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Plagues and the Prose Informing Our Shared Condition

14 min read.

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.

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Plagues and the Prose Informing Our Shared Condition
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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’sIts 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.

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Dr. Goldsmith is an American researcher and writer who has lived in Kenya for over 40 years.

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African Economies, Societies and Natures in a Time of COVID-19

Reginald Cline-Cole provides an analytically rigorous understanding of the differentiated spread and impact of Covid-19 around the world. In so doing he returns us to what ought to be our core concern: the political economy of uneven incorporation of African economies, societies and natures into the world economy.

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African Economies, Societies and Natures in a Time of COVID-19
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Several correspondents of mine have suggested that it makes a nice and welcome change that something this big, this bad, this scary and this seemingly predictable is not coming out of Africa. ‘This’ and ’it’ being, of course, the all-encompassing and still evolving phenomenon of Covid-19 or coronavirus, which ROAPE has been covering in the journal and online. And with good reason for, as others have already observed, the time of coronavirus is not just leaving an indelible mark on the year 2020 but might well be transforming neoliberal capitalism in previously unimaginable ways. The virus continues its inexorable advance  and, having taken some time to reach Africa from Europe and Asia, has spread rapidly since its reported arrival in mid-February, with confirmed cases numbering some 4300 people spread across  (African Arguments 2020), and more than 9000 people in  (ACSS 2020). As elsewhere, increasing infection numbers (and, sometimes, rates), imploding economies and disrupted social interactions have fuelled mutually reinforcing health and economic crises, precipitating sometimes.

And this despite, or sometimes because of, high-level policy and other discussions about, and adoption of, frequently exceptional measures which aim to slow the transmission and spread of the virus and prevent the worsening of what is already considered by many as a global crisis of unprecedented threat, impact and uncertainty In the process, as Bird and Ironstone note, ‘[p]ower structures are being radically re-arranged in our societ[ies] right now and if we lose our capacity to criticize the future may be beset by new, even more damning ones.’

It is thus vital that Theophanidis clarifies that his call for ‘distancing’ aims to create space for critical thinking and careful reflection, notably in a context in which digital, mostly social, media connectivity is helping to counter the isolation of ‘physical social distancing’. As numerous and varied examples of radical digital activism and solidarity which have emerged demonstrate, it would be regrettable if far-reaching lessons were not learned from crises precipitated by the pandemic and the varied responses to them.

Does Covid-19 discriminate?

Available data on age–sex distribution of confirmed cases for the WHO African Region indicate that, overall, older men would appear to be disproportionately affected by Covid-19 with a preponderance of males (1.7:1 male-to-female infection ratio) across all age groups and a median age of 36 years (range of 0–105). Further instances of disproportionate impact based on religion, class, occupation or ethnicity will no doubt emerge in time, notably as readily available details on the demographics of coronavirus victims extend beyond the fundamentals of age, sex, nationality, residence and travel history. In the UK and USA, of course, such metrics have been invaluable in identifying the overrepresentation of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) health and care workers and volunteers among coronavirus fatalities. Similar racial and ethnic disparities characterise wider BAME community and hospital in-patient infection and death data from coronavirus, with black people (four times), Bangladeshi and Pakistani (three and a half times) and Indians (two and a half times) more likely to succumb to Covid-19 than white people in England and Wales. The phenomenon has attracted extensive media and other coverage which has focused on health inequalities and risk factors, deprivation, affluence and racial discrimination, and in the absence of acceptable causal explanations for the overrepresentation.

But it has been left to organised labour and popular mobilisation to extract hard-won concessions from state actors and the public–private healthcare complex to institute an official enquiry, provide adequate supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline health, care and allied workers and expand coronavirus testing opportunities for these workers and their families (NHS Confederation 2020). Special compensation programmes for families of NHS staff (and, in England, social care workers) who die from coronavirus have also been announced, although the level of compensation is considered inadequate by some, and labour unions, among others, have called for the scheme to be extended to cover all key workers who die from the disease.

And yet, as tardy, reluctant, inadequate and reactive as these state interventions have undoubtedly been, it is social mobilisations which have ‘forced the state to take on its responsibilities’. These have included medical professionals and cross-party campaign MPs ‘breaking silence’ over Covid-19’s disproportionate impact on particular sections of society, which itself speaks to the promise of social action and emancipatory politics in influencing (post-) Covid-19 politics and realities.

But as the coronavirus BAME casualties and fatalities include Africans and people of African descent whose remittances are often integral to the livelihoods and survival strategies of family at home, their existential struggles have not been lost on Africans at home and in the diaspora. Indeed, as social media exchanges were quick to indicate, for countries like Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe, among others, the earliest known coronavirus deaths were of their (often dual) nationals in the diaspora rather than at home, where the continent’s first fatality was a German tourist in Egypt. For many, family, friends, colleagues and casual acquaintances would eventually succumb to the virus, in my case across three continents.

Thus one of my acquaintances regretted what he saw as a ‘lamentable waste’ of African medical and health expertise which was going to be both sorely needed and badly missed on the continent, if the worst predictions of Covid-19 were ever realised. A second drew a comparison between these coronavirus deaths and the often tragic demise of undocumented migrants along trans-Saharan and Mediterranean routes to Europe, suggesting that both groups had paid the ultimate price in their respective attempts to escape the poverty of opportunity in Africa.

These have included medical professionals and cross-party campaign MPs ‘breaking silence’ over Covid-19’s disproportionate impact on particular sections of society, which itself speaks to the promise of social action and emancipatory politics in influencing (post-)Covid-19 politics and realities

Meanwhile, in Zimbabwe, frontline medical staff followed up on a protest strike which had been observed jointly by the Hospital Doctors Association (ZHDA) and Professional Nurses Union (ZPNU) in mid-March to highlight the shortage of PPE for health workers in the country’s hospitals. The Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights (ZADHR) sued the government in the High Court in early April to compel it to provide adequate equipment and supplies to enable frontline medical practitioners and healthcare workers to tackle the Covid-19 crisis safely and professionally and, in the process, to significantly improve public access to functioning quarantine and isolation facilities.

Similar protests have been widespread across the continent, many representing a continuation of long-running dissatisfaction with public health provision predating coronavirus. In one of the more recent of these, coronavirus frontline workers in Sierra Leone who announced they were going on strike in early June were joined at the start of July by doctors refusing to treat coronavirus patients in quarantine or isolation facilities in protesting government failure to pay outstanding bonuses, ‘hazard pay’, promised as incentive to persuade health workers to agree to treat Covid-19 patients during the outbreak, often with inadequate PPE, diagnostic and therapeutic equipment and supplies.

