We all know that something big happened in Kenya in 2013: instead of all government power being concentrated in Nairobi, 47 new governments came into existence. They all have certain powers guaranteed by the Constitution, and certain resources from the national government, as well as money they raise themselves.
But what does this mean for women?
Article 174 of the Constitution gives important clues to why this system, called devolution, or county governments, was created. Key words and phrases include diversity, people making decisions affecting them, public participation, social and economic development, service delivery, equitable sharing, interests and rights of minorities and marginalised communities, and accountability.
Some people would argue that feminism and devolution share a concern for diversity: feminism insists not only that the equality of women is respected but that the special nature, needs and contribution of women must be recognised. Devolution is a system of government that in theory allows for greater diversity because different governments within the country can have policies and laws that suit themselves but which may not suit others.
For women, there are two sides to the devolution coin. First, we must ask if devolution makes it easier for women to be involved in government and in the decisions that affect their lives. Second, we must ask if the system delivers better results for women. Logically, if the answer to the first question is Yes, then this should automatically lead to better outcomes for women. But is this always so?
Can women be more involved?
It is well-known that being an MP is hard for women. Even in societies with much less resistance to public roles for women than we see in Kenya, it is hard. Crude and hostile language has been experienced by women legislators in many countries, including Australia and Sweden. Women often bear the greater burden of raising children, which makes it harder for them to be in a distant capital city. And though Kenya is passing a law about women being able to breastfeed or use express milk at work, it is doubtful whether this will apply to the Kenyan parliament.
For women, there are two sides to the devolution coin. First, we must ask if devolution makes it easier for women to be involved in government and in the decisions that affect their lives. Second, we must ask if the system delivers better results for women.
Being a member of a county assembly presents less difficulty for women as the assembly is likely to be closer to where the member lives. Children will be closer and family members may be less resistant.
And, of course, the Constitution does provide that women must comprise one-third of every county assembly. In county assemblies women face several challenges. Most of them are not elected to represent wards but come into the assembly through party lists to make up the gender numbers. Only 82 women were elected for wards in 2013, while nearly 700 were taken from party lists. There is thus a tendency to not view them as “real” members; many have even been insulted and referred to as “Bonga points”. Their role is often unclear— perhaps even to them.
However, having so many women will make some difference. In India, there is a system of quotas (one-third) for women in local government. A million women serve as elected members of local authorities. The assessment of the impact of the quota system is mixed. Some women seem to be the mouthpieces of their husbands. Others face tremendous hostility and harassment. But many are growing in their understanding of public affairs, and are making a positive impact. It is perhaps easier for them because they do represent geographical areas (like our wards), so are not easily dismissed as a different or inferior type of member.
One of the possible risks of devolution is apparent in Nigeria. There, women have faced problems because of the concept of indigenousness. This results from a distorted application of the constitutional concept of “the federal character of Nigeria”. People who do not come from a particular state (even if they were born there, they may not be of a community “indigenous” to the state) can be at a disadvantage there. They may be excluded from education. They may also be unacceptable as elected representatives – something that is more likely to affect women because women are likely to live where their husbands belong, which may not necessarily be where they themselves are “indigenes”. This scenario, however, is less likely to arise in Kenya, as a woman is likely to be identified with her own ethnic group rather than that of her husband. However, there have been cases where women are seen as not “belonging” to their home area if they are married to someone from outside that area – and they do not belong to their husbands’ area either. Devolution may not make this worse – or better!
What decisions are women involved in as members of county assemblies or as members of a county executive—where women must also make up at least one-third of the membership? This depends on the powers of the counties. However, it is important to note that counties have few powers, especially in relation to legislation. Counties can’t make laws about crime (except for creating offences in connection with their powers to regulate many local activities). They have no power to affect the law on rape, for example, or domestic violence. They have no power to make laws about marriage or divorce, adoption of children or care of neglected children or children in trouble with the law. Counties have no power over the law about labour relations, including maternity leave. They cannot pass laws about land rights. And they cannot run most types of school or make laws about education, except early childhood education and village polytechnics.
Only 82 women were elected for wards in 2013, while nearly 700 were taken from party lists. There is thus a tendency to not view them as “real” members; many have even been insulted and referred to as “Bonga points”.
Compared to many countries that have more than one level of government, Kenya’s counties have limited powers. This is partly because they are much smaller than lower level governments in most countries. Besides, it can be both confusing and undesirable if each county has its own criminal law, or divorce law, or banking law, for example.
So what impact can women have at the county level?
Can counties produce better outcomes for women?
Counties can, in fact, do a good number of important things, many of which are potentially very important to women. The first in the list of powers (you will find the list in the Fourth Schedule (or annex) of the Constitution, Part 2 of the list of powers) is agriculture. The World Bank has estimated that 80% of Kenya’s farmers are women (a fact that Machakos County may have been thinking of when it created an Agricultural Development Fund Board that included a female farmer (Machakos County Agricultural Development Fund Act, 2014). Similarly, Nairobi County has passed an Urban Agriculture Promotion and Regulation Act (2015) that may benefit female farmers.
The national government can make overall policy, but counties can do a good deal to support farmers, though laws and regulations, financial support, education and so on. A women-sensitive approach could make a great difference—and women members of county assemblies could, and should, influence the development of such an approach.
The next big area is health: county clinics and hospitals, ambulance services, promotion of primary health care, licensing and control of businesses selling food to the public (many of which are run by women), and rubbish collection and disposal, are some of the areas that women members can influence. Again, the national government makes policy, but the day-to-day running of a public health service is the responsibility of county governments. An international and national priority is achieving major reductions in mother and child deaths and illnesses. The national government’s commitment to free maternity care and the First Lady’s Beyond Zero campaign attract attention but the real work has to be done at the county level. And improvements are being achieved.
While counties’ powers over education are limited, early childhood education—now recognised as being very important for the development of the child—must be of great concern to women. And the very fact of it being a county responsibility seems to have generated great interest in the subject.
Other county powers of particular interest and importance to women are housing, water and sanitation services, control of drugs, pollution, markets and fair trade practices (preventing cheating by market dealers would be an example). Many of these were functions of the now defunct local authorities, and were often ineffectively performed. But improved financing for counties and the powers of county assemblies should make it possible for these services to be delivered much better. In 2015, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation said that on a visit to Kenya, she had observed that “in three counties county-level government officials are closer to local communities and are better aware of the actual challenges and barriers to access to sanitation and water for all”. Devolution can marry this sort of awareness with the ability to do something, ensuring that county services are more effective.
Urban planning—also a county function—has important gender dimensions that are often overlooked. What would a woman-friendly town look like? Possible elements include good public transport: few women own cars so safe cycle lanes might increase women’s options and safe public transport might include women-only sections in buses. Other possibilities are good street lighting—widely believed to make women feel safer and to widen their options, including being able to work or socialise in the evening or at night. Urban planning could include not driving people’s homes out of the city, but making it possible for work and home to be closer, thereby making it easier for women to work, and for working men to spend more time with their families. Family-friendly public spaces and footpaths are also issues that the counties have legal power to create or influence.
Compared to many countries that have more than one level of government, Kenya’s counties have limited powers. This is partly because they are much smaller than lower level governments in most countries.
Counties can benefit women.in the way they exercise their various powers— even if those powers do not have obvious special relevance to women. The Constitution requires affirmative action programmes and policies to benefit previously disadvantaged groups. So it is constitutional to make special efforts to assist women where they have been disadvantaged. Some counties have passed laws providing that women, as well as youth and people with disabilities, receive special treatment when it comes to securing county government contracts (e.g. Elgeyo Marakwet County Equitable Development Act –2015).
Every county is supposed to have no more than two-thirds of either gender in its executive committee. What responsibilities do governors give their women executive members? Of course, every county executive committee member has a basket of responsibilities, but some may have more power than others to affect the lives of women. It is interesting to see that in Nandi, the executive member for agriculture was a woman; in Migori the same was true of the executive member for lands and housing. The county assembly must approve county executive committee appointments, and women members of the assembly should watch out to ensure that women are given enough responsibility.
The Constitution stresses culture and tradition; giving more power to a local area may strengthen its sense of traditional values. This might sometimes not be favourable to women, and could increase the risk of women being discriminated against in a devolved system of government. However, in Kenya the laws that most affect women (like divorce and land laws) are passed by the national parliament, not by the counties, so women are less likely to face legal obstacles emanating from specific local traditions. This partly depends on how effective women —and their male supporters—are at the national government level.
