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MOTHER OF THE NATION: The spear has fallen

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In this third and final part of a three-part series, ISAAC OTIDI AMUKE revisits the funeral of Winnie Madikizela Mandela, the Mother of the South African Nation who defied both apartheid and patriarchy till her dying days. The eulogies paint a picture of woman with a fighting spirit who served as an enduring inspiration to her people.

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maWinnie: Lessons in Feminist Approaches to Storymaking
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April 2018

‘‘She talked about forgiveness, and it’s one of those things that whenever she spoke about, she would have tears in her eyes but the tears wouldn’t roll down her face,’’ Zodwa Zwane, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s personal assistant, stated in her eulogy on April 11, 2018, during an ANC memorial service at Orlando Stadium in Soweto, Johannesburg. ‘And she would say Zodwa, I don’t have tears anymore. I have felt pain up to the highest threshold.’’

Seth Mazibuko, who was the youngest member of the Student Action Committee that led the Soweto students’ uprising starting in June 1976 – which resulted in the killing of hundreds of students by apartheid police (estimates range between 176 and 700 deaths, with over 1,000 injured) – said that Madikizela-Mandela was an eternal source of strength to his generation. He recalled that fateful 16th of June 1976 when school children were shot by apartheid police for participating in a protest against the introduction of Afrikaans as the official language of instruction in schools. Madikizela-Mandela – driving a maroon Volkswagen Beetle – and journalist Sophie Tema – driving a white Volkswagen Beetle – rushed to the scene and ferried the dead bodies of the massacred children away. Among those killed was 12-year-old Hector Pieterson who became the face of the uprising when the photo of 18-year-old Mbuyisa Makhubu carrying a fatally shot Pieterson was widely circulated across the world.

Mazibuko credits Madikizela-Mandela with admitting him into a proper psychiatric hospital after he was released from prison at the time when he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He says that decision alone – of getting him proper medical care – could only be taken by someone who truly cared for him. Madikizela-Mandela taught him how to cook, as well as reprimanded Mazibuko whenever he transgressed.

‘‘The saddest part of the news of her passing is that it has happened at a time when we needed the energy and gallant spirit of a mother of the nature and stature of Mama Winnie,’’ Mazibuko stated. ‘‘Some of us in the struggle are still hurting. We needed the motherly side of Mama Winnie that would urge us to keep going. We needed a voice as strong as that of Mama at this time when the ANC is talking of renewal and unity.’’

People like Mazibuko had not just lost a leader, but a mother-figure as well. When he was sent to prison at Robben Island aged 16, it was Madikizela-Mandela who went out of her way to look after his own mother. There were many more instances where Madikizela-Mandela went above and beyond the call of duty to assist. That being said, it wasn’t lost on Mazibuko that there were sustained onslaughts to isolate and discredit Madikizela-Mandela as she fought apartheid and even after the ANC assumed power in 1994.

‘‘There is no struggle that is clean,’’ Mazibuko said. ‘‘The struggle was conducted on the dirty streets of Soweto, and here was someone willing to fold her sleeves and get her hands dirty. When other people were in exile, it was Mama who kept us together. When freedom came, she never enjoyed it. She was pushed away. We owe her an apology before we say ashes to ashes.’’

Tokyo Sexwale, the former Premier for Gauteng province, the Minister for Human Settlements and an ANC liberation stalwart, was the only person who had lived in the same house with Madikizela-Mandela before being jailed at Robben Island in 1977, where he served 13 years after being convicted for terrorism and conspiracy to overthrow the apartheid government. Sexwale had taken shelter at Madikizela-Mandela’s Soweto residence as a 17-year-old ANC activist, a home where he stayed in for three years before embarking on Ukhonto we Sizwe activities, which landed him in jail. On arriving at Robben Island, Sexwale said that the prison’s most famous detainee, Nelson Mandela, wanted to know every little detail about life in his Soweto home, asking about his wife and two children – how they dressed, how each of the kids performed at school, how they coped with his absence – information Sexwale readily volunteered.

‘‘There is no struggle that is clean,’’ Mazibuko said. ‘‘The struggle was conducted on the dirty streets of Soweto, and here was someone willing to fold her sleeves and get her hands dirty. When other people were in exile, it was Mama who kept us together. When freedom came, she never enjoyed it. She was pushed away. We owe her an apology before we say ashes to ashes.’’

