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This Too Is Kenya: How the deCOALONIZE Campaign Challenged a Politicised Bureaucracy and Legal System

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The campaign to stop the construction of a coal-fired plant in Lamu encountered many hurdles. PRIYANKA DESOUZA and ALEXANDER IKAWAH document the various challenges facing the campaign and how they were successfully overcome.

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This Too Is Kenya: How the deCOALONIZE Campaign Challenged a Politicised Bureaucracy and Legal System
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On June 26, 2019, in a landmark verdict, the National Environment Tribunal (NET) halted the construction of Kenya’s first proposed coal-fired electricity-generating plant in Lamu, ruling that the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) had failed to do an adequate environmental and social impact assessment (ESIA) of the plant. Specifically, the public’s views had not been included in the ESIA study, and the ESIA itself had failed to incorporate several important environmental impacts of the proposed plant.

This judgement is a massive victory for environmental campaigns in Kenya, where too often, large political interests tend to prevail. Members of deCOALonize, the umbrella coalition group against the coal industry in Kenya that filed an appeal at NET in 2016, have had to deal with the propagation of “fake news”, intimidation, the convenient shuffling of Kenyan bureaucratic systems, and much more, which makes their win truly noteworthy. What makes this verdict even more incredible is that other environmental campaigns challenging the adequacy of the ESIA on similar, large Chinese-funded infrastructure projects, such as Save Nairobi National Park (NNP), for example, which have been branded by the government as crucial for development, have not achieved similar success.

Many researchers have questioned the need for a coal plant in the first place in Kenya when the country currently faces a power surplus. Further they argue that at the moment Kenya actually is generating a surfeit of electricity. In fact, many thermal plants in Thika and along the Athi river are currently idle. Although proponents of coal argue that more energy generation capacity is needed to meet projected demand in the future, international experts, such as Daniel Kammen from Berkeley, have shown that coal is not the cheapest technology to meet future energy needs. Very recently, the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis also produced an independent study questioning the economics of building a coal plant in Kenya.

Therefore the real question with these large infrastructure projects, is not development at what cost, but at what cost to whom?

The proposed Lamu coal plant is a Sh200 billion project that serves powerful private commercial interests (such as Centum Investments and Gulf Energy Kenya, which joined forces as Amu Power, the developer of the project) who have well-known connections to the very top of the executive branch of Kenya. These connections are reflected in the favourable terms and conditions of the power purchase agreement (PPA) between the Government of Kenya and the developers. The PPA essentially commits the government to buying electricity from the plant for the next 25 years at a favourable price (regardless of whether the electricity is used or needed). Coal is expected to arrive from South Africa to power the Lamu coal plant.

The Government of Kenya has repeatedly stressed that the Lamu plant will provide jobs for the community. However, like with the other large Chinese-financed infrastructure projects, most of the labour comes from China. The fact that most of the fishing community near the Lamu coal plant do not have a secondary education means that most of them are not qualified to be able to work at the plant, although their livelihoods will be most affected by the pollution from the plant.

The proposed Lamu coal plant is a Sh200 billion project that serves powerful private commercial interests who have well-known connections to the very top of the executive branch of Kenya.

Therefore, it is unlikely that the community would have benefited from the construction of this plant.

Furthermore, most of the community around the plant already have electricity from solar PV, and therefore there is no need of electricity from the plant. Importantly, and as stated several times in the NET judgement, the community was not involved in the decision to build the coal plant in Lamu and deCOALonize members were not invited to meetings held by Amu Power; the meetings were held in locations difficult to reach by most of the community. Therefore, their interests were not represented in the siting and planning of the plant.

Interestingly, we were told by a deCOALonize organiser that a few years previously, a coal plant was slated to be sited in Kilifi. However, the county government there is powerful, and the plan was ultimately dropped. The decision to locate a coal plant in Lamu, one of Kenya’s most marginalised counties with much less political power, does not appear, in light of this, to be accidental. The community in Lamu is well aware of this and spoke about how few roads in the North-West region of Kenya are tarmacked and low literacy rates prevail. A lot of large extractive projects have been initiated in the region. In addition to the Lamu Port and Lamu-Southern Sudan-Ethiopia Transport Corridor (LAPSSET) and the Lamu coal plant, natural gas exploration has been underway on Pate island. (It has only recently been abandoned.)