Take, for example, issues like the Marriage Act 2014. Some women regretted that this Act recognised polygamy in customary and Islamic marriages. More regret that it does not require the consent of the first wife before a man can marry a second wife. A provision that would have required consent was deleted from the Bill, with the support of many male MPs. Women MPs were reported to be furious, but could not prevail against the larger male numbers. Women might ask themselves whether a marriage law passed in their own county would have been different (better or worse).
Human rights are guaranteed in the Constitution, and custom is clearly subject to human rights, because the human right commissions are national bodies; and because courts are national, women’s rights should be protected.
But vigilance is needed. Customary attitudes, if not the law, may affect a county’s employment practices and bureaucratic decisions on matters affecting women. Women need to understand the remedies, such as the Ombudsman (Commission on Administrative Justice), as well as the National Gender and Equality Commission and the National Commission on Human Rights (which should extend their networks of local offices).
They should also realise that it is the national government that engages with the international community. It may be that the national government is more easily influenced by international human rights bodies or conventions. For example, the national government must report regularly to monitoring bodies for both United Nations and the African Union human rights treaties—such as on the rights of the child, or of women or of persons with disabilities—and must report on what is happening at both the national and county levels. These bodies make comments relevant to both national and county governments.
Other county powers of particular interest and importance to women are housing, water and sanitation services, control of drugs, pollution, markets and fair trade practices (preventing cheating by market dealers would be an example). Many of these were functions of the now defunct local authorities, and were often ineffectively performed.
For example, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child said in its 2016 observations on Kenya’s report, “Pregnant girls face discrimination in accessing maternity health care due to its cost as well as to the negative attitude of health-care workers against them, and the lack of quality health-care services tailored to them.” It will require public pressure for such comments to have an impact on government. And women’s groups need to be conscious of the opportunity to participate in preparing unofficial reports to these monitoring bodies.
The national government may also be able to affect the behaviour of county governments. For example, the national government can give counties financial grants that have strings attached—and those strings might be to implement the rights of women or other policies that are beneficial to women. The equalisation grant—from national revenue, but intended to benefit marginalised areas—may be spent by the national government itself, or through the counties. One of the factors considered by the Commission on Revenue Authority in developing criteria for identifying marginalised areas was gender disparity – the differences in the situations of men and women.
There are various reasons for having more than one level of government. One is that counties can compete to attract business and to provide good services, and so on. Voters can compare the performance of neighbouring county governments and decide whether their own is doing a good job. This should be an incentive to county governments to do well. Health services, efficient agriculture support services and well-run markets might be areas in which they compete. If women in a county are active and vocal they may be able to persuade county governments to improve services for women, and for families.
However, there are possible downsides to competition. There is the risk of what is sometimes called the “race to the bottom”. For instance, counties may compete to attract business by lowering taxes, yet low taxes are likely to mean poorer and fewer services. This might be bad for women.
Urban planning—also a county function—has important gender dimensions that are often overlooked. What would a woman-friendly town look like? Possible elements include good public transport: few women own cars so safe cycle lanes might increase women’s options and safe public transport might include women-only sections in buses.
One underlying reason is that while the people can “vote with their feet” (move from an area that is offering poor services and opportunities to one that offers better services and opportunities), for women, that may be harder than for men, since the tradition of women accompanying their spouses—rather than the reverse— still tends to apply.
Smaller stages for women?
However, some women have complained that stressing supposed “women’s issues” somehow diminishes women’s sense of national citizenship, and assumes that women are narrowly, and locally, focused. Women are assumed to be primarily concerned about things at the local level, like health, and community matters—“women’s subjects”. “Men’s subjects” – like war and peace and foreign affairs and aviation and perhaps big business – are the affair of the national government.
This need not be the case. Experience in public life at the county level may help equip women for office at the national level, for example.
The Shape of Our Post-COVID Future
The Kenyan government’s sledgehammer response to the coronavirus pandemic has exposed a kind of schizophrenia in the country’s governance that our precarious economy cannot sustain. We might not have to wait until the next election to discover the elastic limit of the people’s tolerance of impunity.
When illustrating my graphic novel, Art of Unlearning, in 2017, I found two images especially useful in understanding and communicating how our responses to crises shape us, both personally and collectively. The two images that represented two distinct styles of social organisation cutting across diverse cultures and belief systems are fractal structures and pyramid structures. These structures are visible even in this most formidable of crises.
Fractals are patterns that are characterised by self-similarity at every scale of observation. Every individual member of a fractal pattern is harmonious with the pattern as a whole. Fractals are the most common patterns in the natural world and can be found in the self-replicating growth patterns of romanesco broccoli, spider webs, schools of fish, swarms of birds, galaxies, lightning bolts, rivers, veins, trees, lungs and, of course, viruses. These patterns seek harmony. Leaders, such as New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, reflected such a pattern when she recognised the healthcare crisis and mobilised the trust and informed cooperation of citizens to prevent the spread of coronavirus without violating human rights.
Pyramids, on the other hand, are artificial shapes made of three straight lines and rarely occur in nature without human intervention. Favoured for their stability relative to gravity, they are some of the largest and oldest surviving human structures all around the globe, but are nevertheless young when compared to the estimated five billion years that life has existed on our planet. Pyramids are a fitting symbol of mankind’s recent destructive hegemony over planet Earth. In responding to the coronavirus pandemic, a pyramid formation concentrates decision making power in a few hands because it cannot rely on the voluntary participation of the affected population at the bottom of the pyramid. An example is the Kenyan government’s sledgehammer response to the coronavirus pandemic that has predictably resulted in gross human rights violations.
Exposing a pyramid scheme
A colourless summary of Kenya’s history is that it is the story of a people struggling to wake up from the brutal nightmare of pyramids imposed by foreign conquerors, but all too often succeeding only in repopulating the same stable structure with an even more mendacious elite until – finally – tiny rays of hope emerge, such as a new constitution and devolution of governance from an autocratic centre. These rays of hope have introduced marginalised parts of the country to a government they had only heard of, but rarely seen.
Over the last seven years, reactionary forces in favour of reconsolidating executive power have captured the state and even subsumed opposition leadership. But where both protests and elections have failed to loosen the chokehold of Jubilee’s centralised kleptocracy, a mindless pathogen has offered the most formidable challenge to its narrative. Compared with HIV/AIDS (which was a disease saddled with moralistic baggage and stigma) the relative “innocence” of coronavirus transmission through ephemeral contact between strangers has made it a much less corruptible stress test of Kenya’s public health systems.
Without a public healthcare system to support the estimated 83 per cent of Kenyans subsisting on daily earnings as informal traders or workers, and with no defence against a virus that is unforgiving of poor sanitation, the absence of a massive outbreak in Kenya to date is a miracle. Kenya has one of the steepest pyramids in the world, and this architecture is the root cause of the corruption and inequality that is only half-heartedly tinkered with.
A good faith redress of these deficiencies has been rendered impossible by a conspiracy between Kenya’s mainstream media and primitive elites (PEs) – as Darius Okolla aptly calls them – that suffocate public discourse with an eternal soap opera that is divorced from the lives of ordinary Kenyans. The coronavirus is a temporary short circuit to this deluge of distraction force fed to the public in the name of news. The stunning impact of this short circuit remains unmistakable, even as the media defaults to its diet of superficial tribalised trivia about Jubilee in-fighting.
Kenya has one of the steepest pyramids in the world, and this architecture is the root cause of the corruption and inequality that is only half-heartedly tinkered with.
What the virus has exposed is a kind of schizophrenia in Kenya’s governance that is not academic. On one end of the schizophrenic spectrum is a warm veneer of civility conveyed in the PR savvy personality of Health CS Mutahi Kagwe. On the other extreme, is the cold state machinery behind the PR that ended the life of 13-year-old Yassin Hussein Moyo in his own home with a stray bullet, and brutalised commuters in Likoni, risking further spread of coronavirus. One might be forgiven for asking whether we are trying to heal the patient or pull the plug. Inured to criticism, the Jubilee administration has proceeded to transform what began as a healthcare crisis into a militarised feeding frenzy. Ensconced in private luxury, which until recently included trips abroad for medical treatment, the PEs have been hitherto insulated from the pain of a disemboweled public health system. No more.
