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HUNGER GAMES: Hard Times and Kenya’s Looming Economic Crisis

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HUNGER GAMES: Hard Times and Kenya’s Looming Economic Crisis
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Recently, I boarded a Nissan matatu on my way to Sigona Golf Club, off Nairobi-Nakuru Highway, 17km from the city centre. Once we hit the highway, the conductor started collecting his dues. Soon an argument arose between the conductor and five of the 14 passengers: was the fare Sh50 or Sh70? The conductor insisted the fare was KSh70, the five passengers said they had been told by the freelance touts at the terminus the fare was KSh50, and therefore, they were paying not a penny more.

The back and forth shouting match went on until we reached the Shell Petrol Station, one kilometre up from Gitaru bus stop. At the petrol station, that argument continued for 20 minutes – the five passengers were adamant that they were being ripped off, the conductor retorted he was not in the business of philanthropy: The conductor gave them an ultimatum: They either pay him the full amount or the driver reports them to the police at Kikuyu Police Station.

They dared him to do so whereupon the driver took us straight to the police station. Had I alighted at the petrol station, I could have walked to the 500m to Club. At the police station, the cops were gleeful they would have some “culprits” to manhandle and extort from. The five passengers were bundled out and locked in the cells. As the matatu turned to take us to our respective destinations – the end destination was Kiambaa another four kilometres from Sigona Club – a more sober debate among the remaining nine passengers dominated the talk. Was it really fair to have let the five be locked up at the police station for lacking a mere Sh20 each? The passengers were unanimous it is highly unlikely they were bluffing: nobody in his right senses would want to spend time in a Kenyan police cell, just because a matatu guy was cheating them off such a small sum.

Because I was seated in front with the driver, I asked him why they had taken the drastic step,. “Boss, business has been very bad, very bad,” he said solemnly. “The matatu owner has been breathing on our neck because we have not been meeting his targets. Because matatu crews already have a bad name, the proprietor doesn’t believe us when we tell him business is bad: he thinks we are stealing from him. There are days we have not paid ourselves, just to make sure we deposit his full day’s collection.” This was one of those days that if they did not do their math wisely, they would go home without pay. “It is those pennies collectively that take care of the larger currency notes. Can you for a moment ponder, how much money we would be losing if every trip we forewent Sh100, just because some people cannot pay the full amount?”

Discussion in the matatu turned to how life had become harder: “It is very possible the five passengers did not have the extra Sh20 and, if they did, it had been pre-budgeted,” said one passenger. “Following the recent heavy rains, sukuma wiki (kale) has become very cheap. With Sh20, you could buy enough for supper to be eaten with ugali and live for another day. Today, there is no such thing as little money. Every coin counts,” he summed the discussion. The passengers all agreed that money had taken to hiding and murmured to themselves in Kikuyu about the irony of how, even after voting for Uhuru Kenyatta twice, life had become twice as hard. “No tukeyumeria kweli na mathina niguo maingehire?” (Will we ever make it and the way our problems seem to multiply?).

Today, there is no such thing as little money. Every coin counts

The passengers talked off how people had become more and more uncaring and wicked and moaned loudly that if only Kenyans were a little more mindful of each other, life would be a lot better. I suspected they were shying away from candidly and publicly discussing the elephant in the matatu, which if they did, would lead them to pinpointing why they truly were facing economic hard times: bad political choices, propelled by a vicious ethnic entrapment that they had over time been politically socialized to believe was their fate.

The trip back after my meeting was even more revealing. I crossed the highway to catch a matatu back to the city centre. The Nissan matatu I took had two other passengers. It had come from Kiambaa. Between Kiambaa and Sigona, there is one major terminus – Zambezi. It was edging towards 2.00pm and if the matatu did not secure enough passengers at Zambezi, it would not augur well. From Kiambaa to the city centre, there are 11 major stops along the highway: Kiambaa, Zambezi, Gitaru, Muthiga, Kinoo, 87, Uthiru, Kangemi, Agriculture (adjacent to the Kenya Agricultural & Livestock Research Organization), Safaricom and Westlands. By the time we reached Agriculture stop, the matatu had not added a single passenger.