Given all of the many obstacles the campaign has had to face, how has deCOALonize managed to be so successful?

This is the central question of this article. It is important to document victories in Kenya. Too often, we only hear stories of failure and corruption. We need to challenge these hegemonic narratives by detailing how Kenyans have been winning critical battles for change.

Now, although deCOALonize won its case in court, campaigners have cautioned that the battle against the Lamu coal plant is not over. Amu Power can conduct a new ESIA and apply for a new licence, which means a new fight will ensue. The lead lawyer for deCOALonize, Lempaa Suyianka, only a few days ago was arrested on an arguably flimsy charge, and although he was released, his phone was impounded by the police. This event does not bode well for the campaign, and members of the public must continue to be vigilant to ensure that deCOALonize members do not suffer the wrath of powerful interests embroiled in this case.

In addition, the Lamu coal plant is only one of the many mega infrastructure projects in Lamu. LAPSSET, and the building of the Lamu-Garissa-Isiolo road are still underway, and have caused a lot of damage to the region, with many farmers displaced by access roads without being granted compensation, as well as acres of mangroves in the area being cleared. The public must continue to fight for the people of Lamu to ensure that compensation is disbursed to the people affected.

Still, the deCOALonize’s recent court win has set a new precedent for environmental cases in Kenya and warrants further examination. In order to do this, we first list the strategies deCOALonize activists used, as well as the challenges the campaign faced.

Raising awareness 

deCOALonize runs a transparent campaign and uploads videos of court proceedings, documents and press reports on its website. 

Kenyan scholar Nanjala Nyabola’s much-acclaimed book, Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics, charts how social media tools such as Twitter are creating spaces for Kenyans to protest and create new narratives. deCOALonize has leveraged these tools successfully to raise awareness at the local, national and international levels.

Some activists believed that the awareness about the coal projects they had generated at the international level through sustained posts on social media, participation in climate summits and street demonstrations would lead to divestment by external organisations, which would lead to the Lamu coal plant project stalling. The Industrial and Commercial Bank (ICBC) of China has agreed to finance 75 per cent of the Lamu coal plant to the tune of $2 billion, but the Government of Kenya needed to find a backer for the remaining 25 per cent needed. deCOALonize’s campaign has been successful in influencing the African Development Bank and the Standard Bank of South African, both of which have pulled out of financing the project. However, General Electric (GE) is still considering investment in the project

In addition, deCOALonize has presented evidence to UNESCO about the impact the coal plant would have on Lamu, which is a World Heritage Site. UNESCO has also recently come out strongly against the construction of the coal plant.

Partners of the campaign also believed that awareness at the national level was important. Activists said they did this to prevent the government from shifting the construction of the coal plant to another county. They particularly focused on holding a variety of public forums, photography exhibitions, protests, and other events in Nairobi, the political centre. They were successful in getting some progressive politicians, such as Boniface Mwangi, to make stopping coal part of their political campaigns.

Furthermore, at public events organisers connected the plans for building the Lamu coal plant with the broader theme of energy justice. Ordinary Kenyans are affected by the economics of the energy sector. Kenya Power and Lighting Company (KPLC) holds a monopoly on electricity transmission through the national grid. It’s cartel-like practices of inflating electricity bills at random and giving poor services have resulted in campaigns such as #SwitchOffKPLC in 2018 that have unleashed a massive backlash against the company. Cries for energy justice have made energy a topic that people are paying close attention to, and therefore, there was hope that this would catalyse a national backlash against the Lamu coal project.

One of the major tactics the government deployed in its war against deCOALonize was misinformation to the community. High-level leaders promised the community jobs and compensation, glossing over the deleterious impacts of coal. For example, Deputy President Ruto assured the community of Lamu that the coal plant would not have any impact on their health, despite evidence to the contrary.

