Connect with us

Politics

Conservation Vs “Development”? The Political Ecology of the Stiegler’s Gorge Dam and the Selous Game Reserve

14 min read.

The up and downstream impact of the proposed Stiegler’s Gorge Dam depends on its completion, which is by no means guaranteed, but the Selous Game Reserve is already counting the costs.

Published

on

Conservation Vs “Development”? The Political Ecology of the Stiegler’s Gorge Dam and the Selous Game Reserve
Download PDFPrint Article

Wildlife tourism is one of Tanzania’s main foreign exchange earners and an important source of formal employment, but the sector’s survival is threatened by poaching, mineral exploration, and pressure from farmers and cattle-keepers to access farmland, fuel, pasture and protein in protected areas. For the Selous Game Reserve (SGR), the decision to build Africa’s largest dam across the Rufiji River adds a new and potentially devastating dimension to these existing threats.

Between a quarter and thirty per cent of Tanzania consists of national parks, conservation areas, game reserves, and controlled and protected areas. Until last year, the Selous was the world’s largest game reserve, covering an area of 50,000 sq. kms (larger than Denmark). In 1896, the area was designated a protected area by the Governor of Tanganyika Hermann von Wissmann, and it was made a hunting reserve in 1905. Last year’s gazetting of the 31,000 sq. kms Nyerere National Park reduced the SGR by sixty per cent, to about 20,000 sq. kms. President Magufuli justified this radical move as a means of reducing hunting tourism. “Tourists come here and kill our lions, but we don’t benefit a lot from these wildlife hunting activities”, Magufuli said. Slicing up the SGR will also complicate future negotiations over its status as a World Heritage Site, discussed below.

Exploration and mining concessions to Western and Russian oil, gas and uranium companies covering an estimated six per cent of Selous constitute a further challenge to the reserve’s integrity, and have been widely criticised by environmentalists. By 2017 there were said to be 48 prospective oil, gas and uranium concessions in the SGR (See Map 1), but for the moment, the government has put their development on hold. If and when the price of uranium reaches a certain threshold, we may expect mining to take off, with the attendant negative environmental consequences.

From the Selous’ killing fields…

The Selous once boasted Africa’s largest concentration of elephants and other megafauna. Waves of sustained ivory poaching reduced the elephant population from about 100,000 to only 13,000 in 2013. In 1982, SGR was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site for protective purposes, and in 2014, it was added to UNESCO’s List of World Heritage Sites in Danger, by which time poaching, driven by the Asian ivory trade, was threatening to wipe out Tanzania’s entire elephant population, leading UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre (WHC) and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to declare that: “there appears to be no coherent governmental response which could halt or even reverse the documented poaching trends”. Successive Tanzanian governments, politicians and officials, were widely considered complicit at best or, at worst, actively involved in facilitating the trade.

… to the Stiegler’s Gorge Dam…

In 2016, Stiegler’s Gorge Dam (SGD) was included in the Tanzania Power System Master Plan, and the project was finally underway. In the same year, the WHC expressed its “utmost concern about the ongoing project despite a high likelihood of serious and irreversible damage to the Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) of the property”, that is, the Selous. In 2017, UNESCO stated bluntly: “The foreseeable impact of Stiegler’s Gorge Hydropower project is irreversibly damaging to the Outstanding Universal Value of the property and clearly not in line with the Committee’s position on the incompatibility of dams with large reservoirs inside a World Heritage property”. UNESCO consequently recommended that the Tanzanian government should “permanently abandon” the project.

… enraging the conservationists…

In addition to UNESCO and other UN agencies, conservationists and the wildlife tourism industry were dismayed by the proposed dam, as were bilateral agencies and NGOs supporting Tanzania’s conservation efforts. They complained that no robust social or economic impact analysis, environmental assessment or public consultations informed the decision to proceed with the dam. The brief Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) produced by the University of Dar es Salaam’s Consultancy Bureau in 2018 contained “hardly any quantitative predictions of positive or negative impacts” of the proposed dam. Conservationists further argue that, by disturbing annual water flow patterns, the dam will have a potentially devastating impact on farmers and fishers downstream from the dam, and on the vast mangrove forest in the Rufiji Mafia-Kilwa Marine Ramsar Site, another internationally protected area. The dam would trap sediment and organic matter normally transported to the coast and enriching downstream agriculture, fisheries and hatcheries. Interrupted water flows would lead to increased salination upstream from the delta.