Now that commercial airlines are a deadly escape route, a sober movement that recognises the urgency of reform must force an uncompromising demand for accountability that is not distracted by the public relations of an illegitimate regime. If truth is the first casualty of war, as Aeschylus said, then the “war” against coronavirus is unlike any other traditional war we have fought. It is a war that requires less tear gas and more ventilators; less policemen and more nurses; less misinformation and censorship and more transparency and science. All of these are disciplines that are alien to any autocratic kleptocracy. Misinformation, such as Donald Trump’s disinfectant prescriptions, or the insistence of for-profit evangelical churches on large gatherings, or the Chinese government’s censorship in the weeks following the outbreak, have all proved lethal. There ought to be no need for Kenya to conduct any further experiments in misinformation without learning from these fatal errors.
The Kenyatta pyramid scheme, and the quasi-religious political tribalism that has fueled it, is obsolete for even this most rudimentary task of sustaining human life and dignity.
The virus is a fractal
The most striking feature of the global response to the coronavirus pandemic is how much it has depended on global solidarity across artificial national boundaries despite continual territorial confrontations. It is quite likely that if any one nation develops a vaccine against the coronavirus in the future, even its enemies’ desire to keep their own citizens alive will overshadow any prejudices. This open exchange of knowledge is most apparent in the medical and scientific communities, an example being Cuban and Chinese doctors coming to the aid of Italy long before many of Italy’s own neighbours moved into action. The insular reaction of the great pyramid of the United States now stands as a cautionary tale.
Like all natural forces, such as earthquakes and tsunamis, viruses are blind to our cherished social pyramids as they spread, yet our resilience to the economic shocks that result from this disruption are not. There has been a stark class divide in the degree of disruption to livelihoods, education, negotiating power and law enforcement. We are in the process of discovering the extreme asymmetry between the advancement of biomedical understanding of the coronavirus pandemic versus governments’ willingness to do what is necessary to match this challenge with the most fractal response available.
Closing the gaping chasm between hard-won scientific understanding on the one hand, and the intractability of our political institutions on the other, is the central challenge of the pandemic in Kenya. This means integrating deep cultural understanding of our diverse communities with lessons from the most proactive responses to the pandemic around the world. Our standard Anglo-Saxon benchmarks will not be available this time around.
We are in the process of discovering the extreme asymmetry between the advancement of biomedical understanding of the coronavirus pandemic versus governments’ willingness to do what is necessary to match this challenge with the most fractal response available.
Fortunately, for those who are willing to learn, this is the first time in human history that we know so much about a pandemic. During the Black Death of the fourteenth century, the biggest cause of death was a basic ignorance of its origin in rat fleas, which led to the burning of poor old women who were described as witches and the scapegoating of Jews. Similarly, when the Spanish flu emerged just a century ago, the influenza virus that felled tens of millions of people could not be identified in time to “flatten the curve”. In contrast, within just two weeks of the coronavirus outbreak, scientists were able to identify the correct virus genome and share it online, enabling the development of tests as well as the search for a vaccine. For laypeople like me, this boiled down to basic preventative information that features diagrams of a funny looking tentacled ball – hardly the face of an existential enemy of humanity.
Although the efficacy of tests is still being improved, and the development of a vaccine may be over a year away, these are still remarkable feats of human understanding only made possible by unprecedented knowledge sharing in a fractal pattern. Human beings are phenomenally creative when they share knowledge and engage distributed decision making. It is within our power to resolve this crisis if we channel resources to public health in particular, and public goods in general, using the kind of fractal distribution that has been made possible by the 2010 Constitution.
This will necessarily include a robust public education system that would cultivate the next generation of healthcare workers and creative thinkers who do not require coercion to respond collectively to any crisis. Education, you will notice, is absent from President Uhuru Kenyatta’s so-called Big 4 Agenda. With less than 10,000 doctors, Kenya is nowhere near the World Health Organization (WHO) recommendation of one doctor for every 1,000 people. And of the few doctors that we do have, many are siloed in foreign research entities with narrow mandates, unable to share data that might be useful in the war against coronavirus.
The existence of information silos that are blind to one another is typical of pyramids and is a feature not only of the healthcare system, but of all knowledge creation in both the arts and sciences within Kenya’s neoliberal administration. Silos are perfect for running a police state where a paranoid dictator does not want his left hand knowing what the right hand is doing privately. But well into the 21st century, where both viruses and information spread at an exponential rate, it is hard to imagine a worse way of managing our shared knowledge.
The war of the future
If you had a hundred dollars for every person in the world infected with COVID-19, you would still not have the amount of money that Kenyan taxpayers have lost to corruption during the tenure of the Jubilee administration. Let that sink in. The billions blend into quantum gibberish in the brains of all but the most tenacious economists such as David Ndii.
If the war against coronavirus becomes yet another fundraiser, as early indications suggest, it will be especially demoralising to public health workers risking their lives to serve Kenyans in the midst of chronic underfunding. Kenya is less a poor country than it is a country with poorly allocated wealth. No one knows how much longer the long suffering Kenyan people will accept abuse, but as Chairman Mao once wrote, “A single spark can light a prairie fire”.
If you had a hundred dollars for every person in the world infected with COVID-19, you would still not have the amount of money that Kenyan taxpayers have lost to corruption during the tenure of the Jubilee administration. Let that sink in.
Our precarious economy cannot sustain lockdowns and curfews forever, and we might not have to wait until the next election to discover the elastic limit of the people’s tolerance of impunity. In the words of the Kisii based musician Smallz Lethal, aka Omoisiomobe, following his release from arrest as well as the release of a new song I’m Offended:
Sisi kama mayouth tunasimama as one voice. This time round, hatuendi kuyamaza. Mayouthman wamebonga na wamesema kila mse ako offended, and that is a fact. Si hata mayouth pekee yake. Ni watu in general… Lazima [hawa] wakuwe accountable. We sio superstar. We sio msanii. People are pocketing millions, why are you arresting me? Mimi mnanipatia 1600 shillings after six months kama county. Alafu unakuja kuniarrest unaexpect nitoe wapi pesa za kulipa bond? Ju ni mapesa tu makarao wanataka. Mayouthman wasimame. There’s no other time to do this apart from this time! Now that we are speaking, and now that people are hearing. The voice is louder!
Smallz has thrown down the gauntlet. In the meantime, as a thinking human being and as a creator, I have the same job that I have always had: to create learning tools and experiences for a new generation of fractal thinkers so that they might see beyond the mediocrity that leeches on our potential as a nation. In them, I see a fractal community that fuses critical thinking with the ethical use of technology to build alternative realities.
Our health and our imagination is our greatest resource, not buildings. Even in our darkest hour, we are not without the power to imagine together, and it is the existence of this shared imagination that repudiates the world that they try shamelessly to pull over our open eyes. We, the inheritors of history, are seeing for the first time the clear peak of Mount Kilimanjaro from the windows of a city in lockdown, and beginning to wonder what it would be like to rise to those heights.
Plagues and the Prose Informing Our Shared Condition
PAUL GOLDSMITH reviews a selection of vantage points from pandemic literature and attempts to make sense of the partially understood coronavirus and its world-warping spread.
I did a deep read in search of the virus and found out it is us.
Plagues and epidemics of yore were simple affairs, manifestations of evil caused by angry gods, hidden forces, or bad air. Death and survival were karmic outcomes. The pandemics of the information age are considerably more complicated. They kill relatively few but infect millions with angst and paranoia. They spawn feedback across a spectrum bookended by scientific rigour on one side and inventive conspiracy on the other. We are updated in real time with wave after wave of imperfect statistics, breaking science, experiential perspectives, and ideology-driven commentaries.
For much of the world, quarantine time is being spent on social media, watching journalists morph into screeching owls on CNN, and catching up on films and TV series – a format that now appears custom-made for lockdowns. But some of us have also used the time to study the phenomena that are sweeping away the cadences of life as we knew it, and to process its stories and tropes.
