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The Indomitable Yash Pal Ghai – Part 2: Years of Exile

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Ghai learned later that Attorney General Charles Njonjo did not want him in Kenya. It was the legal radicalism, politics in Tanzania and the publication of the book he co-authored with Patrick MacAuslan in 1970 – which was very critical, in the academic and political sense, of developments in East Africa – definitely made the conservative Njonjo fearful of such a teacher in the Faculty of Law at the University of Nairobi.

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The Indomitable Yash Pal Ghai: Years of Exile
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Professor Yash Pal Ghai had accepted the offer of a deanship at the University of Nairobi, packed up everything ready to leave Dar es Salaam, and was saying his goodbyes when he got a call from his former student Willy Mutunga. “So Willy said to me, ‘I hope you aren’t coming to Nairobi.’ And I said, ‘I am taking up the deanship at the University of Nairobi.’ He said, ‘I can’t say much now, but don’t come. I can’t talk now, but don’t come until we tell you.’ He was ringing from the AG’s office, where he worked. I didn’t know why they were saying that. But then the University of Nairobi rang me two days later and said they were sorry but my appointment was canceled. I said, ‘You spent hours and hours persuading me, even when you knew how happy I was. I agreed because of your pressure. Why has it been cancelled?’ They said that they couldn’t tell me.”

Ghai learned later that Attorney General Charles Njonjo did not want him in Kenya. He was warned by friends that he could face harassment and even torture if he returned. Ghai is emotional as he speaks of this time, expressing frustration and outrage at the way things unfolded. “To this day, I do not know what bothered the AG. I never knew what I did. When I asked Njonjo about it, he never admitted it, even though he had signed all the orders himself.” Following the warning from Mutunga, Ghai chose to go into exile.

Ghai’s colleagues and friends attribute the orders to the work he had done until then, pointing especially to Public Law. “I believe legal radicalism, politics in Tanzania and the publication of the book he co-authored with Patrick MacAuslan in 1970 – which was very critical, in the academic and political sense, of developments in East Africa – definitely made the conservative Njonjo fearful of such a teacher in the Faculty of Law at the University of Nairobi. Of course, when I joined the Faculty of law, University of Nairobi, I adopted the approach he would most likely have adopted had he joined the faculty. So, in a way, we had our last laugh,” says Mutunga. Whitford agrees, saying that Ghai’s attack on newly independent Kenya’s public policies led to Njonjo’s actions.

Although the news was devastating, Ghai’s time in Dar had catapulted him into the international limelight. The impact of his work, not just as a teacher and administrator, but also as a trusted international adviser, was becoming increasingly clear. Unsurprisingly, senior ministers in Tanzania asked Ghai to stay on, offering him positions in the Attorney General’s office. The University of East Africa at Dar es Salaam also invited him back when the news broke that he would not return to Kenya. Ghai declined these offers, choosing instead to take on some short-term work with the East African Community (EAC). While there, he advised the EAC on membership issues and on reforms aimed at addressing the vastly unequal economic conditions of member states. It was interesting work and Ghai enjoyed it. In fact, Ghai’s performance prompted the Tanzanian Attorney General to nominate Ghai to be the Chief Legal Officer of the EAC, but Njonjo stepped in again, vetoing the nomination.

At this point, Ghai could have turned to Kenyatta to ask for assistance. Says Mutunga, “Yash could have gone to Jomo, but he’s not that kind of person and I’m glad he didn’t. It would have destroyed him professionally. Everyone would have known that Kenyatta helped him return and then he would have been seen as ‘Kenyatta’s boy.’ He would have been seen as a sycophant.” Mutunga doubts that Njonjo knew of Ghai’s connection to Kenyatta, and he is confident that Kenyatta had no knowledge of Njonjo’s actions. “Even Njonjo wouldn’t have dared to do what he did if he had known of the connection.”

