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The Indomitable Yash Pal Ghai – Part 1: The Father of the Constitution

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Ghai’s natural aptitude, not just for the law but also as an educator, quickly became clear. While teaching in Dar, he co-authored (with his colleague and friend, Patrick McAuslan) what would become one of his most well-known books, Public Law and Political Change in Kenya.

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The Indomitable Yash Pal Ghai: The Father of the Constitution
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On an otherwise ordinary Nairobi day in 2016, Yash Pal Ghai stood in a hallway of the Supreme Court of Kenya, waiting to have lunch with his former student and friend, Chief Justice Willy Mutunga. Ghai, carrying his usual striped cloth bag, its worn strap tied in a knot and its edges frayed, waited patiently, his unassuming nature belying his reputation as one of the world’s foremost experts in constitutional law.

Ghai soon noticed activity around the Chief Justice’s office. Mutunga had gone in, followed by several senior judges, many of whom had been Ghai’s students in the early days of Kenya’s independence. When he was finally called in, Ghai was taken aback by the arrangements in the room, which had been set up to swear him into the Roll of Advocates of Kenya. Mutunga had arranged it as a surprise.

Now, at 78 years of age, and after having waited nearly half a century for this day, the father of the Constitution of Kenya – his small, slender frame concealed beneath a billowing, black robe and a white barrister’s wig hiding the silver wisps of his iconic, unruly hair – cut a distinctive figure in the room. “As Chief Justice, it was my singular and great honour to admit Yash in the Roll of Advocates on June 10, 2016, six days before I retired. I fought tears as I conducted this ceremony. It seemed like a culmination of brother-comrade-friend-teacher-student-patriot.”

It was a meaningful moment for Ghai as well, but – ever the professor – his memory of the day is dominated by pride in his student. “To see Willy, my former student, as Chief Justice, was very meaningful. I had kind of given up on practicing law at that point, so being sworn in was quite moving.”

It had been a long and circuitous journey, but Ghai was finally home. For Mutunga and many others, the moment was highly symbolic, a mark of rightful return, a sign that Ghai – whose lifelong work in the service of people’s rights had been done while in exile from his home – was finally back where he had always belonged.

Growing Up in Colonial Kenya

It may come as a surprise, given his long and illustrious career, but law was not Ghai’s first career choice. In fact, when he left Kenya for the University of Oxford in 1956, the young Ghai had been intent on studying English Literature. “I loved reading novels,” he remembers with a smile. “My father used to give me fifty shillings a month, and I would hoard it and hoard it until I could buy a Jane Austen novel. I thought I might be an English teacher.” When he wasn’t absorbed in an Austen novel – Pride and Prejudice being his favourite – young Ghai could be found with his best friend, Dushyant Singh, the son of esteemed High Court Judge Chanan Singh.

The youngest of six children, Ghai remembers a happy childhood. His family was close, and he was, in his own words, “slightly pampered” by his older siblings. Ghai’s home in Ruiru was behind his father’s store, Mulkraj Ghai Shops, a popular stop for the area’s coffee farmers. “We sold everything, from kerosene, to food, to general supplies. The farmers would come in the morning to place their orders, and by the time they returned in the evening my father would have prepared and packed each order.” Kenya in the 1940s was heavily segregated, and – aside from one notable exception – Ghai says he rarely saw a non-white customer. That exception was none other than Jomo Kenyatta. “At the time, Africans were not allowed to drink, but he used to drink a lot. He would come to the shop, and my father would take him up to our place, close the curtains and give him a drink. My mother would give them lunch. My father could have been jailed if anyone had ever known that.” Kenyatta, who developed a close friendship with Ghai’s father, took a special interest in the youngest Ghai. He would often ask to see the youngster, bringing him fruit from his farm. Ghai remembers seeing Kenyatta after he was released from prison. “When I had come home from Oxford, Kenyatta had just been released and he asked my father why he hadn’t taken me to visit him and my father told him that the queues of people waiting to see him were so interminably long! So he arranged for us to see him specially. There is a picture of us all together about a week after he was released.”

