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Battle for the Family’s Soul: Anatomy of the Orphanage Phenomenon in Kenya

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The HIV/AIDS pandemic and hardships caused by SAPs led to a dramatic rise in the number of orphanages in Kenya. However, as SIMON NJOROGE notes, the concept of orphanages is alien to Kenyan and African culture. The good news is that global and national shifts in policy could soon see the eradication of orphanages in poor countries.

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Battle for the Family’s Soul: Anatomy of the Orphanage Phenomenon in Kenya
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Orphanages, alternatively referred to as children’s homes or charitable children’s institutions as per the Children Act 2001, have been in the headlines in the recent past for a myriad of allegations ranging from abuse and neglect of children, recruitment of children from poor families and involvement in a cartel of traffickers in the guise of adoption that has involved adoption societies, lawyers, children’s officers and judicial officers. The dramatic case of Matt and Daisy Mazzoncini is the latest in a series of explosive exposés on orphanages and adoption in Kenya.

While all the focus has been on these emerging cases and the ensuing drama, a more profound discourse concerning the suitability of the orphanage as a model of care and protection of children has been ongoing for some years among policymakers, practitioners and childcare advocates. Deinstitutionalisation or the gradual replacement of the orphanage with social services at the community level coupled with family-based alternatives like foster care and kinship care have been proposed. To a keen observer, the question of whether there is a nexus between the two seemingly discrete occurrences naturally arises.

Deinstitutionalisation

Is the ongoing onslaught on childcare service providers related to the broader deinstitutionalisation discourse?

Bur first, what exactly is deinstitutionalisation?

Any attempt to effectively unpack the concept of deinstitutionalisation immediately demands an answer to the question of how the orphanage, in the first place, came to stealthily occupy the space for the care and protection of children traditionally reserved for the family. Social inertia implies that norms and institutions anchored in tradition do not easily give way to new and exotic ones unless, as a prerequisite, the social forces that anchor them are weakened by changes within the same society. New norms and institutions only come in to fill a gap which they have not themselves created but which requires filling nevertheless.

What then are these social dynamics that significantly weakened the family institution and its cultural underpinning? Why and how did the orphanage emerge? What is the impact of the orphanage on children, the family, and communities? Is the orphanage a better alternative for care and protection of children than the family? What informs the ongoing deinstitutionalisation discourse and how is it likely to shape the national child protection policy?

Any attempt to effectively unpack the concept of deinstitutionalisation immediately demands an answer to the question of how the orphanage, in the first place, came to stealthily occupy the space for the care and protection of children traditionally reserved for the family.

The orphanage is primarily a western concept. In North America, orphanages first emerged in the early 19th century while in Europe they can be traced far back to the Roman Empire. In the mid-20th century orphanages were gradually phased out in the West and replaced with foster care and welfare systems. There exists two schools of thought concerning what motivated governments in the West to adopt deinstitutionalisation policies On one hand are arguments that the motivating factor was child welfare concerns informed by evidence of the long-term negative effects of orphanages on the developmental well-being of children while on the other are arguments that policymakers were more concerned by the high costs of orphanages as a model of care of children compared to foster care and provision of social services to needy families. Whichever the case, there is consensus that both factors played a role in the eradication of the orphanage in the West.

However, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet bloc continued the use of orphanages under the communist regime until the fall of the Soviet Union. When the former Soviet countries started to join the European Union, they were given a precondition of eradicating orphanages and the practice of intercountry adoption. The EU supported these initiatives, and this saw the rise of the concept of deinstitutionalisation as it is understood today, which is a policy-driven and systematic process of eradication of child care institutions (orphanages) as a model of care for children who have lost or are at the risk of losing parental care.

The growth of the orphanage in Kenya

While countries in the West had gotten rid of orphanages and those in Eastern Europe were in the process of doing so, the opposite was happening in Kenya and Africa in general. Though there exists very scanty data on the growth of the orphanage in Kenya, it is believed that the Thomas Barnado House (now Kenya Children’s Home) was the first orphanage in Kenya. The Thomas Barnado House opened on or around independence to care for children born out of relationships between British colonial masters and Africans.