Ghai’s departure for the United States in 1971 was a loss for East Africa, but he left behind a model for teaching law. Indeed, Whitford calls Ghai’s vision of – and standards for – a law school the “Ghai ideal.” At the heart of this vision is the role of law faculty as “independent critics of legal developments.” The Ghai ideal envisions law schools as havens of intellectual scholarship, marked by well-resourced and up-to-date libraries as well as by full-time law professors, who are well remunerated and who have reasonable teaching loads.

Ghai epitomised his own vision of a law professor. Ambreena Manji, who teaches law at the University of Cardiff in the United Kingdom and who is the former head of the British Institute of East Africa, says she has been profoundly influenced by Ghai’s commitment to teaching. “He will just quietly talk to you about your ideas.” Manji remembers hosting several constitutional conferences while at the British Institute, and she particularly recalls Ghai’s attention to young scholars. “I used to watch him quietly sit with young people and just quietly talk to them and question and probe. He is a very committed teacher. A lot of what I’ve tried to do as a teacher has been influenced by him. He is an exemplar of how you should live your life as an academic.”

Hope in times of grief

In 1971, Ghai settled his young family in New Haven while he lectured at Yale Law School and served as the Director of Research at the New York-headquartered International Legal Centre. The family soon welcomed a son, Tor.

At the same time, Ghai continued to receive invitations to assist with constitution-making processes around the world. While at Yale, Ghai remembers receiving a telegram from Papua New Guinea, where leaders were trying to negotiate an independence constitution. Says Ghai, “I was quite surprised. I didn’t know very much about Papua New Guinea. It turns out that the Australians offered them some consultants from Australia, and the local leaders felt that they may be biased and they may be influenced by – or even directed by – the Australian Government. So they wanted input from a totally independent person. They had just established a law school and the first dean of the law school was, at one stage, my dean in Dar es Salaam. So they asked him and he recommended me.” Ghai accepted the offer, travelling to Port Moresby from New Haven for short periods, somehow also managing his other professional responsibilities as well as the demands of his family.

Ghai’s time at Yale was positive, and having received several offers from around the country, Ghai considered settling in the United States. “But my wife didn’t like the U.S. and so I gave up a number of offers, including the UN. Since she had come to the U.S. because of me, I decided to go to Sweden [for her].” In Sweden, Ghai worked as a researcher at Uppsala University as well as at the renowned Nordic Africa Institute. He also continued to travel to Papua New Guinea, sometimes for longer periods, as the country considered how to manage the demands of multiple ethnic groups in a time of transition to independence. The assignment was particularly invigorating for Ghai, who had a special interest in minority rights. Ghai and his team travelled around the country to canvass people’s views and desires, a hallmark of his constitution-making methodology. In the end, he advised the government to be open to devolution in areas where there was a demand for it – especially for the island of Bougainville. Without that option, he feared that groups would press for secession. When, at the end of the process, the Chief Minister lobbied successfully to eliminate the draft Constitution’s chapter on devolution, Bougainville did indeed declare its intention to secede.

When violence broke out, Ghai, who had no training as a negotiator, was asked to return to Papua New Guinea to act as a mediator. He agreed, but he quickly realised that the balance of expertise was strikingly unequal. Ghai explained, “Bougainville had no lawyer to speak of and the Government had quite senior lawyers.” It would be easy to conclude that Ghai’s decision to work on behalf of Bougainville would place him in a contentious position. He had spent months working for the government, only to finally end up working “for the other side.” Amazingly, however, the integrity Ghai had exhibited throughout the constitution-making process mitigated any tension that could have existed. “Fortunately, all the people we were negotiating with were sort of friends because of the time I had spent there working. I was seeing senior civil servants, economists, finance officers, people from the Ministry of Lands. So by the time the negotiations started, I knew most of them quite well and had become good friends with them.”