Thus, a government with the foresight and presence of mind to draw up a Covid-19 response plan before the outbreak of the pandemic, and probably earlier than anybody else on the continent, stands accused of not only reneging on the memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed in April with the Sierra Leone Medical and Dental Association (SLMDA) to facilitate this Covid-19 response, but also of failing to renew the MOU before it lapsed three months later (Inveen 2020a). Recalling that disasters like pandemics are influenced by human ‘decisions, attitudes, values, behaviour, and activities’ one cannot but wonder whether there is indeed merit to the SLMDA’s claim that the government does not appear to be particularly interested in resolving the dispute, and if so what the political reasoning behind such a choice might be.

Protests have been widespread across the continent, many representing a continuation of long-running dissatisfaction with public health provision predating coronavirus

Clearly, the ZHDA/ZPNU, SLMDA and NHS struggles share more than just a generic similarity. There are recognisably Zimbabwean and Sierra Leonean names on published lists of NHS and care worker coronavirus fatalities. And in all three cases, albeit in noticeably different ways, the struggle to pressure the state to assume its responsibility in relation to public health and wellbeing is rooted in austerity, long predates Covid-19 and is fuelled by perceptions of official inefficiency, neglect and corruption. In addition, as recent SARS and Ebola epidemics have shown, potential risks and opportunities for corruption are significantly increased during major health crises, most commonly in drug and equipment procurement, leading to calls for increased oversight, accountability and transparency during the coronavirus pandemic

Thus, a major grievance of the SLMDA, for example, is a perceived ‘misuse of funds for the coronavirus response’, a reaction to official procurement priorities which have seen 20% of Sierra Leone’s total coronavirus budget being spent on new SUVs and motorbikes, with only a tenth as much on medical equipment or drugs, leaving PPE in constant short supply and contact tracers seemingly unaffordable. The national Coronavirus Response Team, for its part, justifies the delay in disbursing promised bonuses by citing the necessity to both establish the identity of frontline health workers and ensure that hazard pay went only to those entitled to receive it But as improperly disbursed hazard pay was one of several examples of mismanagement of funds by public officials during the Ebola crisis with its high health worker mortality rates SLMDA impatience and suspicion do not appear entirely unfounded. And, at nearly 11%, Sierra Leone’s ratio of health worker infection to total reported infections is among the highest on the continent.

Meanwhile, Zimbabwean health professionals have also embarked on the latest in a series of strikes, partly to protest at the erosion of local purchasing power and living standards by hyperinflation and demand payment of their salaries in US dollars, but also to highlight both police harassment of striking nurses and the perennial shortage of PPE at a time of rising incidence of Covid-19.

But whereas SLMDA appear to be contending with seemingly misplaced procurement priorities, their Zimbabwean counterparts are confronted with alleged criminality, which has seen the sacking of the country’s minister of health, who has also been charged with corruption and abuse of office for the illegal award of a large contract (since revoked by government) for PPE, testing kits and drugs to a company which would deliver these supplies at hugely inflated cost.

The combination of a worsening economic crisis and sharply increasing coronavirus infection totals (including of health workers) has seen opposition politicians make common cause with the media and popular forces to decry corruption and demand greater accountability, while calling for a national day of protest against ‘corruption and political challenges’ at the end of July.

The authorities refused permission for the 31 July protests to take place, on the grounds that it would be subversive, unconstitutional and anti-democratic (BBC 2020d), as well as violating Covid-19 pandemic regulations at a time when there has been a spike in coronavirus infections. As a result, they claimed, a dusk-to-dawn curfew and tighter restrictions on movement had to be imposed.

It is presumably also in the common good that leading organisers/supporters of the proposed protest have been arrested, charged to court and refused bail.The example of state officials rewriting coronavirus reality to suit a favoured narrative is a recurrent and intensely political one, to which we return later.

Philanthro-capitalism in coronavirus times

An earlier prolonged doctors’ strike over pay and conditions in Zimbabwe had been called off only in January this year, when the ZHDA accepted an offer of funding for a fellowship programme for its members which would guarantee a monthly subsistence allowance of up to three times their salary for a period of six months from Strive Masiyiwa, the country’s wealthiest individual.

Following the PPE protests in March, funding to cover the cost of PPE for doctors and other health workers was added to the original offer, which was also extended to all nurses, as well as doctors in non-state hospitals, and expanded to include health and life insurance cover with cash or lump-sum benefit in the event of ‘hospitali[sation], … permanent disability or death from the virus’. Although he is Zimbabwean born, Strive Masiyiwa presides over his Econet Group from London, where he currently lives and from where he has undoubtedly been monitoring the wide variety of local responses to the pandemic worldwide, or at least in those world regions in which Econet has a presence.

But while nothing in the way of private donations to Sierra Leone’s coronavirus response effort is likely to have come anywhere near the sums certain to have been involved above, reports from Nigeria indicate that Masiyiwa’s fellow billionaires have also been making substantial donations to the (federal) Nigerian Private Sector Coalition Against COVID-19 (CACOVID) and their state equivalents, as have corporate entities (often fronted by the same individuals). Is it likely, then, that we might have a case of transnational capital ostensibly contesting state in/action as part of a wider coalition while still acting in its own long-term interest?

Masiyiwa’s conglomerate Econet, for example, combines telecom, mobile phone, fintech and power distribution enterprises which operate across large parts of Africa, but also in the Americas, Asia Pacific, Middle East and Europe. The funding/fellowship programme for health workers is to be established and run by the Higherlife philanthropic family foundation, while Ecosure, the insurance arm of one of the Econet Group companies, will underwrite the insurance component of the offer.

Similarly, Nigerian media reporting of the private coronavirus response donations by individuals and corporate entities gives as much prominence to the identities of donors and their net worth as to the size/purpose of their donations and sources of wealth, thereby fulfilling invaluable public relations and/or corporate social responsibility (CSR) functions, as well as playing a commercial advertising role. Consequently, while donor state of origin or residence tends to be the primary beneficiary of private philanthropy, corporate donations often favour populations and institutions in states and regions of direct commercial importance. Thus Aliko Dangote, Africa’s richest individual, has provided a fully-equipped and staffed Covid-19 testing facility, as well as part-funding a wide range of vital public interventions in coronavirus prevention and containment via private and corporate donations in his home state of Kano (and, to a lesser extent, Lagos State, where the Dangote Industries group has its head office).

He also assumed shared national leadership of CACOVID’s quest to raise funds from private and corporate sources for federal and state Covid-19 response; and, by making the largest corporate donation to the fund to date via the Aliko Dangote Foundation (ADF), triggered something of a ‘giving war’ of donations and pledges among his fellow billionaire donors. He also made a further multi-million-dollar donation to the Nigeria UN COVID-19 Basket Fund which aims to provide support to individuals and households trying to rebuild livelihoods disrupted and/or undermined by the coronavirus pandemic.