The Kenyan government even went as far as branding Save Lamu, a member of the deCOALonize coalition, as a terrorist organisation. Save Lamu received several grants from international agencies to continue its work in fighting for the rights of the residents in Lamu affected by the building of the Lamu port and coal plant. The government claimed that the money was sent to Save Lamu to conduct terrorist activities, and ransacked their offices. The government accused Save Lamu of being involved in the 2014 massacre carried out by Al Shabaab in Mpeketoni and Pormoka in Lamu County to discredit them. It is a testament to the deep ties Save Lamu has with the community. It is still a trusted and valued organisation in the area. Save Lamu’s partnership with organisations able to provide legal representation was also crucial for it to contest these charges.

Amu Power also repeatedly stressed that it would be using the best coal technology available to reduce the environmental impacts of the coal plant. It tried to build connections with the local community by installing a water tank near the farms, among other small projects, which we witnessed first-hand when we went to Lamu.

The Kenyan government even went as far as branding Save Lamu, a member of the deCOALonize coalition, as a terrorist organisation.

However, official documents collected by deCOALonize activists have indicated that Amu Power — the special purpose vehicle formed by the developers to own and operate the Lamu coal plant – was given the right to import equipment that did not meet quality standards and a waiver on the need to pay taxes on construction. This has made many activists wonder whether, despite Amu Power protestations about taking measures to reduce adverse environmental impacts, in reality equipment from old coal power plants in China was being exported to and dumped in Kenya. Indeed, when we spoke to an activist at the actual proposed site of the coal plant, we were told that although Amu Power said they were going to use cooling technology, such as “once through cooling systems”, which they tried to sell to the community as cutting edge, when in fact this was not the case. The activist told us that he knew the details about these technologies through his conversations with communities affected by coal plants in Gujarat, India.

Despite the sustained misinformation, deCOALonize has been extremely successful in making information available to the respective local communities. They did so through holding public meetings in local languages, regularly updating their website and making resources and short summaries publicly available. Members of the coalition have recorded the court proceedings, and held events that were made accessible via Facebook live, so that the community knew what was happening.

Providing a pipeline of information from the community to the courtroom: Engaging the community proactively

Importantly, local organisations, such as Save Lamu and the Centre for Human Rights and Civic Education (CCHRCE), have been able to channel community concerns into the courtroom and to react quickly.

For example, we learnt when were in Lamu that when the community reported that an access road was being built through their farms to connect the proposed coal plant site with that of the port without an ESIA being carried out, the representative of deCOALonize on the ground was able to feed this information to the legal team, who went to NET to get a stop order for the road. This pipeline of information proved to be extremely important as the local branch of NEMA in Mokowe town in Lamu County (where the coal plant has been slated to be built) was often kept in the dark about such constructions. Instead, for mysterious reasons, officials not based in Lamu were often responsible for making decisions that would affect Lamu. deCOALonize’s information intervention was crucial in bringing government regulators on the same page.

Save Lamu has also been able to engage the community to map natural resources in Lamu to better understand the impacts of proposed projects on different groups of people, such as the Bajun, the Sanye, the Aweer and Swahili communities, so that they can speak with one voice. CCHRCE has mapped perceptions of the community whose land is part of the mining area. They have also mapped the community resources, such as schools and hospitals, currently on the land to document the costs of razing this area.

Such engagement has been extremely useful in both communities learning about the impacts of coal as they had no experience with this fuel previously. Women in Kitui experimented with using coal to heat their sufurias and noted that it caused their sufurias to melt. Both Save Lamu and CCHRCE took community members and members of their respective County Assemblies (MCAs) to other countries, such as South Africa, so they could see for themselves the impact of coal on the site. They have created a documentary on these visits to archive this knowledge. All of this has led to a true grassroots movement against coal.

Importantly, we learned that these exchanges have allowed for the transnational sharing of resources and knowledge. For example, South African activists helped facilitate some connections between climate experts and activists from Lamu in order to bolster their case in court.

deCOALonize members have come strongly out for renewable energy as an alternative to coal.