Ghai’s ability to connect with actors from across political divides is emblematic of his natural ease with people. Ghai’s own anecdotes about people he has met – from local artists whose works bring life to his garden, to former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, whom he met as a student at Oxford – often end with the words, “We became good friends.” Lulu Kavoi, who works as the Katiba Institute’s Executive Assistant, describes what she was expecting when she first met Ghai. “I had only read about him and seen him on TV. I was expecting a bossy person, someone too serious for life.” She was surprised at the reality. “Working for him is fun, because he likes to understand people. He’s a mentor and also a boss, but he’s not a bossy person. He is interested in what you’re doing for your education and in your life. He would come and ask me, ‘So Lulu, what are you doing and studying?’ More like a friend I can talk to for advice.”

Devolution was eventually reinstated in Papua New Guinea. When it was time to implement the new Constitution, Ghai was asked to return, this time to chair a commission responsible for implementing devolution. Although Ghai wanted to help, he did not want such a role for himself. “I wanted a local person to be chair. I asked [Papua New Guinea leaders], even in the very beginning, that I would like to work with one or two young lawyers so that they would acquire knowledge and experience of the constitution and the background to its various provisions, minimizing reliance on foreign lawyers.” Ghai’s response to this suggestion serves as an example of his commitment to sharing his knowledge and promoting local empowerment and ownership of democratic processes and institutions.” Indeed, the person who was finally chosen for this role, Bernard Narakobi, eventually became Attorney General of Papua New Guinea, and later a diplomat.

The Indomitable Yash Pal Ghai: The Father of the Constitution

Read also: The Indomitable Yash Pal Ghai: The Father of the Constitution

Ghai’s ability to take a backseat in order to promote local ownership and thereby plant the seeds for long-term, sustainable democratic rule has inspired many of those who have been lucky enough to meet and work with him. Manji says, “The thing about Yash is that he doesn’t give a monkey’s about your status. He doesn’t care. He’s not going to be impressed whether you’re the president or the professor. He doesn’t care. If you have got something interesting to say, he will sit and listen. He wants to know about you.” Indeed, Papua New Guinea would later recommend Ghai to leaders in the Solomon Islands; he had local legitimacy. In 1976, Ghai was awarded Papua New Guinea’s Independence Medal, created to honour those who had performed outstanding service to the country during the transition to full independence.

Ghai’s success in the South Pacific brought him even more attention, and requests kept coming. Over the course of his career, Ghai would work on constitutions and constitutional development in many other countries, including Vanuatu, Western Samoa, Sri Lanka, Fiji, Zambia, Cambodia, the Cook Islands, Kenya, East Timor, Iraq, Nepal, Somalia, Ghana, South Sudan, Libya, Tunisia, the Philippines, and Zimbabwe. Many of these assignments were borne of personal recommendations. Says Manji, “He’s utterly, utterly non-denominational and non-racist. He’s utterly scrupulous and fair-minded. That has been key to negotiating in complex terrain.”

Although Ghai’s work in Papua New Guinea was a professional success, prompting the beginning of an extensive career as an adviser in the region and eventually the world, it was also an emotionally traumatic time. As it became clear that Ghai would have to commit more time to being on the ground in Papua New Guinea, his wife advised him to go in advance of the rest of the family so that he could set up their house and living arrangements. “At one point, I realised I had been there for two months and she kept delaying her plans to travel. When I returned to Sweden, I realised that she had fallen in love with someone else and was living with him. She had moved to Stockholm [from Uppsala] with the children.”

It was a great shock for Ghai, who struggled to balance work in Uppsala with time with his children, who were in Stockholm. “I would go to Stockholm on the weekends and take them to a park and give them ice cream. They knew only Swedish. I found it so frustrating, and I would cry when I left them. It got to be too much for me.” Ghai told his ex-wife that he wanted custody. “I told her that she should be one to visit them on the weekends.” He consulted a lawyer, but he was told that, as a non-Swedish man, he stood very little chance of winning custody against a Swedish mother. It was a significant emotional blow. Whitford recalls, “He cooked, he did all that sort of stuff. He was the primary home person; he did more than she did in that regard.”