Anecdotal evidence indicates that the orphanage remained at the periphery of Kenyan society until late 1990s when the numbers began to swell rapidly, particularly in the wake of the AIDS pandemic that saw an increasing number of children losing their parents to the disease. Currently, there is no substantive evidence on the number of orphanages in Kenya though some studies indicate that there are 850 registered orphanages and an unknown number of unregistered and unregulated ones.

Traditionally in Kenya, children were cared for within the extended family and the community. This tradition was slowly eroding in Kenya by the early 1970s and by the turn of the century it was almost on the brink of total erosion or so was the impression. This trend can be attributed to several factors. The global economic downturn in the 1970s saw fluctuating prices of the country’s major exports, low levels of technology and increasing debt. Other factors, such as drought and famine, high population growth, the collapse of the East African Community, high rates of urbanisation, and land fragmentation resulted in widespread poverty, food shortages and declining standards of living.

In addition, the country’s adoption of Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) in the late 1980s, which significantly impacted the government’s investments in social services, especially education and health care and which led to rising unemployment and retrenchments. Joseph Rono, in his paper, “The Impact of the Structural Adjustment Programmes on Kenyan society” states:

The SAPs are intended in the long run to improve the economy. However, in the short run, one area that suffers from the immediate consequences of the SAPs, which has been ignored, is the social aspect of human development; namely, the erosion of social services, especially among vulnerable groups, families and individuals.”

Further, in reference to their impact on the family unit, he states:

“Although the government was committed to the reduction and eventual eradication of poverty in Kenya immediately after Independence, it has experienced difficulties in implementing its plans. Consequently, poverty has not only persisted, it has also increased significantly in the I990s, negatively affecting all sectors of development and the family unit in particular.”

In addition, the HIV pandemic further complicated the capacity of the family in two ways. One, it aggravated the already bad socio-economic conditions of the affected families and communities. The most infected were between the ages of 15 and 49 years, which constitutes the productive demographic. Many families lost their breadwinners and in most of the cases, one member of the family was forced to cut down on work hours or leave work altogether to take care of the one who was ailing. The number of orphans increased significantly with most being left in the care of either their grandparents or older siblings.

Currently, there is no substantive evidence on the number of orphanages in Kenya though some studies indicate that there are 850 registered orphanages and an unknown number of unregistered and unregulated ones.

Secondly, the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS was a direct affront on the kinship care previously attributed with caring for children who had lost their parents. While orphaned children would previously be absorbed into the extended family or close family friends, they were now shunned. In this state, the family institution was vulnerable to any external idea that would seemingly save these children.

As the pandemic quickly morphed into a humanitarian crisis, the Government of Kenya was understandably caught flatfooted. It had inherited the colonial philosophy that did not consider child care as a function of the state. As a result, Kenya didn’t have a credible child care and protection system to cater for the increasing numbers of children needing protection. This is a fact demonstrated by the laws concerning children that existed prior to 2001 when the Children Act was enacted.

The Adoption Act of 1959 was a law to govern the adoption of children. The Guardianship of Infants Act of 1959 was for guardianship and custody of infants and the Children and Young Persons Act was for the protection and discipline of children, juveniles and young persons. This implied that as the family became increasingly overwhelmed, there was no law or policy framework for services to support families in crisis or for alternatives in case the separation of children was inevitable.

In addition to introducing the term orphan in international development, the term’s definition was problematic in two ways. One, the definition branded the victim of the problem and not the problem itself. Secondly, the idea of orphan with its socio-economic connotations was hitherto alien to most African cultures.

In response to the crisis that had engulfed most African countries, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) came up with the concept of orphaned and vulnerable children (OVC) in an attempt to raise the profile of the crisis on the international development agenda. The term single orphan was introduced to refer to a child who has lost one parent while double orphan referred to one who had lost both parents. As a result, the number of orphans shot up instantly.