The driver was clearly agitated: “Oo niguo tukuruta wira?” he groaned. “Is this how we are going to get the job done?” The driver said the whole of this year, his matatu business had been hard hit by a lack of travellers. “Why weren’t people travelling? It is not as if they had relocated,” he mused aloud. At the Agriculture stop, a few passengers boarded, paying Sh20 to the city centre. “These people cannot even afford to pay Sh30?” lamented the driver. Usually the fare, especially at the onset of the rush hour, would be up to Sh40.

After alighting at the terminus on Kilome Road in downtown Nairobi, I looked for a freelance tout to explain to me the oscillating dynamics of matatu fares for people going to Kiambaa and Limuru. “During off-peak hours, it is normal practice for matatus, big or small, to charge Sh50,” said Davy. It is understood that off-peak hours are from 9.30 am–3.00pm and from 8.30pm–10.00pm. “The fare for peak hours ranges from Sh70 to even Sh100 when there is a downpour.” At the moment, the matatus were asking for Sh80. Davy told me an interesting story: “The passengers have learnt how to play the waiting game with matatus. Most of the menfolk would rather go home after 8.30pm, when the fares have substantially dropped, even if it’s by Sh10.”

Davy said the matatu owners have been itching to increase the fares since the beginning of the year, but they sense rebellion from the passengers. “Already they have surreptitiously increased the Kiambaa fare by KSh10 to KSh80 and the people have been grumbling quietly about the increase, which they have been made to believe is temporarily.” According to Davy, the matatu owners really want to hike the fares, but they do not know how to without raising a commotion among the people. When I asked what was necessitating this urge, he blamed operating costs and low business trends over the previous last eight months. “The business class had hoped that the [9 March] handshake between President Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga, would work magic, return the business climate back to normal, but business had stagnated,” said Davy. A freelance tout for close to 10 years, Davy told me he had worked in the matatu industry long enough to know when people had surplus money in their pockets. “People are broke, their disposable income has dwindled, so they are not travelling as frequently. The cost of living has also certainly gone up,” he said.” People today are budgeting to the last shilling.”

“The business class had hoped that the [9 March] handshake between President Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga, would work magic, return the business climate back to normal, but business had stagnated.”

I had gone to Sigona to meet a petroleum products’ magnate who asked not to be named. “Business is tough my friend,” said the tycoon. “The first half of this year, we’ve have not done any meaningful business and so, the profit margins have been dwindling. The increase in the fuel levy in the budget was not helpful: Business has become even harder – and the profit margins have become slimmer. This is a volume business; if you don’t move volumes, you’re not doing any good business.” He said that bureaucrats at the Ministry of Energy were not making life for oil businessmen any easier when they went to renew their import licenses, among other things. “They’ve been unrelenting and squeezing us for even heftier bribes which, as you know, run into in the millions.” Life for the ordinary mwananchi was about to get even tougher as they passed on the costs, he hinted.

Already, he could tell the people were experiencing hard economic times. “The vehicular movement in Nairobi has certainly reduced. There are less traffic jams, because many people are leaving their vehicles behind, parked in their compounds, only using them when it is very necessary. I have been long enough in this oil business and understand the patterns of fuel consumption vis-à-vis motor vehicle movements.” The businessman, apart from distributing petroleum products in bulk across the East and Central African region, also owns, in partnership with others, several petrol stations across the country and in neighboring Uganda. “Fuel usage in Kenya is at its lowest. People are facing economic hard times.”

To fully comprehend the impact of what the oil tycoon was saying, I looked for my matatu crew friends to explain how the fuel increase would affect their businesses and customers. “Diesel was increased by six shillings per litre, from Sh98 to Sh104,” said my tout friend. “For sure, as night follows day, we will increase the fares – all the matatus Saccos in Nairobi have met and agreed. It is just a matter of time. We’ve have no choice but to do that. Whether people resist or not, will they walk to work?”

