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SEE NO EVIL: How international election observers lost credibility during the August elections

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The peeping game
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The August 8, 2017 Kenyan presidential election, which was invalidated and nullified by the Supreme Court of Kenya on September 1, 2017, not only led to a flurry of hastily cobbled up contrite statements by international observer missions and some Western-based media houses, but also opened up a Pandora’s box that critically questioned the role of international observer missions.

The election, which pitted for the second-time President Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta against Raila Amolo Odinga, was declared “null and void” by Chief Justice David Maraga on account of electronic and technological malpractices. A fresh election is slated for October 17, 2017.

Just two days after the voting had ended, the international observer missions that had come to monitor the elections had already written their preliminary reports certifying the general election as largely free, fair and peaceful. About 400 international observers had been deployed to watch the polls.

The missions included, among others, the African Union (AU), led by former South African President Thabo Mbeki, the Carter Center, whose chief election observer was John Kerry, the former US secretary of state who lost the 2004 US presidential election to George W. Bush, and the European Commission (EU), under the leadership of the Dutch politician Marietje Schaake.

While the EU observer mission, in its preliminary report, did cite problems to do with the lack of preparedness within the electoral process, the lack of applicable campaign finance legislation and unreliable transmission, it was only after the Supreme Court ruling that the EU and other missions realised that they had completely missed the mark – they were forced to concede that there were massive electoral malpractices in the electronic transmission of the results.

Kerry, who had certified the elections as “free, fair and credible” despite “little aberrations here and there”, even felt the need to expiate his “sins of omission” in a New York Times op-ed article on September 14, 2017. The long and short of his opinion was to shift the blame to the media – local and international – by subtly accusing them of misquoting what the international observers had meant by “free, fair and credible elections.”

Schaake, the EU’s chief election observer was later quoted saying: “At times, expectations of us observers are greater than our mandate allows us to do. Kenya’s electoral process relied heavily on technology and observers did not have access to the backend of the system.”

Caught completely unaware by the Supreme Court judgement, Schaake beat a hasty retreat by justifying and mitigating the ineptitude of the international observers. So did the Carter Center, which said that it would reevaluate its observer mission to Kenya and find out from Kerry exactly what had transpired within the team that he had led.

Characteristically, the AU mission has kept a studious silence: It has not said anything about the nullification of the presidential election, nor has it explained the rationale behind the mission’s certification of the election as successful.

It used to be said that the precursor to the AU, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), was a presidents’ club, where one of the unwritten rules was never to interfere with the “internal affairs” of a brother president’s country. It seems to me that that rule has never been done away with, even after the OAU was baptised the AU, insofar as election observation by the AU is concerned.

Removing “egg on the face”

After more soul-searching and hoping to erase “egg on the face”, on September 14, 2017 Schaake seemingly talked tough and called for “thorough investigations of alleged electoral offences in order to promote representations where warranted, including of IEBC [Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission] staff. There have to date not been any investigations against senior public officers who have reportedly breached the law.”

Harping on the theme of accountability and thorough investigations, Schaake said that “fast, comprehensive and effective investigations are needed so that there is individual accountability for actions taken.” Seemingly striking an impartial balance, she mildly criticised both the Jubilee and Nasa coalitions for their “apparent insubordination” of the IEBC and the Judiciary after the Supreme Court ruling. “Since the elections, Nasa and Jubilee have at times been undermining the IEBC and the Judiciary respectively.”

After the Supreme Court judgement, the New York Times was forced to reconsider its earlier position. An editorial published on September 3, 2017 stated: “The ruling was a rebuke to international monitors and diplomats – and this page – who were too quick to dismiss charges of irregularities, largely out of relief that the August 8 voting had been mainly peaceful and in the hope that disappointment with the results would not lead to the sort of violence that had erupted after the disputed 2007 election, in which hundreds of people were killed.”

Kerry, who had certified the elections as “free, fair and credible” despite “little aberrations here and there”, even felt the need to expiate his “sins of omission” in a New York Times op-ed article on September 14, 2017. The long and short of his opinion was to shift the blame to the media – local and international – by subtly accusing them of misquoting what the international observers had meant by “free, fair and credible elections.”

“Multiple media reports suggested inaccurately that we and other international observers had declared the election free and fair,” wrote Kerry. “Although our observers had noted isolated instances of procedural irregularities in voting and counting, these did not appear to affect the integrity of those processes which had functioned smoothly.”