Lobbying the government at multiple levels

President Uhuru Kenyatta gave speeches about his ambitions to move Kenya 100 per cent to renewable energy by 2020. There was hope that this would lead to the halting of plans to build the coal plant as Kenya couldn’t possibly become 100 per cent reliant on renewable energy if it still depended on coal. This hope was bolstered by the National Electrification Strategy released in 2018, which explicitly supported decentralised renewable energy technologies.

However, despite President Kenyatta’s pronouncements about renewable energy in Kenya, Kenya’s Power Generation and Transmission Master Plan 2015-2035 states that coal will have a place in Kenya’s future. Moreover, the Kenyan energy regulator had approved the coal-fired Lamu plant.

The contradictions made by various levels of government fueled uncertainty and anxiety in the campaign. Nevertheless, deCOALonize engaged with different government officials to try and gain their support against the coal industry in Kenya. For example, their conversations with the former Minister of Environment, Judy Wakhungu, led to her opposing the proposed coal plant publicly.

The campaign also engaged with the county government because they recognised the power that the county government had in approving the allocation of land for the coal plant, as well as to putting pressure on the national government to abandon such projects.

In order to educate county government officials about the potential effects of coal mining, deCOALonize facilitated county government officials going to visit communities that lived near coal plants so that they would understand the true impacts of such projects. They tried to get the officials to understand the effect such a construction could have on tourism, an important source of income in Lamu. Importantly, Samia Omar, the Trade, Tourism, Culture and Natural Resources Executive, publicly resigned after voicing her opposition to the Lamu plant.

However, despite President Kenyatta’s pronouncements about renewable energy in Kenya, Kenya’s Power Generation and Transmission Master Plan 2015-2035 states that coal will have a place in Kenya’s future.

When we were in Lamu, we heard from multiple independent sources that many tourists demanded their money back when they were promised pristine clear waters to snorkel in, but instead found the water in long-time snorkeling spots muddied because of all the construction in Lamu.

The engagement with the county government, plus Natural Justice and Save Lamu’s transparency and efforts to bring all government bodies on the same page, have resulted in county government officials walking out of meetings with the National Land Commission and LAPSSET when they found out that acres of land were claimed without them being notified. Thus deCOALonize’s strategy has been productive

CCHRCE has been doing great work, teaching the community how to avail of the various constitutional means at their disposal to petition the government and be heard. CCHRCE plays an important role in Kitui, imparting civic education.

Fighting for due procedure to be followed in court

This set a precedent for external costs to be considered for any large project. deCOALonize’s recent victory on June 26, 2019 has set an important precedent for the carrying out of environmental and social impact assessments for projects in East Africa.

The fight in court was not easy. The judiciary and the bureaucracy faced extensive political interference. In Kenya, the executive branch of the state has the most control over shaping patronage networks through its power of disbursing bureaucratic appointments and resources. Kenya has a long history of corruption scandals. Joe Khamisi’s explosive book, Looters and Grabbers: 54 Years of Plunder by the Elite, 1963-2017, details in painstaking detail the systematic pillaging of the country by people right at the top.

The advent of devolution has restructured the institutional landscape. However, efforts to “get the institutions right” have been foiled by flaws in the current legal processes, corruption, low institutional capacity, as well as the lack of cooperation of formal administrative mechanisms. Other researchers have found that devolution, instead of putting a stop to corruption, might only have led to a new mindset of “its everyone’s turn to eat”.

Activists we spoke to told us that NET is a politicised organization with its own agenda. Court files have mysteriously been misplaced. Court dates and places were changed at the last moment, making it very difficult for the organisers. This happened multiple times when the court members coming from Mombasa said at the last minute that they were indisposed. For example, on May 9, 2019, NET, without warning, postponed the much-awaited judgement. Petitioners from Lamu had spent time and money to travel to Nairobi to hear the judgement and had to wait a month to receive the judgement. The most costly incident happened when Save Lamu paid for the flights for international consultants to fly to Nairobi to testify against the plant, and the hearing was postponed at the very last moment.

