“Kenya’s official languages are English, Kiswahili, and Silence.” ~ Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, Dust (2014)
I want to explore something I have been wrestling with over the last three weeks. About silences, and also about anger.
The Omicron variant of COVID-19 was first identified by scientific teams in southern Africa, and reported to the WHO on 24 November 2021. Since then, there has been a chaotic outpouring of news, speculation and reactions. We have also been furious about travel bans, about scientists being punished, about COVID being labelled as African, and about global vaccine inequality/apartheid.
Some of the dust is only now settling. Omicron has spread incredibly quickly worldwide, and has displaced older variants. European and North American healthcare systems are in danger of being overwhelmed. There is political fallout from the unpopular introduction of tighter controls.
The first cases from Omicron in Kenya have now been identified, but the variant has probably been here for some time. Daily case numbers began doubling just before Christmas 2021. We have entered our fifth wave.
This new variant seems extremely transmissible, but key aspects of its longer-term severity, and its ability to resist existing vaccines, remain unclear. Results from South Africa, Europe and North America about its “mildness” were eagerly projected onto a quite different population here, one with much lower vaccination levels – even as all those health systems went into crisis. New unpredictable variants are still likely to appear over the coming year.
We are still in a situation of uncertainty, but we are desperate to believe the pandemic is over.
I want to explore the psychological impact of the pandemic. There are things we need to understand, acknowledge, and address now. If we fail to do this, we may remain distracted or paralysed at a time when we really need to gather and refocus our energies.
The pandemic may be viral, but it has also created a mental health epidemic. Most of us are completely exhausted from the past two years. Our emotional and financial reserves are drained. Some of us are suffering from the longer-term effects of COVID, from isolation, or just from the stress of unpredictability.
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor wrote, “Kenya’s official languages are English, Kiswahili, and Silence.”
After the Omicron variant was announced, and the West responded with travel bans, I felt we should add a fourth language — and perhaps for Africa more broadly. Anger.
Fight, Flight or Freeze.
Many of you will recognise these as our classic responses to threats. We usually become angry in response to a source of fear — a threat. We want to fight, to protect ourselves from whatever threatens us. An ancient reactive part of our brain, the amygdala, takes over.
It has to act quickly. It can’t do nuance. It. Doesn’t. Have. Time.
Our amygdala has to flatten the world around us, divide it neatly into friends and foes.
Anger in itself is not a bad emotion. It evolved to protect us. Sometimes it is life-saving. Channelled well, outrage can change society in really positive ways.
However, in our modern, artificial, overcrowded, confusing, stressful and technological lifestyles, we have to be careful. Anger can be misplaced, destructive, and exhausting, especially if we become trapped within cycles of anger and trauma.
At this stage of the pandemic, we are frightened and exhausted. Some of us are on the verge of collapse and paralysis. We want this to be over.
We are also angry.
But the real cause of this anger — an invisible virus — is hard to attack.
Since COVID-19 emerged in 2019, the world has been a confusing and frightening place. COVID-19 fuelled a global crisis in an extremely unequal and unfair world.
The pandemic, and the accompanying lockdowns, created huge fears, personal losses, sickness, deep economic and psychological challenges. Many people struggled and some genuinely found it hard to understand why.
COVID-19 fuelled a global crisis in an extremely unequal and unfair world.
Lockdowns succeeded in reducing the initial spread, but this paradoxically undermined their justification. Without people visibly dying everywhere, some questioned whether news of the pandemic had a hidden motive. The reluctance of western media to show the suffering of white bodies also created a cognitive disconnect, especially in the US.
We were at war with an invisible virus — not with one another — but still tensions rose.
Our amygdala is not good at this new kind of war. It needs a recognisable enemy.
This medical crisis is not a fairy tale, with cartoon heroes and villains. However, when we are angry, frustrated and scared, the protective instinctive part of our brain activates. It desperately wants to flatten complicated reality into a reassuringly simple cartoon version.
Who is attacking us? Who are our enemies?
We needed someone to blame.
There has been a lot of coverage of far-right COVID conspiracy theories. Trump labelled COVID-19 the “China virus”, while allowing it to kill far more people in the US. An election year in the US cemented a crazy partisan divide, with right-wing politicians taking their stance against masks and vaccines. Public health was placed in opposition to personal freedoms. This soon spread to other countries online.
