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Speak of Me as I Am: Ethiopia, Native Identities and the National Question in Africa

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Does a country create a people, or do a people create a country? KALUNDI SERUMAGA responds to Mahmood Mamdani’s recent analysis on the political situation in Ethiopia.

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Speak of Me as I Am: Ethiopia, Native Identities and the National Question in Africa
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The Westphalian principles, rooted in the 1648 Treaties signed in the European region of that name, have been monstrously mis-applied when it comes to the African continent, yet they established modern international relations, particularly the inviolability of borders and non-interference in the domestic affairs of sovereign states.

The default position of a certain generation and class of African nationalist, is to cleave unto the “new” nation born at Independence, as the only legitimate basis upon which African progress can be conceived and built. Everything else, especially that dreaded category, ‘ethnicity’ is cast as a diversion and dangerous distraction.

This is the tone that runs through Ugandan Professor Mahmoud Mamdani’s one thousand-word opinion piece: The Trouble With Ethiopia’s Ethnic Federalism, published on 3rd January for the New York Times by (and patriotically reproduced in Uganda’s Daily Monitor newspaper), bearing a total of fifty-four iterations of the word ‘ethnic’.

The default position of a certain generation and class of African nationalist, is to cleave unto the “new” nation born at Independence, as the only legitimate basis upon which African progress can be conceived and built.

At Independence, the Westphalia protocols were conferred on to the former colonial contraptions. The results were economic stagnation and political repression. For over five decades, these new nations have been the focus of intellectual and political agitation among Africa’s thinkers. When, after all that rumination and fulmination, our thinkers still get things horribly back to front, we all get stuck at a crossroads.

Mamdani’s essay comes as our current Exhibit A in this long history of intellectual malfunction. Current Prime Minister, the youthful Abiy Ahmed is faced with a many-sided series of demands from a deeply frustrated population. Many of these relate directly to the lack of an economic growth model that palpably raises living standards. Others reach further back to the age-old question of land ownership and reform. Naturally, the demand for greater civic rights to speech and assembly come as a prerequisite. One feature common to these demands is the tendency for the Ethiopians to speak through, and/or on behalf of the various constitutionally recognised native identities within the country. Some may have even formed militias for this purpose.

Mamdani’s essay comes as our current Exhibit A in this long history of intellectual malfunction.

Mamdani engages with this to make an analysis not just of the Ethiopian crisis itself, but of the question of what he terms “ethnicity” which, he sees as the issue – or more accurately, the ‘problem’ – permanently bedevilling African politics. “Fears of Ethiopia suffering Africa’s next interethnic conflict are growing,” he warns.

Prime Minister Abiy has been quick to concede much, and roll out as many reforms as he can. Most notably, he has ended the two-decade stand-off with his northern neighbour, Eritrea.

Mamdani engages with this to make an analysis not just of the Ethiopian crisis itself, but of the question of what he terms “ethnicity” which, he sees as the issue – or more accurately, the ‘problem’ – permanently bedevilling African politics.

This may not be enough, Mamdani tells us. The real problem, as he sees it, is the introduction of ethnicity into Ethiopian governance, and its central position in the Ethiopian constitution. This, Professor Mamdani says, was done by former Prime Minister, the late Meles Zenawi, who served as the de facto Ethiopian strongman from 1991 to 2012. Mamdani describes this as an attempt to replicate a similar strategy of ethnic organization that, in his view, was introduced to Africa as part of the colonial method of governing:

“In most of Africa, ethnicity was politicized when the British turned the ethnic group into a unit of local administration, which they termed ‘indirect rule.’ Every bit of the colony came to be defined as an ethnic homeland, where an ethnic authority enforced an ethnically defined customary law that conferred privileges on those deemed indigenous at the expense of non-indigenous minorities.”

This analysis fails to stop itself there, which would have been bad enough.

“The move,” continues the Professor, “was a response to a perennial colonial problem: racial privilege for whites mobilized those excluded as a racialized non-white majority. By creating an additional layer of privilege, this time ethnic, indirect rule fragmented the racially conscious majority into so many ethnic minorities, in every part of the country setting ethnic majorities against ethnic minorities.”

Describing native homelands as a “fiction”, the Professor goes on to say that while such ethnic labelling and selective privileging may have served the colonial purpose, it had the effect of first, “dividing a racially conscious African population” and second, turning them into people who saw themselves as “tribes” first and foremost.

Thus, he concludes, “Wherever this system continued after independence, national belonging gave way to tribal identity as the real meaning of citizenship.”

Having thus problematized the “ethnic” thing, Mamdani goes on to imply that there may be no peace to come in Ethiopia unless the issue is excised from the Ethiopian body politic in particular, and Africa in general.

These words have many meanings, none of them good for Africans, at least.

First, this is the same thing as saying that before European arrived in Africa, “ethnic” identities were not politicized, and neither were they units of administration. Taken to its logical conclusion, this is to say that there were no ‘politics’ in precolonial Africa, and neither were there forms of administration.

Having thus problematized the “ethnic” thing, Mamdani goes on to imply that there may be no peace to come in Ethiopia unless the issue is excised from the Ethiopian body politic in particular, and Africa in general.

Africans seem to have been roaming the continent as a cohort of an undefined but also homogenous mass, with wholly insignificant identities, which were only solemnised, formalized, and bestowed with political meaning with the arrival of a European power amongst them.

Second, it also implies that only the European had the skill to animate these identities, without them tearing the (therefore necessary) European-planted state apart.

Third, that the tragedy of modern Africa began when the European withdrew his controlling hand. Left to their own devices, the identities he had created, mutated into a Frankenstein’s monster of tribal strife.

Fourth, that there is such a thing as ‘national identity’ that sprung to life fully formed at independence, a good by-product of the European-planted state, and that it is African ‘tribalism’ that destroys it. In other words, European-invented African tribalism spoils the one good thing (nationalism) that Europe brought to Africa.

Finally, that belonging to the European-planted nation in Africa is the only viable means of an African citizenship. But if the British were pre-occupied with “ethnicizing”, and the resultant people’s feelings and loyalties were exclusively ethnic, where then does “national belonging” come from at independence?

The entire analysis of the crisis is a crisis in itself: of naming, histories, theories and practice. It is intellectually disingenuous and patronising, and goes beyond the usual linguistic demotion and belittling one usually encounters from many an expert on Africa.

Naming

Why are 34 million Oromo in Ethiopia an ‘ethnicity’, and 5.77 million Danes a ‘nation’?

Why are the three great wars that shaped modern Europe (Franco-Prussian, the 1914-18 and 1939-1945 great wars), not conceptualized as ethnic conflicts?

Mamdani’s entire analysis of the crisis is a crisis in itself: of naming, histories, theories and practice. It is intellectually disingenuous and patronising, and goes beyond the usual linguistic demotion and belittling one usually encounters from many an expert on Africa.

Why are there only a handful of contemporary states in Africa whose names bear a relation to the identity of people actually living there. Everyplace else is a reference to a commodity, or an explorer’s navigational landmarks.