In addition to introducing the term orphan in international development, the term’s definition was problematic in two ways. One, the definition branded the victim of the problem and not the problem itself. Secondly, the idea of orphan with its socio-economic connotations was hitherto alien to most African cultures. Evidence indicates that most African communities still define children left behind not based on their socio-economic deprivation but on their position within their community. In the Gikuyu community, for instance, the child is referred to as “Mwana wa ndigwa” or a child who has been left behind, implying a general understanding that the child had been left in the care of the extended family or the community.

Secondly, the wisdom of the concept of vulnerable children is questionable since its implication was that almost all children in sub-Saharan Africa became the target of interventions, consequently creating a false impression that the traditional child care and protection systems in Africa has completely collapsed. It’s no surprise then that evidence indicates that between 80 per cent and 90 per cent of children in orphanages today have at least one surviving parent.

This was quickly followed by the emergence of the orphancare movement within the American Evangelical church. Though the church in the West, due to the simple lack of the bureaucracy of governments and international development agencies, was the first to respond to the crisis by mainly building orphanages through their local affiliates, the orphancare theology marked a watershed moment. Founded on James 1: 27, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world, this new gospel became the rallying call for Christians to commit to helping children out of the orphan crisis. With that, taking part in helping orphans in African and other developing countries became a measure of how Christian one was, and donations rose to unprecedented levels and so did the number of orphanages. In Kenya today, the majority of orphanages are operated by churches and Christian-based organisations with funding from mainly the US and Western Europe.

The Children Act 2001 and the official sanctioning of the orphanage

To further reinforce the position of the orphanage, the Children Act of 2001 was enacted, placing the orphanage at the core of the childcare system. Under the Act, a child must be placed into an orphanage before they can be placed for foster care or adoption. More fundamentally though, the Act was silent on the services to support vulnerable families and prevent separation or relinquishment of children.

Through the Children Act, the orphanage was thus officially and legally sanctioned as the default mode of care for children separated from their family while the family was left to its own devices. Stephen Ucembe, in his paper titled, “Institutionalization of Children in Kenya: A Child Rights Perspective”, notes that the reference to the orphanage as a charitable children’s institution in the Children Act 2001 clearly demonstrated the government’s abrogation of its role as the primary duty bearer of children’s rights – a fact demonstrated by the historical low budgetary allocation to the Department of Children’s Services and the National Council for Children’s Services. The government today only runs 26 statutory institutions meant for children in conflict with the law while churches and Christian organisations and individuals operate the 850 registered orphanages and an unknown number of unregistered ones. This is not surprising given the bizarre provision in the Charitable Children’s Institutions Regulations of 2005 that requires an orphanage to have at least 20 children before seeking registration. An orphanage simply needs to keep its numbers below this threshold and it can legally operate outside regulation.

Through the Children Act, the orphanage was thus officially and legally sanctioned as the default mode of care for children separated from their family while the family was left to its own devices.

Another key factor was the introduction of free primary education in 2003 which has been coupled with decreasing levels of funding for education, consequently reducing the quality of education in public schools. It’s estimated that 1 million primary school-age children were out of school by 2017. With orphanages either having schools within their precincts or securing sponsorships for children to attend private schools, impoverished parents relinquish their children and even ask them to lie that they are orphans to get into orphanages. Today, access to education is one of the leading reasons why children are in orphanages. Other reasons for placement of children in orphanages include abuse and neglect, gender-based violence, especially female genital mutilation, alcoholism and drug abuse, disability and discrimination.

What is the impact of orphanages on children, families and communities?

A 1999 study titled “Growth and Development of Abandoned Babies in Institutional Care in Nairobi” concluded that infants under institutional (orphanage) care have poorer growth and development compared to mothered infants. This is consistent with decades of research that has proven that care in orphanages has adverse impact on the cognitive, intellectual and social development of children, especially those below the age of three. The rule of thumb is that for every three months that a child below the age of three spends in an orphanage, he or she loses one month in development. Institutionalisation of children under the age of three is classified as a form of violence by the World Report on Violence Against Children.

