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Ridiculous Sums of Money: Why the War on Drugs Has Failed

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The war on drugs has failed. It has failed to stop, or even slow, the production, trafficking and consumption of drugs.

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The drug war
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Nairobi, Kenya – CONSUMERS IN FINAL MARKET COUNTRIES HAVE NEVER HAD IT SO GOOD

The war on drugs has failed. It has failed to stop, or even slow, the production, trafficking and consumption of drugs. The specific aim to destroy and inhibit the international drug trade — making drugs scarcer and costlier, and thus unaffordable, has only been partially achieved.

Most experts agree that the drug war has prevented some drug abuse by making forbidden substances less readily accessible. It has made drugs like heroin and cocaine vastly more expensive than similar agricultural-based psychoactive products such as coffee or tea. One study shows that the increase in price per gram as cocaine moves down its distribution chain is up to 100,000% that of coffee. Also, the fact that illegal drugs are not readily available at your local chemist or supermarket has undoubtedly meant fewer users are able to access them.

However, this is only part of the story. In fact, consumers in final market countries have never had it so good. Overall, the price of most illegal drugs has actually plummeted while the drugs have become even more potent.

A study published in the British Medical Journal’s BMJ Open found that in the nearly two decades between 1990 and 2007, the purity of cocaine available in the United States increased by 11% while its price collapsed by 80%; the purity of heroin shot up by 60% while its price fell by a precipitous 81%; marijuana saw more than a tripling in purity accompanied by a similar drop in price to that of heroin and cocaine. The trends were similar across the Atlantic. In 18 European countries, the street price of cocaine halved over the same period. At the same time, in the decade between 2003 and 2013, the value of the global drug trade grew by over 35% from $320 billion to $435 billion, and, according to the UN, the drug business continues to be the third biggest in the world after oil and arms.

The war on drugs amounts to a transfer of the economic, political, social and environmental costs of prohibition from rich consumer countries to poorer producer and transit countries in return for a few dollars in aid

The number of people using drugs appears largely unaffected by the war on drugs. It is true that increased seizure and crop eradication, coupled with alternative development aimed at reducing the incentives for illicit cultivation, have reduced the amount of cocaine on offer.

TRAFFICKERS ARE FINDING NEW MARKETS AROUND THE WORLD

Still, although the 2016 UN World Drugs Report cautiously concluded that ‘the global cocaine market has indeed been shrinking,’ this is attributable both to declining production as well as changing consumption patterns across the globe, not to a reduction in the total numbers of drug users. Essentially, traffickers are finding new markets around the world even as consumption in the US and Europe stagnates, even declines. ‘The drug trade is becoming truly more global,’ Vanda Felbab-Brown, senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, told CNBC in 2013. However, while in mature markets a small proportion of users buy the bulk of the product, their new customers tend to take less cocaine less often. Similarly, the huge fluctuations in the availability of opium – whether due to increased enforcement or not – have not led to dramatic changes in the number of opiate users though for different reasons.

The rub of it is that rather than reduce the number of people on drugs, the drug war has instead funnelled massive amounts of money into the pockets of drug barons and cartels. The global cocaine trade, though utilising a fraction of the land and labor resources required by the coffee industry, rakes in an estimated $85 billion annually from supplying under 20 million consumers with about half a million kilos of the drug. Compare that with the roughly $100 billion the coffee industry shares from providing about 9 billion kilos to the hundreds of millions of coffee lovers. At its peak, the Medellín Cartel in Columbia supplied 80% of the worldwide cocaine market and is estimated to have been generating at least $60 million a day in revenue. In fact, illicit proceeds from the drugs trade now account for half of all income from international organised crime.

In Latin America, drug interdiction efforts are associated with increasing murder rates, not just in the countries where the interdiction is carried out but, when it is successful, in the countries to which the traffickers are displaced

Such ridiculous sums of money make drug dealers immensely powerful and menacing figures. In fact, the war on drugs amounts to a transfer of the economic, political, social and environmental costs of prohibition from rich consumer countries to poorer producer and transit countries in return for a few dollars in aid. These costs include violence, corruption and the loss of legitimacy of state institutions, population displacements and environmental degradation.

In Latin America, drug interdiction efforts are associated with increasing murder rates, not just in the countries where the interdiction is carried out but, when it is successful, in the countries to which the traffickers are displaced. For example, in Colombia, the war against the Medellin cartel in the late 1980s and early 90s saw the homicide rate nearly double between 1985 and 1991. Some 16 years later, a fresh wave of interdiction in Colombia displaced the cartels and associated violence to northern Mexico which, combined with the effect of local policies, saw the homicide rate there triple between 2006 and 2010.

Narco-traffickers are able to corrupt governments and law-enforcement agencies and purchase political influence and even political power. Pablo Escobar, head of the Medellin cartel, created a Robin Hood image for himself in the 80s by building houses and public facilities for the poor. He even got himself elected to the Colombian House of Representatives in 1982. In the Kenyan Parliament, in December 2010, five legislators, Harun Mwau, William Kabogo, Hassan Joho, Simon Mbugua and Mike Mbuvi, were named in connection with the trafficking of narcotics. Two of those have since gone on to become county Governors and one a county Senator. In Guinea-Bissau, which the UN branded Afrca’s first narco-state, the value of the drugs trade is greater than the national income. ‘You walk in, buy the services you need from the government, army and people, and take over,’ was the way one senior official at the US’s Drug Enforcement Agency put it.

Further, drug money distorts the economies it washes through, creating huge inequalities and devastating local living standards. According to a 2009 report by the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada, drug traffickers have laundered approximately $100 million per year through the Kenyan financial system. ‘The proceeds of drug trafficking move through the [Kenyan] banking system,’ John Githongo, the veteran anti-corruption campaigner, told Investigative Reporting Project Italy in 2015. ‘In terms of movement of drug money, Kenya now rates higher even than Nigeria due to the rise of narcotics moving in and through the country, but also because of the country’s sophisticated financial system.’ The effects of such flows are not hard to discern.

The drug money is a significant part of the illicit money entering Kenya from fraudulent trade invoicing, crime, corruption and shady business activities, which by 2013 roughly equalled 8% of Kenya’s economy. Much of this money ends up in the country’s real estate, where it has inflated prices and made decent and safe housing unaffordable for the vast majority of the urban population.

The drug money is a significant part of the illicit money entering Kenya from fraudulent trade invoicing, crime, corruption and shady business activities, which by 2013 roughly equalled 8% of Kenya’s economy

Neither has the war on drugs spared populations in the West where it has contributed to mass incarcerations, and the virtual criminalisation of large segments of the citizenry. In the US, the war on drugs mostly targets minorities, particularly African Americans who, though not more likely than others to use or sell drugs, are much more likely to be arrested and incarcerated for drug offenses.

Further it has led to the increased militarization of police forces and new police powers such as asset seizures – meant to turn drug dealers’ ill-gotten gains against them – have in many cases undermined civil liberties. As detailed in The Economist, in the wake of a sharp rise in drug-related violence in the US, in 1990 Congress ‘allowed the Defence Department to transfer military gear and weapons to local police departments if they were deemed suitable for use in counter-drug activities.’