Yash Pal Ghai with brother Dharam, two of his three sisters and another relative.

The success of his father’s shop blessed Ghai with a relatively easy childhood. He spent the week in Nairobi, where he went to school and was cared for by his grandmother, and returned to Ruiru on the weekends. His father emphasised the importance of education, and Ghai worked hard, excelling in school. In fact, when Princess Margaret visited Kenya in 1956, Ghai, as the top student in his school, was chosen to present her with a bouquet of flowers. Unbeknownst to him, it would be his first claim to fame. “In those days, the British had their own propaganda thing. There were huge, outdoor screens, and they would show these clips. It would start with news about the country, and then they would show a cowboy movie,” Mutunga laughingly remembers. “I saw Yash in that clip. That was the first time I saw him.” When asked about the moment, Ghai laughs quietly. “I fell in love with Princess Margaret.” Indeed, Mutunga says, “You know, the way the British did those documentaries was very, very interesting. A lot of us became monarchists as young kids after seeing those beautiful women and queens.”

The reality of segregated living meant that young Ghai had virtually no substantive interaction with the white, British population in Kenya. What little interaction he did have, though, showed the young Ghai how very different life was for some Kenyans. “We wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near any British home. We didn’t know any British kids.” In fact, as he now looks out over his garden in Muthaiga, Ghai describes his initial reluctance to live in the neighbourhood. “I remember dogs barking at me here. They would bark at any non-white person. I never wanted to be here.”

Most of the inter-racial interactions he did have in his youth occurred at school, especially during athletic competitions. Once a year, he remembers, the leading schools in Nairobi, each segregated by race, would have athletics competitions. “I took part in athletics. We would always lose, because the Prince of Wales School (for white students) had coaches and equipment. You were on the field together, but then at intervals you went back to your own side. We didn’t even get to know their names.”

Segregation was just one manifestation, however, of the harsh reality of inequality all around him. Ghai remembers witnessing insults and beatings on the streets. “As a kid, when I used to see people being beaten up, I couldn’t do much. The injustice of it left a very deep impression on me, the unfairness of it.” By the time Ghai was ready for university, he had been personally bruised by the harsh mark of racism as well.

As he was preparing to apply for university admission, Ghai was advised to seek assistance from the Ministry of Education. He recounts, “In the Ministry, I saw a lift and I had never been in one. So I got into the lift. I was about to go, and suddenly three white men came in and asked me what I was doing. They physically picked me up and threw me out, and I ended up on the floor. I was so shattered. I thought, ‘How can they just throw me like this?’ ” Taking the stairs instead, Ghai eventually reached the office of Mrs. Brotherton, who, Ghai had been told, could help with the university admissions process. “She asked me where I wanted to go. I said, ‘Oxford.’ She looked at me and smiled and said, ‘You? You want to go to Oxford?’ She laughed at me and then mentioned two or three other universities. ‘You really think you could go to Oxford?’ she taunted. I said that I wanted to try. She asked me if I had received a credit in my ‘O-levels.’ And I said, ‘No.’ She smiled and said, ‘See? You didn’t even get a credit in your exams.’ That’s when I said, ‘Madam, I did not get a credit. I got a distinction.’ She was so angry with me. She told me she didn’t think Oxford was good for me.”

It was a defining moment for Ghai, who had received the highest O-level results in Kenya. Instead of embittering him, however, the experience motivated him to forge ahead. In fact, when he spoke to his teachers at the newly opened Gandhi Academy, which would eventually become the University of Nairobi, they wrote to Queens College to recommend him. After passing the entrance exam, Ghai was accepted at Oxford. Given his intent to pursue literature, however, the university urged him to study Latin so that he would be prepared. “My teachers helped me get tutorials for Latin. They got this chap to come from the Prince of Wales School twice a week and tutor me. My school arranged it. I was quite pleased that this chap drove up and took the time. I thought, ‘He’s English but he’s quite nice.’ ”

Oxford (Queen’s College) welcomed Ghai, but it was an adjustment. “In the beginning, I was nervous in all kinds of ways – there were all these bright people, etc. I didn’t even know how to eat food British style. The British Council had set up a course on how to eat, and I attended that to learn how to use utensils. I would look at other people, and I got a complex about knowing which spoon to use.” Ghai quickly made friends, pursuing his love of sports and the outdoors. He also enjoyed time with his brother, who was still at Oxford, and with Singh, who was studying in Bristol. The two kept in touch, hitchhiking around Europe during their holidays.