In addition, since 2017, Parliament has proposed an amendment to the Environment, Management and Coordination Act (EMCA), such that even if an appeal is filed against a project in court, such a legal proceeding will not automatically halt the project, as was the case earlier. A separate appeal would need to be filed to prevent the project from proceeding. Activist Omtatah filed an objection. It is yet to see whether these amendments will go through. This meant that if Amu Power was able to raise the remaining 25 per cent of the project financing, the construction of the coal plant could go ahead. This highlights the importance of the other tactics that deCOALonize has deployed in its fight against the Lamu coal plant.

There have been other complex ways in which the legal process has been thwarted. Because elites in the county, especially those from Nairobi, were aware of the impending coal project before the local residents, they bought land from the residents at throw-away prices, knowing full well that once the project started they would receive compensation for their newly bought land. We heard a similar story about land in Kitui. On visiting some of the newly bought plots in Lamu, we saw that some of the owners had erected make-shift structures that they termed as “hotels” and “restaurants” in order to increase the amount of compensation they would receive.

Restaurant/hotel built on the proposed site of the coal plant in Lamu, now damaged by the elements, to increase the value of the land (Photograph by Alexander Ikawah)

Restaurant/hotel built on the proposed site of the coal plant in Lamu, now damaged by the elements, to increase the value of the land (Photograph by Alexander Ikawah)

This created a tension in the community, as many of the new landowners wanted the project to go through to obtain compensation. On speaking to residents of Mokowe county, we were told that in many cases there were many irregularities in the documenting of the area of affected farms by the National Land Commission to allocate appropriate compensation (as the community did not have formal land tenure), resulting in land being allocated to elites/outsiders not from the area.

There have been other complex ways in which the legal process has been thwarted. Because elites in the county, especially those from Nairobi, were aware of the impending coal project before the local residents, they bought land from the residents at throw-away prices, knowing full well that once the project started they would receive compensation for their newly bought land.

The process of allocating compensation for land in Kenya is a complicated one, and more monitoring of current processes and institutions is required. Lamu, in particular, has been subject to many land grabs in the past.

This is Kenya

In an article published in The Elephant, Keguro Macharia dissects the phrase, “This is Kenya”. He describes it as a site of “violation and exhaustion” – a tool used by the rich to perform the “gatekeeping” function of naturalising a system that marginalises the poor and a tool used by the poor to express frustration at an opaque system that repeatedly denies them anything but the most meagre of existences. In other words, “This is Kenya” draws a granite boundary between what can be fought, and possibly changed, and that which cannot. This granite box contains new more equitable realisations of Kenya from bursting through.

As we spoke to deCOALonize activists to learn about the different strategies they were using to fight coal, despite their success, we inevitably got the response: “This is Kenya”. Their use of the phrase indicated that they perceived the limits of the space in which they could mount their opposition. The interior of the bounds of “This is Kenya”, or the space in which they operated, corresponded to ensuring that mechanisms of due procedure as specified by the Constitution and the laws were followed by bureaucrats and the courts. The space outside of this, separated by “This is Kenya”, comprised one that was moulded and shaped by powerful political interests over which the activists had no control. And yet, this distinction was in many ways artificial.

We unsurprisingly learnt that the boundaries implied by “This is Kenya” belies the fact that outside politics seeps into this interior politicised bureaucracy and legal system. What is the point of documenting how a politicised bureaucracy and an imperfect legal system are actually experienced and navigated? Does this mean documenting the same tired corruption scandals?

Well, for one, in this case deCOALonize actually won this critical battle in court! We hope that by detailing how this heroic campaign managed to win, we can prevent ourselves from being boxed in by “This is Kenya”, and instead see deCOALonize’s victory in court as “This too is Kenya!”

