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The Coronavirus: The Political Economy of a Pathogen

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The coronavirus crisis has thrown into sharp relief the interlocked embrace of globalisation and nationalism and shown the limits of the neo-liberal globalisation that has reigned supreme since the 1980s. The pandemic has at the same time showed up the fecklessness of some political leaders and the incompetence of many governments.

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The Coronavirus: The Political Economy of a Pathogen
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The global coronavirus pandemic has triggered worldwide panic as the numbers of victims explode and economies implode, as physical movement and social interactions wither in lockdowns, as apocalyptic projections of its destructive reach soar, and as unprepared or underprepared national governments and international agencies desperately scramble for solutions.

The pandemic has exposed the daunting deficiencies of public health systems in many countries. It threatens cataclysmic economic wreckage as entire industries, global supply chains, and stock markets collapse under its frightfully unpredictable trajectory. Its social, emotional, and mental toll are as punishing as they are paralysing for multitudes of people increasingly isolated in their homes as the public life of work spaces, travel, entertainment, sports, religious congregations, and other gatherings grind to a halt.

Also being torn asunder are cynical ideological certainties and the political fortunes of national leaders as demands grow for strong and competent governments. The populist revolt against science and experts has received its comeuppance as the deadly costs of pandering to mass ignorance mount. At the same time, the pandemic has shattered the strutting assurance of masters of the universe as they either catch the virus or as it constrains their jet-setting lives and erodes their bulging equity portfolios.

Furthermore, the coronavirus throws into sharp relief the interlocked embrace of globalisation and nationalism, as the pandemic leaps across the world showing no respect for national boundaries, and countries seek to contain it by fortifying national borders. It underscores the limits of both neo-liberal globalisation that has reigned supreme since the 1980s, and populist nationalisms that have bestrode the world since the 2000s, which emerged partly out of the deepening social and economic inequalities spawned by the former.

These are some of the issues I would like to reflect on in this essay, the political economy of the coronavirus pandemic. As historians and social scientists know all too well, any major crisis is always multifaceted in its causes, courses, and consequences. Disease epidemics are no different. In short, understanding the epidemiological dimensions and dynamics of the coronavirus pandemic is as important as analysing its economic, social, and political impact. Moments of crisis always have their fear-mongers and skeptics. The role of progressive public intellectuals is to provide sober analysis.

In the Shadows of 1918-1920

The coronavirus pandemic is the latest and potentially one of the most lethal global pandemics in a long time. One of the world’s deadliest pandemics was the Great Plague of 1346-1351 which ravaged larges parts of Eurasia and Africa. It killed between 75 to 200 million people, and wiped out 30 per cent to 60 per cent of the European population. The plague was caused by fleas carried by rats, underscoring humanity’s vulnerability to the lethal power of small and micro-organisms, notwithstanding the conceit of its mastery over nature. The current pandemic shows that this remains true despite all the technological advances humanity has made since then.

Over a century ago, as World War I came to an end, an influenza epidemic, triggered by a virus transmitted from animals to humans, ravaged the globe. One-third of the world’s population was infected, and it left 50 million people dead. It was the worst pandemic of the 20th century. It was bigger and more lethal than the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the late 20th century. But for a world then traumatised by the horrors of war it seemed to have left a limited impact on global consciousness.

Photo. British Red Cross – American Red Cross volunteers carry a Spanish flu victim, 1919

Some health experts fear Covid-19, as the new strain of coronavirus has been named, might rival the influenza epidemic of 1918. But there are those who caution that history is sometimes not kind to moral panics, that similar hysteria was expressed following the outbreaks in the 2000s and 2010s of bouts of bird flu and swine flu, of SARS, MERS and Ebola, each of which was initially projected to kill millions of people. Of course, nobody really knows whether or not the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 will rival that of the influenza pandemic of 1918-1920, but the echoes are unsettling: its mortality rate seems comparable, as is its explosive spread.

The devastating power Covid-19 is wracking and humbling every country, economy, society, and social class, although the pervasive structural and social inscriptions of differentiation still cast their formidable and discriminatory capacities for prevention and survival. In its socioeconomic and political impact alone, Covid-19 has already made history. One lesson from the influenza pandemic that applies to the current coronavirus pandemic is that countries, cities and communities that took early preventive measures fared much better than those that did not.

Doctors’ Orders

Since Covid-19 broke out in Wuhan, China, in late December 2019, international and national health organisations and ministries have issued prevention guidelines for individuals and institutions. Most of the recommended measures reflect guidelines issued by the World Health Organization.

But the pandemic is not just about physical health. It is also about mental health. Writing in The Atlantic magazine of March 17, 2020, on how to stay sane during the pandemic one psychotherapist notes, “You can let anxiety consume you, or you can feel the fear and also find joy in ordinary life, even now”. She concludes, “I recommend that all of us pay as much attention to protecting our emotional health as we do to guarding our physical health. A virus can invade our bodies, but we get to decide whether we let it invade our minds”.

A Kenyan psychology professor advises her readers in the Sunday Nation of March 23, 2020, to cultivate a positive mindset. “Take only credible sources of information . . . Don’t consume too much data, it can be overwhelming. You may be in isolation but very noisy within yourself. Learn to relax and to convert your energy into other activities in order to nurture your own mental health . . . Such as gardening, learning a language, doing an online course, painting or read that book. Do the house chores, trim the flowers, paint, do repairs, clean the dust in those corners we always ignore . . . Exercise . . . Talk to someone if you feel terrified, empty, hopeless, and worthless. These are creeping signs of depression. This too will pass: Believe me that there will be an end to this”.