Situational analyses and political narratives
Thomas Puelo is a one-man “coronology” resource. He posted an analysis on Medium that almost overnight was translated into 37 languages. His March 19th follow-up, “The Hammer and the Dance”, made the case to immediately enforce total lockdowns (the hammer). This comprehensive call to arms beat all the university departments, institutes, and the World Health Organization (WHO) to the punch: “The world has never had to learn about anything so fast. The hammer is the best response for buying time for the fightback (the dance).”
The curves of the nations most affected created a baseline for three options: 1) do nothing; 2) mitigation; and 3) suppression. His analysis covered detailed projections of infections and fatalities, the prospects for virus mutation, political barriers to hammer implementation, and many related sectoral ramifications. Up to now the hammer and dance in the countries most affected has encompassed variations on these three strategies, influenced to different degrees by the Chinese lockdown of Hubei Province.
Puelo’s projected numbers for infections in the United States under option 1 (do nothing) are 25 million. Implementing option 3 (suppression), after the initial wave, reduces this estimate to tens of thousands. The role of the states complicates the US numbers, but taken as a whole, the million-plus currently recorded infections approximate the rate expected under the option 2 mitigation strategy. Most of the world is on the same pathway with areas of high infection rates under lockdown, with a number of countries edging into dance mode.
In addition to hosting Puelo’s updates and other in-depth posts, Medium is one of the more useful sources of information on the pandemic. Their business model generates an algorithm-driven selection of punchy short reads. Articles like the gazillion-hit “The Hammer and the Dance” are outliers in an eclectic sample dominated by personal development and the gig economy. The elite publications of the English-speaking world are still the primary source of high clout policy pieces and opinion shaping analyses.
The New Yorker’s “Its Not Too Late To Go on the Offense Against the Corona Virus” is one example. After reviewing his international civil servant CV, the author, the former World Bank boss, Jim Yong Kim, tells us, in the Bank’s typical take-your-medicine tradition, “I’ve been fighting pandemics for most of my adult life.” I almost stopped reading what turned out to be a compact overview of the five weapons that need to be deployed to defeat the enemy: social distancing; contact tracing; testing; isolation; and treatment. It is a parsimonious argument based on the collective experience of front line coronavirus warriors – all of which are wealthy industrialised nations.
But the experience of recent pandemic responses does not augur well for such glib technocratic solutions in many regions. In “The Politics of Disease Epidemics: a Comparative Analysis of the Sars, Zika, and Ebola Outbreaks”, Lydia Kapiripiri and Alison Ross show why. The authors use four categories to unpack the literature published in peer-reviewed journals: attribution of infectious disease sources; responsibility for their socioeconomic distribution; credibility of evidence informing response pathways; and the decision-making informing research and development. Their findings converge on the observation that “the narratives accompanying these events contrasted power and privilege with the disproportionate impact of the epidemics on the economically disadvantaged”.
Attribution often reduced multiple causal factors to the role of ethnic minority groups, even though socioeconomic distributions for the diseases implicate poor nutrition, cramped unhygienic living conditions, and inadequate health services. During the Ebola crisis, the evidence informing interventions tended to support short-term response horizons, tracing responsibility for the outbreak to bush meat and traditional funereal customs. Here, and in other cases, this diverted attention from long-term issues, such as poor public health infrastructure.
Although poverty is the greatest risk factor in epidemics, decision-making processes instead highlight institutional policy biases prevailing in global centres of power. Kapiripiri and Ross concede that the neoliberal roots of policy biases appear to be too deep to uproot. They state that to re-balance the equation, “It is critical that narratives of those most vulnerable are represented in mainstream narratives.”
During the Ebola crisis, the evidence informing interventions tended to support short-term response horizons, tracing responsibility for the outbreak to bush meat and traditional funereal customs. Here, and in other cases, this diverted attention from long-term issues, such as poor public health infrastructure.
Global coronavirus narratives are flipping these categories. Attribution is now a focal point in the larger info war being waged by China and the United States. The response hammer has benefited from a socioeconomic distribution highlighting the array of high profile and celebrity first wave infections. Evidence and developmental decision-making processes have focused on the shared methods contributing to individual nations’ dance strategies.
This choreography is generating the diverse natural experiments underway across the world. Besides showing different pathways to recovery, before it is over, the dance is going to reveal how variations on political leadership impact on the contrasting national curves. We can also expect it to cut a path through the jungle of viral conspiracies and sweep away some of the ideological myths being propagated in its wake. For now, however, the fightback is proceeding in a world of noise and fuzzy information.
A sense of shared peril checked the forces opposed to the multilateral world order, for a while. The controversy over WHO provided an entry point for the populist insurgency to fight back. By contesting the scientific guidance behind the lockdowns, the antics of American alt-right experts have distinguished themselves from the consensus guiding the vast majority of the world’s population. But this is a sideshow.
In the N+1 journal article, “Chinese Virus, World Market”, Andrew Liu explains how China’s new elites’ pursuit of exotic food displays as a marker of wealth and status created the conditions for the emergence of the corona viruses. Wuhan, a city far from the areas of traditional wildlife consumption, became the epicentre. COVID-19 is the first capitalist-created virus to directly attack capitalism.
“The Pandemic is Just Getting Started”, but we are not on new ground. The system-changing function of infectious disease is a well-documented phenomenon, and the latest chapter is being written before our eyes.
Big picture social science
The 1975 publication, Plagues and People, by William H. McNeill marked a major pivot away from the great civilizations and influential actors focus of historical scholarship. McNeill concluded that epidemics will continue to be one of the fundamental determinants of human history. Forget Bill Gates, over five decades ago, McNeill predicted that the next system shock will come from a rapidly mutating form of the influenza virus.
Jared Diamond’s first book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, originated with a simple question in 1972 proffered by a local friend in New Guinea: “Why do you people have most of the cargo and the rest of us do not?” Diamond’s answer came after two decades of research, and was published in 1994. Subtitled A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years, the book underscored how Europeans’ conquest of the world originated with their long history of settled farming. High population densities catalysed a process of agriculture intensification and technological innovation. Generations of close contact with domestic livestock conferred the disease immunity that proved to be a decisive factor when they came into contact with new populations.
Diamond is master storyteller. The popularity of this book made him a popular purveyor of big picture social science. His books are displayed in all the world’s airports; his arguments have burrowed their way into introductory anthropology courses. He brings massive detail to bear on his subject. The “germs” chapter serves up an excellent overview on how the evolutionary dynamics of contagion favoured Eurasia over most of the planet’s other regions.
But there are problems beyond the undiluted environmental determinism highlighted by his critics. Guns, Germs, and Steel conveys a linear, mechanistic version of history. And, as one anthropologist remarked: “So when Europeans ‘succeed’ at colonialism, that was not their doing, nor their fault. When other societies falter, that was their choice to fail.” He who gets the head start wins the power to distribute smallpox-infected blankets.
McNeill disagreed. In a 1997 exchange in the New York Review of Books, he accused Diamond of overlooking the importance of human “cultural autonomy” in determining human development. Diamond replied that the large time-scale of his analysis necessarily smoothed out such factors.
Although this reductionism worked well when demolishing racial and cultural assumptions about the world’s vast developmental differentials, Diamond’s method shares the problems of other single matrix analyses. Small variations in initial conditions that drop out of view in Diamond’s big picture approach underpin the cultural and socioeconomic complexity of contrasting regional trajectories. Despite the weight of factual information, in the chapter on Africa, the book’s focus on linguistics, plants, and agriculture shortchanges distinctive features of the continent’s historical processes.
In “Ecology Control and Economic Development in East African History”, Helge Kjekshus works within the same environmental history paradigm Diamond champions, but the research reinforces McNeill’s emphasis on cultural syntheses as one of the primary forces driving historical adaptation. Kjekshus documents in great detail the efficacy of the region’s indigenous knowledge traditions and how inter-ethnic social networks worked well to contain the scourges of Brazilian sand fleas, yaws, tsetse flies, malaria, and dengue fever, and to limit the damage from smallpox and other disease vectors.
Rinderpest, however, proved to be the exception, conforming to Diamond’s “Lethal Gift of Livestock” thesis. The rinderpest epidemic devastating the herds of the Maasai and other warrior pastoralists opened the door for colonial occupation. Monkeys, bats and pangolins are still small-time players compared to the disease-incubating contribution of cows and pigs to human history. But Homo sapiens trump the mammal crowd on the global level of analysis.