In the end he and his fellow donors are publicly thanked by President Muhammadu Buhari (who encourages other high-net-worth individuals – HNWIs – to follow their example). Dangote is also thanked by the governor of Kano State for his services to coronavirus prevention and response, with which his name becomes inextricably linked in media reports, which almost invariably also mention his equally sterling contributions during the earlier Ebola epidemic. Like Strive Masiyiwa, with whom he earlier collaborated on regional and continent-wide Ebola response efforts, then, this enhances his reputation as one of Africa’s biggest philanthropists and, as CEO of ‘Nigeria’s most profitable company’ (Augie 2020), one of the continent’s most successful business people. Is this what capitalist philanthropy in a time of coronavirus looks like? And is it as accommodating in its business practices as it is in its public giving?

Zimbabwean health professionals have also embarked on the latest in a series of strikes, partly to protest at the erosion of local purchasing power and living standards by hyperinflation and demand payment of their salaries in US dollars, but also to highlight both police harassment of striking nurses and the perennial shortage of PPE at a time of rising incidence of Covid-19.

While philanthropy is not restricted to wealthy individuals and profitable corporations, their role can be strategic and decisive. UBS and TrustAfrica (2014), in a jointly published study, document and seek to analyse how and why this is the case for African philanthropists/philanthropy during ‘normal’ times. But as the Dangote and Masiyiwa examples and numerous others like them illustrate, this is also largely the case during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, with its varied, changing and often expanding demands/appeals and frequently inadequate – if improving – philanthropic responses (Julien 2020). Experience with previous epidemics and pandemics, supplemented by emerging insights from Covid-19, have informed the design and implementation of emergency coronavirus plans and strategies worldwide, including for dealing with voluntarism and managing donations (Alexander 2020). In emergency coronavirus planning scenarios, responsibility for external donations and government/state resource commitments is routinely combined with administrative oversight for internal donations of various kinds.

In practice, this creates a pressing, possibly overwhelming, need to coordinate appeals for assistance while managing a diversity of resources earmarked for coronavirus response in an accountable and transparent way (Transparency International 2020). Notably, the circumstances surrounding the previously mentioned sacking of Zimbabwe’s minister of health, and ongoing legal and media challenges to UK government officials against the lack of transparent and competitive tendering in the award of Covid-19 related contracts (Monbiot 2020) remind us that expectations of resource governance, transparency and accountability are not just ethical and moral, but frequently political and legal too.

And that, like the good governance agenda as a whole, these expectations can be heavily neoliberal in tone and intent, and as process. Significantly, however, expectations of transparency and accountability in how donations are managed or used have not historically been routinely extended to how the wealth which makes corporate and HNWI Covid-19 philanthropy possible is generated in the first place. How best to explain such imbalances in what has been described as the power of process and practice in philanthropy (Mahomed and Moyo 2013)? And how best to prevent its use in, say, ‘offset[ing] reputational damage or exploitative practice’ (Mahomed 2014)?

The point is that African philanthropy is increasingly seen as indispensable to the emergence of a self-reliant continent, with corporate philanthropists looking to strengthen links between business and philanthropy, considering ‘investments with a social impact’ a suitable means for achieving this. Aliko Dangote Foundation  and Higherlife Foundation, for example, thus function as CSR units of Dangote Industries Ltd and Econet, respectively. Their donations or pledges in both cash and kind undoubtedly give a significant boost to the overall coronavirus response effort, to include staff recruitment, training and remuneration. Equally, and particularly noticeably, they also impact directly on local and import markets in specialised medical equipment and supplies, as well as in two- and four-wheeled motor vehicles, among other commodities. Yet, these markets might well be dominated by manufacturers and/or intermediary suppliers which are subsidiaries of corporate partner organisations to the charity foundations through which philanthropy is dispensed by conglomerates in the first place.

More directly, how have corporate philanthropists reacted to the disruptive effects of Covid-19 and the varied responses to it on the factory floor, behind the bank counter, at the plantation gate and in front of the computer screen? Specifically, were business practices adequately adjusted to reflect the new normal in a time of coronavirus? Did they readily and effectively incorporate workplace Covid-19 preparedness planning and response strategies, including testing facilities where appropriate? Were adequate supplies of PPE, relevant equipment, water, soap, sanitisers, etc. made available to employees? And where, as with several of the corporate donors in question, their businesses operate across national boundaries, were common standards maintained across the board or did arrangements differ between ‘home’ and ‘foreign’ sites and workforces (and, if so, why and with what consequences for workers)? Overall, do philanthro-capitalists lead by example here in a way reminiscent of their public giving and pledging? As Mahomed (2014) notes, ‘the ethics of how philanthropy money is made (especially if made in an endeavour that disadvantages those it now seeks to support) must be called into question.’ That we are in the middle of a pandemic is no reason not to at least raise the question of the often differentiated nature of the process by which donated wealth is made or, indeed, of how coronavirus has been (or is likely to be) exploited for capitalist investment and profit accumulation.

But the lesson of Covid-19 need not involve either depoliticising philanthropy (it has after all contributed actively to the long-term process of privatising and commercialising formerly public health systems on the continent) or underestimating the complex dynamics of emergent solidarity between often conflicting and competing class interests. Take the following two parallel and competing but interrelated phenomena. On the one hand we had Donald Trump’s largely futile attempts to encourage wider use of the labels ‘Wuhan Virus’ and ‘Chinese Virus’; his still unfounded but periodically repeated claim that SARS-CoV-2 was developed in a Wuhan laboratory; his insistence that the WHO is so severely compromised by links to China that its handling of the pandemic was tardy, grossly inadequate and ineffective, as well as lacking transparency; and his threat to withhold American funding for the organisation – a political stance which has not won widespread or unqualified support from other major WHO donors who have publicly supported the agency and its director-general, if not necessarily China’s reported handling of the initial stages of the virus outbreak.

On the other hand, there are official Chinese state objections, denials and counter-accusations; and the skilful ‘weaponisation’ of the material and symbolic significance of its carefully cultivated (self-)image of generosity to, and solidarity with the world’s needy and oppressed, particularly in coronavirus times. So, alongside Chinese government support in cash, kind and personnel provided to selected African and other countries under threat from coronavirus, we also have worldwide donations of medical equipment and supplies in support of Covid-19 response efforts by private philanthropic foundations linked to Jack Ma, China’s wealthiest man, and member of the Chinese Communist Party.