Kerry, like every politician, had no qualms about speaking from both sides of his mouth. He shifted blame and made sure he was not “caught with his pants down”. So he unabashedly wrote, “The court ruling didn’t contradict the reports of the Carter Center, whose team we led, or those of other observer missions, including the European Union and the African Union, whose findings were broadly similar.”

Not to be left out during confession time was the United States embassy in Nairobi. US ambassador Robert F. Godec and the heads of other diplomatic missions issued a statement on September 7, 2017 clarifying their unconsidered judgement on the August 8, 2017 elections. “The court’s decision was a strong call to everyone, including the international community, to reflect on how to make each election better than the last,” said Godec. “As partners, we are doing so and we are ready to assist again.” Sounding somewhat apologetic, Godec, on behalf of other Western countries’ diplomats accredited to Nairobi, hoped to justify their hasty verdict on the election by saying, “Some of our missions have been the subject of fake stories and false attacks in this election period.”

Godec made the point that “our electoral assistance was requested by the government of Kenya and conformed at all times with the Kenyan law.” The US ambassador issued the statement on behalf of 12 diplomatic missions: Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

The New York Times, one of the most influential newspapers in the world, equally reconsidered its earlier endorsement of Uhuru Kenyatta as the winner of the election after the Supreme Court ordered a fresh presidential poll. In an editorial praising the 8 August election, the New York Times had stated: “Raila Odinga, a perennial loser, began crying foul long before the election commission declared that President Uhuru Kenyatta was elected with 54 percent of the vote to Mr. Odinga’s 45. International monitors from the African Union, the United States and Europe said they witnessed no foul play; former United States secretary of state John Kerry, co-leader of the Carter Center’s mission of election observers, praised Kenya’s election commission for its transparency and diligence.”

After the Supreme Court judgement, the New York Times was forced to reconsider its earlier position. An editorial published on September 3, 2017 stated: “The ruling was a rebuke to international monitors and diplomats – and this page – who were too quick to dismiss charges of irregularities, largely out of relief that the August 8 voting had been mainly peaceful and in the hope that disappointment with the results would not lead to the sort of violence that had erupted after the disputed 2007 election, in which hundreds of people were killed.”

Journalist Sarah Jerving, writing on September 8, 2017 for Devex.Com argued, “The perceived mismatch between the court ruling and international observers’ initial observations has sparked a debate about how such missions operate and what role they play in codifying elections. In Kenya, that discussion is complicated by a history of election violence linked to irregularities.”

The newspaper, realising the folly of its earlier hasty editorial endorsing the electoral process, added, “The fears were real, but the rush to judgment overlooked, among other things, that the supervisor of a new electronic voting system, Christopher Chege Msando, had been murdered and apparently tortured days before the election.”

The Financial Times, like the New York Times, seized the moment to comment on the Supreme Court’s unprecedented judgement, proclaiming the ruling as “the first of its kind in Africa.” Moralising on African dictatorial regimes, the paper declared on September 3, 2017: “The many regimes across the continent who exploit incumbency to perpetuate their rule through patronage, oppression and manipulation of the vote have been put on notice. So too have those international election observers whose formulaic rubber stamping of the results has become increasingly insidious – notably in undermining their own credibility, but also spreading cynicism among the electorate.”

Revisiting the violence that visited Kenya after the bungled election of December 2007, the Financial Times called out the international election observers who seem to be more obsessed with “peace” and “stability” rather than accountability and credibility. “Since 2007, when Kenya went to the brink of civil war in the wake of polls marred by fraud, there has been a tendency among such observers to brush aside all manner of irregularities in the interest of preserving peace.”

Amidst the international election observers “falling over each other” to quickly correct the impression that they had declared the August 8, 2017 elections as credible, one local observer organisation has stood its ground – insisting that the general election was “free and fair”, the Supreme Court’s ruling notwithstanding. The Elections Observation Group (ELOG) has maintained that Uhuru Kenyatta won the election fair and square. On September 4, 2017, Regina Opondo, the chairperson of ELOG’s steering committee (which includes Bishop Alfred Rotich of the Catholic Church) reiterated that Uhuru had won the presidential vote even though Supreme Court had found the process wanting. She said that the observer mission had deployed about 1,700 monitors and more than 5,000 (stationary) observers whose major responsibility was to focus on the results transmission. Her point of departure was that different observer missions had different methodologies which they used to ascertain whether the election had been conducted properly or not.

