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The Indomitable Yash Pal Ghai – Part 4: The Defender of Justice

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We still have a hugely corrupt and dangerous elite that will do anything to continue looting and raping this country, but Yash wrote this Constitution so they can’t mess with certain things.

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The Indomitable Yash Pal Ghai: The Defender of Justice
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Over the course of his career, Professor Yash Pal Ghai has had the opportunity to act as a visiting professor in a number of countries, teaching law across Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States, India, Singapore, South Africa, Canada, Fiji, and Italy. It was during one such visiting appointment in 2000, at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, that Ghai received one of the most important calls of his career.

When the phone rang, Ghai was sitting with Bill Whitford, his longtime friend, in Whitford’s home in Madison. It was Amos Wako, Ghai’s former student, then the Attorney General of Kenya. “Come home,” Wako said to a stunned Ghai. His initial reaction was disbelief. “Are you really serious?” he asked Wako. “Yes,” Wako explained, “Everyone wants you to come home, and President Moi wants you to write the new constitution.”

Ghai’s initial reaction was, unsurprisingly, one of hesitation. “The government had never shown any interest in me, and I still felt bitter about the way I had been treated.” His hesitation was compounded by a feeling of detachment. Although he had been home sporadically in the intervening years, it was never for more than a few days at a time; he did not have a strong sense of what was happening politically. “I said no,” Ghai says. “I didn’t know what was happening, my experience had been bad and I didn’t know how sincere they were.” Indeed, Ghai had missed the years of political turmoil that preceded this moment. He had been away while the Kenyan executive gradually consolidated power and eroded democratic rights; he had missed the decades of struggle for constitutional reform.

Over the next few days, however, he consulted with old friends, including Pheroze Nowrojee and Willy Mutunga, who advised him to visit and survey the landscape before making a final decision. “Then one day my secretary rings from Hong Kong and says, ‘This man who rang has called again and wants to see you. Can I give him your details in America?’ The next day, Wako arrived in Wisconsin. He spent time with me and said things had changed and that I should give it a chance.” Cottrell Ghai also recalls it clearly. “Wako actually went to Madison. It was most extraordinary.”

As Ghai considered the offer, many of his contacts in Nairobi told him not to accept. The country was deeply divided, and the thinking around constitutional reform was concentrated in two opposing camps, one led by the Moi government and the other led by a coalition of religious leaders and civil society organisations, known as Ufungamano. Many in civil society did not trust that any real change could come through government-led efforts, and they believed that the focus should remain on deposing Moi from power. Mutunga was relatively alone among Ghai’s closest friends in his support. “He had written constitutions all over the place in the Commonwealth. He was honoured by the Queen for it. As a patriot, writing one for Kenya would be a great accolade. He had his doubts, but as a human rights activist we urged him to take up the task, notwithstanding the challenges.”

The Indomitable Yash Pal Ghai: The Father of the Constitution

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After some initial thought, Ghai agreed to visit Kenya and survey the landscape without necessarily committing. First, however, he had to return to Hong Kong, which he did via Papua New Guinea, where he had some work. Ghai was relatively cut off for the duration of his short assignment, but by the time he returned to Hong Kong, Wako had (falsely) announced that he had accepted the position, a move that would eventually come back to haunt Wako.

When Ghai made his first visit to Kenya in December 2000, it was a momentous occasion. Wako and Raila Odinga, who was at the time representing the Langata constituency in parliament, personally met and welcomed Ghai home. He used this initial visit to meet with key players and get the lay of the land, eventually deciding to take the position but only on his own terms. When he returned to Hong Kong, though, the University was unwilling to allow Ghai to accept the assignment. A few days after the refusal, Ghai received a call from the Chancellor. “He said he hadn’t been able to sleep,” Ghai remembers. “He had raised this with the Council and they said they felt a bit bad. After all, it was a chance for me to go back to my country. So they said, ‘Ok, but this is the last time you can go.’ We felt it wasn’t right for Jill to also leave so she stayed back.”