In addition, evidence also demonstrates that violence against children is six times more likely in orphanages as compared to family settings – a fact not openly acknowledged due to the secluded nature of orphanages which allows most abuse to go unnoticed. Children in orphanages, their parents and the community also lack agency and are less likely to report abuse, especially if the benefactor is the perpetrator.

The orphanage perpetuates social isolation resulting in adjustment challenges once children exit. Care leavers lack social capital since they are cut off from their families and communities. They lack social skills to negotiate life outside the orphanage. Research indicates that they are more likely to end up in crime and prostitution, more inclined to suicide, while young women are likely to end up in abusive relationships and their children are likely to end up in an orphanage, thus perpetuating an endless cycle of poverty and institutionalisation.

Additionally, the orphanage infringes on children’s right to parental care, growth and development, freedom of association and of worship, particularly when children attend school and church within its confines. It also encourages discrimination and stigma against children.

The orphan ideology and the orphanage institution are a direct affront on the ideology and institution of the family. As indicated earlier, the idea of the orphaned and vulnerable child is not only foreign to African culture but also creates a false perception that the contemporary African family is irredeemably and inherently incapable, abusive, neglectful and exploitative towards children by classifying almost all children as being in need of care. For instance, there are reported to be 3.6 million orphaned and vulnerable children in Kenya out of which approximately 50,000 are in orphanages while between 400,000 and 500,000 live on the streets. Even if the number of children in orphanages was doubled to cater for those in unregistered orphanages, at least 83 per cent of these children would still be living with their families, though at risk of separation.

In a more direct affront on the position of the family, orphanage operators often refer to the orphanage as a family, and/or outrightly delegitimise the impoverished family. In a study titled, “Children’s Personal Data: Discursive Legitimation Strategies of Private Residential Care Institutions on the Kenyan Coast”, Njeri Chege notes that references to the orphanage as a family on orphanages’ websites are meant to legitimise the orphanage by attributing to it the authority of the family as a social institution. She highlights that the communication advances a rescue discourse that portrays the dysfunctional family as either an inherent threat to the child’s well-being or helpless. The orphanage is portrayed as the saviour and appropriate environment for the child. She further notes that communications by the orphanages only refer to unfit mothers with no mention of the fathers, while the extended family is only mentioned in situations where they are referring children to the orphanages.

Such narratives erode the legitimacy of the family both locally and abroad and further reinforce the impression of the hopeless African family created by the orphan and vulnerable children concept. This is especially potent for the younger generation of Kenyans born into the era of the orphanage and who because of the orphanage’s prominent presence and the repeated reference to it as a family end up internalising it as a legitimate or even better form of family while in actual sense it’s a much inferior alternative. The orphanage thus diverts resources that would be sufficient to provide social services to families at the community level. Evidence demonstrates that both provision of services at the community level and community foster care are more cost-effective than running orphanages.

Global an national policy shifts

The foregoing notwithstanding, the suitability of the orphanage is being questioned in Kenya today. This conversation has been driven by several factors at the international and national levels.

The Government of Kenya in 2010 formulated the National Social Protection Policy followed by the Social Assistance Act of 2013. The Act provides for, among other things, a cash transfer for orphaned and vulnerable children. The stipend is meant to enable vulnerable families to take care of their children. Other cash transfers include that for the elderly and persons living with severe disability.

In response to the United Nations Guidelines for Alternative Care of Children adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2009, the government developed the Guidelines for the Alternative Family Care of Children in Kenya, which were launched in 2015. The guidelines recommend the development of a deinstitutionalisation strategy. Since then, there has been a consistent push by a section of civil society for the implementation of the guidelines, which culminated in the formation of the Association for the Alternative Family Care of Children in Kenya in 2016. The government, through the Department of Children’s Services and in collaboration with UNICEF Kenya and other partners, is currently piloting the guidelines in Kisumu County.

The Government of Kenya in 2010 formulated the National Social Protection Policy followed by the Social Assistance Act of 2013. The Act provides for, among other things, a cash transfer for orphaned and vulnerable children.