‘‘I saw with my own eyes the torture, the humiliation by the police who came in to break things, to take clothes off the laundry line and throw them into the rubbish dump… and she would go and pick them up and wash them all over again with tears in her eyes,’’ Sexwale recalled. ‘‘I saw the tears of joy whenever it was time to visit Mandela at Robben Island and the tears of sadness whenever she returned from Robben Island. I saw the police slapping her. I saw them calling her bitch in her own house.’’

‘‘When they slapped her she fought back,’’ Sexwale continued. ‘‘They would hit her with fists and whenever I tried getting up to intervene they would kick me. And the children, Zenani and Zindzi, would be there from time to time whenever they were back from school in Swaziland. Then on the night they came to take her away for detention, she was kicking and screaming, telling the men that the things they were doing to her wouldn’t stop her people’s liberation.’’

‘‘No person should go through the life of Winnie. Let alone a woman, a mother,’’ Sexwale said of Madikizela-Mandela on April 2. ‘‘We have lost one of our best. Winnie was like a candle caught in the crosswinds. She was an indefatigable person, a fighter and a defiant resistor to the end. She even refused – when I spoke to her last week – to have a wheelchair. She would not succumb. She was defying gravity. The nation has lost a heroine… one of our best… a mother not only to her two daughters but a mother to the nation of our unwashed masses….’’

ANC Deputy Secretary General Jesse Duarte – who is the only woman serving as a member of the party’s ‘‘top six’’ officials – remembers Madikizela-Mandela as nothing but a nurturer, a mother to whoever needed one. No child who needed a place to stay was ever turned away from Madikizela-Mandela’s home, and whenever anyone was arrested, Madikizela-Mandela made sure their families were taken care of and lawyers were hired for them. When Duarte was released from prison in 1988, where she was detained without trial for close to a year, she first stopped to see Albertina Sisulu, the struggle stalwart and wife of Walter Sisulu, who had recruited her into the ANC back in 1979 when she was 26. Her next stop was the Soweto home of Madikizela-Mandela, who told her that now that she was back from prison it was time to recommit to the liberation struggle because the difficult work they had started was not yet complete.

‘‘Comrade Winnie Mandela is the Winnie Mandela of the people of Ivory Park, the Winnie Mandela of the people of Slovo Park,’’ Duarte eulogised Madikizela-Mandela on April 11. ‘‘She is the Winnie Mandela of the poor, the Winnie Mandela of the working classes of this country. She gave everything she had. She kept very little for herself and her family. She gave us her life, her commitment. She never betrayed our struggle. She did not betray the revolution….’’

Speaking at the United Nations headquarters in New York on April 4, former South African Vice President (to Thabo Mbeki), UN Under Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN-Women, Dr. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, elaborated on how and when Madikizela-Mandela was christened Mother of the Nation, and why she was enormously deserving of the reputable title.

‘‘She believed she was a rock, and therefore she had to be there for people to lean on her,’’ Dr. Mlambo-Ngcuka said. ‘‘She fought a system that was brutal, and the fact that she was defiant at every turn gave many of us the courage to fight back in our own small ways because we had this larger-than-life personality who was leading from the front. She was not the wife of an icon. She was an icon in her own right, standing next to another icon.’’

‘‘For decades when we couldn’t relate to the leaders,’’ Dr. Mlambo-Ngcuka continued, referring to top ANC leaders who were either in jail, underground or exiled, ‘‘she was the go-to person who helped glue the different groupings in the country together. That is why she was called Mother of the Nation…She will be solely remembered as a gallant fighter against apartheid who fought for women, fought for her community and fought for the oppressed people. Period.’’

‘‘She believed she was a rock, and therefore she had to be there for people to lean on her,’’ Dr. Mlambo-Ngcuka said. ‘‘She fought a system that was brutal, and the fact that she was defiant at every turn gave many of us the courage to fight back in our own small ways because we had this larger-than-life personality who was leading from the front. She was not the wife of an icon. She was an icon in her own right, standing next to another icon.’’

One group which understood what Madikizela-Mandela’s motherhood and nurturing side felt like was the then expelled leadership of the ANC Youth League, among them Julius Malema and Floyd Shivambu, the duo which went on to become president and deputy president of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). On learning of their expulsion from the party for supposed ill discipline in their push for a radical economic transformation agenda, the expellees’ first stop was the Soweto home of Madikizela-Mandela, who embraced and comforted them. Much as the group went ahead to form a political party that became a sharp thorn in the ANC’s flesh, Madikizela-Mandela maintained a very public, uninhibited motherly attitude towards them.