This frankly malevolent labelling offers the space for the linguistic demotion of entire peoples. To wit: 34 million Oromo, seven million Baganda, 43 million Igbo, 10 million Zulu will always remain ‘ethnicities’ and ‘tribes’ to be chaperoned by ‘whiteness’. 5.77 million Danes, 5.5 million Finns, and just 300,000 Icelanders can be called ‘nations’, complete with their own states with seats at the UN.

Some of these states were only formed less than two centuries ago (Italy: 1861, Germany: 1815, Belgium: 1830), while some of those ‘tribes’, and most critically for the argument, their governing institutions had already been created.

Why has the ethno-federalization of Great Britain itself, not been seen as such, and as a recipe for conflict?

This, in fact, is the real ‘fiction’, and it has led to decades of instability. But just because Westphalia does not see them, does not mean the African nations don’t exist. The denial of their existence is in fact, an act of violence.

This is what led a thus exiled Buganda’s Kabaka Edward Muteesa II to write: “I have never been able to pin down precisely the difference between a tribe and a nation and see why one is thought to be so despicable and the other so admired.”

Many modern Africans, especially those whose identity is a product of the European imposition of contemporary African states, have a vested interest in making a bogeyman out of native African identity. The starting point of this enterprise is to invite the African to agree to see our own identities as a liability to African progress, by labelling them “ethnic”.

When “ethnic” conflicts do flare up, those natives who have refused to jump on to this bandwagon are subjected to a big “I told you so”, as Mamdani’s essay now seeks to do.

Many modern Africans, especially those whose identity is a product of the European imposition of contemporary African states, have a vested interest in making a bogeyman out of native African identity.

This was the position of the OAU member states, and many African political parties, including those in opposition to their increasingly repressive post-Independence governments.

But Ethiopia presents a huge problem for Professor Mamdani’s theory of the colonial roots of “ethnicity”, since its history falls outside the usual African pattern of a direct experience of European colonialism.

Since his initial assertion when introducing the issue of ‘ethnicity’, was that it was a result of European labelling leading to a “divide and rule” situation, Mamdani is then faced with the difficulty of explaining where those particular Ethiopian ‘ethnicities’ spring from if there were no Europeans creating them. Unless, to develop his assertion of homelands being a ‘fiction’, he thinks Ethiopia’s various nationalities are fictional too?

Ethiopia presents a huge problem for Professor Mamdani’s theory of the colonial roots of “ethnicity”, since its history falls outside the usual African pattern of a direct experience of European colonialism

He covers up this logical gap by pre-empting a proper discussion of that history. Then changing tack, he suggests that the presence of “ethnic” problems in Ethiopia, despite the country’s lack of a European colonial history actually shows that “ethnicity” is somehow a congenital defect in the body politic of all Africa.

“The country today resembles a quintessential African system marked by ethnic mobilization for ethnic gains.”

Of course the correct answer to all the above questions is that Africa’s Africans had their ‘ethnic’ identities well known and in place long before the arrival of any European explorer or conqueror. And these were not anodyne proto-identities, but actual political institutions and methods of organization and governance. But this is an inconvenient truth, because then it forces the proper naming of these alleged ‘ethnicities’: nations.

All told, deploying notions of “ethnicity” and “tribe” is a tactic to corral Africans into primordial nomenclatures, thereby avoiding a recognition of their pre-colonial formations as nations. It serves to fetishize the colonial project as the godsend device to rescue the African ethnic strife and predestined mayhem.

But if the 34 million Oromo are an ethnicity, then so are the 5.77 million Danes. More so for our situation so are the English, Scots and Welsh who field national teams during the World Cup and the Commonwealth games. We need consistency, people must be spoken of as they are.

Deploying notions of “ethnicity” and “tribe” is a tactic to corral Africans into primordial nomenclatures, thereby avoiding a recognition of their pre-colonial formations as nations.

Naturally, the emergent Independence-era African middle class was more than happy to go along with this erasure, in what Basil Davidson called an attempt at “the complete flattening of the ethnic landscape”, and even fine-tuned it. Where some concessions had been made to the existence of the old nations, these were quickly, often violently, dispensed with.

In British Africa, the politics of trying to dispense with this reality is what dominated virtually all the politics of pre-independence constitutional negotiations. The question informed even the political alliances that emerged at independence.

In Zambia it required a special constitutional pact between the new head of state, Kenneth Kaunda and the ruling council of the Barotse people – they have recently sought to repudiate it and return to their pre-colonial status.

Ghana’s Asante kings were against the British handing power to Nkrumah’s government. They argued that since they had ceded power to the British via treaty, then the departure of the British meant a termination of those treaties. Logically, therefore, that power should be re-invested in the ones it had been taken from under treaty.

In Kenya, the Maasai and the Coastal peoples used the same argument during the decolonisation conferences at Lancaster House. Significantly, the Somali rejected inclusion in the independence Kenyan state, insisting that they wanted to be integrated into independent Somalia. Unable to resolve the ‘Three Questions’ the Foreign and Colonial Office cynically kicked them into the not-very-long grass for the incoming leadership to deal with. The Mombasa Republican Council of today draws its political legitimacy from the updated colonial-era Witu Agreement of 1906, signed between their ancestors and the independence government.

Histories

To understand the current situation in Ethiopia, one must face up to the challenge of properly understanding any part of Africa, a continent so taxonomised and anthropologised by white thinking that it is barely recognizable on paper to its indigenous inhabitants.

It is a two-stage challenge. First: to understand Ethiopia’s history. To do that, one must first recognise and accept the possibilities of an African history not shaped, defined and animated by European imperatives. Africans, like all people, have been making their own history. And like people elsewhere, this has as much narration of the good as it does the bad.

To understand the current situation in Ethiopia, one must face up to the challenge of properly understanding any part of Africa, a continent so taxonomised and anthropologised by white thinking that it is barely recognizable on paper to its indigenous inhabitants.

Ethiopia’s crisis is a consequence of a century-old unravelling of the empire built by Emperor Menelik II (1889-1904).

As his title implies, this was not a nation, but an Empire: a territory consisting of many nations, brought into his ambit by one means or another.

Menelik’s motives and method can, and should be debated, but the fact is that Europe met its match in the Ethiopian Highlands, and were forced to leave Menelik to it.

Ethiopia’s crisis is a consequence of a century-old unravelling of the empire built by Emperor Menelik II (1889-1904).

Yes. Africans also produce momentous historical events. It is not an exclusive trait of white people.

We must get into the habit of discussing our own non-European driven history as a real thing with real meanings. Just as we may talk about the continuing long-term effects of the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire on the European Balkan region, so can we talk about how the demise of Menelik’s empire continues to impact on the greater Horn region.

If that sounds far-fetched, bear in mind that since Menelik’s passing 120 years ago, Ethiopia has had only six substantive rulers: Zewditu/Selassie, Mengistu, Zenawi, Dessalegn and now Abiy.

On his passing, Menelik left a region covering more than three times the area he inherited. Prince Tafari, upon eventually inheriting the throne as Emperor Haile Selassie in 1930 simply sought to consolidate it.