Journalist Sarah Jerving, writing on September 8, 2017 for Devex.Com, argued, “The perceived mismatch between the court ruling and international observers’ initial observations has sparked a debate about how such missions operate and what role they play in codifying elections. In Kenya, that discussion is complicated by a history of election violence linked to irregularities.” She particularly noted, “Clashes erupted after international observers highlighted irregularities in the 2007 elections, leaving more than 1,300 people dead and 600,000 displaced. Yet, the question now is whether observers have swung too far in the other direction, holding the bar for election too low, examining the wrong components on the side of caution to avoid unrest.”

Jerving poses the question of “whether election monitoring needs a rethink worldwide, particularly as electoral processes digitise, adding that “international observers focused too heavily on the voting process, overlooking critical next steps such as the transmission of the results, which in Kenya’s case was done digitally and with little transparency.”

A short history of election observer missions in Kenya

Election observer missions first became a major feature in Kenyan elections in 1992 after the country returned to multiparty politics in 1991, when former President Daniel arap Moi reluctantly repealed section 2A of the old Lancaster House Constitution. Western countries, led by the United States, spearheaded the multiparty wave in Africa and were particularly keen to witness political change in Kenya.

When Moi called the elections on December 29, 1992, they instantly flew in about 200 international observers These poll watchers were augmented by between 7,000 and 10,000 local monitors who organised themselves under the auspices of the National Election Monitoring Unit (NEMU). NEMU consisted of, among others, the International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA-Kenya), Professional Committee for Democratic Change (PCDC), the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ-Kenya), the National Ecumenical Civic Education Programme (NECEP), the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK) and the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC).

With the prospect of facing a sustained serious opposition for the first time, President Moi’s Kanu ancien regime provoked ethnic clashes in the vast Rift Valley Province, especially in the North Rift, where many migrant Kikuyus had lived for many years. These clashes, ostensibly instigated by Kalenjin Kanu party mandarins, led to the death of 1,500 Kenyans and the displacement of 300,000 others, many of whom were Kikuyus living in the Uasin Gishu and Trans Nzoia districts.

Nobert Braakhuis, a political scientist way back in 1997 would write that oftentimes election observation is usually confined to elections themselves and perhaps a few days just before elections. In his essay “International Election Observation During the 1997 Kenya Elections” published in Out for the Count: The 1997 General Elections and the Prospects for Democracy in Kenya, and edited by Marcel Rutten, Alamin Mazrui and Francois Grignon, Braakhuis noted that “election observation ignores the broader political context and long-term process of which elections form part.”

The international observers accredited to monitor the 1992 general elections, according to Braakhuis, “came on the eve of the elections and once the election was over flew out the same day.” These international monitors were largely drawn from the Commonwealth, the Washington-based International Republican Institute (IRI), Denmark, Egypt, Germany, Japan and Switzerland.

Out of the 7,000 polling stations, the international observers visited only a few stations, and because they came on the eve of polling day, they could not capture any of the irregularities that obviously biased the election results. NEMU, which was funded by Western donor agencies, including the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the Royal Netherlands Embassy, may have captured many of these irregularities, but did not have the international gravitas to broadcast Moi’s underhand tactics.

The then electoral malpractices included Moi’s regime ordering the police to disrupt opposition rallies and meetings, which made it extremely difficult for opposition politicians to register as candidates. Other malpractices included the use of state instruments of violence, namely, the police, the paramilitary General Service Unit (GSU) and even organised militia, to brutalise opposition figures.

Moi had a whole load of tricks up his sleeve, which ensured that the fledgling opposition was disorganised and scattered. He exclusively “zoned off” certain areas that he claimed were Kanu areas, and the opposition was refused access to these areas. In short, the opposition went to the 1992 general election on a very uneven field.

With the prospect of facing a sustained serious opposition for the first time, President Moi’s Kanu ancien regime provoked ethnic clashes in the vast Rift Valley Province, especially in the North Rift, where many migrant Kikuyus had lived for many years. These clashes, ostensibly instigated by Kalenjin Kanu party mandarins, led to the death of 1,500 Kenyans and the displacement of 300,000 others, many of whom were Kikuyus living in the Uasin Gishu and Trans Nzoia districts.

Apart from these “tribal clashes”, Moi’s government also harassed the media so much that news organisations were afraid of reporting Kanu’s political excesses. In the lead-up to the 1992 elections, there was only one national radio broadcasting station, the state-owned Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC), which could not broadcast news about the opposition’, let alone reports about the orchestrated killings of one ethnic community in the Rift Valley.

With all these disadvantages poised against a fragile and nascent opposition, “national and international observers, embassies and the like, were simply not prepared to oppose the salami tactics that increasingly reduced the chances of the opposition to win the elections by introducing uneven electoral conditions,” wrote Braakhuis.