During the 2017 doctorate graduation ceremony of MP and EFF spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, Madikizela-Mandela, who was in attendance, congratulated ‘‘her boys’’ in her usual joking manner, telling them that ever since they went to parliament they had been doing exactly what she had asked them to go and do. Madikizela-Mandela spoke of how she had told the EFF to go and wake the ANC up, since the liberation movement was sleeping. ‘‘You have done a better job because no parliamentarian sleeps anymore,’’ a jovial Madikizela-Mandela said to enormous applause. ‘‘Everyday you insult us, you are doing exactly what I sent you to do in parliament.’’

In their condolence message to the Mandela and Madikizela families – typed in their characteristic red ink – the EFF castigated the ANC for denying South Africa its first woman president. This was in reference to the December 1997 ANC Mafikeng elective conference, where Madikizela-Mandela intended to offer herself for election as the party’s deputy president to Thabo Mbeki, a move which could have seen her rise to the country’s presidency post-Mbeki.

The bottleneck was that Madikizela-Mandela had not been nominated by ANC branches before the conference, as was procedure, meaning she needed a nomination from the floor of the conference backed by 25% of delegates. Madikizela-Mandela requested Mbeki, who was chairing the session – flanked by Jacob Zuma on his right and Nelson Mandela on his left – to briefly adjourn the conference so that she could speak to delegates and get her nomination on course, something Mbeki called canvassing. Mbeki declined to adjourn, leaving Madikizela-Mandela with no choice but to quash her ambition. Jacob Zuma was elected ANC deputy president unopposed, setting on course his future disastrous presidency.

Yet when Mbeki and his friend-turned-foe Jacob Zuma were threatening to tear the ANC apart during the party’s 2007 Polokwane elective conference – which they eventually did following Mbeki’s defeat and subsequent recall as president of South Africa – it was Madikizela-Mandela who summoned the moral courage before the conference and confronted the two men, asking them to shelve their ambition for the ANC presidency and instead settle for a compromise candidate, an initiative which bore no fruit, seeing that the livid duo was keen on going all the way. As she spoke to the two men, Madikizela-Mandela reported that they both used one phrase in reference to each other – ‘‘Mama, you don’t know that man.’’ It took a decade after Jacob Zuma’s 2007 election as ANC president in Polokwane for the party to regain a semblance of unity following the December 2017 Nasrec elective conference where Cyril Ramaphosa was elected ANC president, leading to the recall of a stubborn Jacob Zuma, who had hugely dented the party.

Asked how Madikizela-Mandela should to be remembered during an April 6 interview, Thabo Mbeki ardently pushed the argument that it was ill-advised to single out personalities and celebrate them as individuals, when in fact they had been part of a collective. Mbeki insisted that Madikizela-Mandela was part of the liberation effort, and that she should therefore be remembered in that context – as one in the midst of many. He seemed to be making the argument that even if individual members of the movement – like Nelson Mandela – had previously been celebrated as icons in their own right on the occasion of their passing, then it was time to change that culture. It appeared the former president feared that Madikizela-Mandela was about to be lionised. Unfortunately for Mbeki, there was never going to be moderation in the remembrance of the Mother of the Nation, a nation extending beyond South Africa’s borders.

Mbeki’s perception of Madikizela-Mandela as an attention-seeker is best illustrated by an incident during the 25th anniversary of the 1976 Soweto students uprising in 2001. Mbeki, at the time South Africa’s president, had already arrived at the anniversary celebrations when Madikizela-Mandela made her late entry. Amid cheers from the crowd, Madikizela-Mandela walked up to the high table where she went to hug Mbeki, who while declining the hug, knocked Madikizela-Mandela’s cap off her head, an act Mbeki says was accidental.

‘‘She did something wrong… she liked arriving at meetings late, deliberately… in order to get applause,’’ Mbeki said of the incident. ‘‘She comes in alone, and people’s attention is drawn away from the person speaking… she did that systemically. So when she came on stage and wanted to embrace me I told her you can’t do wrong things like that repetitively.’’  His remarks attracted the wrath of Madikizela-Mandela’s supporters, coming as they did just days after her passing.

The irony of the whole situation is that during the anti-apartheid struggle, when the ANC leadership was either exiled in Zambia or imprisoned, it was Mbeki and other ANC intellectuals who made a conscious decision to settle on Nelson Mandela as the face of the movement, a choice hugely influenced by the fact that Mandela’s wife had built her own larger-than-life profile as a revolutionary who was constantly targeted by the apartheid regime. For Mbeki and his comrades, pairing the profiles of Nelson Mandela and that of Madikizela-Mandela was an act of genius, Mandela having served 27 years in prison and Madikizela-Mandela having become the globally renowned liberation stalwart and persecuted wife of the long-serving prisoner. While it suited the ANC to exploit Madikizela-Mandela’s “Mother of the Nation” stature, she was also isolated and labelled as an ill-disciplined disruptor when it was convenient, especially when she posed a direct political threat to the powers-that-be within the organisation.