A WAR DOOMED FROM THE START

The war on drugs was perhaps doomed from the start as it was built on dubious philosophical, moralistic and even racist foundations and made assumptions that those bearing the most costs would continue to be happy to do so.

In 1875, it was racist hysteria over accounts of Chinese immigrants luring white women into opium dens that led to California passing the first anti-opium law

International drug control efforts can be traced back to the 1912 Hague Opium Convention that entered into force in 1919 and targeted opium, morphine, cocaine and heroin. Over the next half century, a series of international agreements would expand the scope of the anti-drugs effort to include restrictions on cannabis (1925), synthetic narcotics (1948) and psychotropic substances (1971). Drug trafficking was made an international crime in 1936.

The treaties negotiated prior to 1945, while imposing some restrictions on exports, did not actually criminalise drug use or cultivation or, indeed, the substances themselves. Rather, despite fierce debate, they were predominantly concerned with regulating the licit trade and ensuring the availability of a range of drugs for medical purposes. (Heroin was created by chemists working for the German company Bayer, and marketed alongside aspirin as a remedy for coughs, colds and ‘irritation’ in children. Cocaine, was first isolated in 1859 by German chemist Albert Niemann, made its debut in toothache drops marketed to children and was famously an ingredient in Coca-Cola.)

While the US increasingly pushed the issue of recreational and traditional use of drugs, it was primarily dealt with through attempts to prevent the leakage of licit drugs into illicit channels. In 1925, the two most ‘prohibitionist’ countries at the time, US and China, withdrew from negotiations on the International Opium Convention, because they considered it insufficiently restrictive.

The US, then in the throes of domestic alcohol prohibition, had hoped to entice the rest of the world into quitting, not just drugs, but booze for good. In fact, the aim of the US was to extend its prohibitive domestic laws across the globe. It was the US that had convened the 1909 Shanghai Opium Commission – which laid the groundwork for the 1912 convention, just 15 days after Congress had passed the Act to Prohibit the Importation and Use Of Opium for Other Than Medicinal Purposes, the first in a long line of prohibitive drug legislation. However, it was opposed by France, Great Britain, Portugal and the Netherlands, whose colonies were then turning a handsome profit from legal as well as illicit sales of opiates to Europe and the US.

According to the report America’s Habit: Drug Abuse, Drug Trafficking, & Organized Crime, issued by the President’s Commission on Organised Crime in 1986, most of the opium reaching the US in the 1920s and 30s was coming from France, Asia and the Mideast.

US efforts to interdict the supply of cocaine – which the US had outlawed in 1914 – and to a limited extent, opium, also included trying to entice its southern neighbours to adopt similar policies. However, few were interested. As detailed by Maria Celia Toro in her book, Mexico’s ‘War’ On Drugs: Causes and Consequences, ‘Those early attempts to enlist the co-operation of Latin American governments in suppressing the drug market were for the most part unsuccessful.’ Some were happy to sign agreements but balked at actually implementing anti-drug policies.

A LUCRATIVE, ANCIENT AND LEGAL COCA LEAF MARKET

Further, Peru and Bolivia, then the largest producers of coca leaf and whose participation Washington prized most, ‘had little interest in curtailing a lucrative, ancient and legal coca leaf market.’ Only Mexico accepted. But not because it particularly agreed with the policy. According to Toro, ‘Rather than trying to appease the US or reduce drug consumption at home, Mexico was trying to influence US conduct regarding antidrug law enforcement.’

In 1916, the Mexican Revolution was still raging. The country had just emerged from a year-long civil war and was still battling an insurgent guerrilla group. The last thing it needed was conflict along its border. And border conflict is exactly what the US bans on cocaine and opium (and later alcohol) created. ‘What at the beginning of the century constituted legal exports of minimal value soon became a significant smuggling activity,’ writes Toro. Citing historian F. Arturo Rosales, Curtis Marez in his book Drug Wars: The Political Economy of Narcotics, describes it thus: ‘In the 1910s and 1920s, liquor and drug wars involving competing smugglers and US police … rivalled the border battles fought by political factions during the revolution. These contraband wars left numerous smugglers and border agents dead.’

But by joining the American prohibition bandwagon beginning with a ban on opium imports in 1916, Mexico created the very conditions for the violence and instability it was trying to avoid. Toro writes that smuggling ‘later turned into a black market problem after different Mexican administrations outlawed trade and production of opium and other drugs.’

John Ehrlichman: We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalising both heavily, we could disrupt those communities

Further, a distinctly racist attitude and fears of economic competition by minority groups informed US approaches to the regulation of drugs. In 1875, it was racist hysteria over accounts of Chinese immigrants luring white women into opium dens that led to California passing the first anti-opium law. Cocaine was similarly criminalised for its association with black communities. The white community’s economic fears of freed slaves gaining a foothold in the economy following the US civil war provided fertile ground for racist rumours of a drug that had the capacity to incite them to violence. With the New York Times running headlines warning ‘Negro Cocaine Fiends are a New Southern Menace,’ New Orleans became the first city to enact laws against cocaine in the early 1900s and the trend quickly spread. The banning of marijuana was a reaction to the influx of low-wage Mexican immigrants in the 1920s, sparked in part by the Mexican revolution. With the Great Depression creating massive unemployment, the ‘evil weed’ was the subject of lurid national campaigns that linked it to violence, crime and other socially deviant behaviours. By 1931, some 29 states had outlawed marijuana.

HOW PROHIBITION INCENTIVISED VIOLENCE AND DRUG SUPPLY

There are a number of things to note here. First, the US has been the primary driving force behind global prohibition efforts and has essentially sought to use international conventions to impose its drug puritanism on the globe and to export the problems drugs caused at home. Second, there was little appetite in the West, at least in Europe, for criminalising drugs when they were the countries that were benefiting from their illegal trafficking. Third, other countries initially resisted US-style prohibition and when Mexico caved in, it was for reasons other than the utility of prohibition in fighting drugs. Fourth, the effect of prohibition on drug prices immediately incentivised both violence and increased drug supply. In fact, the President’s Commission on Organised Crime acknowledged, ‘Heroin trafficking in this country first became big business in the 1920’s.’ And finally, the prohibition of drugs is fuelled at least as much by economic fears and cultural prejudice as by concerns over health effects and the social harm they cause.

All these trends have come to define the international drugs war in the decades after World War II. The US emerged from that conflict as the most powerful country in the world and the global prohibition of drugs was embedded into the DNA of the post-war order it crafted. However, unlike 20 years prior, it could now apply the necessary pressure to impose it on other countries via the United Nations system.

In 1961, the US initiated the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which sought to consolidate the various international agreements into one regime governing the global drugs trade. But more than that, it included provisions that were not in previous treaties including controls over the cultivation of plants from which narcotics are derived, which placed a heavy burden on producer countries in the developing world where the cultivation and widespread traditional use of opium poppy, coca leaf and cannabis were concentrated at the time. The Single Convention institutionalised prohibition and targets for abolishing traditional and quasi-medical uses of opium, coca and cannabis within 25 years. The Convention was also notable, for it was the first time that penal provisions were included in a widely accepted international drug control treaty. Further it required countries to regulate not just production, manufacture and export, but also possession of drugs.