In his 2002 biography: Notes from the Hyena’s Belly: An Ethiopian Boyhood, the Ethiopian author Nega Mezlekia tells the story of him and his family, as one of many Amhara families that migrate to Jijiiga, a region in the far east of Ethiopia during the reign of Emperor Selassie. This was part of a government programme of Amhara settlement to many parts of the Ethiopian countryside. Jijiiga is home to ethnic Somalis. Amhara expansion, one of several factors, eventually provokes an armed revolt. Ironically, the author in his youth joined the insurgents.

Emperor Selassie can be said to have made some errors, but the context is critical: his reign spanned a period that saw immense changes in global politics, and social ideas.

Consider his life and times:

He witnessed the two great inter-European wars, the fall of its empires (Italian, German, Ottoman, Japanese) and the end of direct European occupation of Africa. He suffered two European invasions of his realm, and lived in exile. He was a regent during the Bolshevic Revolution in 1917, and saw the emergence of the Soviet Union as a world superpower and the Cold War that followed. He may have been one of only a handful of world leaders to have been a member of both the United Nations, and the League of Nations that preceded it.

This sweep of history also had its impact on the Ethiopian peoples. One response was a growing demand for social, economic and political reform, including loosening the bonds of Selassie’s empire.

By the time of the 1975 coup against him, the world was a fundamentally different one than the one he had met when he took the throne. He was, in fact, so “old school” that his captors were taken aback when he calmly informed them that he had no personal income or savings to look after himself.

He took a hard line on Eritrea, which had settled into an uneasy federation, provoking a war of secession; continued Amhara settler expansion into Oromo and elsewhere; and he failed to manage Tigrayan nationalism, rooted partly in their dynastic loss of the imperial throne to that of Menelik’s Shewa kingdom. Critically, he did not effectively address agrarian land reform, one of the roots of the country’s political and agricultural crises.

So, to sum up Emperor Selassie: ultimately, he neither succeeds to fully consolidate his empire, nor does he re-order the empire’s boundaries and strictures, which he had inherited in a fundamentally different era. He found himself fighting the more conservative elements of his aristocracy opposed to his reforms; the modernist republicans concerned that he was not reforming fast enough; and the increasingly radical nationalists in the regions demanding self-determination.

Enter Colonel Mengistu, something of a zealot, but who, for all his violent tendencies, was more of the “social reform” persuasion, and sympathetic to the “land to the tiller” demands of the early radical youth movements. Having overthrown a monarch, he saw himself in the image of the Soviet Union’s Communist party in Russia which had deposed the Russian King Tsar Nicholas II. His task, as he saw it, was to create a socialist state.

However, Mengistu had basically taken over the same state that Selassie inherited and he was still wedded to it. His modernist concept of history and the world prevented him from understanding that he was dealing with a home-grown imperial history, and that he was in effect therefore, running an empire.

This blinds him to the “nationalities question”, and only intensifies the agitations among the various indigenous nations trapped in his now secular empire.

So, he basically tries to kill everybody opposed to him.

This is the reality Mamdani fails to see, and mistakenly calls Mengistu’s state a ‘unified republic’; interestingly, he does not offer any of the gruesome details of how Mengistu ‘instituted’ this so-called unification. The only places where Ethiopia was unified and a republic was in Mengistu’s mind (and in his armory). What the various territories wanted was recognition of their separate identities, and an unchallenged say over the land of their ancestors.

Mengistu’s response was to raise even higher the levels of violence needed to keep these rebellions in check, simultaneously fighting Tigrayan, Eritrean, Somali and Oromo insurgencies.

Theory and practice.

Ideologically, the leaderships of the Ethiopian insurgencies were taken over by persons claiming to be as Marxist as Lenin was. Eventually, all the belligerents, including the regime, claimed to be Marxist organisations, yet they were in conflict with each other. What intensified the crisis was the conflicting understandings of what Marxist practice should therefore be, in their context. It was at this point that a number of left-ideological debates came into play, and where a lot of left-ideologues lost their way.

Marxist theory, which mobilized millions of people worldwide, and its practical implications, should be examined with some care. History on this point is necessary.

These nationalist struggles based their arguments on the Leninist principle of “The Right of Small Nations to Self-Determination”, which had been partially applied in the Soviet Union from its formation in 1917. After Lenin’s death in 1924, his successor, Josef Stalin, found less time for it, and, in the face of sustained Western European aggression seemed to see it as a liability to the security of the revolution.

The 1975 coup that brought Mengistu to power (or, more accurately, the coup that Mengistu then subsequently violently hijacked) was a response to widespread unrest, particularly among youth and student movements. This led to a number of practical problems on the ground, in relation to ideology.

At the heart of both the Dergue and the later Tigrayan movements was the issue of land reform. Mamdani does note that the initial upheavals of the 1970s were driven by this, but then fails to make the correct links.

For the vast majority of Africans, especially back then, land is not just a place to live, but also a place of work. To be without land is to be without a secure job. Subsistence peasant agriculture is back-breaking, often precarious, and not financially lucrative. It is also – and many progressives fail to recognize this – autonomous. To a very great extent, the subsistence peasant is not dependent on the state or the global economy. If anything, those entities depend on the farmer whose austere lifestyle acts as a hidden subsidy in providing the market with cheaply-grown food at no investment risk to the consumer or the state. Clearly, one thing that can transform and undergird this existence is sensible reforms to the way the farmer secures tenure of the land they work.

But what happens when land rights encounter cultural rights based on land? A “homeland” is certainly not the “fiction” of Mamdani’s assertion. It hosts the identity and worldview of the people that occupy it. It holds their sacred sites, and places marking their cultural consciousness. More so, that culture underpins their ability to keep producing autonomously. To suggest that it does not exist or does not matter, actually shows a complete failure to grasp who black African people are and how they live, and think. It is a fundamentally anti-African statement implying, as it does, that black Africans do not have an internal intellectual and spiritual logic, developed indigenously, and augmented by physical spaces and objects within them, that informs a worldview. Africans, the suggestion is, are inherently transposable, as they are not tied to any thing or any place.

The captains of the old transatlantic slave ships could not have theorized it better.

Coming from someone who lives in Africa, this is a bit surprising. Coming from a professor heading an institute within one of Africa’s new universities, designed to bolster the colonial state’s mission of deracinating the African, perhaps less so.

However, the current crisis in Ethiopia is very real, and failure to finally resolve it holds huge implications for the entire region. That is precisely why a correct analysis is needed. Not a comfortable one rooted in essentially racist tropes.

The allegedly ‘ethnic demands’ were demands for a different type of guarantee to land rights than those being promoted by Mengistu. For example, would an Amhara family like Nega Mezlekia’s, originally settled by Emperor Selassie in Jijiiga, have a legally equal claim to land against the ethnic Somali communities native to the area, just because they now happen to be the ‘tillers’ there? Would there be a hierarchy of claims? In any event, who should decide? A central authority in Addis Ababa, or a federated unit representing the historic native community?