The matatu crew friends said, business had become tougher: “It is as if people have migrated. Since the beginning of the year, people have not been moving around as much, so we had to find a way of increasing the fares, but quietly. If, say, we used to charge Sh30 off peak hours, we increased it to Sh50. Likewise, if during peak hours the fare was Sh70, we increased it to Sh80. We knew people would be up in arms, if we just raised the fares formally and directly and publicly.” The clarification somehow explained the tiff between the conductor and the unrelenting passengers, who could not part with their Sh20.

“For sure, as night follows day, we will increase the fares – all the matatus Saccos in Nairobi have met and agreed. It is just a matter of time. We’ve have no choice but to do that. Whether people resist or not, will they walk to work?”

Budgeting to the shilling, as Davy the tout told me, were the key words. Because it is not only the folks who use matatus and live in less privileged neighbourhoods that are currently feeling the pinch, in money matters. A Runda housewife who buys all her green groceries at City Park Market, opposite the Aga Khan Hospital in Parklands area, told me how for the first time she had to write down her shopping list of all the vegetables she needed. “When I unleashed list the next time I went to the market, carefully picking what I wanted and not just throwing things in the basket, my fruits and vegetables vendors asked me: “Nikii thiku ici mutaragura indo? Mwaga kugura, murenda tucitware ku?” (Why are you people not spending as much? If you don’t buy these goods, where do you expect us to take them?)

Her husband, a real estate magnate, had told her she needed to curb her free spending mania. “So, I have also taken to writing a list when I’m shopping at my favourite supermarket; Chandarana. Do you remember how I used to just shop, throwing anything and everything in the trolley? My budget has now been drastically trimmed and I must account for every penny spent. Kweli (truly) times are hard, that it is me, daughter of Mwaniki, who has taken to writing a shopping list.” She said her hubby had told her, money had become scarce and the country had yet to achieve political equilibrium. “I think he has decided to hoard the money, until such a time, there will be money in the economy.”

Nikii thiku ici mutaragura indo? Mwaga kugura, murenda tucitware ku?” (Why are you people not spending as much? If you don’t buy these goods, where do you expect us to take them?)

If the posh people, like my friend from Runda estate, were scaling down on their spending, what about the rank and file? I decided to pay a visit to Githurai Market, one of the busiest markets in Nairobi. Githurai Market is 10km from Nairobi’s central business district, off the Thika Superhighway. It has one of the widest catchment areas that goes all the way to Thika town (30km from Githurai) and its environs, apart from its Nairobi area shoppers.

The market, which is completely controlled by the Githurai chapter of the Nairobi Business community aka Mungiki, receives truckloads of fresh produce from as far as Tanzania and eastern Uganda. I was going to meet Susan Mweru, a fruit seller, who has been transporting oranges and tangerines from Michugwani and Mwanza in Tanzania to Githurai Market for the last five years. “We are reeling from very tough economic hard times, there is no business…‘aahh wira we thi muno’ (business is really low),” she moaned.

“In the best of times, I would offload a 12-ton truck of top-class oranges from Tanga, home of sweetest oranges in East Africa, in two days flat and I would be on my way back to Tanga to bring more oranges.” She told me the oranges would be snapped up by retail fruit sellers from as far as Makongeni in Thika town, and as near as Kasarani, Mwiki, Roysambu, and Ngara market, which is just 7km from Githurai, in Nairobi.

She would alternative her travels between Tanga and Ukerewe, the largest island on Lake Victoria, where the juicy fruits much loved by Nairobi’s well-to-do are grown.“Itonga cia Garden Estate, Kahawa Sukari, Kahawa Wendani na Juja mokaga kugura matunda na waru guku Githurai thoko.” (The rich people of Garden Estate, Roysambu, Kahawa Sukari, Kahawa Wendani and Juja, come to buy their fruits and potatoes at Githurai Market.)

However, when I went to see her, she had not travelled for the third consecutive week. “Even these rich people, they are not spending: The consignment I brought in three weeks ago is still with me – the fruits have been moving at a snail’s pace. Nikii kiuru? Ndiramenya kurathie atia.” (What’s wrong? I don’t understand what’s going on.)