Ma’s corporate philanthropy has extended to donations to New York authorities and the WHO in the wake of Trump’s de-funding threat, as well as to all of Africa, and has included an online training manual for clinical treatment of coronavirus based on first-hand experience of doctors in Zhejiang and the Global MediXchange for Combating Covid-19 programme with its International Medical Expert Communication Platform. But while Jack Ma’s donations have been widely celebrated in Africa as promptly and efficiently delivered, Chinese government donations have not been universally welcome, partly because of reported poor quality and questionable reliability of donated supplies and equipment.

Ma’s philanthropy has made him as newsworthy at home and abroad as President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party leadership, who see Chinese state and private Covid-19 philanthropy as part of a wider coronavirus diplomatic strategy designed to distract attention from Chinese state contribution to the initial ‘escape’ or spread of the virus, while positioning their country as champion of the fight against the pandemic. This assumes heightened significance in places like Europe and Africa where, in contrast to Jack Ma and his private foundations, the Chinese state has suffered Covid-19-related reputational damage. Indeed, the arrival of Nigeria’s allocation from Jack Ma’s Covid-19 donation to African countries via the African Union’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention was a major prompt to local media and popular commentators to challenge local HNWIs to emulate Ma’s philanthropy. In contrast, the Nigerian Medical Association, Trade Union Congress and main opposition party strongly opposed federal government approval for a team of Chinese medical professionals funded by the state-owned China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation to provide direct support for the government’s Covid-19 response efforts, citing rumours of an upsurge in coronavirus infection and mortality in other countries following the arrival of Chinese medical personnel.

While Jack Ma’s donations have been widely celebrated in Africa as promptly and efficiently delivered, Chinese government donations have not been universally welcome, partly because of reported poor quality and questionable reliability of donated supplies and equipment

There was also residual popular resentment at the widely reported scapegoating of African migrants in China at the outbreak of the pandemic which had drawn official protests from the Nigerian and other African governments. But as the donation which also included a consignment of medical equipment and supplies had been announced as a fait accompli, government officials and spokespersons would spend media appearances trying to justify the decision, pacify local doctors, rebut opposition claims and win public support through a fascinating mix of obfuscation, mendacity, petulance, deflection and insinuation in a desperate attempt to deliberately downplay Chinese state involvement and thus avoid a diplomatic incident. So in their different ways, and like the Zimbabwe government’s desperate bid to silence internal dissent and protest which we encountered earlier, Trump’s assault on WHO handling of the pandemic, official Chinese and Nigerian government public relations and propaganda assaults on their respective (and wider) publics indicate active involvement in what Carrie Gracie has described, with specific reference to the Chinese ruling class, as rewriting Covid-19 facts to suit their narrative.

Politics must not be allowed to stand

The world is still in the grip of a coronavirus pandemic; that Africa might or might not be its current epicentre; and that nobody knows for sure how Africa’s many ‘other’ or local epidemics will evolve over the next few weeks, months or even years. Yet this has not stopped multilateral institutions and multinational corporations from outlining a variety of options for exiting lockdowns and, ultimately, the entire or whole pandemic; or indeed predicting and modelling the contours of post-coronavirus ‘new normal’ continental and/or global economies. As an increasing number of countries exit lockdowns (and enter new ones), this should awaken an urgent desire among progressive forces to redirect the focus of attention to a determined pursuit of an analytically rigorous understanding of the differentiated spread and impact of, and state and other responses to Covid-19 – and in so doing to return also to what ought to be our core concern: the political economy of uneven incorporation of African economies, societies and natures into the world economy, the accompanying implications for social, spatial, structural and other forms of differentiation, and the latter’s manifestation within and between population, place and space/territory. For, as Philip Alston reminds us, ‘[t]he coronavirus has merely lifted the lid off the pre-existing pandemic of poverty. Covid-19 arrived in a world where poverty, extreme inequality and disregard for human life are thriving, and in which legal and economic policies are designed to create and sustain wealth for the powerful, but not end poverty. This is the political choice that has been made.’  It is a political choice that cannot and must not be allowed to stand unchallenged either in the current coronavirus times or in a post-Covid-19 world.

This article was first published in The Review of Africa Political Economy journal

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Why Indeed Scholars are the Heirs of Prophets

All through history prophets have oscillated between one extreme end, the highest level of political leadership — what Plato called “the Philosopher King”, the ruler of his utopian city Kallipolis who possesses wisdom and simplicity — and the other extreme end, the highest level of political activism — what the 19th century termed as Radical Activism, individuals who called for total societal change, engineering complete upheaval of the status quo. Both the Philosopher King and the Radical are enabled by one thing—Knowledge.

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“Scholars are inheritors of Prophethood”
Prophet Muhammad PBUH

To fully contextualise and grasp the gravity of this saying of the Prophet Muhammad PBUH requires knowledge of not just the role of prophethood in society but also of the nature of society. At both the level of Max Weber’s Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, society consists of large groups underpinned by a set of beliefs that organise the membership’s affairs. This is irrespective of the fact that one is organic and the other legal-rational.

This underpinning corpus of beliefs that serves as the groups’ existential truth, criterion of measure and all-encompassing narrative of and about existence, is the lens through which the internal and external universe at both individual and group level is perceived and therefore ordered. It is this story that is articulated by prophets and oracles of yore, and the scholars and intellectuals of the present day.

It is by this measure that the scholars are inheritors of prophethood. From this saying, by analysis of the function of prophets, we can extract the role of scholars in society.

All through history prophets have oscillated between one extreme end, the highest level of political leadership — what Plato called “the Philosopher King”, the ruler of his utopian city Kallipolis who possesses wisdom and simplicity — and the other extreme end, the highest level of political activism — what the 19th century termed as Radical Activism, individuals who called for total societal change, engineering complete upheaval of the status quo.

Both the Philosopher King and the Radical are enabled by one thing — Knowledge.

What knowledge?

Knowledge of truth.

What truth? Which truth?

Empirical? The truth about the inner workings of nature? No.

The truth about the existential, teleological and relational nature of man. In short, a coherent set of beliefs that tell us where we came from and where we are going, why we are here and how we should relate to one another.

The most cogent and convincing story told, that comprehensively answers this question, will calibrate all social interaction, order and direct us all.

It is for this reason that British colonialism of the African continent began with a story. A Story about the salvation of souls, a promise of a beautiful place of endless bliss and, over and above that, complete absolution. Successful “Christianisation” was a sine qua non for absolute subjugation and slavery of the natives. The advance guard of imperialism was the Church Missionary Society.