There are no easy answers. But the regime’s (and other ‘progressives’) complete refusal to even consider the issue, is what led to the conclusion that for there to be justice in Ethiopia, the issue of native nationalities, and their land-based cultural rights, would have to be physically resolved first. In short, it became clear that the land reform question could not be effectively addressed without also addressing the underlying question of productive cultural identities and the historical land claims that arise from that.

This was particularly sharp in those areas of the country –such as Oromo and Tigray- that are dominated by pastoralist communities. Historically, much of Africa’s land grabs have taken place against pastoralist communities, the great city of Nairobi being a prime example.

This is the basis of the ‘ethnic’ movements that have so perturbed Professor Mamdani. It was, in fact, a debate of the Left, and not some right-wing atavist distraction.

So, the great irony is that Ethiopia, home to that great bastion of mis-applied Westphalian thinking, the Organisation of African Unity, becomes ground zero for the great unresolved National Question as it applies to Independent Africa: what is an African nation, and is it the same thing as a given African state (or, more accurately, a state located in Africa)?

The armed struggle began in Eritrea, after Selassie’s unilateral abrogation of the federal arrangement. The original fighting group, called the Eritrean Liberation Front was soon violently displaced from the field by a more radical Eritrean Peoples’ Liberation Front of Isias Afwerki, espousing those aspects of Leninism and Maoism that enabled it to mobilise a broad front of all classes affected by the feeling of Occupation.

The rebels’ demands were clear: a federation of Ethiopia or separation from it; control of their own lands, and an equal recognition of cultures.

For his part, Mengistu, now fighting five separate militant groups, including a very militant hard-line the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Front based in urban Ethiopia, placed all his faith in military might. He ended up building the largest armed force in Sub-Saharan Africa (if not Africa as a whole) of some half- a million soldiers, and being heavily dependent on the Soviet Union, which saw him as a vital foothold in Africa, for war materiel and other supplies. He also received military support from Cuba. It again may not be widely known that at the height of the fighting, these different forces which had grown in to wholesale armies, were fighting some of the largest engagements (including tank battles) since the 1939-1945 European inter-ethnic conflict called the Second World War.

The fight progressively turned in favour of the rebels. With Mengistu’s main arms supplier, the Soviet Union, finally capitulating against the US in the Superpower contest in 1989, his forces were routed and he was driven from the capital in 1991.

The Eritrean armed struggle started in 1961, the Tigrayan one in 1975 and Oromo’s in 1973. All end with Mengistu’s fall.

If Mamdani genuinely believes these nationalities are just “ethnicities”, and that Ethiopia is now running the risk of hosting “Africa’s next inter-ethnic conflict”, then this history shows that Ethiopia has in fact already had the “next inter-ethnic” conflict. Mamdani’s fears, this is to say, are 30 or 40 years late.

To sum up Mengistu: he seized power in response to a severe political crisis, and then, misreading his position, sought to impose his concept of “socialism” on the various peoples still caught in the net of Menelik’s Empire state. This led to a situation of mounting violence, in which he saw just about everyone as an enemy to be physically crushed. His regime eventually succumbed to the overwhelming resistance.

Enter Meles Zenawi, who came out of that generation of student activists who took up the nationalities and land reform demands during the time of the Emperor. To many of them, Mengistu’s high-handedness in dealing with the matter was a disappointment. Tigrayans today do not easily recall that when Meles led the the youth to start the war, they sought refuge in Eritrea, and were nurtured and trained there by Isias Afwerki’s EPLF forces already at war against the Ethiopian state.

The issue of identity does not therefore mean that Africans are perennially and illogically at each others throats in some kind of primordial frenzy. They do politics, and are fully capable of defining their interests and maintaining relations, or breaking them off, as needs may dictate.

Zenawi (to an extent like Daniel Ortega on the other side of the world, and even Yoweri Museveni, in his own way), found himself in charge of a state now encountering a new, neo-liberal global world order being enforced by the only super power left standing. Like Selassie, the circumstances around them had changed greatly from when they had begun their political journeys.

Far from simply “introducing” a federal constitution whose “ethnic” nature Mamdani is problematizing, Zenawi’s regime was finally having the Ethiopian state recognise the long-standing historical realities that had emerged from decades of political and armed struggle.

To reduce the product of all that sweeping history to a notion of “fictions”, is a dangerous over-simplification.

In this quest for erasure, Mamdani applies the same misleading thinking backwards by calling the 1994 Ethiopian constitution a “Sovietificaton” of Ethiopia. The Russian nationalities were no more an invention of Lenin than the Ethiopian ones are of Meles Zenawi’s creation. The various units that made up the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics were based on nationalities long in place before the 1917 communist revolution took place there. The responsible thing to do, as a starting point, was acknowledge that fact, which the communists did (and Stalin to a greater extent than Lenin before him).

Yes, Meles was a dictator. And yes, the constitution is based on indigenous nations. That does not automatically suggest causality: Meles Zenawi did not “turn Ethiopia to ‘ethnic’ federalism”. Its long history did.

In fact, events show that Zenawi and the dominant faction he governed with, were no longer in support of the “rights of small nations” by the time they took power.

With the exception of holding the pre-agreed referendum on Eritrean independence (he may have had little choice in the matter: friends in Addis used to like to tell the story of how Meles’ own stepmother, who happens to be Eritrean, and who raised him, left him in his official Addis residence to go and vote for independence in Eritrea, then returned after), he fails to implement the spirit and the letter of the new arrangements that were based on principles forged in the course of the long war.

The best example is found in the very incident that sparked the current uprising: if the regime knew that – as Mamdani points out – the 1994 federal constitution guaranteed the nationalities concerned authority over their land, why then did it try to expand the boundaries of the Federal capital Addis further into Oromo territory over the objections of people there?

In other words, the problem in Ethiopia is the exact opposite of what Professor Mamdani sees. It is not the “ethnic” constitution at fault; it is the failure by the Zenawi regime to genuinely implement it, by negating the spirit of the idea in private, while pretending to uphold it in public.

In particular, Zenawi’s “Woyane” regime repeated Mengistu’s mistake of trying to hold on to Menelik’s state. Critically, he too failed to address the historic issue of land reform that began the whole shake-up of Ethiopia with the student protests against the Emperor. In practice, land is still the property of the state, to be handed out for “developmental” purposes, upholding the Mengistu mentality, but now in the context of global neo-liberalism.

“Derg and [the TPLF] took a very similar approach to the land question. Which is why, three decades after TPLF comes to power, they have still been unable to do land reform, abandoned agrarian reform and ironically, put rural Ethiopian land on the international auction. Something like four million acres of rural farmland, mostly in southern Ethiopia has been leased out to foreign investors since the mid-2000s, ” observes journalist Parselelo Kantai, who frequents the country.

Power comes with its temptations, and a state machine comes with its own institutional imperatives. It would appear that once a group finds itself in control of the apparatus of an empire such as Menelik’s, they become very reluctant to abandon its workings. Perhaps it is only the armed forces in Portugal, having overthrown their autocratic Caetano regime in 1974, that ever went on to immediately dismantle their empire and allow the conquered to go free.

