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MISSING THE FOREST FOR THE TREES: Mathare’s environmental apartheid

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MISSING THE FOREST FOR THE TREES: Mathare’s environmental apartheid
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On 12th May 2018, President Uhuru Kenyatta launched the National Tree Planting Day under the slogan “Panda Miti, Penda Kenya”. It was another of those Jubilee-ese slogans that ring hollow. The event took place in Kamkunji sub-county at the Moi Forces Academy in the Eastlands part of Nairobi. This was the government’s knee-jerk response to the heavy long rains season that sparked an environmental crisis around the country. There were 32 counties affected and over 300,000 Kenyans were displaced. In his official speech, the President repeated the familiar pledge to achieve at least ten per cent forest cover, as required by the constitution, and to mitigate the effects of climate change.

The news reporting of the event focused on the power politics between Nairobi governor Mike Sonko Mbuvi and Environmental Cabinet Secretary Keriako Tobiko. Two weeks after the launch, news reports were awash with the latest financial scandal. Sh2 billion allocated to establish the green school project in all 47 counties under the auspices of the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) had been embezzled. A task force chaired by Marion Wakanyi Kamau of the Green Belt Movement released a report that revealed that Kenya’s forest depletion occurred at an alarming rate of about 5,000 hectares annually and which implicated KFS personnel. Kenyans, numbed by the numerous other cases of grand theft in the Jubilee government, hardly reacted.

Kenya, the birthplace of the Green Belt Movement and its illustrious founder, Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai, remains stuck in the optics of environmental activism. Reforestation is an activity that the media reduces to a “tree planting exercise” and has evolved into an elite pastime where prominent personalities pose for photo opportunities in formal dress next to freshly planted trees. Public forests have been privatised and primed for plunder by those tasked to protect them while corporates, NGOs and politicians plant thousands of trees in cosmetic public relations and corporate social responsibility activities without evoking any of the ecological consciousness that Wangari Maathai dedicated her life to raising. Of the several Wangari Maathai quotes I regurgitate, this particular one sticks:

“Anyone can dig a hole and plant a tree. But make sure it survives. You have to nurture it, you have to water it, you have to keep at it until it becomes rooted so that it can take of itself. There are so many enemies of trees.”

Planting trees is easy. Taking care of them requires a different level of commitment. This was Wangari’s enduring message and the one lesson my country fails to learn. This much I know because I have been involved in an urban afforestation project with Mathare Green Movement (MGM), a campaign of the Mathare Social Justice Centre ( MSJC).

Public forests have been privatised and primed for plunder by those tasked to protect them while corporates, NGOs and politicians plant thousands of trees in cosmetic public relations and corporate social responsibility activities without evoking any of the ecological consciousness that Wangari Maathai dedicated her life to raising.

The two Nairobis

In August 2017, a group of concerned Kenyans from Mathare got together and decided that they were going to plant trees in memory of all their colleagues who fell to police bullets. Over months, the activity evolved into a concerted effort at ecological and social justice using the tree as a symbol of regeneration and resistance to structural oppression.

Planting trees in Mathare is a process and not an event because the soils of this informal settlement have lost their capacity to sustain trees. Mathare Valley is an infamous slum, a crucible of suffering where white tourists arrive in droves to marvel at the resilience of its residents and to photograph the miracle of optimism. The shanty structures, a canopy of rusty brown mabati roofs separated by narrow alleys dropping down precarious rocky slopes, is home to multitudes. Broken souls exist alongside delightful children. Complete despondence rides alongside cheerfulness and the kaleidoscope of intense human interaction has made Mathare a location of extremes with no middle ground to stand on.

The physical environment is devoid of life-sustaining features. The further east you go in Nairobi, the poorer the neighbourhoods become. The absence of basic amenities and greenery and the human congestion and neglect evoke caricatures of a dystopian city. Martin Oduor, a member of MGM, tried to conduct a tree census and came to the disturbing estimate of about one tree for every 1,200 residents.

The Mathare river is turbid, dark grey and sickly – an open sewer that occasionally turns rogue on its residents, sweeping all in its path. The extent of the long-term socio-environmental damage has created the existing spectacle of human suffering that draws in “saviours and observers” from around the world fascinated by the resilience of the residents. Children, accustomed to the white benevolent visitor on a poverty safari, switch character to become entitled beggars peddling the currency of hopelessness.

Mathare is a perfect illustration of Nairobi’s environmental segregation. The informal settlement is surrounded on both sides by a leafy green belt. To get a sense of what I prefer to call environmental apartheid, one only has to shift one’s gaze to the thick wall of green that is the Muthaiga suburb to the west of Mathare.