Whitford remembers Ghai’s hesitation. “He didn’t need that job. He just felt this tremendous loyalty to Kenya. He always travelled on a Kenyan passport even though he could’ve gotten a British passport. That was a real pain in the ass, but he did it. It was just important to him to play that role. It was about the chance to do something for his country.” Mutunga agrees, saying, “Kenya remained his constant North.” It had been more than three decades since Ghai had been a young student, standing on the steps of Lancaster House, watching the Kenyan delegates arrive to negotiate an independence constitution. This was a chance for him to contribute to the next phase of that mission – to lend the wisdom he had gained through years of service to other countries to his own homeland.

When Ghai returned to Nairobi, now ready to begin work in earnest, he was under no illusions. Moi was under pressure. He wanted someone who would get it done and get it done quickly. “I told Moi I wasn’t ready to accept. I would only take it if all the key groups in the country were involved in this process. I didn’t want to come and talk to a few politicians. I made it clear that it had to be a very participatory process. I said, ‘If you are willing on that basis, I will consider it.’ ” Ghai told Moi he required two to three months to merge the Ufungamano and government groups and create one united constitutional process. Ghai then embarked on what many consider to be one of his crowning achievements, the process of bringing the two sides together. So committed was he to achieving unity that he refused to take the oath as Chair of the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission (CKRC) unless there was one, unified process.

In addition to the divisions between the government and Ufungamano, Ghai quickly found that he would also have to address divisions within the Ufungamano group itself. According to Zein Abubakar, who represented the Safina Party at Ufungamano and who also became a commissioner of the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission, a “radical” wing of the Ufungamano process saw Ghai as someone who undermined the revolutionary path. Indeed, a radical minority group remained opposed throughout, branding those who participated as “sell outs.” At the same time, Abubakar explains, it was understandable; the government had never kept its word in the past and the fear of betrayal was very real.

Ghai was aware of the divisions. “At that time,” he remembers, “civil society were very divided about my coming. They had already formed their own commission. They had already started going from town to town to talk about the constitution. I didn’t want to sabotage them.” Indeed, John Githongo, who was the head of Transparency International at the time, remembers being highly suspicious of Ghai. “I’ll be very honest. I was very concerned and completely opposed to him. I’ve never told him this, but we were very, very skeptical of a person brought by Amos Wako, even though the Ghai brothers had a sterling reputation as academics. Yash was bright and super-brained, but our attitude was that there’s no way he’s going to get our politics. He’s been away too long.” Abubakar agrees, explaining that Ghai – despite his international reputation – had no legitimate standing with local civil society and religious leaders.

His commitment to achieving unity greatly impressed skeptics in the Ufungamano group. Abubakar says, “One of the things we appreciated was his position that there can only be one process, which was principled. One of the things that bothered a number of leaders was that if you had two processes, apart from divisiveness, how would you implement the outcome of either one? The country was split 55-45 in our favour. It’s very difficult to have a constitutional order that is not supported by half the country. There was also potential for violence and reversal of some of the democratic gains that people had paid for and won by then. At a strategic level, we said that it is better to negotiate a unified process.”

Ghai’s style, based on an objective and open attitude, impressed key players. Abubakar remembers, “The first thing he did was to listen to various sections of society and the listening process allowed him to understand that this process was deeply dividing the nation. Based on those initial consultations and listening, he decided not to take the oath as Chair. That also helped build bridges with the religious sector and the other side, because he was seen as credible and as someone who is not showing any bias. He was willing to listen to everyone who had an opinion.” Githongo agrees, pointing to Ghai’s refusal to take the oath as one of the key factors in shifting the tide in his favour. “His credibility started very low with progressive forces. He was seen as Moi’s man, Wako’s man. I remember all of us sitting around, discussing. People said, ‘No, no. This is a hatchet man for Moi, a waste of time.’ But then he refused to take the oath. Yash’s credibility was first built on that – his unwillingness to take the oath until the two sides came together. It was a very slick move, very well executed. In fact, he doesn’t talk about it or show it but he is a very politically wily operator. After that, all of a sudden, people took him seriously.”