Soon, however, Ghai realised that studying English literature was not what he had expected. “It was very difficult, because at Oxford they started four centuries before Austen. It was hard to read old English, and I just couldn’t cope. So I went to my tutor. He was understanding, and he asked me what I wanted to do instead of English. Even though my second love was history, I chose law.”

Ghai excelled at Oxford, so much so that, when he achieved the highest exam scores in the university, the College Provost told him that the College would henceforth take care of his fees. After graduating with his Bachelor’s degree in 1961, Ghai applied to undertake graduate work at Oxford’s Nuffield College. It was while at Nuffield, where he was studying comparative Commonwealth constitutions for his doctorate, that Ghai was approached by his former tutor. “He raised the idea of Harvard. I hadn’t really thought about it, but he said, ‘Why not take a break from Oxford and go to Harvard?’ He said I could come back later and finish my thesis. I wondered if the College would really allow something like that. He was such a nice person, and he wrote to his friends there. Harvard gave me a grant and a generous allowance.” At Harvard, Ghai completed a Masters in Law and also took courses related to his doctoral thesis.

And it was at Harvard that Ghai met William Twining, the son of the former Governor of Tanganyika, who would become a lifelong friend. Twining had just started a law school, along with AB Weston, in Dar es Salaam. The University of East Africa, as it was then known, was recruiting professors. “People were telling me that Twining was around and was looking for me. It turned out that he was looking for staff. When we met, he said, ‘I’ve come to pick you up.’ ‘Pick me up?’ I laughed it off.” Although he was tempted, Ghai was concerned about finishing his doctorate, especially because Nuffield had been so good to him. It turned out, however, that Twining had already spoken to Oxford and the university was very supportive, encouraging Ghai to take the position in Dar. “After a lot of thinking and consideration of the fact that this was the first time Africans would have had a chance to study law [in East Africa], I thought it would be good to do this. Twining had already recruited four or five teachers. I ended up going at short notice.” Although Ghai would continue to work on his doctoral thesis once in Dar, even publishing several chapters, he never had the chance to finish it. In 1992, the University of Oxford honoured Ghai with a “higher doctorate” in Civil Law. While ordinary doctorates are earned through a defined program of study, higher doctorates are awarded only through a nomination process and a review of a scholar’s research work over a period of time. Ghai is among only 96 recipients of this degree since 1923.

A Young Professor in Dar es Salaam

In 1963, Ghai, at only 25 years of age, accepted his first professional position as a lecturer of law at the University of East Africa at Dar es Salaam. It was a heady, idealistic time for the young graduate, as well as for the wider society. According to Professor Bill Whitford, Ghai’s colleague and lifelong friend, Dar was one of the most desirable places in terms of legal education at the time. “There was a wide range of people from all over the world, and the students were fantastic. The law school admitted only 100 students per year, and they were superb. The other thing was that this was [Tanzanian President Julius] Nyerere’s most creative period, and thoughts about creating a new society were all over the place. Everything was up for debate. It was a very hopeful time.”

Indeed, Ghai describes his time in Dar as “most formative” in terms of his professional growth; he was acutely aware of the significance of his role. “It was the first time black Africans were being allowed to study law [in Africa],” he remembers. “People didn’t know much about law other than that this is what the British used to beat you. We were aware that the students who left us could soon be judges or senior government officials, and we were conscious of inculcating in them the sense that law could be used for the promotion of good values.”