In fact, the need for this “story” and its power over peoples was common imperialist knowledge. Penelope Carson’s book The East India Company and Religion 1698-1858, records an incident in which 17th century churchman and orientalist Humphrey Prideaux, who was later to become Dean of Norwich, castigated The East India Company for neglecting the propagation of Christianity in India, pointing to the success of the Dutch East India Company, arguing that their Dutch counterparts thrived due to proselytisation of Christianity where they expanded.

Where native elites intervened to bar the entry of missionaries in places such as Japan, the peoples of these lands remained free of European colonisation for centuries.

The answer to the question of existence, manifested in the instinctive questions we all ask — Where did we came from? Where we are going? Why are we here? How we should relate to one another? — has all-encompassing power over a community and society, and herein lies the power of the scholar.

Knowledge has only one purpose: to elevate the human condition, to drive away barbarism and raise us to civilisation. For knowledge is the only attribute that differentiates us from the rest of creation.

Why not make the case for free will here too? For free will is a factor of knowledge. Free will and self-awareness are implied and are necessary predicators for knowledge.

There was never any need for a tree of knowledge in the heavens where angels reside, as angels have no free will. Neither was there any need for one in the realm of beasts, for beasts have no intellect. Only man has the unique ability to value knowledge, for only he has both intellect and free will.

Given that the purpose of knowledge is to lead us to our Xanadu, it follows that those amongst us with the wherewithal for knowledge have a teleological duty to the knowledge and an essential duty to their kind to take the mantle of intellectual leadership together with all the risks and rewards it portends.

This knowledge of purpose enables the scholar to direct the society from its empirical state towards its normative ideal. This direction is not frictionless. It ensures a never-ending struggle between the interests anchored in the status quo and those rising from the promise of change. American scholar and activist Noam Chomsky captures this function well in this quote from his essay The Responsibility of Intellectuals: “With respect to the responsibility of intellectuals, there are still other, equally disturbing questions. Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyse actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions.”

Failure to rise to this duty can be legitimately termed betrayal of calling, betrayal of self.

In the past, where humanity was organised at village and tribal level, it would have been sufficient to speak to individual scholarly duty, but in today’s complex social order, we must communicate the same argument to the organisations in our society that consist of knowledge workers and whose purpose is knowledge or a derivative of knowledge.

This would consist of universities and religious organisations and their affiliate unions and associates. To this end we will cite the most well-known or stereotypical examples of individuals and organisations that have endeavoured to live up to the demands of this vital function, or calling.

The unity of individual scholarship and activism is perfectly epitomised by the world-renowned Scholar Noam Chomsky mentioned earlier, as this summarised excerpt from Who is Noam Chomsky?” perfectly illustrates:

Chomsky joined protests against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War in 1962, speaking on the subject at small gatherings in churches and homes.

He also became involved in left-wing activism. Chomsky refused to pay half his taxes, publicly supported students who refused the draft, and was arrested while participating in an anti-war teach-in outside the Pentagon. During this time, Chomsky co-founded the anti-war collective RESIST with Mitchell Goodman, Denise Levertov, William Sloane Coffin, and Dwight Macdonald. Although he questioned the objectives of the 1968 student protests, Chomsky gave many lectures to student activist groups and, with his colleague Louis Kampf, ran undergraduate courses on politics at MIT independently of the conservative-dominated political science department.

Because of his anti-war activism, Chomsky was arrested on multiple occasions and included on President Richard Nixon’s master list of political opponents. Chomsky was aware of the potential repercussions of his civil disobedience and his wife began studying for her own doctorate in linguistics to support the family in the event of Chomsky’s imprisonment or joblessness.

Locally Dr David Ndii has struggled immensely and very successfully to live up to Noam Chomsky’s The Responsibility of Intellectuals, explaining the economic reality and the Government of Kenya’s policies/plans to the public in terms understandable by all. He began in the most widely read newspaper Daily Nation and now writes economic analyses and open letters to the rulers on the popular online political journal The Elephant, often successfully compelling the government to respond, albeit with more propaganda and red herring.

His sister-in-arms Dr Wandia Njoya has waged an equivalent struggle in the domain of education and culture. Patrick Gathara and Rasna Warah, whose timely pieces questioned the reasons for the Kenya government incursion into Somalia as part of America’s global imperialist Wars of Terror, triggered a vital conversation at the most appropriate time and place, where the powers that be would have preferred none.

Two critical parts remain for our native scholars and intellectuals (“native” continentally-speaking). First is crystallising their ideas into philosophies that can animate the public and move it to action, “action” being the work of bringing the ideas to life in social order and government policy.

Second is inculcating in a group of their students their philosophy, and organising them to carry it to the public space. The scholar or intellectual is a social actor just as is the politician, only at a different stage of the work of social organising. The scholar or intellectual produces the ideas that the politician or activist organises the public around. If a politician is “Philosophy in Action”, the scholar then is the “Action of Philosophy”. That the group for the politician is termed a political party is moot; the currency for both actors is public opinion and neither scholars nor politicians can be effective without the support of groups. We may term the group around a scholar as followers or disciples for purposes of differentiation.

It is hard to imagine, but Noam Chomsky was once a student. Chomsky began his studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Chomsky states in many interviews that he found little use for his classes until he met Zellig S. Harris, an American scholar touted for discovering structural linguistics (breaking language down into distinct parts or levels). Chomsky was moved by what he felt language could reveal about society. Harris was moved by Chomsky’s great potential and did much to advance the young man’s undergraduate studies, with Chomsky receiving his B.A. and M.A. in non-traditional modes of study.

Noam Chomsky is categorical that, outside of his father, Zellig S. Harris is most responsible for his intellectual direction, political thought and activism.

From scholar-activists to organisation activism

For examples of organisations that have transcended the limited group interests of their membership to actively engage social issues that affect all, we may look to the teacher’s unions in Latin America which are actually social movements that have played critical roles at national and sub-national levels.

The paper Promoting education quality: the role of teachers’ unions in Latin America from the UNESCO Digital Library reports that in Brazil, during the 1988 constitution-writing process, teachers’ unions worked with academic, student and national trade confederations to advocate minimum funding for education. They succeeded in obtaining a constitutional provision establishing that 18 per cent of federal and 25 per cent of state and municipal taxes must go toward education.

Given the crisis we face today is fundamentally a crisis of ideas — or more specifically the lack thereof — to galvanize society, we need our scholars to tell us a new story, or to tell us an old story in a new way.

The Canadian scholar and psychologist, Dr Jordan B. Peterson, serves as an apt example of telling “an old story in a new way”. He reframed the Christian story for an atheistic age, infusing new life into the West’s Cultural Right. After years of losing ground to the liberal social values of the Left, conservatism has found its footing.