A decade after the Single Convention was signed, a parallel process started to emerge with the signing of the1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances. Replicating the trends witnessed during the pre-war treaties, Western countries attempted, according to the President of the International Association of Penal Law, Cherif Bassiouni, ‘to impose strong controls over the cultivation, production and traffic of natural drugs originating in the developing countries, [but] were unwilling to impose the same types of control over their own chemical and pharmaceutical industries.

THE TARGET: ANTI-WAR HIPPIES AND BLACKS

That same year, President Richard Nixon famously declared what came to known as the ‘war on drugs’ in an address to Congress. Drug abuse, he said, was America’s ‘public enemy number one,’ despite the fact that consumption was not any worse than at any other time in history. What Nixon and his henchmen didn’t tell the public was that the ‘war’ was little more than a cynical ploy to fire up their political base using the tried and tested methods of the 1930s, and to curtail domestic dissent. John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s domestic policy chief who served time for his role in the Watergate scandal, made this stunning admission to journalist Dan Baum in 1994: ‘The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: The anti-war left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalising both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.’

Seeing its political effectiveness, subsequent US presidents prosecuted the fake war, culminating in Ronald Reagan, who launched a period of mass hysteria over crack cocaine in the 1980s. As in the 1930s, the media painted crack users as violent, poor urban and most significantly, black. Crack and powder cocaine are the same drug. Crack is basically powder cocaine mixed with water and baking soda and the person who has the crack actually has less pure cocaine overall. For this reason, it is cheaper and preferred by low-income users. However, Congress, driven by the racist hysteria, concluded that crack was indeed the more dangerous drug and deliberately imposed much harsher penalties. The ‘Negro Cocaine Fiends’ of half a century before had become ‘crack-fiends,’ and mothers of ‘crack-babies.’ In three decades, the country quadrupled its prison population — all with no change in the rates of crime or drug use.

JUST LEGALISE IT, FOR GOD’S SAKE

Still, as discussed earlier, it has been producer and transit nations that have paid the highest price for the war of drugs. But many have begun balking at this and are openly questioning whether prohibition has been worth the cost. In 2009, three former presidents, Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, César Gaviria of Colombia and Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil declared that prohibition was simply not worth it. ‘Prohibitionist policies based on eradication, interdiction and criminalisation of consumption simply haven’t worked,’ they said. ‘The revision of US-inspired drug policies is urgent in the light of the rising levels of violence and corruption associated with narcotics.’

It is not surprising; Latin America, the region that perhaps more than any other, has suffered the consequences of prohibition. To understand how they feel, consider this thought experiment related by Daniel Mejia and Pascual Restrepo in their essay, Why Is Strict Prohibition Collapsing? ‘Suppose for a moment that all cocaine consumption in the US disappears and goes to Canada. Would the US authorities be willing to confront drug trafficking networks at the cost of seeing the homicide rate in cities such as Seattle go up from its current level of about five homicides per 100,000 individuals to a level close to 150 in order to prevent cocaine shipments from reaching Vancouver? If your answer to this question is ‘perhaps not,’ well… this is exactly what Colombia, Mexico and other Latin American countries have been doing over the past 20 years.’

Across the continent, many are rethinking their approach to drugs and rolling back prohibition. In 2010, Argentina’s Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to punish people for personal use of marijuana. Mexico has legalised limited amounts of all drugs for personal use. But it is probably in Europe that the greatest challenges to the prohibition orthodoxy have emerged.

The Dutch famously decriminalised cannabis in the early 70s and it has been available for recreational use in certain ‘coffee shops’ since 1976. Though technically illegal, possession of up to 5 grams for personal use is decriminalised. Italy too has decriminalised possession of less than half a gram of most illegal substances. Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands have successfully made heroin legally available to addicts through networks of government-run dispensaries.

However Portugal provides the most extensive, and most successful, example of decriminalisation. In July 2001, the country decriminalised all drugs, including cocaine and heroin. As is the case in several other European jurisdictions, purchase and possession for personal use and drug usage itself are still legally prohibited, but are dealt with as administrative, not criminal violations. Drug trafficking, however, is still a serious criminal offense.

No other country has gone so far, and Portugal is still the only country in the EU with a law explicitly declaring drugs to be ‘decriminalised.’ The results have been jaw-dropping. The expected tsunami of drug tourists never arrived. In a white paper for the libertarian think tank Cato Institute, constitutional lawyer and journalist Glenn Greenwald cites empirical data indicating that ‘decriminalisation has had no adverse effect on drug usage rates in Portugal, which, in numerous categories, are now among the lowest in the EU, particularly when compared with states with stringent criminalisation regimes.’

Dan Baum writes that ‘the lifetime prevalence of adult drug use in Portugal rose slightly, but problem drug use — that is, habitual use of hard drugs — declined after Portugal decriminalised, from 7.6 to 6.8 per 1,000 people. Compare that with nearby Italy, which didn’t decriminalise, where the rates rose from 6.0 to 8.6 per 1,000 people over the same time span. Because addicts can now legally obtain sterile syringes in Portugal, decriminalisation seems to have cut radically the number of addicts infected with HIV, from 907 in 2000 to 267 in 2008, while cases of full-blown Aids among addicts fell from 506 to 108 during the same period.’

Prohibition, and its misbegotten offspring, the war on drugs, have failed to bring about the promised drug-free world and have instead visited misery upon millions of the poorest people on the planet

Prohibition is under attack even in the US itself, though to a much lesser extent. Several states, including the District of Columbia, have allowed a legal trade in marijuana though at the federal level it remains prohibited. ‘We’re confronted now with the fact that the US cannot enforce domestically what it promotes elsewhere,’ a member of the UN’s International Narcotics Control Board, which monitors international compliance with the conference’s directives, told Baum.

GOOD RIDDANCE TO BAD LAWS

It is clear that prohibition, and its misbegotten offspring, the war on drugs, have failed to bring about the promised drug-free world. That they have instead visited misery upon millions of the poorest people on the planet is a fact that is only now starting to dawn on global policy makers. However, there is no consensus on how to move forward and in places like China and various Muslim nations where drug offences still attract draconian sanctions including the death penalty, there is little to suggest a changing mindset.

Still, the growing recognition of the failure has opened up the policy space and given reformers the room to imagine different approaches to dealing with drugs. No country is yet willing to experiment with full legalisation, but a broad spectrum of policy choices now exists under the banners of decriminalisation and de-penalisation (which eliminates jail terms for drug offences). One thing we can say for sure – the days of a simplistic, moralistic, one-size-fits-all solution to the challenge posed by the availability of drugs are very much over. Good riddance!

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Mr. Gathara is a social and political commentator and cartoonist based in Nairobi.

Politics

A Problem of Denial: Why Tanzania Could Lose the War Against COVID-19

President Magufuli’s response to the current coronavirus crisis has been far from exemplary. Some of his actions, like urging pubs to throw post-coronavirus parties and firing those who question his bizarre remedies for COVID-19, could actually put the lives of thousands of Tanzanians at risk.

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A Problem of Denial: Why Tanzania Could Lose the War Against COVID-19
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Authorities in the East African nation of Tanzania have started a process to reopen the country, claiming that the number of people testing positive for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has dropped significantly, with numerous cases of recoveries reported. However, given the state’s laxity in containing the pandemic since it was first reported in the country, plus its obsession with excessive secrecy in its approach to dealing with this new virus, makes many Tanzanians suspicious of the state’s claims and intentions – and for good reason.