At a deeper level, the Christian far-right in the US doesn’t believe in evolution. A rapidly mutating virus is impossible to understand. A deliberately weaponized pathogen, developed in a lab, by godless people unlike them, made far more sense. There was someone (imaginary) to blame. They found their “real” enemy.
(This wasn’t a solely Christian problem. Religious “leaders” with political access in India also derailed the COVID response in their country, with disastrous global consequences.)
Conspiracy theories may be convoluted and nonsensical — but they are emotionally satisfying. In a confusing world, they give us someone clear to blame, to scapegoat.
The idea of the scapegoat comes from the Jewish tradition where, as described in Leviticus 16:21, the sins of a community were placed on a live goat, which was then chased off into the wilderness. I am not sure the scapegoat fully understood what was happening, and the goats I have consulted think this was probably not a huge punishment. However, the point was never really about the goat, but about the removal of sins from within the community.
Lockdowns succeeded in reducing the initial spread, but this paradoxically undermined their justification.
In the modern world, we still find scapegoats — people to blame. They are not the real cause of our problems and chasing them into the wilderness does not resolve anything. While the original Jewish ceremony may have served a genuinely useful social purpose, our modern versions do not. Scapegoats are now useful distractions, used to stoke up and misdirect fear and hatred.
While there has been a lot of emphasis on far-right conspiracy theories, I think there is also a different but related phenomenon on the left. After all, people who are scared and angry need to find someone to blame. We all need a scapegoat on whom to pile our complex, perhaps intractable problems — and then noisily chase them out of town.
This does not solve our problems — but it is something tangible we can do. It provides some temporary relief.
In the narratives of these conspiracy theories, pharmaceutical companies and Western governments have conspired to create global vaccine apartheid. Greed, control or naked racism are the clear explanation in the wilder discussions online. There are wicked people to blame, and we must attack them.
Like any good conspiracy theory, there is a kernel of truth in these narratives. We live in a world that has been substantially shaped by capitalism, and that is still scarred by deep historical inequalities stemming from slavery and Western colonialism. Africa has been last on the list to receive vaccines. (Omicron may have emerged in Africa because of low vaccine coverage, allowing new variants to appear.)
We all need a scapegoat on whom to pile our complex, perhaps intractable problems — and then noisily chase them out of town.
A global public health emergency needed a global public health response. While there was immense public funding and coordination, it has been galling to see large pharmaceutical companies make massive profits from this catastrophe; the techniques and “recipes” for the vaccines must become public goods — not controlled for private profit.
There are very unpleasant echoes of past crises. As Zeynep Tupfecki has observed, most of the people who died in the HIV/AIDS epidemic did so after ARV medicines had been developed. Intellectual property rights and corporate profits took precedence over global health, and Africans bore the brunt of that approach.
We clearly need better global health systems. However, this narrative that vaccine inequality was deliberate and racist — and our angry response — simplifies and obscures key issues.
There actually was a plan to make sure all countries received vaccines. This plan recognised that we were facing an interlinked global health crisis, and that we needed to address structural inequalities. COVAX was explicitly set up as “a global risk-sharing mechanism for pooled procurement and equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.”
Several things went wrong with this plan, but an angry backlash against vaccine inequality is now obscuring that history. This anger may prevent us from learning difficult lessons, or taking the time-critical action we need to focus on right now.
Our house is on fire. People are inside, still at risk, but some of us are standing outside — feeling safe because we have been vaccinated — and yelling about who started the fire. Trying to find the people to blame, instead of figuring out how we can help right now.
Contracting most of the shared vaccines to one provider — the Serum Institute of India (SSI) — was a disastrous decision for COVAX. This decision may have been based on cost, but it was a strategic mistake to put so many eggs in one basket during an unpredictable global disaster.
Under Narendra Modi, India’s right-wing government did not take the COVID-19 pandemic seriously. A whole government department was set up to push herbal remedies, and other unproven treatments like steaming. Politicians were preoccupied with elections and religious rallies, which turned into super-spreader events. When the Delta variant began to ravage India in February 2021, the government retreated into full-scale denial.
It has been galling to see large pharmaceutical companies make massive profits from this catastrophe.