Many keen observers of the 1992 multiparty general election noted that the international observers had been to Kenya on “election tourism”, suggesting that they were in the country to have a good time rather than to monitor an election. The “election tourism” tag also alluded to the fact that the various international observer missions’ reports were done in haste and without collating the different missions’ assessments.

Given the way that local and international observers had handled the elections – ignoring talk about the clashes and Moi’s gagging of the press – “the international observers came in for serious criticism,” said Braakhuis. The result of this “see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil” attitude of the international observers was aptly captured by Africa Confidential magazine in 1993 when it wrote: “Neither the foreign nor the local observer groups had the capacity and resources to comprehensively investigate rigging allegations. Consequently, they reported the most blatant and easily verifiable irregularities.”

Many keen observers of the 1992 multiparty general election noted that the international observers had been to Kenya on “election tourism”, suggesting that they were in the country to have a good time rather than to monitor an election. The “election tourism” tag also alluded to the fact that the various international observer missions’ reports were done in haste and without collating the different missions’ assessments.

When the post-election evaluation was done, it was evident that the international observation had been an exercise in futility and that the observer missions had lost their credibility. The missions had totally failed to capture electoral malpractices. This fiasco put the Western world on the spotlight. So, by early 1997, during the second cycle of the multiparty elections, they were already thinking of crafting a new model.

The new model that the international observers envisaged was one that would allow for a comprehensive and in-depth observation of the electoral process that was not limited to a one-day affair. The new model would also enable the observers to stay in the country a while longer, gaining experience and long-term perspective. This would equally allow them to understand the political terrain, including identifying possible tricky manipulations of the electoral process.

Western countries, through their respective embassies, formed the Donor for Development and Democracy Group (DDDG) in 1997 (which was re-named the Democracy Development Group (DDG) the following year). One of the first things DDDG did was to form the Election Observation Centre (EOC), whose members were drawn from diplomatic missions and international experts recommended by DDDG.

The DDDG consisted of 22 diplomatic missions with representation at the European Commission. They were: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Japan, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom and the United States.

The EOC was composed of four coordinators – Dr Judith Geist, (USAID), Prof. Palle Svensson (Denmark – Aarhus University), Dr. David Throup (British Foreign Office) and Dr. Marcel Rutten (The Netherlands).Nonetheless, there was a caveat as to what precisely the EOU would engage in. The EOU was supposed to refrain from making public or press statements and from having any external contacts, except through its president. Canada was in charge of the presidency.

The EOU’s mandate was basically divided into six clear-cut operations:

  1. Registration of voters (which was conducted between May 19 and June 30, 1997)
  2. Designation of candidates within the political parties’ nominations (which took place between late November and early December, 1997)
  3. Official nominations (presidential: December 2–3, councillors and parliamentary: December 8–9, 1997)
  4. Campaign period
  5. Election day, including vote counting (December 29)
  6. Election aftermath

To be better prepared this time, DDDG began having its own meetings as early as May 1997. The move was certainly encouraged by the hastily convened Inter-Parties Parliamentary Group (IPPG) reforms, which somewhat hoped to level the playing field as the country geared towards the December elections. IPPG had been necessitated by the events of the Saba Saba Day (July 7, 1997) and Nane Nane Day (August 8, 1997), during which the police had unleashed unmitigated violence on opposition supporters. With the support of Western countries, they too had pressurised the Kanu government to implement minimalist reforms.

The local observer group for 1997 elections included the Institute for Education in Democracy (IED), Catholic, Justice and Peace Commission (CJPC) and the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK). Together, they deployed about 27,000 poll watchers. This meant that there were at least two observers per polling station.

Two weeks prior to the election, the EOU got into top gear and distributed the Diplomatic Election Observers Field Guide – a self-prepared documentation containing guidelines for observers. Still, the ever cunning and unpredictable Moi jolted the EOU’s preparedness by suddenly transferring the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK)’s chairman Justice Zacchaeus Chesoni to the High Court. This move alone caught the international observers unawares; they did not know what the move portended.

There were glaring irregularities during the 1997 elections that the international observers took note of. “The opening and closing hours of the polling stations varied erratically with voting extending in some places to more than 48 hours,” wrote Braakhuis. “The counting process was equally erratic, sometimes taking a whole week.” There were also many irregularities in the ballot distribution. All these irregularities seemingly happening at the same time confused the observers. In fact, many of the international observers left even before all the voting had been concluded.