Tanzania’s handling of COVID-19 remains a divisive and controversial subject that is passionately debated both within the East African nation and beyond. As nations across the world grapple with the deadly virus, which continues to indiscriminately claim the lives of thousands of people, and wrecks the economies of many countries, opinion here is sharply divided between those who are convinced that this novel coronavirus situation in the country is not so worrying as to warrant interventions seen in other countries, such as lockdowns, and those who accuse the government of underestimating the magnitude of the pandemic, thereby putting the economy above public health, and thus risking the lives of hundreds of citizens. No compromise seems to be on the horizon between these two warring factions.

The ongoing debate, which feeds into the political polarisation already prevalent in Tanzania, has been made more acute by the government’s own approach to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, which to this day remains opaque and unknown to the general public. The government’s approach seems to be informed by partial denial, inordinate secrecy, sheer incompetence, and ancient superstitions and prejudices.

So confusing is the government’s response to COVID-19 that after almost three months since the crisis was first reported, people’s anger and apprehension have subsided to ridicule and mockery as President John Magufuli’s administration continues to expose deep and terrible contradictions in its strategy and style to deal with the pandemic. Annoyance, therefore, seems to have subsided into derision. (If one would expect a different reaction then it means that one is not well-versed in Tanzania’s political culture. The long-reigning years of the ruling CCM have reduced the population to apathy and conformism, all in exchange for “peace and development” as defined by the party’s own ideologues and propagandists.)

Corona parties

The sheer absence of organised protest and pushback on the part of the citizenry, the press, religious institutions, and civil society organizations (CSOs) against the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic means that the minimalists (those who advocate for less restrictive measures lest the economy is hurt and interpret the news that portrays Tanzania in a gloomy picture as fear-mongering and hysterical) secure an ostentatious victory and hence wield a significant influence in the government’s latest measures aimed at bringing the country back to normalcy.

The government’s approach seems to be informed by partial denial, inordinate secrecy, sheer incompetence, and ancient superstitions and prejudices.

On May 21, for example, while addressing the nation from the capital Dodoma, President Magufuli announced that schools, colleges, and universities will be reopened on June 1 and called for the resumption of suspended football activities, citing physical exercise as one of the best ways to avoid contracting the virus. A day earlier, the cocky regional commissioner of Tanzania’s commercial capital Dar es Salaam, Paul Makonda, urged hoteliers and restaurant owners in the city to reopen their businesses, and claimed that COVID-19 was now over and that the city should go back to work. He even urged pub owners to throw a party on Sunday, May 24, to celebrate the end of COVID-19 in the country.

These measures follow the ones taken earlier, including the opening of the country to tourists and the lifting of a restriction that required tourists to undergo the mandatory 14-day quarantine when they visit the country. In the same vein, churches and mosques that were closed due to the pandemic have been ordered to reopen. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania (ELCT) bishop of Karagwe Diocese, Dr Benson Bagonza, subsequently announced that church services would resume on May 31.

The government’s claim is that these and other measures aimed at returning the country back to normal are thanks to the “tremendous drop” in the number of people contracting COVID-29 in Tanzania and the increasing number of COVID-19 recoveries across the country. For instance, during a church service in his hometown of Chato, a town in Geita region of northwestern Tanzania where President Magufuli has been self-isolating since the pandemic arrived in the country, the head of state told his fellow congregants that, thanks to what he termed as divine intervention, the number of COVID-19 cases in different hospitals across the country have gone down and the number of recoveries have increased. It was in this address that Mr Magufuli talked about his daughter who contracted the virus but who was able to recover, thanks to steam therapy and the consumption of lemons, things that he and his government have been pushing people to use to “stay safe” against the pandemic for a while now.

President Magufuli’s assurance notwithstanding, not many people seem to buy into his government’s claims that Tanzania is safe now and people can go back to doing their business. People’s doubts have been intensified by many factors, the most important factor being the lack of transparency. The claim about the sharp drop in COVID-19 cases reported in the country are being made at a time when the government does not share COVID-19 updates with the public and other national and regional public health stakeholders. This follows the temporary closure of the national health laboratory to pave way for an investigation into the allegations made by President Magufuli that the lab officials were “conspiring with imperialists” to portray Tanzania in a negative light by releasing more positive cases, an allegation which eventually led to the sacking of the lab’s director, Dr Nyambura Moremi.

It was in this address that Mr Magufuli talked about his daughter who contracted the virus but who was able to recover, thanks to steam therapy and the consumption of lemons…

These misgivings are made more relevant by reports from neighbouring Kenya where the increasing number of truck drivers from Tanzania test positive for COVID-19 when they cross the border into Kenya, something which led to the Kenyan authorities to not only close all their borders with Tanzania but also deport 182 people who tested positive for COVID-19 back to Tanzania in an effort to protect Kenyans from the pandemic. Another reason why people doubt the government’s claims of the “divine defeat” of COVID-19 is the feeling that the government is not there to serve their interests in the first place but that of President Magufuli and his administration.

Attacking political opponents, not the virus

Mr Magufuli’s actions portray him as a person who is more interested in himself than he is in the people. One of these actions includes getting rid of people from his administration who are thought to be realists and replacing them with sycophants who are willing to go the extra mile in their attempts to please the president, even if is at the expense of people’s lives.

For instance, President Magufuli swore in Mr Mwigulu Nchemba, a man who just before his appointment as the new constitutional and legal affairs minister to replace Mr Augustine Mahiga, who died after a short illness, had suggested that the government announce only the number of people who recover from COVID-19 and leave out the numbers of those who died of the pandemic.

If that was not enough, President Magufuli fired Dr Faustine Ndungulile as the deputy health minister – a man who once contradicted the president’s steam therapy as a cure for coronavirus and pointed out its associated health risks – and replaced him with Dr Godwin Mollel, who had once advised against mass testing, a practice emphasised by the World Health Organization (WHO) if the war against the coronavirus is to be won, saying it was too expensive for people to afford. According to this lawmaker, who defected from the opposition Chadema to the ruling CCM, “to support President Magufuli’s efforts to bring development to the people” the government’s complete abandonment of mass testing made more sense to him as a people’s representative than asking the government to make the testing free of charge!

Tanzania seeks to reopen at a time when its laxness in its efforts to contain the pandemic has triggered a diplomatic crisis with neighbouring Kenya following the latter’s decision to close all its borders with Tanzania, allowing only cargo to pass through, something which so infuriated the Magufuli administration that regional commissioners with the regions that border Kenya (Arusha, Mara, Kilimanjaro and Tanga) retaliated against Kenyan truck drivers, banning even cargo trucks to pass through. The border crisis, now settled, led to the sacking of Tanzania’s High Commissioner to Kenya, Pindi Chana, presumably because she was not as aggressive as her Kenyan counterpart in Tanzania, Dan Kazungu, in finding a solution to the problem.

The inward-looking approach of Tanzania made it skip two important COVID-19-related consultative meetings organised by the East African Community (EAC) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC). While opening the SADC meeting, South African president Mr Cyril Ramaphosa is quoted to have said that he talked to President Magufuli, the sitting chairperson of the block, of the need to organise the meeting but the Tanzanian leader asked for the member states to just send their opinions to him, a charge that Tanzania denies. These and other steps taken during the pandemic had some analysts worried that Tanzania risked losing its historical and strategic allies in the region.