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Priyanka deSouza is a PhD student at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where she probes the different ways of understanding air pollution and its effects. Twitter: @PDez90 Alexander Ikawah is a writer and filmmaker living and working in Nairobi, Kenya. He was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story prize in 2013. Twitter: @FilmKenya

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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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Responding to COVID-19: Should Science Alone Determine Policy?
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As I was starting to write this article, the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, a victim of the coronavirus pandemic that is sweeping the globe, had just left the intensive care unit of a London hospital after fighting for his life. Just a few weeks earlier, he had been gleefully shaking hands at events, including one at a hospital treating coronavirus patients. That may seem, in hindsight, to be incredibly reckless behaviour on his part, which ignored the scientific advice we were all getting about the need for social distancing. Similarly, many may see the sluggish UK response to the threat posed by the virus as flying in the face of science.

However, a Reuters investigation suggests the opposite. In fact, Johnson may have been guilty of too uncritically following the advice of scientists. It suggests that when future historians look back at his handling of the crisis, “the criticism levelled at the prime minister may be that, rather than ignoring the advice of his scientific advisers, he failed to question their assumptions”.

Should we be listening to the doctors? It may seem like a foolish question to ask in the midst of a deadly global pandemic that had infected over 3 million people and killed more than 200,000 by the end of April. In such circumstances, heeding the advice of the medical establishment seems to be the most sensible thing to do.

However, as the disruption of national and global commerce and travel demonstrates, the coronavirus does not just attack individuals; it poses a threat to entire social and economic systems built around mass personal interactions, be they markets or transport systems. And though medics may be adept at safeguarding and even curing our bodies, they are perhaps less so when it comes to societies. As Kenyan economist and outspoken public intellectual, Dr David Ndii, pointed out on Twitter, “Our medical/epidemic experts seem to understand pathogens/disease spread but they don’t seem to understand people/society. And that’s a problem.”

However, this has not stopped governments around the world from rolling out the high priests of science (medical doctors and epidemiology specialists) to lend legitimacy and credibility to the measures they are taking, in some cases reluctantly, to combat the virus. It is, after all, difficult for the ordinary citizen to argue with inevitability as presented by knowledgeable people who have spent their lives drinking from the fountain of wisdom and who now come armed with charts and graphs and statistics predicting a terrifying apocalypse if we do not obey.

Yet the question still should be asked whether it is desirable that science and scientists should be dictating government policy responses. One thing to keep in mind is that despite the appeals to it, science doesn’t actually tell us what to do; rather, scientists attempt to explain the linkages between variables, to predict what might happen if we decided on a particular course of action. As Therese Raphael explains, “The world of scientific modelers looks so neat — pristine sloping lines on two-dimensional axes that tickle our love of pattern recognition and cause-effect. Only, that’s deceptive; it simply masks all the uncertainty.”

Models are simplified representations of reality, and inasmuch as scientists may recommend a particular path, this recommendation is based on their interpretation of what the science is telling them about the options they have looked at, the assumptions they have made, and the variables they have decided to consider. As Dr Mark Nanyingi, an infectious diseases epidemiologist explains, “Models can help in forecasting where and when the diseases are likely to occur and what measures are needed to slow down the spread. This can guide future government policies for better preparedness and response to pandemics.”

One thing to keep in mind is that despite the appeals to it, science doesn’t actually tell us what to do. Rather, scientists attempt to explain the linkages between variables, to predict what might happen if we decided on a particular course of action.

Further, as the saying goes, to a man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. So different scientists will bring their various biases to their assessment of problems. While medics may privilege the need to do whatever it takes to arrest the disease, economists, on the other hand, may point out that harming the economy could create worse problems.

Even within the medical fraternity, one might be likely to find people who think that focusing on coronavirus while ignoring other diseases that kill many more people may be a mistake. As Tom Angier of the University of St Andrews points out, “There are significant disagreements between experts even within limited domains of expertise, and these disagreements are often themselves fundamentally political.” He adds that it would be naïve to expect politically neutral results. “The rule of experts would generate not expert rule, but a cacophony of conflicting views and interests.”

Asking whether we should listen to our doctors is not about questioning their capabilities and knowledge; it is about querying the role of science and scientists in democratic governance and decision-making. Few would argue that they have no role. But it is another thing altogether to claim that theirs are the only considerations. For one, when scientists speak, it is not just the science talking; they bring with them their biases, even prejudices, as exemplified by the recent suggestion by two French doctors that a potential coronavirus vaccine should be first tried out on Africans. As Prof W. Henry Lambright notes, “When scientists leave their labs to advocate position they may be behaving much like other interest groups, trying to influence public policy.”