The epidemiology in Plagues and People highlighted the constantly evolving relationship between micro-parasites (e.g. bacteria, viruses) and macro-parasites like rats, livestock, and humans. This led McNeill to theorise that humankind itself is a type of disease, a parasite on its host, Earth – and warned that it could self-destruct if humans continue to over-stress their host.
Long the province of science fiction, the cultural industry now generates a constant feed of dystopian futures and zombie apocalypses. The rise of artificial intelligence is the latest source of plots based on McNeill’s hypothesis. In The Matrix, Agent Smith tells Keanu Reeves, “Humans are a virus.” In the current season of Westworld, the “Man” played by Ed Harris declares humanity to be a bacteria consuming the planet.
The epidemiology in Plagues and People highlighted the constantly evolving relationship between micro-parasites (e.g. bacteria, viruses) and macro-parasites like rats, livestock, and humans. This led McNeill to theorise that humankind itself is a type of disease, a parasite on its host, Earth…
The coronavirus pandemic, the latest example of fiction predicting reality, is also reinvigorating real world science linking the environmental costs of unbridled capitalism to the prospects of societal collapse.
Narratives of collapse and anti-climax
Jem Bendell is a professor of sustainable business practices who argues that the time for incremental responses to climate change has passed. He sums this up in a 2018 paper that proved too disturbing for publication in a peer-reviewed journal he once edited. Pandemics are a second order effect of climate change that, among other things, is bringing us into direct contact with the new ecologies we have created for bats and other wildlife species. Such narratives have become both truth and truism.
Disaster is now a common theme in Western culture. The real-life world of new viruses Richard Preston described in Crisis in the Hot Zone is actually more frightening than most of Hollywood’s monetised virus-infected zombies, including the movie version of his book. Fictionalisation is arguably one of the reasons not much has changed despite the very real prospects of ecological cataclysm. COVID-19 is the latest omen.
These second-order emergencies have sustained a curious dualism. Our universities and institutes figure out the problem, develop palliatives, and advocate sensible policies. Our governments lag behind, and citizens resist preventative measures until they are in the crosshairs of the next scourge. Epidemics trigger multinational responses only to revert, as Kapiripiri and Ross concluded, to the standard narrative.
The history of cholera is the classical example of partial response in the presence of full knowledge. Coronavirus is more contagious than cholera. The author of this Guardian long read regretted the fact that the corona story will play out the same way if we allow global health to be funded and governed by the same unredeemed colonial logic.
This is why, as Bendell stated in a recent interview, “Returning to business as usual is a “fantasy. Policy makers and business leaders must recognize that climate change will be even more disruptive than the coronavirus.” But restating these warnings at a time when a more proximate enemy threatens us can have the opposite result in a world inured to disaster inflation.
The negative implications for the long game cues up the third book in Diamond’s trilogy, Upheaval: How Nations Cope with Crisis and Change. Diamond builds his discussion around examples of wars, coups, and military dictatorships; natural disasters, pandemics, and famines do not feature. Plagues, as the historical record shows, disrupt and redirect more than they destroy the societies they attack.
Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War is both enlightened historiography and great literature. The author provides the earliest written account of a plague and its impact on political events. The war was a response to decades of Athenian dominance, and for the first time Sparta had Athens on the defensive. The Athenians retreat behind the city walls, creating the crowded and unhygienic conditions contributing to the outbreak of a highly contagious disease in 229 BC.
The first wave of the epidemic killed 100,000 Athenians, but it also saved the city. When the Spartans saw the smoke of thousands of funeral pyres, they abandoned their siege and fled. The anomie that followed was yet more unexpected. Thucydides remarked, “The catastrophe was so overwhelming that men, not knowing what would happen next to them, became indifferent to every rule of religion or law.”
Both the wealthy and the nouveau riche elevated by inheriting dead relatives’ property spent recklessly, assuming that death may strike any time. The social value of virtue and reputation plummeted. Non-Athenians were scapegoated and their rights abrogated. The gods did not fare much better; they were demoted. Refugees and the dying camped out at their temples. Athenians accused Apollo, the god of disease and medicine, of siding with the enemy.
The disease returned twice over the next fifteen years. Athens did not collapse, nor did it recover its former influence and glory. But different pandemics create different trajectories.
Both the wealthy and the nouveau riche elevated by inheriting dead relatives’ property spent recklessly, assuming that death may strike any time. The social value of virtue and reputation plummeted.
The Black Death wiped out almost half of Europe at the end of the fourteenth century and continued to wreak havoc across the continent over the next 400 years. The dirge composed by English satirist Thomas Nashe, A Litany in the Time of Plague, conveys the sense of resignation when the plague reappeared in Shakespeare’s London.
“Sing me some doleful ditty to the lute,” he requests the poet, “That may complaine my neere approaching death.” The bard responds:
Adieu, farewell earth’s bliss;
This world uncertain is;
Fond are life’s lustful joys;
Death proves them all but toys;
None from his darts can fly;
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us.
Rich men, trust not wealth,
Gold cannot buy you health;
Physic himself must fade.
All things to end are made,
The plague full swift goes by;
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us.
By breaking up the feudal order, the bubonic plague both slowed down and set the stage for European expansion. Around the same time that Nashe was composing his ditty, the diseases Hernando Cortez imported into central Mexico were killing 80 per cent of the population. The Aztec empire disintegrated.
But collapse, as defined by the case studies in Joseph A. Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies, is not to be confused with invasions like the one that caused the slow-moving genocide reducing 24 million indigenous Mexicans to 1 million survivors a century after the conquistadores’ arrival. The book traces collapse to the point when solutions for the problems facing a society become too complicated and costly to implement.
Other archeologists studying ancient societies attribute collapse to an abrupt political change, reduction in social complexity, and their knock-on effects throughout society. Biomedical progress minimises the probability of fast-moving epidemics turning into a mass Athenian death sentence or the poet’s toxic darts. Their impact can, however, signal the directionality of processes that either result in transition to a new order or to system-deadening entropy.
Modern plagues have exacerbated global inequality, and so far this one is doing the same. It is collapsing some economic sectors and accelerating change in others. The economic damage is enormous, and based on past experience, the recovery period will be long, with serious ramifications for labour and capital. Surveillance of bodies is on the rise. The Davos elite and Xi Jinping’s cohorts will still hoard most of the cargo.
At the same time, the pandemic’s shock factor should not be underestimated. Historically, jolts like the one we are experiencing open new windows for human agency. There are promising background developments. The Lancet has called for a reformed social contract, and methodologies promoting collective intelligence are gaining ground. The carbon energy endgame is underway; the passing of the post-9/11 forever war is in sight. Women in leadership are showing the way.
Watching how the new corona-capitalism will play out is the most fascinating aspect of the pandemic. Is the coronavirus a tipping point? Will we dance our way to collective adaptation? Can a million burning pyres save the planet?
The novel and the dance
The species is at war with an invisible enemy, and the War on the Rocks experts tell us the best way to prepare for it is to read fiction:
Novels hone powers of observation and insight. They increase mental flexibility and help policymakers anticipate situations. They illuminate other mindsets, cultures, places, and times. The best ones induce a sense of empathy in their readers, and they help render policy approaches more effective and more humane.
This advice marks a radical departure from the gospel of the war on terrorism. Although 9/11 did initiate a new learning cycle, for the most part it centred on a narrow “with us or against us’” assessment of the others’ mindsets, cultures, and places. Policy approaches to the problem ended up midwifing a new generation of Islamist extremists. They created new breeding grounds for the virus. Maybe reading fiction can help us figure out some new moves.
The Plague by Albert Camus does not feature at the top of the 80 titles listed in the Goodreads selection of popular pandemic books. But its understated portrayal of a society suddenly trapped in an atmosphere permeated by dread and the absence of normality has made it the most cited work of fiction in the stream of coronavirus commentaries.
The story, published in 1947 and immediately translated into nine languages, revolves around a cast of everyday characters. The story centres on Doctor Rieux, who copes with the city’s inert bureaucracy while retaining his minimalist but positive view of humanity, the priest who blames the sins of his congregation for the calamity, the smuggler who wants the quarantine to continue, the self-pitying journalist obsessed with escape, the indifferent public officials who go through the motions and the lowly municipal clerk who tries to do what they will not, the Spanish invalid who spends his days counting peas from one bowl into another.