It is this same megalomaniacal type of thinking that has made President Magufuli not listen to, and work on, the advice offered by other stakeholders of Tanzania’s development, such as opposition parties (see here and here) and CSOs, which on more than one occasion have outlined some of the necessary measures to be taken to help the country combat the pandemic and save lives.

Election-related measures

The measures to reopen the country are being taken when Tanzania is just a few months away from a general election in October 2020. The measures are being viewed as preparatory work towards the elections that President Magufuli’s party, CCM, is projected to win in a landslide largely due to a disorganised opposition and years of deliberate efforts to shrink Tanzania’s political and civic space. The measures come against the backdrop of debates among Tanzania’s lawyers and intellectuals on whether or not Tanzania should go ahead with the general elections given the presence of the public health emergency. However, the latest steps that the government has taken to reopen the country seem to have brought this debate to an end.

Efforts to reopen the country go hand in hand with steps to further shrink the available civic space in the country. For example, COVID-19 has not stopped the Magufuli administration from detaining a comedian who laughed at the president’s old photos, arresting journalists, local and foreign, who interviewed people on their experience with the pandemic, as well as restricting NGOs working in the country. On May 22, for example, a coalition of Tanzanian NGOs planned to organise a TV programme with a local television station, ITV, to talk about NGOs’ role in the fight against COVID-19 pandemic only to have the network postpone it at the last minute without giving a rational or understandable reason.

It was against this troubling background then that after being tired of government lies and prevarications, and having lost her close relative to COVID-19, gender and human rights activist Mwanahamisi Singano was forced to write an open letter to President Magufuli, reminding him that fear is not fought with threats, torture, or shackles (or lies if I could add), but with “sincere and intentional government actions in the fight against [COVID-19] scourge”.

The measures to reopen the country are being taken when Tanzania is just a few months away from a general election in October 2020. The measures are being viewed as preparatory work towards the elections that President Magufuli’s party, CCM, is projected to win in a landslide largely due to a disorganised opposition and years of deliberate efforts to shrink Tanzania’s political and civic space.

Sincerity is what is missing in the government’s entire strategy in the fight against the pandemic and thus explains to a great extent why most people are suspicious of its assurances that the pandemic has been contained and that people are free to go about their business as they did during the pre-COVID-19 period.

How, for instance, can a sane person trust a government claiming that the number of COVID-19 cases have dropped yet it declines to share those very statistics with anyone, not even its own citizens or at least with the Africa Disease Control and Prevention? How can we trust an administration that tries to lull us to sleep with sweet songs that the pandemic is over when it has treated the pandemic more as a national security issue than as a public health crisis? (The president’s second address on COVID-19 was to the heads of Tanzania’s security organs, not with public health experts.)

If the government is being genuine that coronavirus has been contained in the country to the extent that studies and sports should resume, why did it find it necessary to ask Kenya in making public the data on the COVID-19 status of truck drivers, not to mention the nationality of those who test positive?

If we cut through the propaganda barrage, we find that Tanzania is not as safe as the ruling elites and their apologists want people to believe. People who heed the call to go about their business believing that the pandemic is over will be doing so at their own risk.

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A Very Political Virus: Trumpism’s Ridiculous Response to COVID-19

Trumpism in the age of coronavirus may be gasoline poured onto the fire of a worldwide catastrophe in bizarre ways that are only beginning to be spelled out now, but which could have dire ramifications globally, including in East Africa.

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A Very Political Virus: Trumpism’s Ridiculous Response to COVID-19
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I can’t tell for certain, but the ambulance sirens seem to keep increasing, not with the incessant wails reported in New York, but a creeping feeling that something is on the rise.

Here, in the state of Wisconsin, on April 6th, the Democratic Governor, Tony Evers, fearing the worst in light of the COVID-19 crisis, passed an executive order to postpone the primary election, which took place on April 7th. Republicans had immediately taken the order to the state Supreme Court, and over turned it, forcing people to go to the polls.

Why? To align with Trump’s political desires. With thousands of absentee ballots already thrown out, the primary election (which includes a key state Supreme Court seat) is one that could be decisive in what is sure to be a controversial, close and unprecedented presidential election in the fall. President Donald Trump had backed the Republican candidate publicly, and called for the people of Wisconsin to turn out to vote for him, despite COVID-19.

In a state with controversial voter ID laws (which disproportionately affect people of colour), this has made a stark choice all the more vivid – come vote if you dare tempt coronavirus or stay home and be disenfranchised.

That’s where the screw really turns here: Donald Trump didn’t just learn from the example of Kenyan election farces; he studied and plagiarised them. (It makes sense that in this context, both the Kenyan ruling political elite and the Trump campaign were clients of Cambridge Analytica, the controversial firm whose use of unethical data mining tactics during elections have been exposed by the international media.)

Shown through the lens of an increasingly horrific pandemic, such election rigging is all the more grotesque. But it will soon be swept aside as another story of power grabbing, political manoeuvring over human life and bullshit grandstanding over the public good will utterly mar the last two months of the descent into the Age of the Coronavirus. An entire state just got thrown into an accelerated timeline of potentially being a horrific hotspot for the virus; the fates of potentially thousands of lives now sealed, there will be a push to promote a political agenda.

Donald Trump didn’t just learn from the example of Kenyan election farces; he studied and plagiarised them.

The political leadership of East Africa could truly stand in awe at the utter Machiavellian dumbness of this narcissistic manoeuvre – as it is truly a Stalinesque effort. The problem inherent right now in the world’s “best economy” is that politics has crept into the pandemic; the divisive nature of the discourse is such that it has spiraled downwards over the last five years. The election debacle in Wisconsin perfectly encapsulates the state of things right now in the US. In the year of a presidential election, pandemic tumult and constant political punching dominate.

All things are on equal footing, all things are intertwined, as Trump has made them to be. And as anyone with eyes or outside the administration can tell, it is going terribly. By the third week of May, the US had more than 1.5 million COVID-19 cases; of these, nearly 94,000 had died from the disease. Because the country is woefully inept at testing, more than a dozen states seem to be on the upward curve.

Where to start?

Even attempting to encapsulate the last several weeks in a sprawling critique seems to point in a million directions, so let’s focus and dissect three key aspects of the response to coronavirus in the US more in depth:

The Trump administration playing dumb while being dumber

First, Trump and his cohort have seemingly deliberately made a once distant threat of disease exponentially worse through denial, deceit, malice and twists so moronic they mystify the mind. (You can’t expect a climate denier to have the brains to handle a scientific crisis). Trump’s positions, like a fish left on the counter, grow in their stench as the days continue bloodily onward. His latest in a long string of travesties find him stumbling into the idea of injecting disinfectant into the human body to “clean it” of the virus. This latest gaffe, at least, was rooted more in idiocy than in cruelty, and was almost a welcome change towards comic relief after previous actions he’s undertaken. Even so, despite what he and the American far right-wing culture say, the fact is that the White House is listened to by the public, and so poison control cases went up across several US states after Trump made this ridiculous claim.