This conviction of his responsibility to inspire students to use the law to work for the betterment of society, to seize and channel the fervour of newfound independence in the direction of an equal, democratic post-colonial Africa, is partly responsible for Ghai’s break with the legal positivist tradition in which he had been trained, opting for what came to be known as “legal radicalism” or “law in context.” This approach, which sought to understand and interpret the law within the social, political and economic contexts in which it functioned, was not the norm at the time. In the new era of independence, however, Ghai and others like him believed it was critical for lawyers to understand how the existing law had come to be and how it might need to change to suit the rapidly evolving needs of newly independent nations. Writing about his years in Dar, Ghai says, “It was not long before I became acutely uncomfortable with endless explorations of the rules of privity and consideration, and became conscious of the unreality of the emphasis on the common law when it touched only a small segment of the population.”

Indeed, Mutunga credits Ghai for this approach. “We were taught law within its historical, socio-economic, cultural, and political contexts, thus departing from the conservative legal positivism with its clarion call that ‘law is the law is the law.’ We undertook to study, research, and practice law never in a vacuum. Above all, we anchored law in politics and shunned legal centralism. Our approaches were multi-disciplinary.” At the same time, however, Ghai ensured that his students were well grounded in traditional law. Mutunga describes the high standards Ghai held as a teacher, demanding that his students become masters of “staunch positivism” while having the skills to interrogate that tradition. Mutunga describes Ghai’s approach as a “fantastic balance,” recalling how his professor’s exams required students to address three questions dealing with technical aspects of the law and two questions asking students to critique the legal rules. “Dar law graduates could regard themselves as ‘learned,’ as we were distinguishable from other pretenders to the ‘learned’ tag.” Mutunga considered Dar to be his “liberation Mecca,” the place where he developed his own intellectual, ideological, and political positions.

Not everyone was a fan of this approach. Mutunga describes how some students were not interested in studying context. Already assured of high level jobs, these students “just wanted to know the rules so they could go out there and practice.” They were not interested in learning context. Some students wanted to “finish things and get marks. They had gone to law school to be ‘big people’.” Ghai himself has questioned legal radicalism, wondering if his students were at a disadvantage for not having trained as traditional lawyers. Mutunga, who adopted Ghai’s approach when he became a professor, disagrees, explaining that his own students have expressed how the approach of law in context helped them cultivate a more holistic approach to the law, and to an understanding of the law.

Ghai’s natural aptitude, not just for the law but also as an educator, quickly became clear. While teaching in Dar, he co-authored (with his colleague and friend, Patrick McAuslan) what would become one of his most well-known books, Public Law and Political Change in Kenya. Although his primary motive in writing the book was to provide a textbook for his students, who did not have authoritative texts on the laws of newly independent East Africa, Public Law became one of the most widely cited works related to Kenyan law. When it was published in 1970, Ghai was just 32 years old.

The authors wrote that they wished to provide an analysis and critique of Kenya’s development since early colonial times as seen through the processes of law:

We have never understood the function of the law teacher or writer to be the mere reciter of rules whose merit is to be gauged by the quantity of information he can relay. All African countries have great need for lawyers who can take their eyes off the books of rules, who can see more to law than a set of statutes and law reports . . . The law student must constantly be brought up against questions such as . . . what is this law designed to achieve, what set of beliefs lie at the back of this law . . . a text should aim to stimulate, even aggravate, not stupefy, and that is what we have tried to do here.

Their analysis was incisive and sometimes harsh, blatantly questioning, for instance, increasing executive power and the trampling of the Bill of Rights, which they said was so ineffective that they wondered why it remained a part of the Constitution at all.

George Kegoro, the Executive Director of the Kenya Human Rights Commission, refers to Public Law as “the bible,” and “easily the most widely cited book in Kenyan law.” Kegoro says, “At independence, everybody was trying to establish a frame of analysing Kenya and Kenyan society. How do you analyse society? What are the constituent components? He provides that within the book. There was no clarity about where the tails were, where the heads were. And what he did was to show us where the tails and heads were. It has held sway up to now. It is still very much a valued way of analysing Kenyan society, which is why the book gets cited over and over and over again. It is one of the reasons why he is a legend.” Kegoro pauses, then adds – with incredulity – “And he never talks about it himself! Ever, ever!”