Literature and the domain of myth are the repositories where society’s collective knowledge and experience is stored. Camus scores high in both. He redefined heroism as ordinary people doing extraordinary things out of simple decency. For most of humanity, the moral responsibility of choosing to not be part of the problem is heroic enough. All but one of the city’s misanthropic characters eventually come around to empathising with the public’s suffering.
Watching how the new corona-capitalism will play out is the most fascinating aspect of the pandemic. Is the coronavirus a tipping point? Will we dance our way to collective adaptation? Can a million burning pyres save the planet?
If the “best novels” induce a sense of empathy in their readers, “leading to more humane and effective policies”, it is clear that Kenya’s decision-makers are reading from their own script. The government’s violent implementation and cynical exploitation of low friction policies that are working elsewhere has resulted in empty hospitals and the public’s refusal to be tested. Dauti Kahura’s reportage of a Kenyan doctor thrown out on the street in Wuhan reveals the brutal callousness of both the Chinese and Kenyan governments.
Midway through Camus’s account, the narrator takes stock: “The plague had swallowed up everything and everyone. No longer were there individual destinies, only a collective destiny made by the plague and the emotions shared by all.”
This is where we all stand right now. Athenian democrats are waging a defensive battle against Steve Bannon’s Spartans. All the numbers and models and deep insights notwithstanding, we still do not know where the coronavirus will lead us.
When I first read The Plague as a high school student, I understood it as an existential parable set in a small North African city. I was drawn to the story as metaphor of resistance to the Nazi occupation when I picked it up again at a university. By coincidence, I read Le Peste again six weeks before the Wuhan coronavirus story broke, and realised that is a universal allegory that could be set in any city anywhere at any point in time.
I believe if enough ordinary people listen to the right music, the dance will take us to a better place. But the narrator of The Plague, now revealed to be Dr. Riuex, ends on a cautionary note. The quarantine is over, the doctor and Grand, the redeemed municipal clerk, view the people celebrating in the streets. As they watch the townspeople’s dance of deliverance and newborn freedom, Grand remarks: “But they’re just the same as ever, really.”
As crises pass and give way to a new normalcy, amnesia soon sets in. The Nazis are restless, the virus will never go away. Great literature helps us remember, and stay awake.
Visibility of The Church in the Wake of COVID-19: The Case of the Anglican Church of Kenya
The COVID-19 crisis has presented the Church with an immense challenge and the ACK now finds herself in a liminal space concerning her visibility, a place of transition from where she must open herself up to a paradigm shift.
The coronavirus has exposed and exacerbated deep ecclesiastical problems in the identity and witness of the church. Measures to mitigate the pandemic have pushed our church, the Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK), further into the shadows. For safety reasons, we have had to abstain from physical contact and public gathering and we are, therefore, not able to hear God’s word read or preached, and to receive the sacrament, in the way that we are used to. It has been unsettling.
The Church’s identity is fundamental to her visibility and, therefore, witness. The Church’s visibility is the most powerful message the world can receive, a message the world can trust because it shows the presence of God in our world. This visibility encourages and motivates the world to view the Church’s attributes as a reflection of the God she represents. Tied to the Church of England, the ACK shares the identity of a diverse “fellowship of one visible society whose members are bound together by the ties of a common faith, common sacraments, and a common ministry”, as the bishops attending the Lambeth Conference of 1920 envisioned. This has crystalised into the Anglican way of following Jesus in the world in the “fulness of Christian life, truth and witness”.
The ACK is an integral part of the Anglican Communion, which binds her to the order and doctrine of the Anglican Church. But her context is different, demanding, therefore, a unique response to best enhance our visibility. Until the emergence of this global pandemic, we have had little motivation to rethink and adjust our visibility in context.
Our moment of crisis confronts us with the question of whether our present ways can sufficiently guide us. Some consider the pandemic transient. They estimate the duration it will last, and ponder what we shall find on the other side. They will do everything in order to maintain our common life within our norms, allowing for as little disruption as possible. It is however clear that this crisis is monumental in scale, and will force radical shifts in our society.
In a recent article, the Malawi academic, Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, makes a disturbing prediction of the grim future we face. He cites Mr Richard Kozul-Wright, the Director of the Division on Globalisation and Development Strategies at UNCTAD, who noted that, “There’s a degree of anxiety now that’s well beyond the health scares which are very serious and concerning . . . the kind of meltdown that could be even more damaging than the one that is likely to take place over the course of the year”.
Peering into tomorrow’s world from the depths of crisis, can the ACK seize the moment and readjust to better her visibility?
The epistemologist and historian of science, Thomas Kuhn, calls scientific revolution a paradigm shift. In his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn describes science as a process characterised by pre-paradigmatic, normal and revolutionary patterns emerging from the interactions of its component scientists, what we would call a complex adaptability system. According to Kuhn, a scientific revolution occurs when scientists encounter anomalies in the prevailing paradigm which they cannot resolve within their scientific framework. The paradigm, in Kuhn’s view, is not only the current theory, but the entire worldview in which it exists, and all the implications which come with it. Kuhn acknowledges anomalies within all paradigms, but maintains that scientists accommodate them as acceptable levels of error. Kuhn notes that when enough or significant anomalies accrue against a current paradigm, this throws the scientific discipline into crisis. It is during such a crisis that fresh ideas, perhaps ones previously discarded, are tested. A new paradigm is thus established, gaining its own new adherents and sparking an intellectual “battle” between the followers of this new paradigm and the adherents of the old.
Problems posed by the pandemic: the prevailing Anglican paradigm
The ACK Constitution of 2002 describes the church’s order of faith at length in Article III—On Doctrine and Worship. There are 14 provisions under this article that define the ACK’s position on following Christ. It is explicit from Article III(5) that the ACK Order of Faith aligns to that of the Anglican Churches worldwide.
The Church further accepts the Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1888 which outlines the Anglican essentials for a reunited Christian Church. The text of the Articles affirms the following: the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as “containing all things necessary to salvation”, and as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith; the Apostles’ Creed as the Baptismal Symbol and the Nicene Creed, as the sufficient statement of the Christian Faith; the two Sacraments ordained by Christ Himself—Baptism and the Supper of the Lord—ministered with unfailing use of Christ’s Words of Institution, and of the elements ordained by Him and The Historic-Episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the Unity of His Church.
These affirmations, together with other teachings, laws and liturgical practices approved in this province and by those others that we are in fellowship with, can, in Kuhnian terms, be regarded as the ACK’s paradigm. For at the core of Kuhn’s thought is the notion that “paradigms,” are scientific theories or worldviews unique enough to attract an enduring group of adherents away from competing modes of scientific activity, and open-ended enough to leave many problems for the practitioners in the group to resolve. The ACK’s liturgical worldview and practice, draws from the Book of Common Prayer (BCP), and Our Modern Services (OMS), translated in several languages.
Anglicans believe that the Church is the visible body of Christ on earth. She manifests this notion in Christians gathering together—in such a gathering is Christ present—and speaking his word, read out, and/or expounded. Christ is present in the sacraments that link Christians mysteriously to him, and in the clergy as they administer sacraments, absolution and blessings.
Since the earliest days of the Church, Christians have gathered together to bless, break and share bread and to bless and share a cup of wine in obedience to the Lord’s command, given on the night before He died, to “do this in remembrance of me”. The Eucharist is what catholic Christians understand to be the most doxological act they can perform when they gather for “the principal act of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day and other major Feasts” (BCP:14 and also 2002 OMS:55). To hold such a service, there should be communicants other than the minister at every celebration of Holy Communion. From the time of Thomas Cranmer, mainstream Anglicanism has insisted that we celebrate the communion service as a community, with no fewer than two people. The Rubrics at the end of the Book of Common Prayer, Communion Office, declare that “there shall be no celebration of the Lord’s Supper except there be a convenient number to communicate”, which it defines to be “three at the least” in a parish.
We anchor the importance of the Eucharist in the church’s law. Along with Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion, is a “Sacrament ordained of Christ” and “a sacrament of our redemption by Christ’s death”. For instance, the Canons of the Church of England teach the importance and centrality of the Eucharist. Canon B14 requires the celebration of the Holy Communion in at least one church in every benefice on all Sundays and principal Feast days, and on Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday. Canon B15 teaches that it is the duty of all the confirmed to receive the Holy Communion regularly, and especially at Christmas, Easter and Pentecost.