Trump and his cohort have seemingly deliberately made a once distant threat of disease exponentially worse through denial, deceit, malice and twists so moronic they mystify the mind.

The most important aspect to emphasise here is the outright denial that carried over for approximately six weeks (and, according to some reports that leaked memos to the White House regarding the COVID-19 threat, possibly even longer). Trump’s denial of the crisis was astounding, and to be frank, is still ongoing. Often, even in the days leading into May of 2020, the stance of the White House has been to express how things are improving, although they are clearly markedly getting worse for all to see. The optics hit the American public in the same vein as the Westgate mall terror attack crisis hit Kenya’s. (The fires in the mall couldn’t possibly be merely burning mattresses.)

Trump’s reaction to the crisis helped spur what must be statistically the worst outbreak globally. As far as optics are concerned, his reaction can only be put alongside Bolsanaro’s in Brazil and the Iranian regime’s in terms of terminal dumbness, obtuse means-spiritedness and ineptitude. It is a denial of a natural disaster that I haven’t seen at a leadership level since perhaps the 2011 drought ravaging northern Kenya; while the Kibaki administration and Kenya’s Parliament seemed largely to sit and twiddle their thumbs, occasionally making a statement expressing their condolences, they promptly went back to bitching at one another.

On a daily basis, Trump lumbers out (despite constant efforts by Republican lawmakers to stop him), shouts mixed messages to a confused press corps, then screams at them for asking what he’s talking about. The paranoia has reached levels of Daniel arap Moi in the 1980s; there are enemies within all corners, closing in, making the virus worse just to hurt him, the mounting deaths swept aside in importance so that the name of his brand not be tarnished by “haters”.

Such a tone is a tonic for no one, least of all medical staff, who, despite all outward claims made by the administration, are in dire need of absolutely everything, with no end in sight. Random people are scrambling to adjust – there are weird stories of desperation and plugging in holes wherever the government fell abysmally flat. People sew masks and stockpile if they can afford to. There is mounting concern that the hospitals are so overwhelmed that people with other conditions are going ignored or skipping vital visits.

It is simply proving to be more than anyone bargained for, even for those who officially became doctors and nurses by taking the Hippocratic Oath. As an old friend, a resident nurse at a prominent Michigan hospital, told me in early March, “We’re going to lose many doctors, nurses…people we already have a national shortage of. There are already conversations amongst healthcare providers, nurses, staff about what’s worth the risk. None of us signed up to work in unprotected conditions. It is like walking onto a battlefield without anything, anything at all needed for the specific fight.”

In the US, nurses, doctors and emergency medical technicians talk openly about going on strike, citing lack of protection – a move almost reminiscent of the series of strikes undertaken by medical workers in Kenya over employment conditions across the last several years. Even now, after months of the obvious from a multitude of voices, the Trump administration comes out and yells about its successes in the very areas that are the depths of its failure.

Think about this: over the last several weeks, Trump has ignored the virus, then fought to reopen the economy; he has blamed Democrats, yelled at the media on a daily basis, and called the virus a conspiracy to get him out of office; he has supported rebellion in several US states, encouraged primary elections to go forward and given his son-in-law (who has been cited by multiple researchers as an utter failure) a more prominent role in the COVID-19 response than any scientific expert.

All this while the high-ranking members of his party and surrounding hangers-on float ideas, such as the federal US government not owing states supplies (although states make up the US) and for states themselves to go bankrupt.

It has, for all intents and purposes, been a showing so abysmal and wrong-headed at every conceivable level that there is already talk that the last two months may have permanently crippled the GOP and will push them out of political relevance permanently as the US becomes a more diverse and younger country moving into the middle decades of the 21st century.

Trump and his administration, in their desperate flailing about in the dark for someone to blame, have made this crisis entirely about themselves and their own inherent “victimisation” – a strategy which, as deaths mount steadily and the economy finds new cliffs to dive from, looks increasingly foolhardy.

It is now growing harder to see how the current administration will get its collective act together (even though it urgently needs to do so) as the virus continues to pound the US in the coming months.

Clear cracks in the US system

Over the years, many friends have told me that they have wanted to go to the United States – to study, to work, to whatever. Universally, I’ve told them all to look elsewhere. All the flaws in the American Death Star have been highlighted by the Trump administration, including inherent societal problems, susceptibility to totalitarian blowhards, racial inequity, horrific economic disparity, capitalism’s exploitative nature, and the fundamental flaws in the US system of governance itself.

Trump and his administration, in their desperate flailing about in the dark for someone to blame, have made this crisis entirely about themselves and their own inherent “victimisation” – a strategy which, as deaths mount steadily and the economy finds new cliffs to dive from, looks increasingly foolhardy.

The last several weeks have proven the “far left types” (myself included) correct – although few of us could have imagined such a rapid descent. America, “the most powerful nation on Earth”, is inherently unequal, terminally flawed and fetishises money to a disgusting level. There are rampant stories of businesses closing, predatory loans, and debt claims coming out of life-saving stimulus money.

The very governmental system has shown itself to be labyrinthine, a truth only accelerated by capitalism, Trumpism and, let’s face it, the modern Republican Party.

Take medical care, where is an ugly Catch-22 at play. People are broke, and the American medical system is the most expensive in the world. People need healthcare and tests, but the fear of the cost often outweighs the fear of a deadly virus. The one thing that could correct the economy (testing) is avoided because of the state of the economy (both before the crisis and into it).

States compete against each other to get supplies while the government sells off its supplies to companies in order for the companies to sell them back to the government for distribution to the states. All this is happening while the government is questioning whether the states really need the supplies, and possibly favouring some states that favour Trump and his cronies politically. It is the kind of nightmarish inaction that would even make Kafka stir in his grave.

The medical system itself has been brought to its knees. Walking around a few weeks ago, I saw two ambulance crews going into houses, all wearing masks, every one of them looking well beyond their breaking points.

All this is happening while the government is questioning whether the states really need the supplies, and possibly favouring some states that favour Trump and his cronies politically. It is the kind of nightmarish inaction that would even make Kafka stir in his grave.

This, in a well-to-do city with several prominent functioning hospitals run by competent individuals. This is not the case in all US states and cities, but the most glaringly obtuse responses are coming from Republican-held legislatures.

An inherent problem in the US is that smaller states skew Republican votes, hold equal power in the Senate, and elect increasingly bigger idiots and inept climate sceptics while carving up districts to benefit their own hold on power. This has proven true in South Dakota, where the Republican Governor, resistant to social distancing, has seen an outbreak of more than 500 cases in a single pork processing plant.

It has also rung true in Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis, himself a loyal Trumpian, resisted calls within his state to close down because the state with the high geriatric population could be hit catastrophically. Instead he waited for Trump’s go ahead, even as White House press conferences repeatedly turned into unbalanced, unhinged name-calling sessions while Trump himself denied the true impact of the virus and prematurely called for the economy to reopen. DeSantis has since given a “stay-at-home” order and ordered that World Wrestling Entertainment be continued as an essential service, alongside grocery stores, banks, hospitals, and the fire department.

It inherently means that while some states (such as California, Ohio and Washington) reacted with preemptive speed and some (like Maryland, New York and New Jersey) have risen to the challenge admirably after it began to spiral, other states may keep up the perpetual game of whack-a-mole indefinitely through their own failings.