Sheikh Taqiuddin An-Nabhani, the Palestinian jurist and founder of political party Hizb ut-Tahrir, reframed Islam as a System for “the Age of Systems”, giving Muslims a way to perceive the complex new global order through the lens of their beliefs. And in so doing, giving Muslims new faith in their way of life and re-energising them to work to find their way forward to re-establishing the Islamic order they had lost.

This spark is what we need. As individuals, and as humanity.

For us in Africa, the 1885 Berlin Conference order is in the terminal stages of decay, just like its Sykes-Picot equivalent in the Middle East. Talk of secession is everywhere in Africa. Even the presumably stable territories like Kenya have not been exempt. Secession, which is the fracture of states, suffers conditions similar to “entropy”, which is the dissipation and dispersion of particles within an entity. Secession creates new problems beyond the potential for an infinite recurrence of further secession. Darfur’s struggle to secede from South Sudan, after South Sudan seceded from Sudan on 9 July 2011, after Sudan seceded from Egypt on 1 January 1956, is a perfect modern example in Africa. Somalia need not be elaborated.

Superficial measures such as renaming countries are no different from adopting some costume as a national dress in search of a new post-colonial identity. They are named in top-down tyrannical initiatives and “un-named” after the death of the baptising despot.

Convergence of nations into new blocks has failed to resolve any of the problems humanity faces, even at the highest level of political awareness, with the blocks beginning to BrExit and GrExit even before they are fully formed.

Democracy is imploding as the multiple centres of thought — democracy’s vaunted raison d’être, “Pluralism” — mature into the centres of gravity of powerful hurricanes of political movements, many currently spinning across America leaving death and destruction in their wake, and threatening to tear America, the paragon of Democracy, into a thousand pieces.

Yet we cannot dial the clock back to our tribal ways as Mungiki the Kikuyu tribal cult that rose in the central highlands of Kenya proved. Our tribal enclaves have been completely shattered by imperialism’s modern-day manifestation — liberalism — never to exist again. There is no tribal safe haven to return to for any of us.

Never in the history of humanity has there been such plenty sitting side-by-side with such great need. Capitalism promised humanity that the free market would solve all its problems. Freedom as a doctrine would lead all of humanity to happiness, plenty and fulfilment. This paradise would follow absolute “freedom of markets”, “freedom of capital”, “freedom of thought and speech”.

But as the Bible famously says, “as it was in the beginning so is it in the end.” Freedom of ownership was first enshrined in the Magna Carta, the 1215 AD agreement between King John of England and his Barons, the land owning aristocracy. Freedom of religion, was promulgated in 1648 from the Treaty of Westphalia, as the right of the Kings and Princes of Europe to choose the religions for their nations and therefore their subjects. The now sacrosanct “Universal Suffrage” born of the French Revolutions of 1789 and 1848 was a “right to vote” for “white men”. Universal Suffrage being for white men had the net effect of establishing a “political universe” in which only white men are the only legitimate citizens.

That summarised the beginning of “our cherished freedoms”.

History shouts loud and clear that freedom, in all its configurations, from the beginning was and is only for the powerful ruling elites, yesterday the Barons and Princes, today the capitalists and selected politicians, or as Marx termed them, the Bourgeoisie. As for the working class, the poor masses, in the words of Marx, freedom for them was, is and continues to be, the freedom to choose “to work” or “to starve”.

Yet the story the “angry genius” Karl Marx himself told, that promised equality by negation of our most basic human instincts — our instinct to possess, our instinctive need to believe and to be, and that has gained great resurgence powered by the dramatic failure of Capitalism in recent times — also failed humanity epically.

It is incumbent upon those gifted with ability and knowledge, and those vested with the leadership of organisations that consist of agents of knowledge, to transcend their group interests and work for society’s overall well-being.

The need has never been greater.

An outcome of the homogeneity imperialism imposed upon us all is that we are all immersed in the same operating system, secular capitalism. For this reason, we find ourselves in the same predicament of crisis, literally globally.

We need a powerful new story, or an old story told in a powerful new way.

A story that will remind us of our common humanity, harmonise our relations with each other and the rest of creation and reveal to us a common destiny, that can unify our sense of purpose.

We need scholars at the universal and local level, to crystallise a story, an idea into an isotope that will fuse with our imaginations and trigger a chain reaction that will galvanize radical change.

The situation is critical, the need urgent.

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The Death of LAPSSET and Kenya’s Poverty of Imagination

The Kenyan government’s misguided and costly investments in big infrastructure projects are compromising the nation’s socio-economic transformation. Meanwhile, elite-driven opportunism has suffocated intellectual debate that once characterised the flow of ideas in this part of the world. The time is ripe for a Big Conversation.

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The Death of LAPSSET and Kenya's Poverty of Imagination
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The Lamu Port South Sudan Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) corridor project was officially launched at Magogoni, the site of the new Lamu port, in 2012. The two heads of the coalition government attended.

At the launch, President Mwai Kibaki told the people of Lamu that they had a new constitution and that they should familiarise themselves with its provisions to protect their land rights. Prime Minister Raila Odinga said something to the effect that the train is now leaving the station and either you Swahili can get on board and go forward with the rest of us, or you can remain behind as is your usual custom.

After the launch, LAPSSET progressed in fits and starts. A modern building to house the secretariat was built in Mokowe, an official website came online, and construction of three of the 32 planned berths began.

LAPSSET is by far Africa’s most ambitious project. Its description on the website is a testament to Kenya’s central planners’ imagination:

This mega project consists of seven key infrastructure projects starting with a new 32 Berth port at Lamu (Kenya); Interregional Highways from Lamu to Isiolo, Isiolo to Juba (South Sudan), Isiolo to Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), and Lamu to Garsen (Kenya), Crude Oil Pipeline from Lamu to Isiolo, Isiolo to Juba; Product Oil Pipeline from Lamu to Isiolo, Isiolo to Addis Ababa; Interregional Standard Gauge Railway lines from Lamu to Isiolo, Isiolo to Juba, Isiolo to Addis Ababa, and Nairobi to Isiolo; 3 International Airports: one each at Lamu, Isiolo, and Lake Turkana; 3 Resort Cities: one each at Lamu, Isiolo and Lake Turkana; and The multipurpose High Grand Falls Dam along the Tana River.

During the interim, the local community fought back through Save Lamu, a coalition of community organisations. Their objective was to make the Kenyan government hear their voices and to facilitate local participation.