The politics of the armed coalition coming together and finally driving Mengistu out may well have been the moment for this change in attitude to begin, not least because the Meles’ TPLF was by far the militarily dominant faction of the alliance.

To sum up Meles Zenawi: he evolved into what many ‘revolutionaries” became after the Cold War era: a technocratic autocrat placing his hopes in a neo-liberal approach to solving the country’s deep economic problems through a “developmentalist” strategy. He quite literally burned himself out hoping that, by bringing rapid infrastructural development, he could perhaps outpace the historical political claims, and thus render them redundant.

This essentially meant a new form of what Mengistu and Selassie had done before him: overlook people’s ancestral claims to this or that, and simply see the whole landmass as a site for “development” projects, no matter who they may displace or inconvenience.

But “any notion of ‘progress’ or ‘modernization’ that does not start from a peoples’ culture is tantamount to genocide.” the late Professor Dan Nabudere warned us.

Meles Zenawi sought to hold on to the very imperial state he had once fought. His unwillingness to fully honour the terms of the broad alliance of all the fighting groups, and instead consolidated his armed group to take factional control of the whole state and set the course for new upheavals. His sudden death became the opening for these issues to spill out into the streets.

His immediate successor, Hailemariam Desalegn, soon found that the kind of extreme state violence that had served Zenawi, and Mengistu before him, and Selassie before them both, no longer worked, forcing Deslaegn to resign in failure.

Abiy Ahmed must finally deal with these realities. Ultimately, any attempt to do politics based on the imperatives of the Menelik-created state was, and is, going to come up against the fact that this state actually started life as an empire. If the history of Ethiopia has shown one thing, it is that this approach has always provoked rebellions.

Ethiopia, one could say, is back to the pre-war situation it was in just before Mengistu’s coup.

The problem is conceptual; the same one that confronted Selassie and Mengistu: are we running a nation, or a homegrown empire made up of several? 

Mr Abiy Ahmed would be wise not to go down that path.

His challenge is to dismantle the remnants of Meles’ personal military apparatus, genuinely re-orient the country back to its federal constitutional ethos, begin to address the land tenure question, and quickly, before the political grievances – and the economic challenges underlying them – completely boil over.

As the world becomes less secure and with fewer overlords, there will be more and more examples of Africa’s invisible nations asserting themselves to manage control of their resources.

Dismissing them as “ethnic” is simply laying a foundation to justify violence against them.

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Kalundi Serumaga is a social and political commentator based in Kampala.

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Tackling Corona: The Need for a People-Driven Response

African governments need to adopt a “whole-of-society approach” to successfully face the threat posed by COVID-19. They need to recognise that involving non-governmental actors in the formulation, as well as in the implementation, of policies to address the pandemic, need not be perceived as a threat to their own legitimacy.

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Tackling Corona: The Need for a People-Driven Response
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The scenes of police viciously assaulting citizens while enforcing a nighttime curfew, as well the death by suicide of a South African woman after being forced into a deplorable government quarantine facility, have exposed the brutal face of Kenya’s coercive response to the coronavirus pandemic. While many have condemned the incidents, some have also felt that coercion is necessary given the extreme threat posed by the virus, the need for urgent action and the failure of the citizens to comply with the government’s directives. There is no time to debate the response, goes the argument. There is only time to act to save lives.

Yet there is a grave flaw at the heart of this argument. These very factors are what make it necessary that there is more, not less, public involvement. The threat being to the whole of society, the response needs to involve the whole of society. Trying to move fast without having a cooperative public in tow is a recipe for failure, as the Kenyan government is learning. And the way to get a cooperative public as well as mobilise society is to engage with the people, not just order them about.

“Epidemics are tests of social and political systems,” writes the Zimbabwean academic and Associate Professor of African Politics at the University of Oxford, Simukai Chigudu, in a fascinating article for the online platform, Africa Is A Country. Citing his book, The Political Life of an Epidemic: Cholera, Crisis and Citizenship in Zimbabwe, which looked into the roots of the 2008 cholera outbreak in his country, he notes that it is the “political, economic and social processes that…shape the trajectory of [an] epidemic”, not just the biological properties of the virus or bacterium involved.

This is not to say that the actions of governments are not important. The trajectory and the evolution of the pandemic so far have been largely dictated by the actions of states. The thousands of lives it has so far claimed are not evenly distributed globally, but rather concentrated in countries that for a variety of reasons either didn’t take the pandemic seriously or were slow to react to it. In a very real sense, it is not just the virus that is killing people; people are also dying from state inaction, incompetence and malfeasance.

The legacy of colonialism

Similarly, as the virus menaces Africa, it has been the actions of African governments – past and present – that have so far determined how the pandemic is unfolding on the continent. When fighting the disease, a crucial constraint for many African societies is the near universal failure to address the legacy of colonialism. In fact, as Prof Chigudu explains in relation to 21st century Zimbabwe, “the long-term factors that led to the cholera outbreak can be traced as far back as the late 19th century when Salisbury [today known as Harare] was founded as the administrative and political capital of Southern Rhodesia [the predecessor state of what is now Zimbabwe].”

In a very real sense, it is not just the virus that is killing people; people are also dying from state inaction, incompetence and malfeasance.

He goes on to write that rather than undoing the discriminatory nature of provision of public facilities, “colonial era by-laws, plans, and statutes largely remained in place, indicating the apparent tension between overturning the racial and socio-economic segregation of Rhodesian city planning and maintaining an inherited sense of modernity and orderliness in urban space”.

This experience will be familiar to many across the continent where, in the words of one of Kenya’s politicians speaking in Parliament in 1966, “Today we have a black man’s Government, and the black man’s Government administers exactly the same regulations, rigorously, as the colonial administration used to do”.

The persistence of colonial states and their twin logics of authoritarian exploitation and classist exclusion means that African governments begin with a deficit of public trust, as well as diminished capacity to implement policies. Just three years ago, Kenya was jailing doctors’ representatives for going on strike to demand a pay rise and improvements to services in public hospitals.

Corruption – another gift of colonialism – has focused attention on vanity projects that provide opportunities for looting, rather than on investments in basic health services. The result is high-end, expensive machines lying idle in hospitals that lack even basic amenities. The entire country, for example, only has around 400 isolation beds, and 155 intensive care unit beds for a population of over 48 million people.

The authoritarian and exclusionist streaks are also evident in the manner in which African governments are currently responding. In Kenya, rather than implementing a holistic approach that would mobilise all communities and civil society, the government has opted for a China-style top-down, dictatorial approach, one that decades of hollowing out of the state has been difficult to impose. Prominent activist Jerotich Seii has noted the “‘elite gaze’ that deploys a language of enforcement”. David Ndii, one of the country’s top economists and public intellectuals, has similarly decried the consequences of what he describes as a “boneheaded securocratic approach to a complex emergency”.