Ghai also made it clear that he was willing to walk away from the process if it did not live up to his standards. Unlike many others who had been competing for the position of Chair of what would be the review commission, Ghai had no personal ambition to win the position. Abubakar says, “He was willing to walk away and that was important in terms of people’s willingness to sit and talk.”

Finally, Ghai’s connections to all sides greatly facilitated communication and eventual cohesion. “He opened back channels to government and to opposition leaders,” Abubakar says. “I think the insistence then of both Ghai and Raila supporting Ghai is what reluctantly convinced Moi to agree to a common process. If it had been Ghai alone, it wouldn’t have happened. It had to be Ghai and Raila. Ghai then said if there is no willingness to unite the country in a process and make sure the process is credible, he was willing to walk away.”

After nearly five months of negotiations, Ghai achieved unity. The two sides came together, and now the real work began.

As Chair of the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission (CKRC), Ghai created and implemented a citizen-centred methodology based on his decades of experience. The CKRC set up local offices around the country, canvassing public views and educating Kenyan citizens about the process. The Commission also travelled extensively, in multiple rounds, to hold public hearings so that they could listen to what people wanted with regard to the key issues. It was important to Ghai to create a publicly-owned constitution, one that addressed people’s longstanding grievances and that offered equal empowerment and protection to all. He personally travelled to public hearings, further demonstrating his deep commitment to and investment in the work. Githongo says, “I was very impressed, and I grew to have a great fondness for him. He was not only giving intellectually. He believed deeply in the work.”

Yash Pal Ghai listening to views of a Kenyan at a CKRC event.

Indeed, the Ufungamano groups had already begun the process of canvassing public opinion, and Ghai was able to carry that initial momentum forward. “Many places were new to me,” Ghai remembers. “I had never been to so many places. In the beginning, it was not easy. My Swahili had deteriorated a lot, but I still enjoyed it and found it very interesting. I had never seen so many different Kenyans, different styles of dress and ways of life. I enjoyed getting people’s views, getting concrete feedback from the people.” Abubakar recalls Ghai’s personal touch on these journeys. “He has a willingness to learn from others, to talk to people, just ordinary people who flock around him. I had the occasion of him accompanying me to a number of public hearings. He has an ordinary touch with people. He has an ability to inspire people. He connects with young people, ordinary people, people from all different stations in life – from leaders all the way to people who don’t know where the next meal will come from. One time, we were driving to a hearing and he saw people walking on the side of the road. He said, ‘Stop the car and ask these people where they are going.’ They said they were going to the hearing. And then he asked for arrangements for them to be dropped there. And he’s in his element that way.”

The Commission was extremely successful, and by the end of the process, it had collected over 37,000 public submissions on a full range of issues. In its 2002 report to the country, the CKRC highlighted 13 main points from the people. Examples of these included a desire for a “decent life”, fair access to land, a request to have more control over decisions which affect daily life, leaders who meet a higher standard of intelligence and integrity, respectful police, gender equality, freedom of expression for minorities and accountable government. There was a clearly expressed demand to “bring government closer to us.” The CKRC was deeply moved by the public participation, commenting on how “humbling” it had been to see “people who, having so little, were most hospitable to the Commission teams, and [who were] prepared to raise their eyes from the daily struggle to participate with enthusiasm in the process of review.” Githongo calls this public consultation process the second pillar of Ghai’s credibility. “The process he defined and described helped people see that he was serious. He became a people’s hero.