The situation in India was devastating. I was already helping to coordinate Indian volunteer group efforts, and I remember the horror of seeing the wave of infections grow rapidly, and then overwhelm the country. People struggled to find oxygen, medicines and ICU beds for their loved ones — or even for themselves.
Then things went quiet — which was even more ominous. The COVID wave was starting to ravage communities, and they had no one to ask for help.
However, the crisis in India was also an indication that a global crisis was brewing. SSI was meant to produce 700 million doses of the Astra-Zeneca vaccine for poorer countries in 2021. It had already encountered some production issues, and the Indian government, in its complacency, had not ordered doses for its own citizens until it was too late. At one point, facing threats from desperate Indian politicians, the CEO fled to London for his own safety.
Exports of the doses produced for other countries, including for Kenya, were blocked. Much of the vaccine famine we experienced early in 2021 was caused by this crisis.
Mistakes were made, and people were definitely culpable as well. However, this key event does not fit neatly into the angry narrative of vaccine apartheid. If the rich white West are the obvious villains, and black Africans are the clear victims — adding a complex disaster in India to the mix just messes up the neat fairy tale.
China developed its own vaccine. It has administered nearly three billion doses to its own people, and exported millions as well. Cuba did even better, despite facing economic sanctions. After a delayed start, Latin America is doing far better with vaccinations, with larger countries nearing Western levels of protection.
The problem is not simply racism, but relative poverty. However, it is a better fairy tale if we just edit out the inconvenient parts.
In political theory, a surprising convergence between right- and left-wing extremes has often been noted. Starting from different initial points, positions seem to become more similar as they become more radicalised and angry. This is known as the “horseshoe theory”.
This links to how we flatten the world, and look for simple friends, foes, and scapegoats, as that part of our brain that responds instinctively takes over to protect us from threats. Traditionally, political theory has focussed on dry policy issues and class allegiances. But with the rise of Trump and other populists mainstreaming conspiracy theories worldwide, a lot more research has been undertaken to explore deeper psychological issues around fear, uncertainty, and anger.
Politicians were preoccupied with elections and religious rallies, which turned into super-spreader events.
In a world dominated by powerful and often impersonal, confusing and opaque structures, our amygdala has to find someone to blame — like a classic Bond villain. Common examples are both right- and left-wing antisemitism, and attacks on globalisation.
In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, pro- and anti-vaccine groups both see conspiracies organised by greedy pharmaceutical companies. The more you think about this, the more bizarre it seems — but here we are. Anger at international structures in general has also grown, leading to strange bedfellows. At one point, I saw Elon Musk attacking the World Food Programme, and left-wing people rallying to his side. I had to switch off my devices and lie down for a while.
The SARS-CoV-2 genome only contains about 29,903 bases of single-stranded RNA — 30kB of data, less than half the length of this article. This tiny virus is outwitting human civilization.
Our amygdala, and the adrenalin it activates, can save lives — but only in the right context. We need to act instinctively rapidly when we are running out of a house that is on fire — as did our distant ancestors when escaping predators.
However, in a slow-burning and confusing pandemic, our amygdala should not be allowed to take charge.
COVID-19 is being helped right now by our own fearful responses.
Right now, our house is on fire — and many of us are still trapped inside. We instinctively want to save ourselves, get our boosters, and get away from the problem as quickly as possible.
However, as a country we are less than 10% fully vaccinated. Our fire is far from out.
The last few years have been an “I can’t breathe” crisis on several levels.
Franz Fanon was a physician, psychiatrist and philosopher. His work on colonial violence, and the lasting psychological and cultural damage it caused, remains important to this day. After all, these past years have been a crisis of COVID, but also of George Floyd, and of Black Lives Matter.
I was very influenced by Fanon’s work, via Steve Biko, the South African anti-apartheid activist who built on Fanon’s work. I first encountered these ideas around lasting cultural trauma when I was a peace worker for British Quakers, based in South Africa. About a decade after that experience, I took part in the first large Rhodes Must Fall march in Oxford, which was extraordinarily moving and powerful.
Fanon talks of the colonial world as “a Manichaean World”, divided into light and dark. White colonizers are seen as the light, and black colonized individuals are viewed as darkness, and the epitome of evil.