In addition, critics argue, the dam’s reservoir will take years to fill and will be subject to increasing rates of evaporation as temperatures rise under global warming. Up-stream irrigated rice cultivation on the Kilombero River and sugar on the Great Ruaha have reduced the volume of water flowing into the Rufiji, and future unpredictable weather patterns could lead to crippling drought. Effectively, only the waters of the Rufiji will be filling the dam’s vast reservoir. A more optimistic scenario could see an increase in precipitation from the unpredictable effects of climate change on micro-climates.

New roads and power transmission lines and the arrival of contractors and workers on the dam site and attendant commercial activities will have a massive and uncontrolled impact on the local environment and encourage further poaching, say the project’s critics. The millions of tons of cement required to build the dam will stimulate the local cement industry, but at the cost of a massive carbon footprint (cement accounts for about eight per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions). Loggers have already cleared the dam site of vegetation, and the site of the projected 1,200 sq. kms. reservoir, containing nearly three million trees, awaits the same fate, with unknown effects on wildlife habitats and biodiversity. When the loggers entered the park in late 2018, one luxury lodge announced its imminent closure.

… and leading economists to wave a red flag

Not only conservationists have found fault with President Magufuli’s mega-project. Though the necessary data for a robust analysis are lacking, economists argue that the dam makes neither financial nor economic sense and that there are cheaper, smaller, less risky and more practical alternatives for increasing access to electricity. Joerg Hartmann, an independent consultant who undertook an economic feasibility assessment of the project, argues that: “Stiegler’s Gorge has become unnecessary, and would be a significant economic burden for Tanzania”. The dam is likely to cost a multiple of the present contract price, and take much longer to build than currently proposed. One recent estimate puts the total cost of the dam at nearly $10 billion, while the Brazilian conglomerate Odebrecht estimated that it would take 9-10 years to complete, and not the three years claimed. At over 11 US cents per unit (kWh), SGD power would cost almost twice the current tariff, and a multiple of the cost of power from gas.

Currently, Tanzania has surplus power generation capacity of 280MW, and it is most unlikely that so much additional power would find a market. The project’s supporters claim that surplus power from the SGD will be exported. A 2018 World Bank technical appraisal for a power interconnectivity project between Tanzania and Zambia argued that internal demand for electricity was inadequate to justify the SGD, so that it could only be justified if exports were built into the project.

A final risk facing the planned dam is the apparent inexperience of the Egyptian contractors. According to Barnaby Dye, Arab Contractors, a state-owned company, worked on the giant Russian-built Aswan Dam in the 1960s, but only as one of many sub-contractors, while the second company, El Sweeny, builds transmission lines, not complex electro-mechanical systems.

President Magufuli defends his project

Defending the dam that he claims will power his ambitious industrialisation programme, President Magufuli claims that it will affect “just three percent” of the SGR, and will help combat deforestation across the country by providing citizens with a cheap alternative to charcoal and wood fuel. Ironic, therefore, that over 90,000 ha of miombo woodlands and forest risk losing an estimated 2.6m trees in the dam’s reservoir. For the moment, only the dam site has been cleared. President Magufuli says more power will be required for industrial growth, rural electrification and to run the Standard Gauge Railway, justifying one mega-white-elephant project in terms of the needs of another. Arguably, diesel power would be more economical than electricity given the probable low traffic density on the new railway, though this needs to be examined empirically.

Critics argue that the notion that rural Tanzanians will soon enjoy cheap hydropower via the national grid thanks to the SGD is highly unrealistic. The huge investments in transmission and distribution infrastructure required to make this work have not been costed, and the limited demand for electric power would make the required investment to reach Tanzania’s vast rural hinterland hugely expensive. Solar mini-grids have become widely popular and can be supplied at little cost to the state by commercial and social investors. Gas, not electricity, is the best (or least bad) alternative to unsustainable charcoal use for cooking in Dar es Salaam and other urban centres.

The President’s claim that “just three percent” of the SGR will be affected by the dam is also challenged by environmentalists, pointing to the downstream impacts and the likely negative effects of the dam’s construction on the Selous discussed above.

Past plans to dam the Rufiji came to nothing

Both colonial and post-independence governments explored the viability of damning the Rufiji River at Stiegler’s Gorge to produce power and develop irrigation agriculture. In the 1970s, Swedish aid financed dams at Kidatu and Mtera on the Ruaha River, a tributary of the Rufiji, upstream from Stiegler’s Gorge. At different times, detailed technical studies and construction designs by Japanese, American and Norwegian aid agencies and consultants led nowhere, while the World Bank concluded that, on the basis of demand projections and environmental concerns, a large dam was not feasible. Donors subsequently funded two more small- to medium-size dams, at Kidatu and Pangani.