Ghai’s relationship with his ex-wife was tense in the immediate aftermath of the divorce, and for some time afterward. It was somewhat unsurprising, then, that Ghai decided to leave Sweden when his contract expired. Wanting to remain close enough to see his children regularly and easily, however, he chose to stay in Europe. In 1978, he took up an appointment as a professor of law at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom, where he had friends and some family.

Ghai’s new position at Warwick was also like a professional homecoming. Whitford calls it “the path of least resistance” for that time in Ghai’s life. It was “filled with academics from Dar,” recalled Whitford. Indeed, the law school at Warwick is known for its leading work in “law in context,” and it has been home to “law in context” pioneers, including Twining, Ghai, McAuslan, and many others from the University of East Africa at Dar es Salaam. Ghai thrived at Warwick, teaching constitutional law classes, publishing extensively and even taking up short appointments as a visiting professor in Australia, Singapore and the United States. He enjoyed these experiences and the exposure to different environments, never allowing his outsider status to stand in the way of the work in which he believed. In Singapore, Ghai took the government to court in a case that sought to advocate for the rights of a group of domestic workers. After a string of legal victories, he was declared unwelcome and forced to quickly leave the country. His fellow lawyers were jailed, but Ghai continued to “make noise”, forging ahead until the lawyers were eventually released.

It was at Warwick that Ghai became reacquainted with Jill Cottrell, whom he had originally met on a visit to Yale when he was still Dean in Dar. Cottrell and Ghai had met occasionally over the years, mostly at academic conferences, and they were now faculty colleagues. Their relationship quietly but steadily evolved at Warwick. Manji laughingly remembers seeing them together more and more. “Every time someone would go around to Yash’s place, Jill would be there. Nobody was told there was a relationship, but intellectually they are a perfect fit. Their relationship was a long time brewing, and it is such a great intellectual partnership.” Indeed, Zein Abubakr, Ghai’s co-commissioner on the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission, described the couple as an inspiration. “Yash’s love and affection for his wife – it’s amazing to see them, how they complement each other. It’s an inspiration for all of us. If Mzee is still able to do this, maybe we should learn something from him.”

The birth of that relationship quickly grew into a professional partnership as well. Although they were different in many ways, Manji describes the importance of their commonalities. Referring to Cottrell Ghai’s early experiences as a law professor in Nigeria, Manji says, “She had this totally global life. It took a lot of courage as a woman in that era to embark on that kind of life. When she ended up at Warwick as a young woman, she already had that outward push.” Like Ghai, Cottrell Ghai is also a quiet but determined force. Unlike her husband, however, she tends to stay out of the limelight. “Jill is very quiet and very, very studious, says Manji. “She would almost prefer it if she never had to leave the house and if she could just get on with reading whatever textbook she was obsessing about at that particular time. She’s an absolute powerhouse.”

Ghai continued to act as an international adviser while at Warwick, balancing teaching and research responsibilities with missions around the globe. He found himself in a unique position, often working for the British Foreign Office but acting as an adviser to local groups. In so many of these cases, Ghai’s British training and official connections to the British government were considered background information. First and foremost, he was seen, and wanted to be seen – according to him – as “a Third World person”, as someone who could understand local views. Indeed, in the Solomon Islands, Ghai urged the Chief Minister and the leader of the opposition, who had a bitter relationship, to work together so that the British could not undercut their goals: “‘You should negotiate as a united people. If you are fighting yourselves, Britain will play one against the other.’ And I worked on it, and worked on it. I would wear slippers and go to the Leader of the Opposition. I said, ‘I’m coming home to you. Do you have a free moment?’ They liked that. For them, I was not a pompous civil servant coming from London. So I was able to establish a rapport.” At the end of the constitution drafting process, the leader of the opposition credited Ghai with uniting the country.