A holistic approach

Yet this need not be the case. Kenya has a long history of indigenous not‐for‐profit organisations, self-help societies and community-based organisations that it could leverage to win consent and mobilise society. In fact, in many communities, NGOs have become surrogates for the government, offering services that the state was either unable or unwilling to provide. They have even managed to penetrate into policy- and decision-making levels.

In Kenya, rather than implementing a holistic approach that would mobilise all communities and civil society, the government has opted for a China-style top-down, dictatorial approach…

As Prof Jennifer Brass noted in her PhD thesis a decade ago, “Contrary to both normative arguments that government should ‘steer’ the ship of state (make policy) while private actors ‘row’ (implement policy), and the belief that government is eroding or becoming irrelevant to the governance process, this dissertation shows that NGOs are now joining public actors and agencies at many levels in decision and policy making regarding service provision.”

Sadly, however, there is little evidence that the Kenyan government is doing much to incorporate the expertise and experience of NGOs and other civil society actors into its planning for COVID-19. When President Uhuru Kenyatta established the 21-member National Emergency Response Committee on Coronavirus at the end of February, there was no one from outside of government included in it. In this, the President went against his own National Contingency Plan which recommended the establishment of a National Public Health Emergency Steering Committee to “provide policy, strategic directions” which would include heads of “responding NGOs”.

Sadly, however, there is little evidence that the Kenyan government is doing much to incorporate the expertise and experience of NGOs and other civil society actors into its planning for COVID-19.

Perhaps the Kenya government’s reluctance to engage with civil society organisations should not come as a surprise. After all, this is a government that for the best part of the last decade has made the demonization of civil society (which its mouthpieces on social media happily branded “evil society”) a cornerstone of its propaganda efforts. Still, it is clear that the state alone cannot address this crisis.

Non-governmental actors, including professional associations, churches and volunteer, community and civil society organisations, will need to be involved in the “whole-of-society approach” that the World Health Organisation (WHO) says is required to successfully face the threat posed by COVID-19. And not just as “rowers”. Across the continent, governments will need to urgently recognise that involving others in the formulation, as well as in the implementation, of policy need not be perceived as a threat to their own legitimacy. As Prof Brass writes, “Governance is not the removal of government, but the addition and acceptance of other actors, including NGOs, in the steering process.”

How effective are lockdowns?

The absence of non-governmental actors at the decision-making table may also be manifesting in the choices that African countries are making. For example, many have opted to go the way of China and other (though by no means all) European countries by imposing “lockdowns” – shuttering factories, businesses and markets; banning mass events from church services to political rallies; and forcing people to stay at home or imposing stringent restrictions on their movement – in an attempt to curtail the rate of spread of the disease and ensure their already fragile health systems are not overwhelmed. Beginning with Rwanda, the lockdowns have swept the continent, affecting economies large and small, from Nigeria to Uganda. In addition, by the end of March, nearly all countries had some form of travel restriction, with more than half imposing full border closures.

However, in an article for The Conversation, Prof Alex Broadbent and Prof Benjamin Smart argue that a one-size-fits-all approach may have lethal consequences for Africa. They note that the “the major components of the recommended public health measures – social distancing and hygiene – are extremely difficult to implement effectively in much of Africa” and that the net effect of lockdowns “may thus be to prevent people from working, without actually achieving the distancing that would slow the spread of the virus”. They also question the value of “flattening the curve” in a scenario where at the best of times public healthcare is inaccessible to a huge proportion of the population.

Similarly, in an interview with Africa Report, John Nkengasong, the director of the Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, which is part of the African Union, also pointed out that lockdowns are not only difficult to sustain but would also “lead to other consequences, such as shortages of food, medicine and other basic supplies”. He also said that the shutdown of air travel and closing of borders across the continent was making it more difficult to coordinate the distribution of desperately needed medical supplies and equipment. Making much the same point on the Kenyan news programme Punchline, Dr Mary Stephens of WHO said that blanket travel bans and border closures would prevent African countries from accessing external medical experts needed to plug gaps in their health systems.

The resort to force by governments across the continent to counter the resistance of their populations to such measures speaks to the lack of a social consensus for the necessity of such measures. It is the poor, for the most part, who will bear the pain of the lockdowns, especially the many working in the informal sector who cannot afford to stay at home for a day, let alone for weeks. Yet they are almost completely excluded from the decision-making table.

Similarly, in an interview with Africa Report, John Nkengasong…pointed out that lockdowns are not only difficult to sustain but would also “lead to other consequences, such as shortages of food, medicine and other basic supplies”.

If they were allowed to have a say, perhaps they would point out that there are other options and examples that African countries could look to. In the Far East, for example, countries and cities like Japan, South Korea as well as Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan, while not yet out of the woods, have managed to tackle the pandemic within their borders while largely avoiding the crippling lockdowns.

Nobel laureate Amartya Sen famously declared that “no famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy”. He noted that democratic governments, “facing elections and criticisms from opposition parties and independent newspapers”, would be compelled to take decisions to avert disaster.

Democracy may not be such a sure shield against epidemics, but it is clear that, at least on the African continent, its absence, and the prevalence of governments used to wielding clubs and guns against their citizens rather than listening to them, may be turning a looming disaster into a catastrophe.

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Slaying the Giant: An Epidemiologist’s Perspective on How Kenya Can Tackle COVID-19

There hasn’t been a pandemic control that has succeeded without social capital. How Kenya and Africa will deal with this pandemic will squarely depend on the strength, resilience and adaptability of our social capital to weather the storm.

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Slaying the Virus: An Epidemiologist’s Perspective on How Kenya Can Tackle COVID-19
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Epidemiologists measure how a disease spreads through populations using the basic reproduction number, otherwise known as R0 (pronounced “R naught”). Typical seasonal flu has a reproductive number of 1.2, while that of COVID-19 is reported to be approximately 2.5.

R = Reproductive number: How many people a given patient is likely to infect. If the reproductive number is greater than one (R>1), each case on average is transmitting it to at least one other person. The epidemic will therefore increase. Reproductive number is affected by factors including but not limited to population density, environment, age and immunity.

Typical seasonal flu has a reproductive number of 1.2; Spanish flu has a reproductive number of 2-3, while COVID-19 is reported to be approximately 2.5.

From a policy planning perspective, it offers a very clear objective: Reduce the reproductive number to less than one (R<1)

D= Duration: How long someone is infectious. If someone is infectious twice as long, then that’s twice as long as they can spread the infection. For COVID-19, people are infectious for up to 21 days. This can usually be reduced by treatment but there is currently no approved treatment for COVID-19.

O= Opportunity: The number of contacts of the infected person during the duration of the infection. If people are isolated (no contacts), then community spread does not occur or is minimised. This is achieved through social distancing.

T= Transmission Probability: The chance an infection is spread to a contact, hence the need to eliminate physical contact and hand washing.

S= Susceptibility: The chance a contact will develop the infection and become infectious themselves. We are all susceptible to COVID-19. Susceptibility is usually taken care of by vaccines, which we do not have for COVID-19.