The Indomitable Yash Pal Ghai: Years of Exile

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Ghai’s commitment to his work generated massive amounts of attention. Abubakar says he respects Ghai for his ability to remain “down to earth.” He says, “Prof. [Ghai] didn’t take big security. The only time that he took it was when the government insisted and that was periodic.” This was in sharp contrast to other commissioners, who insisted on 4-wheel drive cars and who even refused to share vehicles with Secretariat staff. Mutunga agrees, recalling, “They wanted him to drive a big car; he refused. Moi even announced that Yash was being too lax about security, and we all thought it meant he would be bumped off! One of the reasons why he became so popular was because of his humility.”

At the end of public review, the CKRC moved on to drafting, producing a draft constitution in September 2002. Ghai then broke his team into thematic groups, each responsible for refining and improving specific portions of the draft. He called in experts from around the world to assist and offer comparative knowledge. He also courted diplomats, many of whom were so impressed that they offered to help fund the process. “But I said, ‘no,’” remembers Ghai. “I wanted it to be a Kenyan process.” Three days before the debate on the draft was to begin, however, President Moi dissolved parliament. Since all MPs were part of the National Constitutional Conference, the body legally mandated to adopt the new Constitution, things could not proceed. In December 2002, Kenya held landmark elections. Moi, who had been in power for nearly a quarter of a century (24 years), finally stepped down, ceding power to the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC), headed by President Mwai Kibaki. One of NARC’s key campaign promises was the promulgation of a new constitution within the first 100 days in office. Once in office, Kibaki stalled. “When people talked about presidential and parliamentary systems, Kibaki used to say that we are opposed to an imperial presidency; we want a parliamentary system. Once he realised that he could be president, that all changed. There was a lot of this opportunism. Even Raila to a certain extent – once Raila realised he wouldn’t be president, he split away.” Indeed, speculation was rife that the aging Kibaki’s reluctance to move ahead with the Constitution was due, at least in part, to a provision that would prevent him from running for a second term.

In April 2003, four months after the elections, the process again got underway, this time at the Bomas of Kenya. Ghai remembers, “When we moved to Bomas, I told the people there that we are going to take over and we need six, seven months. This is going to be hundreds of people. I felt that people should have time to think about their own positions. The mood got better and better. People got to know each other. By the end, people who didn’t know each other had become good friends.” At the same time, however, there was increasing factionalisation amongst the delegates, each making decisions purely based on political self-interest. At one point, during a break in drafting, the government attempted to stop the process from continuing. “I don’t think I have ever seen him so apoplectic,” Githongo recalls with a smile. “Prof. started leading demos of delegates in the streets to demand entry into the Bomas, and that was against guys with guns and dogs,” recalls Abubakar.

Soon thereafter, Ghai was alerted that Kibaki was planning to take the CKRC to court and allege that the entire process was illegal. Upon hearing of the impending court case, Ghai moved quickly to finalise a draft. At this point, however, Ghai remembers that “the only people left in the constitution-making body were from Raila’s side. Others were told to boycott. Kibaki and the DP walked out ostentatiously at one point when they saw they wouldn’t get the vote they wanted.” Particularly contentious to the government were provisions for a parliamentary system and some aspects of devolution. He resolved to work hard to finish. “I had only ten or eleven days to finish and get an endorsement. We had to do so much so quickly, and that’s why some parts are not so good.” Kibaki succeeded in court, and the CKRC was prevented from passing its draft to the government. “That he was able to get the Bomas draft approved by the delegates before the reactionary forces disbanded the conference was a miracle,” says Mutunga.

Ghai returned to Hong Kong soon after finalising the Bomas draft. “I read in the papers that the High Court had declared the whole process and the constitution unconstitutional. I felt terrible. I think I issued a couple of strong articles saying that, based on the documents that started the process, we were legal. By that time, Kibaki had gotten enough support and bribed enough people. They dissolved parliament all together, and then there was nothing more for me to do.” Cottrell Ghai remembers the final push as particularly difficult. “They put huge pressure on the closing stages of the process. There was a sense of great satisfaction for having produced a document but he was disappointed.”