It was clear to Ghai that his work was about something bigger. Although he was in great demand, Ghai only accepted assignments that aligned with his political philosophy and that contributed to greater democratisation and respect for the rule of law. International missions were real-world applications of his academic work, a chance to have a hand in shaping progressive political frameworks that valued individual freedoms and protected minority rights. This is why, when he was first approached to help the Fijian government with constitutional issues after the first 1987 coup, he refused. Ghai explains, “I was afraid they wanted me there to ‘fix it.’ There had been some cases where the courts in other countries had accepted coups as lawful. [The coup leader’s] expectation was that I would help the new regime to achieve a similar status. I had no intention to help them ‘fix it’— and expressed my willingness to go to help [only] with the return to constitutionality.” When a delegation from the overthrown Fijian group arrived in London, Ghai reached out to them, eventually agreeing to be their adviser. Knowing that the coup leaders would be “furious” if they found out that Ghai had turned them down but had volunteered to help “the other side,” he returned to Fiji but stayed out of sight. When they required assistance, the delegation would ask for a break from negotiations and visit Ghai in his room. Negotiations were successful, resulting in a power-sharing agreement, a review of the Constitution, and a long-term agreement to resolve inter-party differences. By the time Ghai returned to Warwick, however, a second coup had been staged.

Ghai continued to be involved in Fiji, acting as an adviser to the parties in the wake of the second coup, and again in 1995-7 in the preparation of their submission to the Commission drafting the 1997 Constitution. During that period, Ghai also established the Citizens Constitutional Forum, a non-governmental organisation meant to “bring different races together in the common cause of a democratic and non-racial constitution.” The NGO reflected Ghai’s deep-felt concern about the racial divisions and inequalities in the country, issues which he attempted to address in his recommendations regarding the new Constitution. He had strong faith in the power and importance of civil society, a belief that would continue to drive his work throughout his career. In 2012, when the country’s military regime agreed to hand power back to civilians, Ghai was invited to head the Constitutional Commission.

At the same time, Ghai continued to produce legal analysis, publishing books and articles on decentralisation, the political economy of law, human rights, and multiple works devoted to the politics, law and government of the specific countries in which he had worked. His list of publications, which does not include works completed in the last two years, runs 15 pages in length. Ghai’s 1989 article entitled, “Whose human right to development?” was, according to Cottrell Ghai, a particularly important contribution and an example of his unique approach to the law. “He doesn’t always take the obvious approach. Very often, his analysis is out of the ordinary,” Cottrell Ghai explains. “In [that piece], he questioned the right to development in the sense of saying that it was for elites rather than for ordinary people. He takes a slightly more skeptical approach, and that has been important intellectually.”

In fact, Ghai’s unconventional approach to the law is what continues to impress and inspire lawyers to date. Waikwa Wanyoike, the first Executive Director of the Katiba Institute, the NGO which he founded with the Ghais in Kenya, describes Ghai’s ability to “create possibilities where a lot of people think there are none.” According to him, Ghai can “push new frontiers on nearly every subject. He’s able to find ways to read the same text and expand it in a manner that is so rights-focused. He shows hyper-creative rights-oriented thinking, and that’s probably his biggest contribution. His political savvy is also impressive – his ability to marry politics with the law and make the law work effectively on politics. He will contextualise issues, and he always starts from values and principles. That’s ingenious. He breaks the barrier between the technical elements of the law and values; he infuses rights-based values into the law.”

Despite his multiple responsibilities, Ghai also continued to act as a mentor. Mutunga says, “He made it his business to mentor me by inviting me to conferences in various places, by getting me to Warwick Law School as a visiting fellow when he taught there, by being an external examiner in my courses when I taught law in the University of Nairobi, and by sending me his writings and seeking my comments. Yash is the epitome of collective intellect. Many of his books are co-authored and some of the co-authors were his students.”

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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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