Another important number for understanding diseases is the Case Fatality Rate (CFR): What percentage of people who have a disease die from it? On one extreme, we have rabies, which has a 99 percent fatality rate if untreated. On the other hand, is the common cold, which has a relatively high reproductive number but is almost never fatal. At the time of writing this, the crude case fatality rate for COVID-19 was 5.3 percent. I am calling it crude because thus far, testing has been selective. If testing protocols were to be expanded, this value will probably drop to 1 percent or less. But we will, however, work with the worst-case scenario for now.

In the case of the COVID-19, exponential growth will occur in the disease rate in humans as long as there is at least one infected person in the population pool, regular contact between infected and uninfected members of the population occurs, and there are large numbers of uninfected potential hosts among the population.

Which brings us to the term ‘doubling time’, which just means in this situation that cases/deaths will double in a given amount of time. Doubling rate in the United States of America has been reported to be three days, while China has managed to spread it out. And if the numbers from China are to be believed, they are now at six days. The longer the doubling time, the better.

One last terminology I will touch on is Herd Immunity, which simply means when a significant part of a population has become immune to a disease agent, its spread stops naturally because they are not enough susceptible people for efficient transmission. For COVID-19, immunity would come through getting the disease, assuming that it confers life-long immunity.

So what strategies do we have?

Do nothing

Based on the data we have from other countries, the reproductive number of COVID-19 is 2.5. That means, the population of people that will be infected to achieve herd Immunity is: 1-1/R0, equal to 60 percent. This translates to more than 28 million Kenyans getting it. Moreover, 80 percent (approximately 22 million people) of the population will have a mild disease or be asymptomatic. Another 14 percent (approximately 4 million people) will be in severe condition and may need hospitalisation, while 6 percent (approximately 1.7 million people) of Kenya’s population will be critical and may need intensive care facilities.

Going by case fatality rate of 5 percent, it means approximately 1.4 million Kenyans will die if we do nothing. I chose to stick with the global case fatality rate of 5 percent because even though we have a youthful population, we grapple significantly with both communicable – AIDS, Tuberculosis, malaria, pneumonia etc., and non-communicable illnesses. Furthermore, a majority of the population lives in squalid conditions and is prone to other competing illnesses. And to add salt to injury, as a country, we are still battling malnutrition and anaemia.

Doubling of new infections in the United States of America is happening every three days. This means the numbers will double ten times in a month. Though we have yet to reach the exponential phase, a quick back-of-the-envelope analysis places Kenya, with its current infection rate at 122, indicates the number of people with COVID-19 will double ten-times one month from today. The numbers will be compounded the longer we do nothing and the effects will be fatal to say the least.

Do something

Since there are no antiviral medications for COVID 19 and no vaccine, we must rely on non-pharmaceutical interventions like social distancing and eliminating physical contact.

The impact of early and widespread social distancing is flattening the curve. The flattening minimises overwhelming the healthcare facilities and their resources, which is good in the short run, but lengthens the duration of the epidemic in the long run. If the health system becomes overwhelmed, the majority of the extra deaths may not be due to coronavirus but to other common diseases and conditions such as heart attacks, strokes, trauma, bleeding, and other such diseases that are not adequately treated.

Too, if large numbers of Kenyans were to get very sick and start flooding into hospitals and health care facilities, our system will undergo a severe stress test. Our health system could be overrun in a very short period of time. Thus, figuring out how to plan for a massive influx of patients is one of the hardest parts of preparing for health emergencies, and it has yet to be adequately dealt with in Kenya.

If large numbers of Kenyans were to get very sick and start flooding into hospitals and health care facilities, our system will undergo a severe stress test. Our health system could be overrun in a very short period of time.

“Surge capacity” management is one of our biggest weaknesses, particularly at a time when we have shortages of health workers, and a weak supply chain management system. The national and county governments have spent very little on health care, choosing to focus on capital expenditure where there is something for them to ‘’eat’. Even in the course of this pandemic, health care workers are being appreciated by word of mouth but are not being protected, risking spreading this to patients, other workers, families as well as the public. The risk of COVID-19 being another nosocomial infection is very high. Indeed, the 3,000 unemployed doctors have yet to be absorbed into the healthcare system to mitigate this crisis, but I digress.

Mitigation

Here the focus is to slow the growth of the epidemic. Instead of having it double every three days, you put interventions in place to slow it down to double every seven days. This will ease the demand for health care services and give you breathing room. Interventions here include hospital isolation of confirmed cases, home isolation of suspect cases, home quarantine of those living in the same household as suspect /confirmed cases, and social distancing of the elderly and others at most risk of severe disease.

This has the potential to reduce infections and deaths by as much as 60 percent, and prevent the economy from collapsing completely the numbers will drop from 28 million infections with no mitigation, to approximately 11.2 million, and 560,000 deaths if we infer to the case fatality rate of 5 percent.

Suppression

With suppression, you want to reduce the reproductive number to below 1, hence stopping transmission. This is what we are doing now. Travel restrictions, social distancing, school closures, curfews, stopping mass gatherings. The only strategy that we haven’t adopted so far is sheltering in place, what people like to refer to as lockdown. The problem with this strategy is that it has enormous economic and social impacts. And as long as we live in a global village, there is a great risk of recrudescence especially when you open the borders. This means you have to maintain the strategies until a vaccine is discovered and you have vaccinated at least 60 percent of the population, or at least until a cure is found. We are probably 6-12 months away from a solution considering how clinical trials are being fast-tracked. There is the option of relaxing the strategies occasionally when the reproductive number is low, but this means you must have a meticulous method of disease surveillance to pick up recrudesce early.

How do we balance public health vs. economic consequences?

The bubonic plague of medieval Europe, the Spanish flu of 1918, SARS, H1N1 Swine flu and other infectious diseases have shaped the political economy of the world and so far, all evidence indicates that COVID-19 will do the same.

We must, now, grapple with philosophical issues such as how much economic value we are willing to lose to save a human life.

As a public health practitioner, I decree that saving life is more important than social and economic effects. I think there must also be a delicate political balance to be considered and policymakers should reflect whether they are doing more harm than good.

When making decisions, policymakers often use what’s called the Value of a Statistical Life (VSL) to set an upper bound on how much you can impose on people in order to save lives. But if policymakers assigned an infinite economic value to each life, they would spare no expense and be fearless in imposing any inconvenience.

Information

At a time when everyone needs better information, from disease modelers and governments, we lack reliable evidence on how many people have been infected with COVID-19. Better information is needed to guide decisions and actions of monumental significance to monitor their impact.

The data collected so far is unreliable. Given the limited testing to date, some deaths and probably the vast majority of infections due to COVID-19 are being missed. We can’t access if we are failing to capture infections by a factor of three or 300.

As a public health practitioner, I decree that saving life is more important than social and economic effects. I think there must also be a delicate political balance to be considered and policymakers should reflect whether they are doing more harm than good.

Too, we don’t know what factors are being modeled. Kenya, for instance, is a diverse country with densely populated counties like Nairobi, and less densely populated like Turkana. A one-size-fits-all model won’t work. The modeling models developed need to be county-specific, and interventions need to be more nuanced and contextual. Of course, the chain of command should remain at the ministry of health but with an aggressive inter-governmental coordination prescribing strategies for each county.