Perhaps one of the clearest indications of the inevitable change is the decision by the trailblazing SOS Children’s Villages Kenya to gradually shift focus from their villages to the integrated foster care model, which basically involves moving the family units from the centralised cluster and scattering them within the community, effectively eliminating social isolation and allowing children to better integrate into society.

At the global level, several developments have heightened the prospects of a global shift, which inevitably exerts pressure on national policymakers. These include the inclusion of orphanage trafficking as a form of modern day slavery in the Australian Modern Day Slavery Act in the midst of an initiative to have all Commonwealth countries enact modern day slavery laws. The resolution by the Commonwealth Youth Forum at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London in 2018 calling on all member states to prioritise policies and programmes that prevent placement of children into orphanages. The latter is particularly interesting given that Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 2020 will take place in Kigali, Rwanda, a country that is the trailblazer in deinstitutionalisation in Africa.

In 2018 the European Union placed its first ever call for proposals for deinstitutionalisation, signaling a possible intent to export its deinstitutionalisation policy position outside its jurisdiction, while the UN General Assembly selected “Children without Parental Care” as the theme for the Rights of the Child in 2019. All eyes will be on New York as it hosts the UN General Assembly in September 2019 when the resolution will be released.

Recruitment of children into orphanages has also become increasingly recognised in the US State Department’s Report on Trafficking in Persons. Most significant though is the recently launched US Government “Advancing Protection and Care of Children in Adversity’ Strategy 2019-2023”, which has “Put Family First” as one of its three core objectives. The strategy represents the most explicit and candid policy position by a major donor on the need to eradicate orphanages as a form of care.

Schools of thought and policy positions

In this context, it seems inevitable that the orphanage will inevitably either be eradicated or it may undergo some radical change. Undeniably, the actors in the country are aware of this and have embarked on initiatives to try and shape the discourse in their favour, either for self-preservation, positioning or even raw power play.

Three schools of thought or policy positions have emerged, each with a different motive, deinstitutionalisation ideology, and theory of change. The first policy position is the “conservative” position associated with the Association for Charitable Children Institutions in Kenya, which is the umbrella body for orphanages in Kenya. Unsurprisingly, this school of thought, though acknowledging the harm caused by orphanages, argues that the situation on the ground makes orphanages inevitable. “How do we take children back to the same families who abused and neglected them in the first place?” is their argument. Fundamentally though, they have redefined deinstitutionalisation to mean removal of children from orphanages through reintegration as opposed to removal of the orphanage from the childcare and protection system, effectively turning the orphanage system into a revolving door where children come in and out. Consequently, they are proposing the strengthening of orphanages to adhere to the National Standards of Care for Charitable Children Institutions and the strengthening of families at the same. They do not propose when and how the actual transition from orphanages to families will occur.

The second position is the “slash and burn” position whose proponent is the Child Welfare Society of Kenya. Though seemingly unrelated to deinstitutionalisation, this school of thought presents the most radical strategy for reintegrating children within three years, closing of all orphanages and replacing them with 47 mega foster care centres, one in each county. Funded by the national budget, construction of the facilities is currently underway in several counties. The second proposal is the centralisation of policymaking and service provision at the Child Welfare Society of Kenya. The argument is that a government agency will better guarantee child safety as opposed to private ones, which have been branded as rogue. However, evidence suggests that the key to safeguarding children lies in strict enforcement of sound regulations and presence of checks and balances at all levels and not necessarily whether the service provider is a state or non-state agency.

To justify overrunning of all the other players, this school of thought has adopted the emotive child trafficking in the guise of adoption narrative. It should, however, be acknowledged that adoption and child protection in general suffers deep systemic weaknesses that are beyond the scope of this essay, and not simply a matter of some alleged rogue players as the narrative seems to portray. The situation has further been aggravated by years of poor regulation, which has seen the rise of unscrupulous orphanage operators that expose children to abuse, neglect, exploitation and trafficking. This school of thought is focused on centralised regulation as opposed to reform.