The irony of the whole situation is that during the anti-apartheid struggle, when the ANC leadership was either exiled in Zambia or imprisoned, it was Mbeki and other ANC intellectuals who made a conscious decision to settle on Nelson Mandela as the face of the movement, a choice hugely influenced by the fact that Mandela’s wife had built her own larger-than-life profile as a revolutionary who was constantly targeted by the apartheid regime.

Mbeki may or may not have an axe to grind with Madikizela-Mandela or her legacy – and he recently stated that he and Madikizela-Mandela had a cordial relationship despite the mishaps – but what remains clear is that theirs could be a manifestation of the divide between forces on the ground, as represented by Madikizela-Mandela and Chris Hani, and the top exiled ANC leadership, as represented by Mbeki – two groups who hugely contributed to the struggle but who seemed to look at the frontline from different prisms.

The ANC has always refuted the perception that its ranks are split into three: the Robben Islanders, constituting Nelson Mandela and his Rivonia trial comrades; the external exiles, consisting of the likes of Mbeki; and the in-xiles (internal exiles) consisting of the likes of Madikizela-Mandela. The jury is still out on these divisions.

Mbeki had wanted to join the Umkhonto we Sizwe fighting force after his undergraduate studies, but ANC president O.R. Tambo declined his request, insisting that Mbeki needed to return to Sussex University to pursue his Masters degree. Much as Mbeki would later undergo military training in Moscow, where he and Chris Hani marked their 28th birthdays together, he would remain an intellectual and ideologue within the ANC, never a gun-carrying fighting cadre. On the other hand Chris Hani and Madikizela-Mandela commanded ground forces. This in turn set the stage for the grouping of perceived militants like Hani and Madikizela-Mandela on one side, and supposed moderates like Mbeki on the other, which affected how they related with each other within the organisation.

****

‘‘I am not used to hearing such nice things being said about me,’’ Madikizela-Mandela said on the occasion of her 80th birthday in September 2017 as she entered the Johannesburg venue of the gala. ‘‘I am one of the lucky few to be told such heartwarming things when I am still alive.’’

Historically, the African liberation struggle – in all its forms and shapes – has been a highly patriarchal affair, both by design and by default that seeks to quarantine and limit women. The rise of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela from Nelson Mandela’s wife to a tour de force within the ANC and beyond should be viewed in the context of an African woman beating not only her cultural and societal inhibitions, but going ahead to challenge – head on – the oppressive white occupational state which even the men in her midst who had all the privileges patriarchy afforded them found hard to confront. Madikizela-Mandela first defied patriarchy, before proceeding to defy apartheid. According to South African feminist writer and journalist Gail Smith, in the final analysis, Madikizela-Mandela won the battle against apartheid but she lost the fight against patriarchy, which reared its ugly head even in her death.

Young women across the world have pushed back on Madikizela-Mandela’s demonisation and retold her story – warts and all. Standing outside Madikizela-Mandela’s Soweto home, Cape Town’s executive mayor Patricia de Lille was overcome by emotion as she spoke to a reporter after viewing Madikizela-Mandela’s body, which was brought back to the residence that April 13 evening, where it spent the night before burial the following day.

‘‘It’s really hit me now… because the whole week, two weeks, you know you still hope… and you know we prayed for her… she’s our mother…’’ de Lille said, unable to weave words together, teary eyed, her voice shaking with palpable grief. ‘‘You know she’s no more and her memory will live with us,’’ de Lille continued after regaining composure. ‘‘But we must continue to put up the fight for the poor, the landless, the homeless, because that’s what Mama lived and died for. When I saw her tonight for the last time I recommitted myself to that path of making sure that there are more people in our country who must taste the fruits of freedom and not just a few. That has always been the dream of Mama.’’

De Lille, who was reportedly in trouble with her party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), for choosing to attend a memorial service for Madikizela-Mandela organised by her party’s rival, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), next to the Brandfort house where Madikizela-Mandela was banished in 1977, had retorted that in African culture, when a mother died, it was mandatory for one to go and pay one’s respects. She referred to Madikizela-Mandela as her sister, mother and comrade. She didn’t need to ask anyone for permission to mourn, De Lille said.