In fact, despite his growing success, Ghai remained down-to-earth. He strove, in many ways, to be a peer of his students. “Yash belonged to a group of law professors and lecturers who did not carry the tag of ‘academic terrorists’. We reserved that tag for the faculty who clearly did not like to teach, did not like students, and suffered from egos and serious intellectual arrogance. Invariably, they treated us as intellectually inferior, adopted a pulpit lecture system where they ordered not to be interrupted while lecturing. Questions were to be asked during tutorials. Yash and others were different. They were approachable, treated us as equals in the word and spirit of the intellectual culture in Tanzania. “All students were Yash’s friends,” recalls Mutunga.

Indeed, Ghai’s ease with people placed him in the middle of a wide social circle, made up of students and colleagues. Despite his work, which was significant, Ghai invested time in creating and maintaining deep and often lifelong relationships with people around him. Mutunga explains, “He was always likable and great company in and out of class. Bear in mind Yash became a full professor at the tender age of 32. In all respects he wanted us to see him and treat him as a brother. Many of us were in our mid-20s. Today, whenever I communicate to Yash I sign off, Nduguyo/Your brother because of a relationship that spans almost over five decades.” Whitford describes Ghai’s ability to balance a social life with his professional duties. “He cooked, and he was an excellent cook! What male Asians cooked at that time?” Whitford asks in amazement. “He didn’t have servants, because he didn’t want to have that kind of relationship with anyone. He was a democratic socialist from the word ‘go.’ He entertained but was also very intellectual. It was typical to see him walking around with his arms full of papers all the time.”

Just as Dar es Salaam was a site where he flourished professionally, it was a place where home took on a new meaning. It was while in Dar that Ghai met and married his first wife, Karin Englund, who was from Sweden. Their daughter, Indira, was born in Dar in 1971. He remembers a pleasant life, with a house by the sea.

Ghai’s tenure in Dar was one of the most dynamic periods of his life. He quickly climbed the ranks, becoming the first East African dean of the University of East Africa’s law school in 1970. He was also personally approached by Tanzanian President Nyerere, who asked him for assistance in the development of the Tanzanian constitution. He admired Nyerere, who gave him complete freedom to say what he believed.

Interestingly, it was also while he was teaching in Dar that Ghai met his future wife, Jill Cottrell, for the first time. “I first met him in 1969. I was doing my Masters at Yale, and my supervisor had taught for a year in Dar. He knew Yash, who was at Yale on a short visit. My supervisor invited a group of people who had some connection to East Africa over for dinner, and then he invited me, although I didn’t know any of these people.” Cottrell Ghai laughs, remembering the evening. “He said, ‘I am going to introduce you to a glamorous man, but I think he’s going to get engaged.’ He did get married soon after that.”

Over time, however, the environment in Dar became increasingly stressful. In his reflections on this time, Ghai writes of more and more racism. “For despite the scholarly analysis of some Marxists, what passed in general for radicalism in those days included a large amount of racism and xenophobia. I remember overhearing the wife of a Tanzanian colleague – a self-proclaimed Marxist – that she would not rest in peace unless she saw that muhindi (Indian) out of the country – that muhindi being me!” In fact, a growing drive to “Africanise” things, along with the University of Nairobi’s continued and persistent invitations to return to Kenya and assume the deanship at the law school, tempted Ghai to finally accept the offer.

Disclaimer: This article is meant as a brief overview of Professor Yash Pal Ghai’s life and career. While it aims to shed light on some of his personal and professional experiences, it is not a comprehensive account.

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Seema Shah is an elections expert with experience in North America, Asia and Africa. She holds a doctorate in Political Science, and her research focuses on electoral politics, with an emphasis on electoral integrity and electoral violence.

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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