The international observers had to deal with a crafty Kanu party machinery that intimidated its opponents using brutal force, stuffing ballot boxes, spoiling ballot papers, introducing unsealed ballot boxes, kidnapping returning officers and handling ballot papers improperly. Yet, with all these irregularities, “the election of Daniel arap Moi as president was accepted,” observed Braakhuis.

According to Kenya’s Hobbled Democracy Revisited: The 1997 General Elections in Retrospect and Prospect by Arne Tostensen, Bard-Anders Andreassen and Kjetil Tronvoll, as far as election observation was concerned, the international element was smaller in 1997 than in 1992. “The international observers under the auspices of the Donors’ Democratic Development Group (DDDG) also assumed a more reticent attitude with respect to passing a judgement over the conduct of the election.”

“The technical limitations are exacerbated by political realities. Clearly, the idea that international observers are a neutral, independent force is a myth. In reality, they are every bit as subject to political pressure as the parties they observe.”

On the third cycle of multiparty elections that took place on December 27, 2002, the international observers would remark that “the 2002 elections mark(ed) an important step forward in the process of democratic development in Kenya.” In particular, the EU Election Observation Mission (EOM), which had been in the country from November 19, 2002 till January 17, 2003, stated that “the overall conduct of the elections constituted an example for other countries in the region, also because the electoral process resulted in the first transfer of power from one political group to another since independence.” The EU EOM waxed lyrical that the transfer of power from the Kanu regime to Mwai Kibaki’s government showed that Kenya had “truly become a multiparty democracy.”

The EU EOM also noted that “the level of violence and intimidation during the pre-election period was significantly below that predicted and below the level of the 1992 and 1997 elections.” In summary, the EU EOM said it was “impressed by the conduct of the 2002 elections.”

What exactly is the role of international observer missions?

What is it that gets an international observer team to get impressed about an election? And what exactly is the primary role of an election observer mission team?

In an article they wrote for Foreign Policy in April 2016, Gabrielle Lynch, Justus Willis and Nic Cheeseman argued that “international election observation missions – when small teams of foreign nationals are sent to watch over elections under the auspices of groups, such as the European Union, the African Union and the Carter Center – are intended to deter foul play and ensure free and fair polls. The trio noted that, “across Africa, international observers have frequently refused to give elections the evaluations they deserve for fear of offending incumbent governments and triggering political instability – and, also, it would seem because they apply lower standards on the continent.”

Are these the “lower standards” that the Financial Times alluded to as “the soft bigotry of low expectations” insofar as elections’ monitoring in Africa by international observers are concerned? The newspaper, in reference to Kerry’s praising of the IEBC beforehand for a “job well done”, said that the former US secretary of state “appeared guilty of the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’, to borrow from a phrase coined by his own nemesis George W. Bush.”

“The challenges facing election monitors are both political and technical,” stated the Foreign Policy article. “The technical limitations are exacerbated by political realities. Clearly, the idea that international observers are a neutral, independent force is a myth. In reality, they are every bit as subject to political pressure as the parties they observe.” Citing Kenya specifically, the three writers of the article, who have been observing the political situation in the country for some time, noted that “in the 1990s, observers turned a blind eye to deeply flawed elections in Kenya because they were worried that speaking out would trigger civil war and regional instability.”

But it is Judith Kelly of Duke University in the United States who seems to have captured the true essence of international election observers: “[International] monitors are more likely to endorse elections in countries that are major foreign aid recipients. Kenya, one of the US’s closest allies on the [African] continent received more than $500 million in USAID funding last year.”

As if to bolster Kelly’s argument, on September 18, 2017, the US government’s Bureau of African Affairs made it publicly clear that they were keenly monitoring the trajectory leading to the fresh presidential elections slated for October, 17, 2017. “We [the US government] are not going to take our eyes way from Kenya: Kenya matters. If our largest embassy is in Nairobi, Kenya, that means we have a stake in that country, and Africa has a stake, and this government is looking at where the trend will go after October 17,” said the Bureau’s principal deputy assistant secretary Donald Yamamoto.

This sentiment is echoed by Emma Gordon, a senior East African risk analyst based in London, who observes that “for several years, election observers’ main audience has been the international community rather that the population whose election they monitor.”

However, by looking the other way as electoral malpractices are perpetrated by various governments, the international election observers have become, “complicit in the attempts of a brutal authoritarian regime to hold onto power and [in the process] undermined their own reputation.”

The August election in Kenya was a classic case of how international election observers undermined their reputations and credibility by whitewashing or ignoring electoral malpractices in the name of stability and to protect their own national interests.

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Mr Kahura is a senior writer for The Elephant.

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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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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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