Mweru introduced me to her colleague, Muthoni, in the market, who majorly deals in potatoes, some of which come from as far as Moshi, whose rich and fertile red soil is akin to that of Kiambu County. She is one of the biggest potatoes sellers in the market. “Before things become bad, I’d move up to six sacks of potatoes daily, and you know how they pack those sacks – nearly half of the potatoes are packed outside the sack itself,” said Muthoni, sitting on one the potato sacks. “Today if I sell two sacks in a day, I count myself lucky…nikuru muno” (the situation is very bad).

The women told me they had hoped the national budget read in June would somehow alleviate the situation – it was hard for me to understand their ubiquitous optimism – but said their hopes had been dampened by the tax increases on petroleum and paraffin products. “You know if the government increases fuel, it negatively affects everything else.”

“Life is about to become even harder for the ordinary folk,” says Joy Ndubai, a tax expert with Oxfam. “The Finance Bill 2018, which proposes to hike fuel and kerosene will impact on other mwananchi necessities such as electricity, food and transport. The Bill intends to do away with indirect taxes, that is zero-rated and excise duty taxes. Take it from me, if that happens, the price of unga Kenyan (staple food), will shoot up and matatu fares will increase manifold and life will become really hard for Kenyans. Perhaps the Unga Revolution squad should start regrouping for foodstuff protests in the coming days,” said Ndubai tongue-in-cheek. The Unga Revolution was a civil society initiative basically driven by Bunge la Mwananchi (People’s Parliament) members, who, in 2017, loudly agitated for reduction of price of maize flour, which had skyrocketed and was out of reach of the ordinary Kenyan.

Ndubai says the government wants to get rid of Value Added Tax (VAT) rebates or refunds that it gives manufacturers. Indirect taxes such as VAT on consumable goods such as, bread, milk and sugar, are hidden in the prices and in order for the government to cushion manufacturers, it encouraged them to reclaim the 16 per cent tax rebates from its exchequer. This is what is referred to as zero-rating. “What it will mean now is that the government will remove the zero-rating and the manufacturers will be exempt from claiming any tax relief. Sounds good on paper? What this means is that the consumer will have to bear the burden of increased taxes on everyday commodities.”

One of the most common expenditure by wananchi that will be hard hit is electric power. “The cost of electricity is certain to go up, because of the intended increase of fuel levy. This is because we still rely on diesel engines,” said Ndubai. “Manufacturers had been given a 30 per cent allowance on electricity. Electricity was among the expenditures that manufacturers count, at 100 per cent, when deducting their profits [for tax purposes]. So now, what this means is that the manufacturers will add 30 per cent over and above, to their respective expenditures. Guess who the added 30 per cent will be pushed to? The mwananchi.” It was as if the national budget was written by the Kenya Association of Manufacturers mandarins, observed Ndubai. “There isn’t anything pro-poor in that budget, the budget favours the manufacturers and the big boys all the way. Majority of Kenyans are too bamboozled by real big, impossible numbers, trillions of shillings, to really take time to understand” the implications of the budget.

“What it will mean now is that the government will remove the zero-rating and the manufacturers will be exempt from claiming any tax relief. Sounds good on paper? What this means is that the consumer will have to bear the burden of increased taxes on everyday commodities.”

The tax expert said the Kenyan people need to wake up to the realization that their lives will soon be very difficult to manage and they should come out to protest to safeguard their social interests because that is the only way they will be heard. She gave me the example of Jordan and how Jordanians had forced their Prime Minister out of his office, through mass street protests and camping out at his office.

A conservative society, Jordanians rocked the capital, Amman, with a wave of mass protests, culminating in the resignation of Prime Minister Hani Mulki. They were protesting austerity measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund on the Kingdom. Unemployment and stiff price hikes occasioned by high inflation had become unbearable and on June 3, 2018, 5,000 Jordanians camped at Mulki’s office. Perhaps, unsurprisingly, the critical price hikes were in electricity and fuel. In 2012, the same Jordanians had also gone onto the streets to protest against increasing economic hard times, after the government bowed to IMF’s stiff conditions by cutting off fuel subsidies, all in an attempt to secure an IMF loan to lower the public debt. Jordan’s national debt, which runs into hundreds of billions of shillings, just like Kenya, is equivalent to 95 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product.