In many of these states, particularly those with large black communities (New York, New Jersey, Michigan), the disparities have grown even more stark. It is a discrepancy in standards that can almost be compared to the lack of resources afforded to Western Kenya; there are some areas of focus, but if you’re not of a certain set, a constant less will be your systemic truth.

This has become all the more clear in the American situation. Ugly reports have seeped out about black and minority individuals being less likely to receive coronavirus testing, care or access to the same medical treatment as whites. In turn, this has led to minority and lower class communities being slammed by this virus disproportionately, sometimes at shocking rates. In hardest hit New York City, some reports show people of colour dying at double the rate of white people.

It has also shown the true insidious nature of the political divide under the Trump administration. From powerful corners on the right, there have been ideas floated to defund Democratic states for reasons that are still unclear beyond the spectrum of unbelievable political pettiness. Take Trump’s Twitter gem on April 27th: “Why should the people and taxpayers of America be bailing out poorly run states (like Illinois, as example) and cities, in all cases Democrat run and managed, when most of the other states are not looking for bailout help? I am open to discussing anything, but just asking?” The irony that states like Illinois are also American is an irony that may or may not be lost upon the Republican Party.

Economically, the capital of capitalism has shown its true colours; and they break badly along generational lines. People post long screeds about suddenly being thrown out of work, with the government arguing bitterly about any support for citizens while simultaneously sending trillions to large corporations.

There seems to be something tectonic happening, although it is yet to be seen if it will prove to be beneficial or harmful to the public good after the scourge of COVID finally recedes.

Trump sinks the world

The final key takeaway: that in this globalised world, Trumpism in the Age of Coronavirus may be gasoline poured onto the fire of a worldwide catastrophe in bizarre ways that are only beginning to be spelled out now, but which could have dire ramifications globally, including in East Africa.

The virus has already shifted from the West down and into the Southern hemisphere, with the level of consequence yet to be seen. While some credit must be given to the swift action taken in many African countries (such as closing borders and reinstating Ebola protocols), the reaction of some governments has taken on a definitively Western tint: doing what works for them while simultaneously ignoring the economic realities in their own backyards.

Economically, the capital of capitalism has shown its true colours; and they break badly along generational lines. People post long screeds about suddenly being thrown out of work, with the government arguing bitterly about any support for citizens while simultaneously sending trillions to large corporations.

China, of course, has borne the brunt of the blame, and perhaps in the long term, ensured the nation’s dominance over global influence (especially in sub-Saharan Africa, a focus of Beijing).

Given this, the failings of countries such as the US should be looked at as a warning. Where society fails to protect, advantage shall be taken, and swiftly. Just this month, the US cut off funding to the World Health Organization (WHO), a UN body where US contributions constitute approximately 20 per cent of the budget. Make no mistake about Trump and his ilk – he abandoned us Americans, and, as his recent cut in funding to WHO showed, he won’t think twice about abandoning the rest of the world too. There will be no gestures of international goodwill coming from the Trump administration, something that is leading to feelings of unease within spheres of the diplomatic community. It can be seen already, with valuable protective equipment being intercepted from going abroad; those ugly protectionist and isolationist instincts are taking over.

This move just proves that the ugliness of Trumpism is, unfortunately, not localised within US borders; there is no quarantining this administration. Such isolationism and xenophobia will get downright dangerous when (for instance) a global pandemic, a historic economic crisis and a once-in-a-century locust swarm hits the East African region simultaneously with full force in the coming months.

On top of this, the Trump administration’s policies have helped to undercut the already stretched-thin medical systems of the developing world. In Kenya, for instance, a major pillar of funding for blood donations and subsequent transfusions has already been cut. It is unlikely to be restored under a Republican White House.

In times of crisis, the failings of this White House will become starker. In the years to come, it may come to light that the mishandling of this crisis by the Trump administration accelerated the economic and health ramifications of COVID-19 and spiraled the global system further on its downward trajectory. If the West has been brought to its knees, the United States seems hell-bent on sinking itself lower, swamping the world as well.

Once the US industrial machine finds footing and produces the needed testing, masks, ventilators and medication (it will, despite the Trump administration, not because of it), the White House will surely rapidly pivot to “these must be kept to protect us”, the same shortsighted dumbness that will both kill people by the tens of thousands in the developing world, and serve to perpetuate the virus once it circulates around the global channels again, inevitably circling back into America, which, when led by such an inept head of the federal government, will be “totally unaware, because it is your fault anyway” and the cycle will continue until a vaccine is developed or Trump is finally cast out of the White House.

The latter option, while knocking on every piece of wood within reach, is becoming increasingly viable. In that same bastardisation of an election in Wisconsin – the one that was blatantly rigged and dangerous – Jill Karofsky, the Democratic candidate for the Supreme Court, landed an improbable victory, and a massive one. Winning by more than 150,000 votes and a margin of more than 10 per cent (which is much higher due to factors such as voter suppression and the throwing out of ballots) in the swing state of Wisconsin, which narrowly went for Trump in 2016, gives hope that a rational person can get back behind the wheel of the White House as early as January of next year. It may be an early indication that Trumpism has overstayed its welcome in the time of corona, and that a more sensible America may emerge again.

Even so, while there may be some glimmer of better heads coming to the table in the US, this is far from certain. The fear is that the damage to the world from a single man with bad hair may be irreparable.

This is the truest shame of the US side of this initial chapter of coronavirus: that it has truly shown the goodness of the people of the country who as individual citizens and communities have largely reacted admirably, at times even heroically, to meet the challenge head on. Their efforts couldn’t have been wasted on a worse leader. What progress they make locally gets undercut nationally.

Even so, while there may be some glimmer of better heads coming to the table in the US, this is far from certain. The fear is that the damage to the world from a single man with bad hair may be irreparable.

As Trump and his cronies continue to cast blame, ban immigrants and defund international health organisations, there may be a truly long fight ahead. It may become a situation akin to an unruly drunk desperately trying to break everything just to ruin the vibe of a party as he is forced out of the gathering.

If nothing else, this crisis proves that the American model is an utter failure. Anyone who wishes to emulate its foray into neoliberalism will wind up in a similar ruin.

And the ambulances will continue coming.

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Responding to COVID-19: Should Science Alone Determine Policy?

The advantages of governments pursuing policies that are based on scientific evidence cannot be disputed. However, listening to the science does not automatically mean shutting down society and the economy.

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Responding to COVID-19: Should Science Alone Determine Policy?
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As I was starting to write this article, the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, a victim of the coronavirus pandemic that is sweeping the globe, had just left the intensive care unit of a London hospital after fighting for his life. Just a few weeks earlier, he had been gleefully shaking hands at events, including one at a hospital treating coronavirus patients. That may seem, in hindsight, to be incredibly reckless behaviour on his part, which ignored the scientific advice we were all getting about the need for social distancing. Similarly, many may see the sluggish UK response to the threat posed by the virus as flying in the face of science.

However, a Reuters investigation suggests the opposite. In fact, Johnson may have been guilty of too uncritically following the advice of scientists. It suggests that when future historians look back at his handling of the crisis, “the criticism levelled at the prime minister may be that, rather than ignoring the advice of his scientific advisers, he failed to question their assumptions”.