Save Lamu was ignored, harassed, and accused of opposing the region’s development. The organisation constantly repeated they were not against the project, but rather, they were fighting for the right of the local community to be consulted over its impact on the environment and local livelihoods. At one point, the office holders were summoned to Nairobi by the Criminal Investigations Department (CID). For two days, CID officers interrogated them about their imputed involvement in the horrific Al Shabaab attack in Mpeketoni. They returned safe but frazzled by the experience.

Several months later, the coalition extended its advocacy to the Lamu power plant, a 1,050 Mw coal-fired electricity project to be built next to the port at enormous cost and protected by Treasury-sapping guarantees for payment of the power whether the electricity was used or not. Although some people in Lamu supported the new port for the prospects of the jobs it would create, the community in no uncertain terms did oppose the coal-fired plant.

Compared to the PR invested in the LAPSSET during the previous years, the announcement several months ago that two of the berths at the Magogoni port were completed came with no fanfare and limited media attention. The lack of acclamation reflects the simple fact that the tide has been going out on LAPSSET for several years.

Kenya left holding the baby

In 2016, the Ugandan government announced plans to build a railroad that would connect Juba to another planned rail line from Kampala to the port of Tanga in Tanzania. Kampala explained that although the Tanzanian route was longer, the lower cost of construction justified the decision to withdraw from the planned link-up with the LAPSSET route through Kenya. In September, Ethiopia set in motion plans to build a 1500-kilometre railway to Khartoum and Port Sudan. The planned rail line effectively removing Ethiopia from the LAPSSET equation added another nail in the project’s coffin.

In 2009, major Western and Asian governments were queuing up to finance the diverse components of LAPSSET. South Sudan, or more correctly, the oil in South Sudan, was the main prize. At the time of LAPSSET’s initial conceptualisation, the country was forced to export its oil through Port Sudan. Newly independent South Sudan was exporting over 350,000 barrels a day in 2012. Although the supply was expected to decline over the decade, exploration held out the promise that much more crude oil would be coming, complementing the even larger deposits found in northern Uganda and eastern Congo.

Compared to the PR invested in the LAPSSET during the previous years, the announcement several months ago that two of the berths at the Magogoni port were completed came with no fanfare and limited media attention.

The sea of oil reportedly floating underneath the long neglected region made the grandiose infrastructural investment appear sensible at the time. The peak oil theory was making waves. But a matrix of factors, including climate change, the discovery of new oil reserves across the planet, and the falling cost of renewable energy, shifted the calculus. The financiers slowly melted away, leaving the Government of Kenya holding the baby.

This was also due to the other usual suspects: unreliable state partners, the fickle nature of investment capital, and the multiple problems that come with big projects in this and most parts of the world – all of which was compounded by the fact that exporting the thick crude required building the supporting superstructure from scratch, including heated pipelines to prevent coagulation en route. The pipeline to Lamu was estimated to cost US$ 8 billion circa 2012. China, the primary purchaser of Sudan’s oil, told Salva Kiir they would loan him the money for the pipeline but would not pay for it as many local stakeholders had assumed.

LAPSSET was already losing its shine at that juncture, and even before the pandemic, Kenya’s investment in big infrastructure (epitomised by the financially challenged Standard Gauge Railway project) was proving to be a debt spinning mirage. If this is not a concern for those playing the front-end game, the Big Project mentality should be a concern for everyone else.

Colonial conquest and economies of scale

The expanding powers of Europe invaded the continent when the age of industrial capitalism was taking off. Material progress and the conquest of nature became the measure of man and nations. During the first half of the 19th century, world trade doubled; between 1850 and 1870 it expanded by 260 per cent.

Coal and iron fueled industrial commerce. Steamships and railways provided the sinews. The length of European railway tracks increased from 1,700 miles in 1840 to 63,000 miles in 1870, and passed 100,000 miles ten years later. Progress in other infrastructural domains followed a similar trajectory.

The unification of countries, new constitutions, and an increase in civil liberties preceded these developments in Europe. The illumination of the Enlightenment had created an ecosphere of brightness and shadows, unchaining rationality from its religious and superstitious fetters in Europe but shrouding Africa in relative darkness.

The contrast accounts for why the British colonial administrator, Charles Eliot, found little to recommend in the socio-economic domain during his tour of the East African Protectorate. The country’s future, he opined, “lay in the vegetative kingdom”, but it was infrastructure that led the way. Eliot’s comment, “It is not uncommon for a country to create a railway, but it is uncommon for a railway to create a country”, conveyed not only the inverted logic of colonialism, but also the outsized impact of the Uganda railroad.

The establishment of industrial capitalism redirected the pathway to include investment in public goods like education and scientific research. The knowledge creation enabling the imperial surge came from a different mindset. The work of Charles Babbage in informatics, the engineering audacity of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and Alexander von Humbolt’s quest to map the planet’s geographical features all stemmed from an outsized imagination.

The illumination of the Enlightenment had created an ecosphere of brightness and shadows, unchaining rationality from its religious and superstitious fetters in Europe but shrouding Africa in relative darkness.

The process supported a complicated system dedicated to the maintenance of growing armies of labourers and soldiers while erecting monuments, heroic statuary, and grandiose houses of worship. For generations, communities bought into the idea because it improved their security and facilitated trade.

The scale of such intellectual agendas is different than the Thinking Big model of development. Expanding vistas of science and the imagination is not the same as building a gigantic dam or assembling the King of Bahrain’s new robot bodyguard. Such toys and vanity projects, like Dubai’s artificial islands, represent one endpoint set in motion by the capture of surplus, the rise of elites, and the formation of states.

Once upon a time the rise of the state offered a pathway out of a world of fear, superstition, conquest by neighbours, and punishments ordained by the gods. Half a millennium later, the Leviathan became the new god of economic rationality that substituted hierarchy for cooperation, replaced the commons with capitalist extraction, and generally raised the quality of life in exchange for the mega-accumulation benefitting a small group of individuals. All this was done in the name of efficiency and progress.

For five hundred years, the state expanded, culminating in big government experiments, such as the Soviet Union and Chairman Mao’s China. Its post-1989 retreat left us with Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Water, Big Data, Big Finance, Big Retail, and even Big Foreign Policy in the guise of Xi Ping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The skewed rewards of stardom has made competition a Winners Take All game across the board, from corporate salaries, sports, to social media.

The Big State was colonialism’s parting gift to Africa and the neoliberal economy now incentivises its agents to transact resources and to cash in on their geopolitical location.

Mentalities of scale

The United Kingdom’s Whitehall model replicated itself across the Empire’s colonies. Everything from the formal school system, the conventional assumptions of developmental policies, and the inability of the colonial-designed African nation-state to remake itself following the unsuccessful post-independence alternatives championed by the likes of Kwame Nkrumah, Sekou Toure, and Julius Nyerere reinforces this state of mind.