In a world dominated by powerful and often impersonal, confusing and opaque structures, our amygdala has to find someone to blame.
At this point, this should sound familiar. Surely the antidote to this colonial polarisation, a world where black is bad — is it’s opposite — white neo-colonial pharma as the epitome of evil?
However, this is simplistic — as I have demonstrated with the catastrophe in India. I am reminded of a jingle for Lotus FM in Durban: “Not everything’s black and white. . .”
I would also argue that it is literally dangerous.
Painting Africa as the wretched of the pandemic, a whole continent victimised yet again by the West, deprives us of agency and urgency. It glosses over complex but really important details.
Most importantly, while the image gives us something to focus our anger on, a scapegoat to chase out of town, it also provides us with an excuse not to actually do anything difficult but useful ourselves.
We can safely exhaust ourselves shouting at foreigners in the West, and this venting is cathartic. We are now absolved from doing anything closer to home. Powerful and evil external actors are in charge — at least until some utopian revolution dawns.
Meanwhile, the reality which this narrative obscures is that vaccines have been arriving in Africa. Kenya now has millions of vaccines available, and the immediate but very real challenges are local logistics, and persuading people with mild vaccine reluctance to get vaccinated.
Unfortunately, anger at global pharma is being manipulated to make people on the ground more hesitant at a time when we need to reassure them that vaccines are safe and effective. It is still not quick and easy to get a vaccine in Kenya. Vague rumours about side effects and large wicked corporations are enough to put scared people off doing something that seems novel, risky and time-consuming.
But while overall Africa has lagged behind other countries on vaccine uptake, we have also seen much fewer deaths. It is not entirely clear why this is — although it will probably be due to a complex mix of factors, including our younger demographics, and fewer comorbidities from diseases of affluence like obesity and diabetes.
Painting Africa as the wretched of the pandemic, a whole continent victimised yet again by the West, deprives us of agency and urgency.
As more vaccines became available during 2021, more of them went to countries where they were more desperately needed, rather than to Africa, which had lower case rates. The overall picture includes Latin America and South East Asia, which did get vaccines when they needed them more. The now high vaccination rates in these regions are being ignored by those arguing that there is a global vaccine apartheid.
We are also likely to experience a global oversupply of vaccines in 2022. Part of the reason pharmaceutical companies seem greedy is that they know vaccines are going to commodify. Increased supply will drive price reductions, so companies want to take profits while they still can. Free markets are not morally perfect, but when they scale up, they are incredibly powerful.
(I still believe we need a more global public control of vaccines that are essential to public health. Since the Delta variant overwhelmed India in May, and torpedoed collective efforts via COVAX, I have argued that we need a “Liberty Ships” approach to this pandemic — a wartime level of effort and resources. This did not happen fast enough, and we have lost lives as a result.)
Mirroring global vaccine inequality is local vaccine inequality.
I have been concerned for some time that the relatively privileged but tiny urban elites in Kenya would get themselves vaccinated then lose interest as their own lives returned to normal. Once vaccination rates in Nairobi reached about 20 per cent, and the lockdowns and curfews were eased, this did seem to happen; although most of Kenya’s counties still had very low levels of vaccination, the national conversation moved on, unconcerned.
Once Omicron was announced, there was a vast amount of anger at travel restrictions imposed on southern African countries. There were lots of legitimate reasons for the frustration, especially as Omicron was probably already in many countries, as has proved to be the case, but African scientists were effectively being punished for being the first to identify it.
Blanket travel bans are in any case not very effective at stemming the spread of variants and those travel bans have now been largely removed. (Ironically, France is now restricting travellers from Britain, where Omicron case numbers are rising alarmingly.)
Part of the reason pharmaceutical companies seem greedy is that they know vaccines are going to commodify.
However, the anger I sensed seemed really unfocused and confused. Kenyans were also outraged, but there was little concern or interest in the actual variant, or in the rising cases in southern Africa — the countries with which we were apparently showing solidarity. Christmas concerts and parties continued. Some people seemed more worried about having their own travel plans, and their newly regained privileged lifestyles, threatened. I felt like a lone voice, trying to remind Kenyans just how few of our own citizens were protected by vaccines.