Over time, many factors contributed to a general decline in the celebration of the Eucharist every Sunday well into the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and Morning Prayer became the common service of worship on the Lord’s Day. ACK, a plant of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) which was more an evangelical low church, did not place the Eucharist as high in practice as the gathering of Christians in worship. There are Anglicans who gather for corporate prayer without the Eucharist. According to Richard Hooker, Christians assembled for corporate prayer, take part in communion with Christ himself, “joined . . . to that visible, mystical body which is his Church”. Hooker understands the corporate prayer of Christians as having a spiritual significance far greater than the sum of the individual prayers of the individual members of the body. He had very much in mind the assembly of faithful Christians gathered for the Daily Office. However, the Holy Eucharist is gaining precedence over Morning prayer, communion-wide, as the principal act of worship on Sunday.
What Kuhn argues of Science, that “rigorous and rigid” preparation is what helps to ensure that the received beliefs are fixed in the student’s mind, can be said of this paradigm influencing our understanding of when the Church gathers to worship, share the word and the sacrament. For scientists, Kuhn asserts, go to great pains to defend the assumption that scientists know what the world is like. And that “normal science” will often suppress novelties which undermine its foundations. Research is, therefore, not about discovering the unknown, but a strenuous and devoted attempt to force nature into the conceptual boxes supplied by professional education.
How churches responded to COVID-19 restrictions
The COVID-19 crisis has presented us with an immense challenge to this paradigm. The civil authorities stopped the physical gathering of Christians in churches, and ecclesial authorities endorsed this. In response, the churches adjusted to the order in a variety of ways to maintain visibility and witness.
Many churches switched to online service on internet platforms. Some turned to radio and TV services. In doing this they continued preaching the word of God and shared prayers. Others, who were outside the digital and mass media orbit turned to household and family worship sessions. Home alone, people are sustained in the theological assurance of Christ’s presence in our time of need. So, in such moments of crisis, people who wanted to draw closer to God, found connections through mass media and online platforms. They heard the word preached but had a challenge in celebrating the Eucharist. The sacraments are material, personal encounters; they do not exist in any other form; the Eucharist cannot be administered electronically. How can the bread and wine on the HD monitor, in a live-streamed mass, make the Eucharist? In invoking the words of the institution, “the Celebrant is to hold . . . or lay a hand upon” the bread and the wine; there is no gray area, and so it is not permissible to consecrate the Eucharist from a distance.
Many parish churches have, therefore, suspended the celebration of Holy Communion until they can meet together in person again. With this, has ceased the practice of public baptism for the duration of the restrictions that have been placed upon the Church.
The spiritual sacrament is an option that other churches have taken. We administer spiritual communion when a person desires to receive the sacrament, but cannot eat the bread and drink the wine. The celebrant assures this person that they have received all the benefits of communion, even though the person has not received the sacrament by mouth (BCP:457). This enables the spiritual reception, by observing a celebration of the Eucharist that is at the heart of the sacrament, even if physical partaking is not possible.
For others, the option of looking on was not workable. So, the parish congregation was informed when the Holy Communion would be celebrated in the priest’s home. Members of the congregation were provided with the programme and readings for the service and were invited to pray and read scriptures so that the service would take place within some kind of extended communal act of worship in that parish, and not as a private act of devotion.
In other communities, priests administered “drive-by communion”, where individuals drove through picking up the emblems of communion and driving away after the service. This presented a public health concern and further distorted the essential link between a communal celebration and the culmination of that celebration in the reception of the Eucharistic bread and wine.
Priests also made personal delivery of the emblems of communion to members in their homes. In these cases, the priest celebrated the Mass on Sunday and consecrated all the bread to be taken to the parishioners. Then the priest (and a few Eucharistic ministers) went to people’s homes (having cleansed their hands and kept the envelopes containing the emblems in brand new ziplock bags to avoid contamination). Depending on the size of the congregation, they applied the method for distributing the sacrament safely to people in their homes on Sundays.
Shocks to ACK practices during COVID-19
Kuhn maintains that there are anomalies within all paradigms which are considered acceptable levels of error or ignored and not dealt with. The above responses expose the immense anomalies accommodated within the Anglican paradigm. Although they solve the current problem, they provide solutions within the accepted norm with certain inconsistencies.
The most sacred feature of Christian gathering in the presence of Christ is the holy Eucharist, administered by the priest, and in a consecrated space. The Eucharist claims the actual presence of Christ and the reality of blessing when the elements are consumed by a real congregation. One therefore receives sustained spiritual blessings through frequent participation in such a service.
Where physical gathering is not possible, an alternative is foreseen where the parishioners are provided with a liturgy adapted from “Communion under Special Circumstances” (1979 BCP:396-399) to perform at home, as well as a bulletin and the lectionary readings. This is as Justin Martyr describes in his First Apology 65: “And when the presider has given thanks and all the people have assented, those called by us ‘deacons’ give to each one of those present to share the bread and wine and water over which thanks have been given, and they take [them] to those not present”.
Kuhn insists that should significant anomalies accrue against a current paradigm, it would throw the scientific discipline into a state of crisis. Such a crisis would demand retooling. Again, Kuhn explains, “So long as the tools a paradigm supplies continue to prove capable of solving the problems it defines, science moves fastest and penetrates most deeply through confident employment of those tools. The reason is apparent. As in manufacture, so in science —retooling is an extravagance to be reserved for the occasion that demands it”.
A crisis that locks the sanctuary and separates the clergy from the flock, would dim our visibility and stifle our liturgical life. We need not ask in such moments which is or is not permissible of the sacraments, as observed Rowan Williams; that leads to a dead end. Rather, the question for us sacramental people, he said, was not whether a practice was “right or wrong,” but “how much are we prepared for this or that liturgical action to mean?”
Since sacraments are actions that give new meaning to things, the current questions about the way we worship in this time of radical physical distancing invites the question of our preparedness for a sacramental encounter to have an alternative meaning. We should rather ask: what are we prepared for it to signify?
How shall we gather again after the period of restriction, during which we experienced the virtual church?
The attempts to stay in fellowship opened up an alternative way of gathering—the virtual meeting. Many Christians, who went online or turned to radio and television, now have multiple platforms on which to gather and connect. It will be difficult to restore the pre-coronavirus mode. We have arrived at a liberalised space of worship, where the anonymity of Christians will increase rather than decrease. For the individual Christians will have greater control over what they receive and will shut out what they do not desire.
Churches with a tradition of keeping a list of members that forms the basis for their local churches and denominations will experience difficulty in preventing their members from wandering across the field. We frowned upon moving from one church to another and regarded it as a kind of “sin”. The virtual church now gives Christians the anonymity and freedom to conceal their movements. People will belong to multiple congregations, and most probably become loyal to none.
Will our pastors and priests continue to signify the presence of Christ among us? Or will Christians maintain their newfound ways of experiencing God encountered during the period of restrictions?
We have up to now had a clergy-dependent way of following Christ. Pastors and priests have played a key role in the lives of Christians beyond religious matters. Their role therefore has remained vital, even in the absence of sacraments, as during the coronavirus crisis. This is because the church gathers around its priest who, besides administering the sacraments, pronounces the blessings, grants absolution of sins and who, through preaching and teaching the word, edifies the flock. There is a sense in which the flock is realising the access they have to God through Christ. Through prayers and listening to God’s word alone, some are developing an increased intimacy with Christ present in their homes. While for others, through their experience of the Daily Office, morning and evening prayers, they have found meaning in the word’s ministry and prayer.
Suppose the restrictions are lifted, will Christians opt for a continued non-physical experience of the sacrament?
Out of the coronavirus crisis emerged acts of personal delivery of communion to members in homes, drive-in communion, and a rekindled spiritual communion. Others have fasted the holy communion since the lockdown. The restrictions were necessary to protect neighbour and self from harm. Is it possible that, facing a prolonged threat and though allowed physical contact, many will prefer non-physical interactions? Taking communion to members’ homes may become the norm and that obviates the need of gathering. Some may become so accustomed to a spiritual communion which they have found exhilarating, that they will allow the sacraments to live up to their purpose as spiritual pointers.