Historically, infrastructural development takes care of itself once the factors of production, exchange, security, and basic rights are in place. No one planned or financed the Great Silk Road but it sustained Central Asia’s contribution to world civilization from the pre-Christian era until about two hundred years ago. Even the succession of invasions, conquests, and dynasties that swept over the region did little to disrupt the underlying system that supported the trade network until Russia’s colonial ambitions instigated the 19th century imperial great game in that region.

Now China is seeking to build a grander Great Silk Road spanning the Eurasian Steppe as part of the Communist government’s Belt and Road Initiative. It remains to be seen if the outcome will work the way XI Ping’s planners anticipate. In the meantime, the mega cities built on the country’s margins remain uninhabited and many of the centrally-planned BRI projects are experiencing cost overruns and other problems. The New Silk Road may yet set in motion a revival of the complicated oppositions and conflicts characterising the region’s history.

Back in this part of the world, where the historical template is totally different, it is still mind-boggling that big failures, from the Tanganyika Groundnut Scheme to LAPSSET, the Galana-Kulalu Irrigation scheme and the Jubilee government’s faltering Big Four agenda, continue to propagate themselves. The terms of repayment behind the Jubilee government’s Standard Gauge Railway gambit may even reverse Eliot’s observation: for the first time, building a railway has unmade a country.

There is a difference between tapping economies of scale and scalability. This also applies to the world of ideas. We live in a world where the critique and testing of concepts and beliefs that long underpinned human processes is being reduced to the circulation of memes. This is reducing political discourse in the democratic West to the capture of single-issue constituencies and battle lines based on memetic tribes.

In Kenya, the political arena has long been dominated by a dynamic based on the control of the monolithic state. In these conditions, the problem of scale is not a function of small-to-large, even though the educated elite have been conditioned to think in these terms. Politics in these conditions descended into a monetised exercise based on ephemeral ethno-linguistic coalitions.

The terms of repayment behind the Jubilee government’s Standard Gauge Railway gambit may even reverse Eliot’s observation: for the first time, building a railway has unmade a country.

This approach has proven to be poorly suited to the challenge of fitting together multiple units of different sizes into a synergetic economic configuration. The history of the pre-colonial era provides an alternative political economy template. Kenya’s constitutional reform marked a step in this direction, but replicating the dynamics patterned on regional initial conditions will remain a work in progress as long as the power concentrated in the centre works to break creative devolution and participatory development.

We are witnessing shifts in workplace and settlement patterns that make it possible to envision the process reaching an equilibrium point where entities based on the old clan and new tribe continuum may reemerge as an asset. But who is thinking about the future in terms that question the conventional assumptions about organisation, or that tap into the co-evolutionary potential inherent in Kenya’s cultural mosaic?

Kenya’s superstructural poverty

In social science, superstructure refers to the ideational domain – the world of concepts, languages, myths, ideologies, science, religion, superstitions, beliefs, and shared assumptions that define the societal mind. Culture is an overlapping concept that is typically defined in terms of a population’s superstructural orientations and the behavioural patterns they generate.

The influence of superstructure and the cultural domain occupies a secondary role in materialist and evolutionary analysis. For example, the use of tools and fire resulted in the reduction in the size of early human beings’ jaws because they no longer had to use their mouths to rip and chew meat. This in turn led to the rise of language, a primary enabler of cultural development.

Things were simpler during the Paleolithic. Today societies are complex systems where prediction based on infrastructure variables, such as the development of roads and communications, is confounded by the influence of non-linear dynamics and unpredictable forces. This is because superstructure is a mutable domain. It acts as both a critical source of both system maintaining and system changing feedback. This is a key element of societal transitions that allows us to translate our collective experience into resilience. Once deemed an epiphenomenon, evolutionary ecology studies now document the role of culture in accelerating the slow process of biological evolution.

The colonial model superstructure worked to stabilise Kenya’s development during the first decades after independence. When the rigid organisational order began changing due to a release phase during the Moi era, the ground began to shift under the received paradigms of development. Before that the socialism versus capitalism dichotomy contributed to the intellectual debate about Kenya’s and the developing world’s progress in general. Both sides of the discourse acted as mechanisms selecting for the regional ideological convergence we now take for granted. Promoting integration is a good idea but the utility of the current top-down approach is debatable.

A recent journal article examining LAPSSET and three other similar infrastructure corridors described the political economy of corridors as “contests over the framing of development interventions influenced by a range of social and technical imaginaries”. Kenya’s politicians’ and policy makers’ embrace of large-scale centralised planning comes with high costs; the benefits of Kenya serving as Eastern Africa’s hub are slipping away. Kenya’s reputation of maintaining an even-handed regional foreign policy has also been marred.

The passage of the 2010 constitution set the stage for a new phase of transformational reorganisation, allowing Kenyans greater scope in defining their future. But the critical thinking required to guide the transition has lagged far behind. Preachers, social media, and identity politics expanded into the vacated superstructural space. The influence of the Chinese model contributed to passive acceptance of the techno-infrastructural developmental pathway. Behind-the- curtain dealings have generated the funding.

As a result, Kenya’s public-private cartels continue to benefit from a succession of revenue-draining projects and a succession of massively overpriced feasibility studies that render local stakeholders invisible. The Infrastructural Master Plan for the LAPSSET Corridor and Lamu Port, for example, is a thousand-page document that does not mention the regional population and communities affected. The attempt to build a technologically obsolete pollution-belching coal plant next to one of the planet’s most unique near zero-carbon urban settlements and a UNESCO World Heritage Site is proof of what can happen in the absence of a countervailing developmental narrative.

The passage of the 2010 constitution set the stage for a new phase of transformational reorganisation, allowing Kenyans greater scope in defining their future. But the critical thinking required to guide the transition has lagged far behind.

This is not to say the objectives of projects like LAPSSET will not be realised. The issue is not so much thinking big but the actors and incentives behind it. The corporate-empowered developmental state many African governments aspire to be should not be conflated with the moonshot mentality behind so many of humanity’s greatest achievements. The regional links will coalesce over time, Old Silk Road style.

In the meantime, Kenya’s superstructural deficit is compromising the nation’s socio-economic transformation. Elite-driven opportunism has suffocated intellectual debate and multicultural vibrancy that once characterised the flow of ideas in this part of the world. Unlike infrastructure, investment in the exchange of ideas is not costly. The time is ripe for a Big Conversation.

We will discuss the some of the concepts and practices framing the new developmental narrative emerging across the world in the second part of this epistle—which will also locate Kenya as an important player in our collective transition to the Anthropocene.

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