I am not sure what Frantz Fanon would make of our bourgeoisie. Che Guevara would actually have shot most of the people who wear those trendy t-shirts bearing his image. I doubt Fanon would have been impressed.
We have now got our reward, with exponentially rising case numbers in Kenya as well.
My feeling is that the outrage was actually based on the deeper fear that we would return to lockdowns, and that the pandemic was not actually over. Instead of focussing on the actual problem — a new variant — we found foreign scapegoats to yell at, allowing the thing which frightened us to take root.
For Fanon, the colonized were kept constantly on edge by an “atmospheric violence”, tensed in anticipation of violence. The pandemic has done something similar to our limbic systems. While not comparable to the traumas of slavery, we are constantly stressed, and on edge.
I am strangely reminded of Nietzsche’s criticism of Christianity as a “slave morality”. Good Christians, by turning the other cheek, did not push back against power. Returning to the Fight/Fright/Freeze stress response that I learnt about in school, it has been updated to include a fourth response sometimes called ‘Submit’, ‘Fawn’ or ‘Feign’.
The Slave Bible, published in 1807 in London, then circulated in Caribbean and North American plantations, was a disturbing later embodiment of Nietzsche’s criticism. Sections such as the exodus story, which might inspire hope for liberation, were removed. Instead, portions that justified and fortified the system of British Imperial slavery were emphasized.
The Slave Bible encouraged silence, subservience and passivity, in the face of injustice. It was used to pacify people subjected to the worst forms of oppression and constant violence.
We found foreign scapegoats to yell at, allowing the thing that frightened us to take root.
The reality is more complex. Jesus himself was not passive. Theologians like Walter Wink have shown that turning the other cheek was actually a powerful act of resistance, given wider Roman culture. To turn the other cheek forced the aggressor to use their left hand, which would be seen as humiliating for the aggressor to other Romans. This would reclaim some power and agency for the Christian in a situation of powerlessness.
In the “atmospheric violence” of the pandemic, I sense we all feel disempowered. Some of us have become passive and withdrawn, while others have become angry and frustrated. However, instead of channelling the energy of anger into practical action to take care of one another, we are simply venting our frustrations publicly and fruitlessly – and sometimes counterproductively.
Some of us channel our frustrations against the pandemic restrictions of our own governments, or vaccination programmes – while others rail against international injustices.
Venting may feel helpful, but it is not reclaiming power or agency. It may briefly feel good, but it is not really helping us.
Casting Africans as the wretched of the pandemic seems to make sense, given the obvious inequalities. It is proving an incredibly powerful global rallying cry.
It makes people righteously, blindly, angry. It directs all our fear and rage outwards.
It is also, however, a good way of absolving us from tackling the harder questions, much closer to home, or requiring more difficult practical action. The actors who matter are powerful and elsewhere, which limits our own direct responsibility to do more than yell from a safe distance.
We all have limited energy at the best of times, and right now most of us are depleted. Directing our energy at global injustice, while ignoring more local problems, feels wrong to me. We actually have vaccines and knowledge and hard work to do right now. Nobody else can or will do that work for us.
Perhaps this is why such anger is so attractive though. If the problems are all global, we don’t have to look at our own broken health systems, venal politicians diverting COVID-19 relief funds, or the real challenge of addressing rumours that have spread over the past year about vaccine side effects. We can ignore the failings of our own leaders, who hold rallies and threaten our citizens, if our true enemies are global ones.
Anger directed at outside factors also prevents us from taking a hard look at how fragmented we ourselves are. While life-threatening famine was raging in large parts of Kenya, Nairobi was worried about cancelling Christmas parties and flight bans.
If you are reading this, you probably inhabit a tiny, relatively privileged bubble, just as I do. Even those of us who want to improve vaccine access have little idea what is happening in other parts of the country. It is harder still to know how to help.
Fanon never wanted colonialism — or the struggle against colonialism — to define us, taking on a simplistic crusading missionary zeal ourselves.
I’ve been organising civil society work around COVID-19 for much of the year, but I’m struck by how few people are able to volunteer their time and energy. We are all exhausted, but it feels deeper than that.
In India, one genuine problem was that so many people wanted to get involved, which created lots of duplication and confusion, as so many people reinvented the same wheels, and made the same mistakes.