This is the time to fully implement the spirit of the 2010 constitution and bring in the devolved units, as health is a function of counties. It is here that strategies such as how will “sheltering in place” work for pastoralism communities be enforced? What strategies need to be considered for the rural areas where the majority of their populations are the elderly?

The overarching idea is to tailor-make a range of policy mixes suitable for the Kenyan context.

Is Kenya getting right?

Based on the numbers I have shared above; I would say it’s a mixed bag. Social distancing is yielding fruit, however, we need a scientifically determined threshold on when these can be relaxed or re-introduced. Indeed, there must be a robust health surveillance system in place, which has to be county-specific. The success of the ongoing strategies to mitigate community transmission will depend on how Kenyans collectively respond to the plea of physical distancing and hygiene.

Still, we have to do more. First, we are not testing enough. I posit that we should partner with certified private laboratories to scale-up testing. We must acquire testing kits that can be used on Genexpert platforms that were provided by PEPFAR and are available in all counties.

I can’t emphasise enough about testing.

You test, isolate and trace to minimise community spread. Without this, we are swimming blind. Secondly, we are not protecting our health care workers. They are the first-line workers and are at the greatest risk of acquiring COVID-19, transmitting it to other patients, as well as to the community.

Finally, there hasn’t been a pandemic control that has succeeded without social capital. How Kenya and Africa will deal with this pandemic will squarely depend on the strength, resilience and adaptability of our social capital to weather the storm.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here belong to the author, and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the MOH or other bodies involved in COVID-19 response.

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Controlling COVID-19: Lessons from East Asia

As authorities the world over restrict the movements of their populations, and governments benchmark their responses on the worst affected regions, there are lessons to be learnt from South Korea which has eschewed lockdowns in favour of early detection through mass testing, contact tracing and treatment.

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By the third week of March 2020, the number of COVID-19 deaths in Italy had overtaken the number of deaths in China. Authorities all over the world are restricting the movements of their populations as part of efforts to control the spread of COVID-19.

For the time being, more and more governments are benchmarking their responses on the very worst outbreaks in Wuhan and northern Italy. But lockdowns inevitably have adverse economic impacts, especially for businesses, particularly small ones heavily reliant on continuous turnover. Are there other ways to bring the virus under control without lockdowns?

South Korean lessons?

The Republic of Korea, or South Korea, is one of a handful of mainly East Asian economies that have dramatically reduced the number of COVID-19 cases as well as related deaths. On 29 February 2020, the country saw 909 newly confirmed cases.

By 25 March, the number of newly confirmed cases fell to 100. It has gone from having the second-highest rate of infection globally to eighth place, behind China, Italy, United States, Spain, Germany, Iran and France, all with varying rates of testing.

For now, South Korea has checked the spread of infections. It has managed to slow the spread of COVID-19 without imposing lockdowns, even in its most infected city, Daegu. How have they responded differently to the crisis?

Korean-style pandemic management

The key to South Korea’s response has been mass testing. South Korea has done the most COVID-19 tests by country, with over 300,000 tests as of 20 March 2020, or over 6,000 per million inhabitants. Germany, in second place, had done 167,000 by 15 March 2020, or 2,000 per million.

The infected who show no symptoms (i.e., the asymptomatic) or only have mild symptoms are more likely to transmit the virus to others. As such, undetected cases are more likely to spread infection, mass testing has checked the spread of the virus by identifying and breaking its chains of transmission.

The median incubation period, between infection and symptoms first appearing, is about five days, during which time asymptomatic individuals may unknowingly infect others. Mass testing detects infections early, so that individuals can self-isolate and get treatment instead of infecting others.

South Korea had built up its testing capabilities following the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outbreak in 2015. It was thus prepared with test kits and facilities for rapid development, approval and deployment in case of future outbreaks.

After South Korea confirmed its first case of Covid-19 on 20 January 2020, hundreds of testing facilities, ranging from drive-through kiosks to hospitals and local clinics, quickly became available across the country.

Trace, test, treat

The tests are mainly free for those whom medical professionals suspect need to be tested, e.g., if they recently returned from China. The tests are also free of charge for “secondary contacts” of a person known to be infected or to belong to an at-risk group.

Others who do not belong to these categories, but wish to be tested, are charged 160,000 Korean won (about US$130), but the amount is reimbursed if the result is positive, with any treatment needed paid for by the government.

Mass testing detects infections early, so that individuals can self-isolate and get treatment instead of infecting others

Another legacy of the MERS outbreak is that the government has the legal authority to collect mobile phone, credit card and other data from those who test positive for contact tracing efforts. China, too, has made use of artificial intelligence and big data to improve contact tracing and manage priority populations.

Although this has sparked debates over privacy concerns, South Korea’s proactive testing and contact tracing methods have also been praised by the World Health Organization (WHO), which is encouraging other countries to apply lessons learned in South Korea, China and elsewhere in East Asia.

Path not taken

Although South Koreans are banned from entry into more than 80 countries around the world, its authorities have only restricted incoming travellers from China’s Hubei province, whose capital city is Wuhan, and Japan, due to bilateral political tensions.

Special procedures require visitors from China and Iran to use smartphone applications to monitor for symptoms such as fever. As Europe has become the new epicentre of the pandemic, all visitors from Europe are now being tested for Covid-19, with those staying long-term quarantined first.

The Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) continue to urge people to practice social distancing and personal hygiene. Mass gatherings are discouraged, and employers encouraged to allow employees to work remotely. But no lockdown has been imposed, and South Korea has not imposed nationwide restrictions on movements of people within its borders.

Learning the right lessons

Besides South Korea, the WHO has also praised China for its Covid-19 response, which has rapidly reduced new cases, besides helping other countries with their efforts. More and more countries are restricting freedom of movement through lockdowns, citing China’s response in Wuhan.

However, Bruce Aylward, who led the WHO fact-finding mission to China, notes,

“The majority of the response in China, in 30 provinces, was about case finding, contact tracing, and suspension of public gatherings—all common measures used anywhere in the world to manage [infectious] diseases. The lockdowns people are referring to… [were] concentrated in Wuhan and two or three other cities . . . that got out of control in the beginning . . . [T]he key learning from China is . . . all about the speed. The faster you can find the cases, isolate the cases, and track their close contacts, the more successful you’re going to be”.

China and South Korea are now primed to detect and respond rapidly, which may make all the difference in preventing a new wave of infections. This is not to say that lockdowns are ineffective; we will soon know whether such measures in countries like Italy will succeed.

The faster you can find the cases, isolate the cases, and track their close contacts, the more successful you’re going to be

The South Korean and Chinese experiences suggest that resources should be concentrated on rapid and early detection, isolation and contact tracing, protecting the most vulnerable, and treating the infected, regardless of means, instead of mainly relying on strict lockdown measures.

This article was first published by inter press service news agency. The authors are both associated with Khazanah Research Institute but do not implicate KRI with the views expressed here.

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