Increasing power shortages and rationing under Presidents Mkapa (1995-2005) and Kikwete (2005-15) led the government to seek private investors through power purchasing agreements. South African, Canadian and Chinese companies came forward with hydropower proposals, but the main interest came from Brazil’s giant Odebrecht corporation, which in 2012 signed an MOU with the Rufiji Basin Development Authority (RUBADA).The MOU specified a seven-year timeline to finish the first phase and a further three years to complete the project. But the project preliminaries had not been finalised before the corruption scandal known as Operation Carwash” made Odebrecht a household name for serial bribery in Brazil and internationally, and led to the imprisonment of three former Brazilian presidents. President Magufuli disbanded RUBADA in 2017 and the SGD’s client is now Tanzania’s power utility TANESCO under the supervision of the Ministry of Energy.

Not even China, Africa’s premier source of concessional finance for big infrastructure projects, including dams, has shown any interest in financing this one. As of 2015, Chinese contractors were involved in dam building projects in over twenty African countries, from Angola to Zimbabwe. Though estimates vary, Deborah Brautigam and her team identified Chinese-financed dam projects in 17 African countries in 2013, financed by concessional loans from China’s Exim Bank worth nearly US$7 billion.

Finally, no private investors could be found to finance a dam on a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) basis. Globally, private developers are increasingly reluctant to invest in large dams for power production or irrigation. Human rights activists condemn forced population displacements while the economics of large dams are increasingly questionable. No forced population movements are involved in the SGD project, however.

What has changed to make this project viable?

After so many years of aborted plans to build a dam, what has changed to make Stiegler’s a viable project? The answer is: nothing. If anything, the project is even less viable now than it was a decade ago, before Tanzania’s huge gas deposits off its southern coast began to be exploited. The risks attached to continued upstream-irrigated agriculture and siltation increase with time, bringing the additional risk that the dam’s reservoir could fail to provide the volume of water required to run the facility at a capacity level that would justify the huge investment involved.

For sixty years, no bilateral development agency nor the World Bank has been willing to finance a dam at Stiegler’s Gorge, though these agencies have funded numerous medium-size dams over the years on tributaries of the Rufiji River, which regularly dry up during the dry season and are increasingly vulnerable to unpredictable rains. A study titled Structural adjustment and sustainable development in Tanzania reported that siltation was a common feature of small dams in Arusha, Kilimanjaro, Dodoma, Tanga and Rukwa regions. Falling water levels due to the degradation of water catchment areas rendered the potential of hydropower “doubtful”.

Beware of the mega-dam syndrome

If completed, the 700m long by 130m high SGD would be one of Africa’s largest dams by installed capacity, equal to Egypt’s Aswan High Dam (2,100MW) and Mozambique’s Cahora Bassa (2,075MW). A rapid review suggests that SGD will generate few of the benefits but suffer most of the costs normally associated with large dams. A study titled Megaprojects and risk: An anatomy of ambition lists four typical flaws of mega-projects, including dams: “underestimated costs, overestimated revenues, undervalued environmental impacts and overvalued economic development effects”. All four appear to apply in the case of the SGD. The study argues that: “Megaprojects are systematically subject to “survival of the unfittest”, the worst projects get built instead of the best”. Big dams are inherently high-risk. In a 2014 study, researchers from Oxford University concluded that: “In the vast majority of cases . . . megadams are not economically viable”.

Map 1: Selous Game Reserve

Map 1: Selous Game Reserve. Source DW

Note: The map shows the SGR before the creation of the Nyerere National Park in 2019.

Dams per se are not the issue, but mega-dams. Though it is by no means true that dams are carbon-neutral, hydro is still by far the most common source of renewable power worldwide, accounting for around 90 per cent of renewable energy generation. The main problems with mega-hydro highlighted in the literature are population displacement, often accompanied by inadequate compensation, and the up- and down-stream impacts on local eco-systems discussed in this report. Despite mega-dams’ bad reputation, a number of countries are investing heavily in mega-hydro, including Ethiopia, Brazil, Pakistan and China. The SGD does not involve population displacements.