South Africa also has a much stronger civil society response than I have seen here. Kenya is one of the few places I know where activists are treated with suspicion. This feels like the shadow of both colonialism, and Jomo Kenyatta’s and Moi’s authoritarian rule. Repression and fear were normalised. Kenya suffered from atmospheric violence. The few brave activists became lightning rods — but with little support from those for whom they organised.
No country in the world had massive health service capacity in reserve, ready for a pandemic. A massive civil society effort has been needed everywhere but I simply have not seen one in Kenya. We are rightly frustrated at the incompetence and the colonial threats of our own Ministry of Health, but we are not yet willing to roll up our sleeves and get involved where we see obvious gaps. We complain loudly — but that is all we do.
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor talks of silence as one of Kenya’s official languages.
I feel that that silence has been breaking over the past decade. Kenyans are more forthright, more outspoken and more critical. The internet has helped many to speak up, and to find kindred spirits. There is also a lot of buried historical baggage to process, and economic frustration and inequality, and injustice as well.
We are rightly frustrated at the incompetence and the colonial threats of our own Ministry of Health, but we are not yet willing to roll up our sleeves and get involved.
This is an important part of becoming a healthier society — one not cowed by power. We are growing up, from literally being treated as the children of the nation, which suited our rulers just fine. We have suffered the consequences of arrogant power for far too long.
We have difficult baggage to process, and the pandemic has added layers of fear and frustration. There is a lot we need to face, and mourn, but being angry is a distraction from that. I also see a hollow and defensive kind of pride, used as a shield against any kind of criticism.
These are ways of covering up our pain.
Anger is becoming our fourth official language.
This is dangerous — especially since 2022 will be an election year.
What is the alternative?
Well, vaccines are here, and will keep coming.
Kenya has more vaccines in fridges than we’ve used in total so far.
We have a national mobilisation project — to ensure all of our people are safe.
The narrative that we are wretched victims also ignores all the inconvenient good news. How did Morocco or Botswana manage to vaccinate so many of their populations?
Within Kenya itself, some counties are doing much better than others.
What could we learn from them?
Who are our local heroes?
Who needs our help?
We stand at the beginning of a New Year.
I actually think it will be a hopeful one, as far as the pandemic is concerned.
Even with new variants like Omicron, science is incredibly powerful. In particular, the mRNA platform is able to rapidly create new targeted vaccines.
There is also unprecedented global solidarity. Unlike during other previous crises, such as conflicts or famines, rich countries were the first to suffer the devastating consequences of the pandemic, so there is huge empathy. We can tell our stories online in compelling ways, and these stories resonate.
Even more than science and compassion, economically speaking, the world will put resources into ending the pandemic. Highly infectious diseases simply cannot be contained by travel restrictions. Our world is simply too interconnected and interwoven.
It is also an election year in Kenya. We can look at how politicians and governors have performed, and the state of their health programmes. This is the one time we have some leverage.
Anger is a call to action that we can channel into things that are more useful than empty, exhausting rage and the accompanying disempowering sense of victimhood. Action will be truly healing, as we find ways to take back control, after the helplessness of the past two years.
For some reason, we have also been lucky. The level of COVID deaths and serious illness in Kenya have been undercounted – but they still aren’t as high as in some other countries. This isn’t because of our excellent scientists (that’s southern Africa) or our experience with Ebola (west and central Africa). It may be demographics, geography, and exposure to other pathogens. The answer will probably be a mix of different factors.
So far, strangely enough, we’ve actually escaped the worst of it; we have simply not been the wretched of this pandemic. The worst of what I saw in India, and in many other countries, did not befall us. Our biggest challenge now is to get our own population vaccinated, with the now fairly available vaccines, so that we are better protected against new variants.
It may be demographics, geography, and exposure to other pathogens. The answer will probably be a mix of different factors.
We need to take a deep breath and take stock of where we actually are right now. Instead of fighting battles from last year, and knowing all that we now, what should be our focus?
Our next challenge is climate change, and that will be much harder. Especially for Africa.
We need to end this crisis, and in doing so, learn how to deal with our own fears and anger, our need for simple scapegoats, if we are to stand a chance of addressing the climate crisis.
COVID-19 was relatively minor, but it still shook our civilisations. Climate change is a truly existential threat.