The wealthy districts of Nairobi abut its poorer districts from where they draw much of their domestic labour: Muthaiga has Mathare, Karen has Kibera, Loresho has Kangemi, Lavington has Kawangware. A similar pattern is observed in the city’s greenery. From an aerial point of view, the classes are separated by a green belt. All of Nairobi’s best-kept public green spaces – Karura Forest, Nairobi Arboretum, City Park – are in the affluent parts of the city and maintain restricted access. The neighbourhoods to the east of the city centre have minimal public spaces and, where available, we find dusty fields with no green cover.

Mathare is a perfect illustration of Nairobi’s environmental segregation. The informal settlement is surrounded on both sides by a leafy green belt.

The reality of trees as the markers of aristocratic privilege in Nairobi’s urban spaces is rooted in the colonial state. Between 1906 and 1926, Nairobi was colonised to serve the interests of the white settler population. Eighty per cent of the city’s residential land was reserved for its white elite. The two Nairobi’s were divided into residential areas for Europeans and Asians, and peripheral housing for African labour as an afterthought. One white half of Nairobi was serviced and the other black half was neglected. The colonial zoning policy created a pattern of racial and class segregation and social stratification that persist to this day.

The 1948 Master Plan for a Colonial Capital and the 1973 Metropolitan Growth Strategy employed segregation principles to maintain racial and class divisions. After independence in 1963, the white neighbourhoods of Karen, Lavington and Muthaiga became accessible to the emerging moneyed African and Asian upper classes who, rather than reverse the social apartheid, opted for the retention of colonial governance structures.

To cater for the unserviced poor masses, an informal modernism emerged in Nairobi, created with the sole intent of exploiting vulnerable city residents. Rural-to-urban migration brought a large influx of people to the city in search of a better life who found themselves trapped in “slums” and denied social mobility by the rigid class structures. The lack of formal housing gave rise to informal settlements operating outside the legal framework and, therefore, subjected to gross violations of rights and a culture of exploitation.

Kenyan filmmaker Tosh Gitonga illustrates the desperation of rural-to-urban migrants and the plight that awaits “shags-modos” in the brutal class-restricted spaces of Nairobi in the captivating film, Nairobi Half Life. Today the primitive accumulation and land expropriation of the post-colonial state has led to 70 per cent of Nairobi’s population of 4 million living on 5 per cent of the city’s land area. Mathare’s 500,000 residents fight for dignity in an area that is barely 3 square kilometres.

Anti-human environmentalism

In his forthcoming book, Paracitations: Genre, Foreign Bodies, and the Ethics of Co-habitatation, Kenyan scholar Samson Opondo describes the economic security and greenness (which had previously been a manifestation of whiteness) becoming inscribed on a class-based identity complete with a rhetoric of “threat”. When we see trees from the purely conservation ideology of the state, we fail to problematise the socio-economic and historical contexts within which possession and disposssesion and threats emerge.

The environmental culture in Kenya is essentially anti-human. The native continues to be a threat to green spaces and must be forcibly relocated to the reserves and this access to greenery must be monitored. Public forests are protected by armies with guns and access is restricted by high fees. Opondo futher notes in his 2008 paper, “Genre and the African City: The Politics and Poetics of Urban Rhythms, that Nairobi’s hides (in the open) an ugly history of racial segregation based on the South African model of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City concept where greening of the city corresponded with creation of structures of racial exclusion.

The environmental culture in Kenya is essentially anti-human. The native continues to be a threat to green spaces and must be forcibly relocated to the reserves and this access to greenery must be monitored.

In both South Africa and Kenya, the impoverished masses cluster in shanty towns where environmental rights only come to bear during hostile weather crisis management. Gacheke Gachihi of Mathare Social Justice Centre says, “ Our suffering is invisible.” In Kenya’s election cycle, the slum areas are hotspots that are heavily policed and a ready tinder box of ethnic rivalry, police brutality and gang violence. After every election cycle, we witness the cessation of hostilities, the withdrawal of corporate media from the spectacle of mass violence of poor against poor, state crackdown on protesting poor masses, and lockdowns.

Elections spell death, destruction and despair for the residents of Mathare. In the lead-up to August 2017 bungled elections, Mathare was marked as a “hotspot” that was heavily policed by rogue units who relish brutalising residents under siege. When it all simmers down, the politicians invariably end up negotiating new pacts, leaving residents to fall back on resilence. As soon as they turn their backs, the slow violence resumes, felt only by those within who are invisible to those on the outside – a violence that is exaceberated by an environment that is metaphorically lined with unexploded landmines. The environmentally dispossessed only make the news in the midst of great tragedy and calamities.