The government’s hijacking of the process became most clear at the end of the Bomas period, but Ghai faced enormous amounts of stress throughout the process. Cottrell Ghai remembers calling him every morning from Hong Kong, after reading the Kenyan papers online, to warn him about what he could expect that day.

Ghai had little say, for instance, regarding the team of commissioners he would lead, and it was clear that there were divisions. Some commissioners were little more than spies for the government side, sometimes purposely delaying progress, while others were more interested in using the opportunity for personal profit than for sincere constitutional reform. “After Yash had managed to unite the two sides, he found himself with a very difficult CKRC, riven with self-interest, corruption, people meeting with the president behind his back, people being paid off . . . which he had to mitigate on an ongoing basis,” says Githongo. Mistrust was so deeply embedded that Abubakar insisted on the verbatim recording of all meeting minutes. “It was the only protection against people who would change their views. Almost all our meetings were recorded verbatim with the exception of two to three of them, where it was so bad that people said to switch it off. Of course, that in itself was against what we had agreed.”

An early battle erupted over the Secretary of the Commission, who – according to both Abubakar and Ghai – was a severe alcoholic, incapable of discharging even the most basic of his duties. “The person was not fit for public office,” Abubakar remembers. When dismissal procedures started, however, Moi was against it, and he threatened to disband the entire CKRC. Ghai and others stood firm, making it clear that they were willing to walk away from the Commission if the Secretary was not dismissed. It worked. “It became so bad that when the other members realised that we were willing to disband, they backtracked and went to see Moi. They convinced him to give the Secretary a soft landing by appointing him to the Law Reform Commission,” Abubakar recalls.

Corruption and betrayal were significant issues, dogging Ghai throughout his time as head of the CKRC. Cottrell Ghai recalls this as a particular strain on Ghai. “Some of the commissioners were very nice, but others were lazy or corrupt. They were all a bit corrupt. That was all a big strain, constantly watching whether they were stealing. Yash would say, ‘I think I’m going to resign and then the next day, he would say, ‘It’s ok. I’ll carry on.’ The up and down was quite a strain.” Ghai agrees, attributing the onset of his diabetes to this period in his life.

Githongo also recalls Ghai’s stress and frustration. “Sometimes, he would rant and we would all sit and listen. And he would go on and on sometimes, talking about receipts and accounts, and then we would gently have to say, ‘Ok, let’s get back to the agenda.’ But he needed that outlet, that safe space to express himself.” Githongo explains that the kinds of problems he faced were new to him. “He is politically very savvy, but he had never functioned in a context where such avarice, corruption and greed were so blatant. It was even amongst people who were very respected legal scholars etc., and that seemed to really throw him. He was used to different types of problems.”

Abubakar remembers meetings in which members would try and build consensus around a certain issue. “Then you see a commissioner signal and leave the room. Then two or three people follow him. Then they would come back in and do a 180-degree turn on a position, or propose something that is inherently illegal. You could see from his facial expressions that he was angry, but there were few times when he would lose his temper. On a few occasions, he would just walk out of meetings.”

By the end, the process had taken a clear toll on Ghai. Recalls Githongo, “He has done some really difficult things. He has been in situations where guys would show up armed and he would have to negotiate with them to leave their AK-47s outside of the negotiation room. So he’s used to that, but this one is much more soul destroying. It’s avaricious, corrupt, deceitful and very money-oriented. That really threw him. He found himself interacting with some of the most respected law scholars, and he found himself completely stuck on issues like travel expenses. That took a toll. What was very clear to me is that Yash has not only put his whole mind and all his experience – which are both considerable – into this but he has put his whole heart into it. He would get very hurt by the betrayals, by the lies and by the realisation that he had been strung along.”