More importantly, technocracy (rule by unelected skilled experts) or its cousin, epistocracy (rule by the knowledgeable) may not be a good idea. As David Runciman explained two years ago in an intriguing article for the Guardian, “Even qualified economists often haven’t a clue what’s best to do. What they know is how to operate a complex system that they have been instrumental in building – so long as it behaves the way it is meant to. Technocrats are the people who understand what’s best for the machine. But keeping the machine running might be the worst thing we could do. Technocrats won’t help with that question.” Substitute medics for economists and you begin to see the conundrum.

Asking whether we should listen to our doctors is not about questioning their capabilities and knowledge; it is about querying the role of science and scientists in democratic governance and decision-making.

The British response provides a telling example. In explaining why the UK government did not join the rush to impose a lockdown, Graham Medley of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who chairs a group of scientists advising the government on pandemic responses, told The Atlantic’s Ed Yong: “My problem with many countries’ strategies is that they haven’t thought beyond the next month. The U.K. is different.” The country would not be panicked into taking rash measures, such as closing down schools, “in a way that feels good but isn’t necessarily evidence-based”.

Waiting for the evidence to come in before making a decision may sound like a good plan in the academy, but in the real world, decisions often need to be taken in the absence of full information, and waiting can have catastrophic consequences, as was the case in Italy.

Who decides?

So who should determine what the best course of action is? In a democracy, this function is left to elected public officials who then answer to the electorate. But are politicians any better placed to make wiser decisions? Not necessarily. However, as Runciman argues, the advantage of democracy is assuming that no one has a monopoly on wisdom; it “protects us against getting stuck with truly bad ideas”, even when these are promoted by the most knowledgeable people on the planet.

Democracy is better thought of as system for limiting the harm that governments can do than as a route to generating the best possible decisions. “Rather than thinking of democracy as the least worst form of politics, we could think of it as the best when at its worst.” And such damage limitation is undoubtedly a virtue when poor decisions – such as choosing to wait – could lead to people dying in the streets. As Prof Rupert Read writes regarding the situation in the UK, “Make no mistake, it is government policy that has led to the dire situation we are now in.”

But democracy cannot function in the absence of information and transparency about the basis on which governments are making their decisions. In the case of the UK, Yong pointed out that the models and data that had influenced the government’s initial strategy hadn’t been published, much to the chagrin of many scientists. “If your models are not ready for public scrutiny, they shouldn’t be the basis of public policy,” one scientist told him. The same could be said of other countries, including Kenya, where Dr Nanyingi has decried the government’s reluctance to publish the information on which it is basing its directives. “The disease belongs to the people but data belongs to the government,” he wryly observed.

However, as Runciman argues, the advantage of democracy is assuming that no one has a monopoly on wisdom; it “protects us against getting stuck with truly bad ideas”, even when these are promoted by the most knowledgeable people on the planet.

Obviously, science and the advice of scientists matters. The advantages of governments pursuing policies that are based on evidence and the best and most accurate information available cannot be disputed. And listening to the science does not automatically mean shutting down society and the economy, as countries like Sweden and South Korea may be proving. Requiring politicians to reveal the data underlying their decisions can inoculate against the tendency of politicians to play to the gallery, taking actions that may be popular or make them look decisive but that may have little actual utility. However, it must be emphasised that this is not the same as saying that it is the scientists who should be setting public policy.

In the end, querying the role of science is not really about the competence of modern day medicine-men, but rather the accountability of politicians and public officials. The decisions that need to be taken must consider the scenarios presented by different cadres of scientists, as well as the various uncertainties in their models. They will need to take into account not just consequences but also values and the aspirations of society. They will inevitably involve painful trade-offs and compromises.

In short, these are political, not technical, decisions and will require human beings prepared to make them and to be accountable for them. They are not abstract science.

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