There are observable movements away from the norms. ACK Christians realise that the sacraments and institutions that support their practice are symbolic enactments of processes of mind, heart and deed that could be expressed in other ways. They can encounter Christ through prayer, his word through the Internet and mass media, the non-physical partaking of sacraments, and yet faithfully be in sacred fellowship with the Catholic Apostolic Church of Christ. Will these changes in perspective spark a change in how we practice our faith?
A new awakening
The forecast is that the social and economic impact of the coronavirus will overwhelm weaker economies with fragile social safety nets. The Kenyan Anglicans faithful will strain to prop up this Church, a Church built with imperial concrete on the shifting sands of poverty. Such a structure, designed for the empire, loaded with dogmas, systems and traditions, incongruent with scriptures, and in desparate need of support and foreign aid, will not stand. Not for long. Besides, ACK does not have the backing of market capitalism and liberal democracy that other western countries of the communion have.
Perhaps the good to come out of this period might be an awakening to the pre-existing conditions of our religious decay. We were not as healthy as we made it to appear. Apart from being a medical condition, COVID-19 is also, and to a greater extent, a social virus which will eviscerate the Anglican Church as we know it today. We will wake up to an unfamiliar world after this pandemic. How shall we mitigate against extinction?
Scientists would not look backward in choosing from among existing theories when searching for alternatives. They seek “the fittest way to practice future science” says Kuhn, and therefore base their decision not on information about previous contributions but on the expected value of their own prospective contribution to a paradigm.
In an enthralling narrative on why civilisations die, Rebecca Costa recounts how when societies reach a cognitive threshold they can’t chart a path from the present to the future. They hit a gridlock. And there they die off. She explains that the fall occurs because problems become too many and complicated for the people of that time and place to solve. Such cognitive overload can happen to any system and may already be happening to the Anglican Church.
Costa gives two signs that point towards breakdown. First, there is a gridlock. Instead of dealing with what everyone can see are major problems, people continue as usual and pass their problems on to the next generation. Then there is a retreat into irrationality, for facts no longer make sense, and people take refuge in religious consolations.
How Judaism endured and survived the atrocities of the Roman empire, is a lesson for us today. The Jews developed a remarkable response to the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE). Faced with the loss of the entire infrastructure of the Temple, its Priests, and sacrifices, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains, Judaism translated the entire system of divine service into the everyday life of ordinary Jews. “In prayer, every Jew became a Priest offering a sacrifice. In repentance, he became a High Priest, atoning for his sins and those of his people. Every synagogue, in Israel or elsewhere, became a fragment of the Temple in Jerusalem. Every table became an altar, every act of charity or hospitality, a kind of sacrifice”, Sacks elaborates. The Jews did not abandon the past.
But they did not cling to it either. They refused to take refuge in irrationality, Sacks observes, but they “thought through the future and created institutions like the synagogue and house of study and school that could be built anywhere and sustain Jewish identity even in the most adverse conditions”. Judaism has always survived, unlike other world civilizations, in one sense because of Divine providence, but Sacks attributes it also to “the foresight of people like Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai who resisted cognitive breakdown, created solutions today for the problems of tomorrow, who did not seek refuge in the irrational, and who built the Jewish future”.
Our crisis presents us with the incentive to desire a new paradigm, and to invite others to the benefits it proffers. Kuhn describes shifts in paradigm allegiance as a conversion experience driven by the efforts of individual scientists to persuade each other. As Anglicans, we must contemplate worst-case scenarios, plan generations ahead and ask ourselves what we would do, if… What saved the Jewish people, Rabbi Sacks concludes, “was their ability…. never to let go off the rational thought”, and refusing to let their loyalty to the past come in the way of their future, they kept planning for the future.
Towards a new paradigm: priesthood for all believers
We should make all Confirmed Christians priests, give them authority to serve in the priestly role in church liturgy, sacraments and witness. To incorporate lay Christians into the priesthood will best realise our belief in the priesthood of all believers, a vision the ACK holds for Christians in divine service:
Lay persons form by far the greater part of the body of Christ. They cannot walk worthily in their high calling, unless they realize that they too are sharers in the heavenly high priesthood of Christ, and that this sharing must find expression in holiness, in witness, and in loving service of others (ACK. Const. 2002 Article VI: #7).
The laity are already leading in liturgy. This change should permit them not only to offer prayers but also grant absolution for the confessant, pronounce blessings on God’s people and last rites for the dying. Also, they should administer sacraments of baptism (this is already applicable in an emergency; full communicants other than a priest may baptise—OMS 2002:43) and Eucharist.
Making all believers priests would more reflect the scriptural ideal of God’s “kingdom of Priests and holy nation” than the present practice. Christians need to realise their calling as in Leviticus (19: 1-2) : “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them, ‘Be holy because I the Lord your God am holy’”. The New Testament affirms all believers in the priesthood of the New Covenant:
You also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ . . . But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Pet. 2:5, 9).
The Rabbinic Judaism that emerged out of the devastating tragedy of the loss of the Temple, created a religious and social order that achieved this vision of the people as “a kingdom of Priests and a holy nation”. Their leaders made Priesthood the right and obligation of every Jew. Should we not do the same for Christianity and, more so, for our Anglican Church?
With all believers as priests, their lives will turn into God’s service in society. All believers will be more aware of themselves as the community of the Kingdom of God, now scattered in homes, fragments of the divine sanctuary. Yet in these small shards, the believers gather to encounter God upon whom they wholly depend. And as explained by Niringiye, “the visibility of the community is in its gathering . . . in Jesus’ name”. They will engage in God’s service through prayer. And make sacrifices by acts of charity, create sacred fellowship by hospitality with every table becoming an altar for offerings unto God. Hence, the community of believers will exist as a divine sign pointing to the reality beyond, at the same time reflecting the glory of Christ in the present. Christians, now priests, would in the vision of Bishop J.E. Lesslie Newbigin, be the instruments through which God carries His will for justice, peace and freedom in the world, and as a foretaste of the presence of the Kingdom.
We must transform institutional church structures into instruments to equip all believers for service. They should be centres for Christian education where we train our children in our faith, giving them the tools to thrive as Christians in the world. Using our church infrastructures as centres for Christian learning would in effect reorient our priests to actualise their role as teachers and instructors of the faith. Equipping believers, through guiding them in understanding the holy texts and doing theology, will stir the development of fresh liturgy and visibility. Christian theology encourages an engaged spirituality, which lives out its theological convictions in social life. An engaged spirituality seeks to be true to the essence of theology, which St Anselm of Canterbury (11th century) defines as fides quaerens intellectum — faith in search of understanding.
What the ACK should discover, is not the proclaiming a timeless universal truth, but the listening to God’s involvement in the stories of the local community. The Church ought to recognise that it is in opening herself up that she will experience a true radical transformation. A true transformation is a gift of listening to the traces of God’s involvement among us, which brings about liberation and thus creates a space for impossible possibilities. And these are the true transformations.
We can achieve for the Anglican Church what the prophets, the sages, and the Jewish thinkers of the Middle Ages accomplished for Judaism. They realised that sacrifices were symbolic enactments of processes of mind, heart and deed that could be expressed in other ways. The study of the Torah, once the preserve of the priesthood, became the right and obligation of everyone. Sacks concludes, not everyone could wear the crown of Priesthood, but everyone could wear the crown of Torah; Judaism transformed to cope with the new contexts the Jewish people found themselves in.
The ACK is in a liminal space concerning her visibility. A space of being in transition. She must open herself to listen and search for God’s involvement in the world. It is by being in conversation and interpreting God’s involvement that she will be in the transition, from an institution founded on truths and established practices, to an open community, vulnerable, and exposed to the impossible possibilities of Christ’s presence, outside traditional places.
We are yet to understand the impact of this pandemic, it may be worse than we are projecting. Should we just contemplate worst-case scenarios? No, we should plan generations ahead, ask ourselves what we would do, if… What saved the Jewish people, Rabbi Sacks concludes, was their ability never to let go off rational thought, and, refusing to let their loyalty to the past get in the way of the future, they kept planning for the future.
If the ACK, and the Anglican Church, adopt this proposal, any future suspension of physical public gathering would not affect her visibility. Christians would continue to hear God’s word read or preached, and to receive the sacrament in another way.This will then be a Church that has opened herself to the paradigm shift.
This article is an abridged version from a journal article published in The Elephant document and archive section.
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