Should we be listening to the doctors? It may seem like a foolish question to ask in the midst of a deadly global pandemic that had infected over 3 million people and killed more than 200,000 by the end of April. In such circumstances, heeding the advice of the medical establishment seems to be the most sensible thing to do.

However, as the disruption of national and global commerce and travel demonstrates, the coronavirus does not just attack individuals; it poses a threat to entire social and economic systems built around mass personal interactions, be they markets or transport systems. And though medics may be adept at safeguarding and even curing our bodies, they are perhaps less so when it comes to societies. As Kenyan economist and outspoken public intellectual, Dr David Ndii, pointed out on Twitter, “Our medical/epidemic experts seem to understand pathogens/disease spread but they don’t seem to understand people/society. And that’s a problem.”

However, this has not stopped governments around the world from rolling out the high priests of science (medical doctors and epidemiology specialists) to lend legitimacy and credibility to the measures they are taking, in some cases reluctantly, to combat the virus. It is, after all, difficult for the ordinary citizen to argue with inevitability as presented by knowledgeable people who have spent their lives drinking from the fountain of wisdom and who now come armed with charts and graphs and statistics predicting a terrifying apocalypse if we do not obey.

Yet the question still should be asked whether it is desirable that science and scientists should be dictating government policy responses. One thing to keep in mind is that despite the appeals to it, science doesn’t actually tell us what to do; rather, scientists attempt to explain the linkages between variables, to predict what might happen if we decided on a particular course of action. As Therese Raphael explains, “The world of scientific modelers looks so neat — pristine sloping lines on two-dimensional axes that tickle our love of pattern recognition and cause-effect. Only, that’s deceptive; it simply masks all the uncertainty.”

Models are simplified representations of reality, and inasmuch as scientists may recommend a particular path, this recommendation is based on their interpretation of what the science is telling them about the options they have looked at, the assumptions they have made, and the variables they have decided to consider. As Dr Mark Nanyingi, an infectious diseases epidemiologist explains, “Models can help in forecasting where and when the diseases are likely to occur and what measures are needed to slow down the spread. This can guide future government policies for better preparedness and response to pandemics.”

One thing to keep in mind is that despite the appeals to it, science doesn’t actually tell us what to do. Rather, scientists attempt to explain the linkages between variables, to predict what might happen if we decided on a particular course of action.

Further, as the saying goes, to a man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. So different scientists will bring their various biases to their assessment of problems. While medics may privilege the need to do whatever it takes to arrest the disease, economists, on the other hand, may point out that harming the economy could create worse problems.

Even within the medical fraternity, one might be likely to find people who think that focusing on coronavirus while ignoring other diseases that kill many more people may be a mistake. As Tom Angier of the University of St Andrews points out, “There are significant disagreements between experts even within limited domains of expertise, and these disagreements are often themselves fundamentally political.” He adds that it would be naïve to expect politically neutral results. “The rule of experts would generate not expert rule, but a cacophony of conflicting views and interests.”

Asking whether we should listen to our doctors is not about questioning their capabilities and knowledge; it is about querying the role of science and scientists in democratic governance and decision-making. Few would argue that they have no role. But it is another thing altogether to claim that theirs are the only considerations. For one, when scientists speak, it is not just the science talking; they bring with them their biases, even prejudices, as exemplified by the recent suggestion by two French doctors that a potential coronavirus vaccine should be first tried out on Africans. As Prof W. Henry Lambright notes, “When scientists leave their labs to advocate position they may be behaving much like other interest groups, trying to influence public policy.”

More importantly, technocracy (rule by unelected skilled experts) or its cousin, epistocracy (rule by the knowledgeable) may not be a good idea. As David Runciman explained two years ago in an intriguing article for the Guardian, “Even qualified economists often haven’t a clue what’s best to do. What they know is how to operate a complex system that they have been instrumental in building – so long as it behaves the way it is meant to. Technocrats are the people who understand what’s best for the machine. But keeping the machine running might be the worst thing we could do. Technocrats won’t help with that question.” Substitute medics for economists and you begin to see the conundrum.

Asking whether we should listen to our doctors is not about questioning their capabilities and knowledge; it is about querying the role of science and scientists in democratic governance and decision-making.

The British response provides a telling example. In explaining why the UK government did not join the rush to impose a lockdown, Graham Medley of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who chairs a group of scientists advising the government on pandemic responses, told The Atlantic’s Ed Yong: “My problem with many countries’ strategies is that they haven’t thought beyond the next month. The U.K. is different.” The country would not be panicked into taking rash measures, such as closing down schools, “in a way that feels good but isn’t necessarily evidence-based”.

Waiting for the evidence to come in before making a decision may sound like a good plan in the academy, but in the real world, decisions often need to be taken in the absence of full information, and waiting can have catastrophic consequences, as was the case in Italy.

Who decides?

So who should determine what the best course of action is? In a democracy, this function is left to elected public officials who then answer to the electorate. But are politicians any better placed to make wiser decisions? Not necessarily. However, as Runciman argues, the advantage of democracy is assuming that no one has a monopoly on wisdom; it “protects us against getting stuck with truly bad ideas”, even when these are promoted by the most knowledgeable people on the planet.

Democracy is better thought of as system for limiting the harm that governments can do than as a route to generating the best possible decisions. “Rather than thinking of democracy as the least worst form of politics, we could think of it as the best when at its worst.” And such damage limitation is undoubtedly a virtue when poor decisions – such as choosing to wait – could lead to people dying in the streets. As Prof Rupert Read writes regarding the situation in the UK, “Make no mistake, it is government policy that has led to the dire situation we are now in.”

But democracy cannot function in the absence of information and transparency about the basis on which governments are making their decisions. In the case of the UK, Yong pointed out that the models and data that had influenced the government’s initial strategy hadn’t been published, much to the chagrin of many scientists. “If your models are not ready for public scrutiny, they shouldn’t be the basis of public policy,” one scientist told him. The same could be said of other countries, including Kenya, where Dr Nanyingi has decried the government’s reluctance to publish the information on which it is basing its directives. “The disease belongs to the people but data belongs to the government,” he wryly observed.

However, as Runciman argues, the advantage of democracy is assuming that no one has a monopoly on wisdom; it “protects us against getting stuck with truly bad ideas”, even when these are promoted by the most knowledgeable people on the planet.

Obviously, science and the advice of scientists matters. The advantages of governments pursuing policies that are based on evidence and the best and most accurate information available cannot be disputed. And listening to the science does not automatically mean shutting down society and the economy, as countries like Sweden and South Korea may be proving. Requiring politicians to reveal the data underlying their decisions can inoculate against the tendency of politicians to play to the gallery, taking actions that may be popular or make them look decisive but that may have little actual utility. However, it must be emphasised that this is not the same as saying that it is the scientists who should be setting public policy.

In the end, querying the role of science is not really about the competence of modern day medicine-men, but rather the accountability of politicians and public officials. The decisions that need to be taken must consider the scenarios presented by different cadres of scientists, as well as the various uncertainties in their models. They will need to take into account not just consequences but also values and the aspirations of society. They will inevitably involve painful trade-offs and compromises.

In short, these are political, not technical, decisions and will require human beings prepared to make them and to be accountable for them. They are not abstract science.

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