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Ghai resigned in 2004, soon after returning to Hong Kong. Cottrell Ghai remembers being in Italy on vacation. “The internet was not that good. We had to use a dial-up connection, and after a lot of hassle he emailed his letter of resignation to the president from there.”

Despite all the challenges, Ghai does not regret accepting the job. “It meant a lot to me, especially because I had devoted a lot of my career to human rights.” He says that the chance to return home after having been “thrown out” was also significant. “In the long run, I feel it gave Kenya a new start. I don’t regret doing what I did. I met a lot of people, and I know so many more Kenyans than I would have otherwise known. It was really, really challenging, but I felt quite pleased in the end that I was able to bring some peace.”

There are still, however, elements that haunt him. “Our document was strongly parliamentary, and we were somewhat innovative about the role of the governor general in that context. I think people liked it. We were trying very hard to build a non-ethnic political system and many of those provisions are still in. I think a parliamentary system is better and more participatory; you have to be more careful as prime minister. Also, we hadn’t quite finished what we had wanted to do with devolution. I regret these two things very much indeed. The people who are now saying to change these elements are the ones who had not wanted it back then.”

In spite of the significant problems faced by Ghai and the CKRC, the Constitution of Kenya – finally promulgated in 2010 – is based largely on Ghai’s Bomas draft. For this reason, Ghai continues to be known as the “guru” and the “father” of the Constitution. One of his proudest achievements, and indeed one reason why the Constitution receives such widespread, international praise, is the Bill of Rights. “I am very proud of it,” Ghai says. “I think it’s a good document. It’s very people-oriented. There are a lot of methods through which they can take action, which they must be allowed to do. And I am particularly pleased about the Bill of Rights. If we are failing, it’s our fault. Our politicians have absolutely failed us, and now it’s up to us to solve it.”

Katiba Institute co-founder Waikwa Wanyoike agrees, describing the Bill of Rights as a personal reflection of Ghai’s thinking on human rights. Says Wanyoike, “He has a very strong connection to it. Even in terms of newer constitutions, I don’t think that we have any constitution that surpasses the Kenyan constitution, especially in terms of rights.” Wanyoike also credits Ghai for what he calls the uniquely “transformative” aspects of the Constitution. “What you get is an overthrow of the political order and the installation of a completely new political order which clearly spells out values and principles. That element of transformation is even more defining than any single chapter of the Constitution, and that was because of the design that he and the CKRC put in place, which was very, very participatory. It’s now very hard for the political class to try and trash what has been done.”

Mutunga agrees, especially with regard to the Bill of Rights. “Our Bill of Rights is the most modern in the world. It has borrowed from the progressive development of human rights from the world over . . . I am proud of it, too. In my writings I have called the jurisprudence envisioned by the Constitution ‘indigenous, rich, robust, progressive, decolonised, and de-imperialised.’ I see the constitution as rejecting and mediating the status quo that is unacceptable and unsustainable in its various provisions. If implemented, I have always argued, it could put the country in a social-democratic trajectory and act as a basis of further progressive social reform . . . if we have the political leadership committed to its implementation. It seems, however, that Kenyans as parents have given this ‘baby’ to a political leadership that cannot be trusted to grow and breathe life into it.”

Githongo also laments the nature of Kenya’s leaders, who he believes are incapable of implementing the Constitution with any sincerity. “On paper, our Bill of Rights is extremely progressive, but life is breathed into the Bill of Rights by leaders agreeing to be accountable and surprising their people by saying, ‘I can’t do this because it is wrong.’ Our guys make every effort to show that the Bill of Rights doesn’t apply to them. If you are poor, then you can die anytime; the Bill of Rights doesn’t apply to them. It hasn’t come to life for the majority of Kenyans.”

On the other hand, Githongo believes that Ghai’s work on the Constitution ensured that – despite everything – it continues to offer hope. He says, “We still have a hugely corrupt and dangerous elite that will do anything to continue looting and raping this country, but Yash wrote this Constitution so they can’t mess with certain things.”

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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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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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