‘‘The violence and the torture just made her more resolute,’’ de Lille continued. ‘‘Later she was saying there’s no more pain left and there’s no more fear left but at the same time she was a very soft person, with a heart of gold. We could come to her at anytime. If I just wanted to let off whenever I questioned myself whether it’s worth it to carry on with the struggle, I used to come here and spend hours with Mama and by the time I left I just knew I couldn’t give up. I had to continue. Now that she is no longer there we all have to commit ourselves to work even harder to make sure we look after the poor of this country… tonight I can feel that I have seen her for the last time, but she taught us to never give up… to press on… press on… press on… and that is what I will continue to do.’’

‘‘The violence and the torture just made her more resolute,’’ de Lille continued. ‘‘Later she was saying there’s no more pain left and there’s no more fear left but at the same time she was a very soft person, with a heart of gold.”

Barely an hour after Madikizela-Mandela’s body returned to Soweto, a high-level memorial event attended by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres was held at the United Nations in New York. The words of Cuba’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Ambassador Anayansi Rodriguez Camejo, possibly captured best the collective mood and sentiment of the evening:

‘‘The Apostle of our independence Jose Marti said, ‘Death is not true when the work of life has been fulfilled.’ Winnie was and is living history. She was Nelson’s voice on the streets of her country and around the world when he was imprisoned by the apartheid regime…Her spirit of resistance earned her admiration from honourable people but also the fear of her enemies who could never bring her to her knees. She has been rightly called the Mother of the South African Nation, but she was more than that. Her motherly embrace transcended the borders of her homeland because with the victory of the South African people over apartheid Africa was reborn… Winnie is the expression of the rebellious and fearless spirit of all African women.’’

Asked why it was imperative for her to be present to witness Madikizela-Mandela’s casket – draped in the ANC’s green, yellow and black flag – being carried off the hearse and up the hill leading to her home, a woman wearing a red doek said, ‘‘It was important for me to be here. Mama Winnie was the Mother of the Nation. She fought for us through thick and thin,’’ she said. ‘‘No woman can stand the pain that Winnie withstood. She was strong in jail. She never had time to stay with her family or her kids but she remained strong. I wish I could be like Winnie. I wish every woman can be as strong as her.’’

Asked what she felt at that emotional moment, a younger woman standing next to the woman in a red doek quoted Madikizela-Mandela. ‘‘You strike a woman you strike a rock,’’ she said, ‘‘She was the embodiment of the strength of the African woman.’’ A young man standing behind the two women – dressed in a yellow ANC T-shirt and a black marvin and carrying a black backpack, said, ‘‘I felt like crying because uMama Winnie fought for us… today I am literally still here because of people like her… go well uMama.’’

‘‘No woman can stand the pain that Winnie withstood. She was strong in jail. She never had time to stay with her family or her kids but she remained strong. I wish I could be like Winnie. I wish every woman can be as strong as her.’’

‘‘The sad news that has led us to this moment, this moment when you see the casket of uMama Winnie Madikizela Mandela draped in the ANC flag,’’ South Africa Broadcasting Corporation’s (SABC) Aldrin Sampear reported, standing on a partly deserted street corner outside Madikizela-Mandela’s home. ‘‘Inside this house is the body of uMama Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. The body that was bruised and battered. The body that said there’s no type of pain that I have never experienced. The body that spent 491 days in prison. The body that after seven days (of non-stop interrogation) was urinating blood. The body that was electrocuted. The body that made sure that body would overcome and fight for the freedom of South Africa.’’

At the poignant moment when Madikizela-Mandela’s body was being carried past her gate and into her Soweto home – with the gathered crowd ululating and shouting Amandla! once the casket entered the compound – a somber-looking American civil rights leader, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, and members of the Umkhonto we Sizwe veterans association sang in unison the liberation dirge Hamba Kahle over and over again in line with the tradition of honouring struggle stalwarts. Hamba kahle mkhonto//Wemkhonto/Mkhonto we sizwe – safe journey spear, yes spear, spear of the nation. The spear of the nation had indeed fallen.

The ANC logo has a hand holding a spear. On the logo of the opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a hand-held spear sits across the map of Africa. When Nelson Mandela and his comrades Walter Sisulu and Joe Slovo decided to launch an armed struggle against apartheid and formed a military wing of the ANC, they named it Umkhonto we Sizwe (Xhosa for spear of the nation).

It goes without saying that nothing symbolises the anti-apartheid struggle more than the spear. It increasingly appears that that spear is a woman, and that woman is Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the Mother of the Nation.

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Isaac Otidi Amuke is a Kenyan writer and journalist.

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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Politics

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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