Megaprojects are systematically subject to “survival of the unfittest”, the worst projects get built instead of the best

But the dam’s power generation capacity is also questionable. The figure of peak generation capacity of 2,100MW was based on a 25-year old feasibility study, since when the Rufiji River’s average volume is said to have fallen by as much as a quarter. Upstream agriculture and (possibly) climate change are responsible. Experts see the effects of climate change (more droughts, storms, floods) as a threat to the viability of hydropower globally. According to Clemente Prieto of the Spanish Committee on Large Dams: “Climate change is having a remarkable impact on hydropower generation and it increases the challenge of managing hydro plants”. Though the effects of climate change are difficult to predict, the increasing intensity of extreme and unusual climatic events is well documented. 

A dysfunctional aid relationship

UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre, prominent wildlife and nature conservation bodies, including the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), numerous donors and a substantial number of private philanthropies dealing with specific animals and issues (hunting, poaching, wildlife trafficking, forestry, water), have commented negatively on the SGD initiative, so far to no avail. Germany, one of the most vocal critics of the project, has been at the forefront of wildlife conservation efforts in Tanzania since colonial times. Over many years, Germany has financed the Tanzanian government, technical experts, the Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS) and others to promote conservation efforts in the Selous. After a heated debate in the German Bundestag in early 2019, a proposal that future Germany aid should be made conditional on Tanzania abandoning the dam was rejected, while it was agreed that Germany should assist Tanzania in finding an alternative source of power. This offer was not pursued.

Climate change is having a remarkable impact on hydropower generation and it increases the challenge of managing hydro plants

Critics wonder why, given the Tanzanian government’s refusal to enter into a substantive dialogue with its main long-term advisor/financier on conservation issues, while constantly ignoring its own international conservation commitments and policies, Germany continues to fund conservation efforts in Tanzania. In late 2018, a group of German experts was refused permission to enter the Selous to check on progress in anti-poaching. A German source commented: “International nature conservation organizations are increasingly wondering about the German policy of ‘paying and keeping their mouth shut’’. An expert from KfW (Germany’s state development bank) resigned after two years, during which the GOT restricted his visits to Selous (his work site). Underlying the protracted stand-off is the widespread belief that the rapid decimation of Tanzania’s elephant population—a two-thirds decline from about 109,000 in 2009 to about 43,000 in 2014—was facilitated by the active participation of elements within the Tanzanian state. The slow release of a 2018 aerial survey of wildlife in the Selous fuels suspicions that poaching is still an issue. It took two years to release the report, which the German government had financed. According to Henry Mwangonde, the number of elephants had stabilised at just over 15,000, more or less the number counted in 2014, suggesting little or no recovery.

Comment is free … and punishable

Once the government launches a major project, its implementation is declared “inevitable” and beyond discussion, and any internal criticism is deemed “unpatriotic” and “treasonable”, while development prospects. Magufuli accused “some” CSOs and NGOs “of being used by ‘foreigners’” to push the latter’s agenda. In May 2018, both ruling party and opposition MPs challenged the decision to proceed with the SGD project in advance of an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), and the premature issuing of licences to clear-fell the site of the dam’s future reservoir.

International nature conservation organizations are increasingly wondering about the German policy of ‘paying and keeping their mouth shut’

These mild criticisms were met with an impassioned threat from environment minister Kangi Lugola, who told parliament: “. . . the government will go ahead with implementation of the project whether you like it or not. Those who are resisting the project will be jailed”. Since then, apart from praise-singing, local commentary has been muted, while external critics have focused more on the conservation aspects of the project than on its economic and financial implications, though the two are related. No academic economist, Think Tank or newspaper editorialist has commented negatively on the project, while social media sources have featured both critical and pro-Magufuli commentary, albeit with little insight into the underlying issues. It is striking that no advocacy group or alliance in or outside Tanzania has challenged the SGD through public interest litigation, as happened in the case of the proposed road across the Serengeti.

Conservation versus “development”: a zero-sum game?

Rapid population growth is fueling increasing conflicts between farmers and cattle-herders over land. Both groups face off against conservationists, big-game hunters and the safari tourism industry in what is increasingly becoming a zero-sum game. Attempts for more than two decades to “empower” villagers to protect rather than harvest wildlife and forest reserves have largely failed. Last year, President Magufuli ordered the deregistration of a number of “idle” forest and game reserves totaling over 700,000ha for “redistribution to wananchi for residential and farming uses”. Subsequently, the government announced the creation of three new national parks, including one near President Magufuli’s home district of Biharamulu. In addition, the government has recently legalised the hunting and sale of game meat, a move that conservationists see as opening the door to the widespread slaughter of wildlife. The wildlife survey mentioned above reported a 72 per cent decline in the number of wildebeest in the Selous between 2013 and 2018. According to Mwangonde, the numbers for buffalo and antelope have not been released, but there are thought to have been significant decreases. Lastly, though the President justified the creation of Nyerere National Park in terms of stopping hunting tourism, the ban on commercial hunting that was imposed in 2015 has been partially lifted.