The third position is the “care reform” position propagated mainly by the Association for Alternative Family Care of Children. In this case, deinstitutionalisation is just an entry point into broader social reforms aimed at provision of basic social services at the community level and resourced family-based alternatives. Though radical in its intended outcome, this school of thought is advocating for a more systematic approach encompassed in a clear strategy comprising political will for reforms, building the capacity of civil society organisations and the social workforce, building evidence through, among other avenues, piloting of the concept, and the securing of funding for reforms, including ring fencing of resources being channeled into orphanages currently. This position is informed by the model applied mainly in Eastern Europe and Rwanda and its main global proponents are tge international charities Hope and Homes for Children and Lumos, a charity founded by the iconic Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling.

Currently, this model is being piloted in Nyamira, Kisumu and Kiambu counties under the banner of Changing the Way We Care programme spearheaded by the Department of Children’s Services, Catholic Relief Services and Lumos. USAID, under the “Advancing Protection and Care for Children in Adversity” strategy mentioned above, is co-funding the initiative alongside the MacAuthor Foundation. A similar pilot is currently underway in Murang’a County under the stewardship of the Department of Children’s Services and the charity Stahili Foundation.

In his thesis titled, “For the Benefit of Children Alone? A Discourse Analysis of Policymaking Relating to Children’s Institutions in Indonesia, 1999-2009”, Brian Keith Babington examined the process of deinstitutionalisation policymaking in Indonesia and found out that the policy position finally adopted in the country was not informed by child welfare concerns but was a compromise between the policy positions adopted by different players, in addition to some influence from external development partners. The Kenyan situation is similar to that of Indonesia in terms of orphanage ownership, poor regulation, the emergence of different policy positions and the involvement of major development agencies. In addition, the robust civil space in Kenya makes policymaking highly participatory in most cases. It is, therefore, likely that in the long term, a compromise of the different policy positions and the influence of international development agencies will shape the final policy position adopted in Kenya.

In conclusion, it is evident that though the family was gradually weakened by socio-economic factors from the 70s, the tipping point was the HIV pandemic and the lack of a child care system at the time of its emergence. The interventions and narratives that followed, including the concept of the orphan and the orphanage, further aggravated the situation by affronting traditional child care systems and focusing on the symptoms of the problem and not the problem itself.

The ultimate solution, therefore, lies in changing the ideological foundation and narratives, policies and practices on child care to focus on the family and community. Rehabilitating the family and community child care systems will not only eradicate the need for the orphanage but will also solve the problem of children living on the streets, reduce abuse and neglect of children and improve the overall well-being of children, their families and communities. Failure to do this will only see the family, especially the impoverished one, increasingly fail in its child rearing role, which could be disastrous considering that children make up to slightly over half of the Kenyan population.

Against this backdrop, it is stark clear which of the policy positions is sounder from the perspective of the problem as defined herein.

This notwithstanding, the “slash and burn” position seems to have the support of the executive perhaps due to the proximity of the Child Welfare Society of Kenya to the First Family. The president was their patron at the time they were made a state corporation after succeeding his mother. The position by the Labour and Social Services Cabinet Secretary on the government’s plan to close orphanages therefore need not be interpreted as a sign of political goodwill for care reform but rather for a specific policy position within the broader care reform discourse. More interesting is the seeming difference in position between the Department of Children’s Services, on the one hand, and the Cabinet Secretary and the Child Welfare Society of Kenya, on the other.

The ultimate solution, therefore, lies in changing the ideological foundation and narratives, policies and practices on childcare to focus on the family and community. Rehabilitating the family and community childcare systems will not only eradicate the need for the orphanage but will also solve the problem of children living on the streets.

With all the pushing and shoving, the deinstitutionalisation policymaking process is likely to produce on the most dramatic and interesting policy processes witnessed thus far. It can only be hoped that in the end, the best interest of Kenyan children will prevail.

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Simon Njoroge is the Co-founder and Executive Director at Jabali Foundation a Kenyan non-profit that seeks to provide every child with a solid foundation to life which we believe is in a safe and loving family.

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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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