The mere mention of IMF for some Kenyans old enough to remember the 1980s, sends cold shivers down their spine. The Washington-based financial institution, once described by Mwalimu Julius Nyerere as The International Ministry of Finance, introduced what came to be known as Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) in many of the Africa countries heavily indebted to western nations, beginning 1980. Prof Said Adejumobi, a political economist who has written numerously on SAP wrote in his paper in 1997; The Structural Adjustment Programme and Democratic Transition in Africa: “For Africa, the 1980s could be better described as the ‘adjustment decade’ as most African countries, in response to their ailing economic conditions, introduced one form of adjustment reform or the other.” Other political scientists, such as Adebayo Olukoshi, called the 1980s the “lost decade” for Africa.

Kenya first became an IMF patient in 1980; that is when the first SAP was introduced in the country. To fully comprehend what SAP meant and did to Kenyans, I will quote Adejumobi: “But what is the political import of SAP? SAP is a class project which seeks to create a ‘stable’ economic environment for the accumulation of capital by local and foreign bourgeoisie, while suppressing labour through wage freeze, insistence on strict work sector, reduction in workforce, (retrenchment), especially in the public sector. It also seeks to contract the provision of social services and infrastructure, like health, education and transportation.”

During the just ended G7 meeting in Quebec, Canada, President Uhuru Kenyatta was spotted engaging Christian Lagard, the IMF’s Managing Director, on the sidelines. In his article – One Week in March: Was the Handshake Triggered by the IMF? for the E-Review – John Githongo, wrote: “On the 6th of March, the Minister of Finance, Henry Rotich, made the surprise announcement that the government was ‘broke’. He would deny this a day later in rather incongruous fashion. On the same day he and the Central Bank Governor Patrick Njoroge essentially signed on to an IMF austerity programme. It wasn’t the traditional IMF programme circa 1980/90s, but it nevertheless was an acknowledgment that we were complying with a range of ‘confidence building’ measures ‘agreed’ with the IMF as we renegotiated our expired precautionary facility with them.” David Ndii, reiterated in another E-Review article, A Quest of Power – Why Ethiopia’s Economic Transformation is a Cautionary African Tale, the fact that “Kenya is surviving on speculative capital inflows and juggling debt as it negotiates an IMF bailout.”

To add salt to injury, Ndubai told me that the cost of M-Pesa transactions had gone up as a result of a 2 per cent increase in excise duty imposed by the government. M-Pesa is today the most transacted money transfer channel in the country. “The biggest population that uses M-Pesa is the ordinary man and woman, especially the rural folk and urban poor, because these people do not have bank accounts. When M-Pesa came, it was relief, but now it may end up being a burden. Think of the rural elderly who receive pensions. With the increased tariff, which Safaricom is going to push to the consumer, it is going to be difficult for the poor people of Kenya to effectively use mobile transfer platforms.”

“Kenya is surviving on speculative capital inflows and juggling debt as it negotiates an IMF bailout.”

I found out this to be true, when I went to meet Mweru at Githurai Market. She asked me whether M-Pesa charges had been increased. “I do all my payment through M-Pesa and I have noticed these people are taking a lot more of my money. This is very unfair,” she lamented. Going to Githurai Market had also revealed something else: during off-peak hours, Githurai residents pay Sh20 as matatu fare to the city centre and vice versa. “But some matatus were being adventurous by charging Sh30,” said Mweru. “If they push the fares further up, they are going to annoy the people. I think they are testing the waters to see how the people are going to react.”

I now understood what Sh20 meant to the five matatu travellers on their way to Kiambaa: in Githurai, it covers your entire fare back home. When I returned to Kiambaa stage at Kilome Road terminus after talking to Ndubai, the fares had been pegged at KSh100, irrespective of the weather. Hard times indeed.

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Mr Kahura is a senior writer for The Elephant.

Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corona parties

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Attacking political opponents, not the virus

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

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

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

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

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

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

Election-related measures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where to start?

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

The Trump administration playing dumb while being dumber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clear cracks in the US system

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trump sinks the world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the ambulances will continue coming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who decides?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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