For your information, the government will go ahead with implementation of the project. . . Those who are resisting the project will be jailed

With or without a functioning dam, the SGR has taken an additional hit. While ivory poaching may have been curbed for the moment, and uranium mining and oil and gas exploration are on hold, the disruptions caused by the SGD contractors and the impending clear-felling of the dam’s imagined reservoir only add to these and other threats to the (now much smaller) SGR’s long-term survival. A gloomy but realistic prognosis is that further population growth and the impact of climate change will eventually put an end to conservation and wildlife tourism in the Selous and throughout the continent. According to Kenyan conservationist Richard Leakey, as a result of climate change: “. . . the problems we all face now are far beyond the power of individual conservationists to cope with”.

Alhough many conservationists would challenge this view, it is difficult to see how fences and armed wardens can ward off climate change even if they can prevent “trespassing”, illegal hunting and grazing, or how farmers and pastoralists can be “empowered” to conserve rather than degrade forests and grasslands in the absence of an effective state that can legislate, coordinate and regulate the management of natural resources effectively and efficiently in the public interest. Even without the gathering storm clouds of climate change, and the obscenities of ivory poaching and wildlife trafficking, population growth and competition over finite resources are likely to lead us inexorably towards a comprehensive tragedy of the commons.

Resource misallocation and delays

Beyond conservation issues, however, is the question of resource misallocation, which economists now treat as a major explanation of why some economies and firms perform better than others. Though universal, the issue of systemic resource misallocation is particularly devastating in poor countries, where investible savings are by definition limited, and where prestige projects, white elephants and poor policy analysis and implementation commit huge amounts of capital to non-performing ventures, at enormous opportunity costs. Africa is littered with examples of leaders’ vainglory, extravagance and incompetence.

President Magufuli is pinning his legacy on what he terms “strategic” infrastructure projects, perhaps reflecting, in Flyvbjerg’s words, “The rapture politicians get from building monuments to themselves and their causes, and from the visibility this generates with the public and media”. But the success of the strategy depends on the success of the projects. If they succeed, the leader’s legacy is assured. If they fail, so does the legacy.

Wildlife trafficking, population growth and competition over resources are likely to lead us inexorably towards a comprehensive tragedy of the commons

President Magufuli’s penchant for multi-billion-dollar infrastructure projects is stretching Tanzania’s finances to the limit, consuming an ever-larger part of the national budget and growing the national debt. Since coming to power in 2015, he has: initiated a 2,500km, $14.2 billion standard gauge railway (SGR) to replace the narrow gauge line and extend it to neighbouring countries; revived the country’s airline Air Tanzania Company Ltd (ATC) with new aircraft, including four Airbus A220-300s and two Boeing 787-8 Dreamliners; signed off on a three-kilometre, $260m bridge across the Mwanza Gulf on Lake Victoria, and launched a number of other costly projects.

It is most unlikely that the SGD will be commissioned before the end of President Magufuli’s second term in 2025, given the typical delays and cost overruns in mega-dam construction, leaving the unfinished project as a potentially costly embarrassment for the next government to deal with. Hopefully, ongoing investments in gas-fueled power plants, bottled gas for urban consumers and off-grid solar for rural areas will assure adequate power and help control deforestation in the likely event of an aborted Stiegler’s Gorge Dam.

Avatar
By

Mr Sarokin is an independent researcher based in Arusha, Tanzania.

Politics

A Problem of Denial: Why Tanzania Could Lose the War Against COVID-19

President Magufuli’s response to the current coronavirus crisis has been far from exemplary. Some of his actions, like urging pubs to throw post-coronavirus parties and firing those who question his bizarre remedies for COVID-19, could actually put the lives of thousands of Tanzanians at risk.

Published

on

A Problem of Denial: Why Tanzania Could Lose the War Against COVID-19
Download PDFPrint Article

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.

Continue Reading

Politics

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.

Published

on

A Very Political Virus: Trumpism’s Ridiculous Response to COVID-19
Download PDFPrint Article

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.

Continue Reading

Politics

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.

Published

on

Responding to COVID-19: Should Science Alone Determine Policy?
Download PDFPrint Article

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.

Continue Reading

Trending