey and bubbled up into reptilian ridges.

With no family around, I shuffled around in solitude for a fortnight. I talked to the dogs less than usual, since I had nothing interesting to say. I dosed myself with Ivermectin, which we normally use to deworm the sheep. I considered traditional medicine — small cuts in the flesh, a hot blade laid on the skin, the teas made from herbs that are violent purgatives. I turned down invitations to lunch with neighbours. Eventually I got up out of complete boredom and felt much better. Perhaps it wasn’t what I suspected at all, but a two-week hangover.

We set off in the first light, the Landcruiser packed with shouting men. We could see the mountains halfway to Ethiopia in the dawn. We bumped along a dirt track, passing herds of elephant and game, winding through forests of Acacia bush blossoming white. After crossing the Uaso river at Crocodile Jaws, we hammered across country and finally rolled into a one-donkey village. There was the rural clinic. Some pastoralists were gathered but it was awfully quiet. Even out here in the most remote place in Africa, everything was recorded on a computer and it was all over in a few minutes.

It took a couple more trips to ferry the rest of the workers to the clinic. Only two hardened nomads who live with our herds refused to attend, and to hell with fat sizzling on the fire. These men shunned the jab with derision at the idea they would submit to such a thing. They were indeed warriors and they believed in their own strength — and the leaves of a particular wild tree. With everybody else jabbed, I realised that if our farm was a nation state, we’d be 90 per cent covered — much more than Israel or the United Kingdom. Dr Anthony Fauci and Professor Neil Ferguson might like to study us as the most advanced example of herd immunity on the planet. If I could get a contract for that it might be more profitable than raising chickens.

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