Hunting grounds

In the book, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, author Rob Nixon shed lights on the inattention to calamities “that are slow and long lasting, continuously dispensing devastation but without the necessary spectacle required to raise public outrage or sustain the fleeting attention (that) spans breaking news corporate media spectacles.”

Therefore, it is no surprise that the Kenyan public remains unaware of the humanitarian crisis in the form of extrajudicial killings in Nairobi’s slums. The MSJC brought this to light in 2017 after the launch of “Who is Next: A Participatory Action Report Against the Normalisation of Extrajudicial Executions in Mathare”. Between 2013 and 2015, over 803 cases were documented.

The report was the first major concerted effort by a grassroots movement to raise awareness about the reality of extrajudicial executions. Despite the moderate buzz created in human rights spaces, the killings have not stopped. The policing culture persists. In the month of May 2018, for instance, Wilfred Olal of the Dandora Justice Center reported that 15 young men had been gunned down. Justice for the victims is a long shot. Wangui Kimaru, a researcher at MSJC, told me that there have been only 4 convictions despite 9,000 cases being forwarded to the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA).

Human rights defender Kennedy Chindi says that there are between 10 to 15 cases of young men reported missing or killed by police every month in Nairobi’s informal settlements. Cases of police threats and intimidation deter the aggrieved from coming forward with information. “Everyone knows the killers but no one even dares call them by their names,” says Wyban Mwangi, a young musician. Instead, they use a codename, “Mjamaa”, for even in a valley of hundreds of thousands, the walls have ears. The names Hessy of Kayole and Rashid are whispered and the youth live in dread of who is next?

The Bill of Rights in the Kenyan constitution guarantees every person the right to life. Howeve,r in an unequal society, the rights of the poor come with no guarantees. The normalisation of the extrajudicial killings is an existential generational crisis. Amnesty International, Haki Africa and emerging grassroots organisations in Mathare, Dandora and Kayole have harrowing documentation of enforced dissapearances and deaths that are often atrributed to the police.

Encounter killings have turned urban ghettos into legalised hunting grounds, no different from the death match in the dystopian Hunger Games trilogy by American novelist Suzanne Collins. Or perhaps District 9, a South African sci-fi feature by Neill Blomkamp that astutely explores social segregation in a scathing satirical analysis of urban populations treated with the level of vile contempt reserved for pests. In Kenya, Tosh Gitonga’s Nairobi Half Life dramatises this unofficial routine killing of young males in a complex narrative of the cyclical violence of toxic masculinity where the line between the criminal and the police is blurrry.

Researcher Naomi Van Stapele, in her book Respectable “Illegality”: Gangs, Masculinities and Belonging in a Nairobi Ghetto, explained that the killings in Mathare continue without raising any public outrage because the dead are labelled as criminals or thugs, which justifies the executions. “Let the police do their work”, is the divorced public response. No one advocates for the killing of perpetrators of grand theft, but the children of the poor, the petty criminals (vermin) must be eliminated on the strength of suspicion. In the words of Trevor Noah, they are “born a crime”. In middle class circles, a conversation with a journalist friend turned into a sermon heavy on class snobbery. “Kenya’s ghetto mentality is what is holding those people in slums back.” Then he cherry-picked the example of musician Juliani as the mascot of possibility.

No one advocates for the killing of perpetrators of grand theft, but the children of the poor, the petty criminals (vermin) must be eliminated on the strength of suspicion. In the words of Trevor Noah, they are “born a crime”.

Local media has made a profession of reporting poverty through derogatory frames. Therefore, the numerous reports, occasional protests against police harassment and demonstrations do not draw media attention or public solidarity beyond the spectacle of tragedy.

Structural violence

These examples show that the slum ecology harbours systemic and structural violence that is silent. Johan Galtung, the celebrated Norwegian mathematician and sociologist, coined the term “structural violence”, which may be described as a form of violence wherein some social structure or social institution may harm people by preventing them from meeting their basic needs.

Like soil erosion, the effects of structural violence are not immediately obvious. Because its consequences only become evident in the distant future, there is little incentive for long-term solutions. Zangi, a resident of Mathare notes that it does not matter who comes to power; the problem is the system and the police culture. The problem is also the enabling physical environment that legitimises extrajudicial killings.

The Kenyan version of “electoral democracy” thrives in violent geographies. The problems of social justice are too many, too complex and not sexy enough for short-term political strategists who live for the optics in between elections to sustain popularity. Remedial environmental policy takes years. The benefits cannot be accrued in one political cycle and are certainly not bankable in the transactional nature of Kenyan politics. Article 42 of the constitution confers the right to a clean and healthy environment but is yet to interrogate systemic issues. The issues of the environment may be important but they not urgent.

The Kenyan version of “electoral democracy” thrives in violent geographies.

Therefore, to muster the political will needed to implement real change is difficult in a country where leaders cannot think beyond the next election. There are no immediate political rewards for planning to avert a human catastrophe. In nature terms, no one wants to plant a tree under whose shade they won’t sit or whose fruit they won’t eat. Long-term benefits may accrue for others and that is just not smart business in this instant gratification culture where exploitation and extractation is a privatised enterprise.

It is this context that we have to broaden the idea of what violence is. Personal violence is a consequence of structural violence. Lack of basic resources leads to competition that degenerates into violence in the quest for dominance. Gangs in urban ghettos organise around resources that leverage power and influence. Public toilets, garbage collection, water points, electricity connection and security are centres of frequent conflict. Kenyans awake to the economic and political realities of the 80s and 90s can track back how the slow violence of neoliberal policies began as a benign condition known as Structural Adjustment Program.

Beyond counting and documenting the victims of slow daily violence, the Mathare Green Movement is conscripting nature’s healing powers to challenge and alleviate the long-term effects of and sustain attention towards social injustice causes. Those grassroots environmental activists that Wangari Maathai called “foresters without degrees are at the forefront of plotting new futures, imagining new worlds and planting ideas of hope. Wangari Maathai underscored the need to keep environmentalism connected to global questions of human rights and social justice.

In a letter smuggled from a Nigerian jail, the writer-activist Ken Saro-Wiwa wrote: “The environment is man’s first right. That notion seems to have been forgotten in urban ecologies and serves as a focal point in articulating the experiences of oppressed people who are rendered invisible in the national economy and silenced when they demand to be heard.

Seeds of peace

Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt Movement brought a new discourse to the public consciousness, linking the slow violence of environmental degradation to its consequences, while at the same time proposing a public participatory methodology to advance environmental recovery. The Mathare Green Movement’s focus is young men facing the threat of extrajudicial executions who plant trees to reclaim lost life and dignify in the memory of peers labeled as criminal and forgotten after death.

The lesson of the Green Belt Movement is that poverty does not operate in a vacuum. Prof. Maathai’s brilliance was making clear the link between the collapse of the environmental economy and its support systems, on the one hand, and its revival as a strategy for eradicating poverty, on the other. She correctly diagnosed that corrupt exploitation of resources impacted vulnerable masses directly and insisted that environmentalism of the poor is inseprable from redistributive justice

Like the Green Belt Movement, the theatre of the tree gives the Mathare Green Movement a new vocabulary that is loaded with civic duty. Prof. Maathai called it “doing my little thing”. It is fitting that the new millennial generation of her disciples would emerge from Kenya’s marginalised urban spaces. Planting, not merely trees, but the seeds of life, healing, ideas, courage, hope and solidarity.

Prof. Maathai’s brilliance was making clear the link between the collapse of the environmental economy and its support systems, on the one hand, and its revival as a strategy for eradicating poverty, on the other.

The greening campaigns create the connection between environmental injustice and the erosion of social justice; the link between a healthy environment and quality of life. A tree has a right to grow to maturity, to fruit and bloom as every young life does in Mathare.

Planting trees in this spirit is more than a public relations exercise; it is work towards changing spaces so that they are less vulnerable to the elements and the forces that exploit the sense of deprivation. Importantly, it is the deliberate and conscious action of engaging in intergenerational optimism and responsibility, and accepting that we may never sit under the shade of the trees we plant.

Just as violence in Nairobi’s urban ghettos is continous and slow, so does healing through tree planting have to be a continous process. Urban reforestation that is people-centred is the primary symbolic vehicle for demanding ecological and social justice. The slow and deliberate effort of rehabilitating green spaces forces one to examine the systemic challenges that sustain these conditions. These young men choose to be eco-warriors, creating an enabling environment, restoring dignity and demanding the right to life from a state that minimises their existence. Wangari Maathai called it planting “seeds of peace” to stop the poverty profiling that disproportionately targets the poor. The existing structures of slow violence is why politicians consistently exploit the tensions in Nairobi’s slums during election cycles, easily igniting violence because below the surface, old antagonisms linger unresolved.

The Chipko movement, which originated in the Himalayan region of Uttar Pradesh in India in the 1970s, gained notoreity as a non-violent social and ecological movement whose members protected trees by hugging them to discourage loggers.

They are no trees to hug in Mathare. However, following in the footsteps of Wangari Maathai, the young people of Mathare will one day pass down trees of peace that stand for their right to security and protection from a state that terrorises its own citizens.

The lasting solution to ending direct and indirect violence against young lives is by adddressing the conditions that perpetuate the cycle of violence. Planting trees we must, but we can no longer fail to see the forest.

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Oyunga Pala is a Kenyan newspaper columnist.

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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Politics

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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