Scramble for Containment

Many governments were caught unprepared or underprepared by the coronavirus pandemic. Some even initially dismissed the threat. This was particularly the case among populist rightwing governments, such as the administrations of President Trump of the United States, Prime Minister Johnson of the United Kingdom, and President Bolsonaro of Brazil. As populists, they had risen to power on a dangerous brew of nationalist and nativist fantasies of reviving national greatness and purity, xenophobia against foreigners, and manufactured hatred for elites and experts.

To rightwing ideologues the coronavirus was a foreign pathogen, a “Chinese virus” according to President Trump and his Republican followers in the United States, that posed no threat to the nation quarantined in its splendid isolation of renewed greatness. Its purported threat was fake news propagated by partisan Democrats, or disgruntled left-wing labour and liberal parties in the case of the United Kingdom and Brazil that had recently been vanquished at the polls.

Such was the obduracy of President Trump that not only did he and his team ignore frantic media reports about the pandemic leaping across the world, but also ominous, classified warnings issued by the U.S. intelligence agencies throughout January and February. Instead, he kept assuring Americans in his deranged twitterstorms that there was little to worry about, that “I think it’s going to work out fine,” that “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA”.

Photo. Martin Sanchez/Unsplash

Trump’s denialism was echoed by many leaders around the world including in Africa. This delayed taking much-needed preemptive action that would have limited the spread and potential impact of the coronavirus firestorm. In fact, as early as 2012 a report by the Rand Corporation warned that only pandemics were “capable of destroying America’s way of life”. The Obama administration proceeded to establish the National Security Council directorate for global health and security and bio-defense, which the Trump administration closed in 2018. On the whole, global pandemics have generally not been taken seriously by security establishments in many countries preoccupied with conventional wars, terrorism, and the machismo of military hardware.

In the meantime, China, the original epicenter of the pandemic took draconian measures that locked down Wuhan and neighbouring regions, a measure that was initially dismissed by many politicians and pundits in “western democracies” as a frightful and an unacceptable example of Chinese authoritarianism. As the pandemic ravished Italy, which became the coronavirus epicenter in Europe and a major exporter of the disease to several African countries, regional and national lockdowns were embraced as a strategy of containment.

Asian democracies such as South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Singapore adopted less coercive and more transparent measures. Already endowed with good public health systems capable of handling major epidemics—which capability was enhanced by the virus epidemics of the 2000s and 2010s—they developed effective and vigilant monitoring systems encompassing early intervention, meticulous contact tracking, mandatory quarantines, social distancing, and border controls.

Various forms of lockdown, some more draconian than others, were soon adopted in many countries and cities around the world. They encompassed the closure of offices, schools and universities, and entertainment and sports venues, as well as banning of international flights and even domestic travel. Large-scale disinfection drives were also increasingly undertaken. The Economist of March 21, 2020 notes in its lead story that China and South Korea have effectively used “technology to administer quarantines and social distancing. China is using apps to certify who is clear of the disease and who is not. Both it and South Korea are using big data and social media to trace infections, alert people of hotspots and round contacts”.

Belatedly, as the pandemic flared in their countries, the skeptics began singing a different tune, although a dwindling minority complained of overreaction. Befitting the grandiosity of populist politicians, they suddenly fancied themselves as great generals in the most ferocious war in a generation. Some commentators found the metaphor of war obscene for its self-aggrandisement for clueless leaders anxious to burnish their tattered reputations and accrue more gravitas and power. For the bombastic, narcissistic, and pathological liar that he is, President Trump sought to change the narrative that he had foreseen the pandemic notwithstanding his earlier dismissals of its seriousness.

His British counterpart, Prime Minister Johnson vainly tried Churchillian impersonation which was met with widespread derision in the media. Each time either of them spoke trying to reassure the public, the more it became clear they were out of their depth, that they did not have the intellectual and political capacity to calm the situation. It was a verdict delivered with painful cruelty by the stock markets that they adore—they fell sharply each time the two gave a press conference and announced half-baked containment measures.

Initially, many of Africa’s inept governments remained blasé about the pandemic even allowing flights to and from China, Italy and other countries with heavy infection rates. Cynical citizens with little trust in their corrupt governments to manage a serious crisis sought comfort in myths peddled on social media about Africa’s immunity because of its sunny weather, the curative potential of some concoctions from disinfectants to pepper soup, the preventive potential of shaving beards, or the protective power of faith and prayer.

But as concerns and outrage from civil society mounted, and opportunities for foreign aid rose, some governments went into rhetorical overdrive that engendered more panic than reassurance. It has increasingly become evident that Africa needs unflinching commitment and massive resources to stem the rising tide of coronavirus infections. According to one commentator in The Sunday Nation of March 22, “It is estimated that the continent would need up to $10.6 billion in unanticipated increases in health spending to curtail the virus from spreading”. He advises the continent to urgently implement the African Continental Free Trade Area, and work with global partners.

Cynical citizens with little trust in their corrupt governments to manage a serious crisis sought comfort in myths peddled on social media

In Kenya, some defiant politicians refused to self-quarantine after coming from coronavirus-stricken countries, churches resisted closing their doors, and traders defied orders to close markets. This forced the government to issue draconian containing measures on March 22, 2020 stipulating that all those who violated quarantine measures would be forcefully quarantined at their own expense, all gatherings at churches, mosques were suspended, weddings were no longer allowed, and funerals would be restricted to 15 family members.

The infodemic of false and misleading information, as the WHO calls it, was of course not confined to Africa. It spread like wildfire around the world. So did coronavirus fraudsters peddling fake information and products to desperate and unwary recipients. In Britain, the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau was forced to issue urgent scam warnings against emails and text messages purporting to be from reputable research and health organisations.

The coronavirus pandemic showed up the fecklessness of some political leaders and the incompetence of many governments. The neo-liberal crusade against “big government” that had triumphed since the turn of the 1980s, suddenly looked threadbare. And so did the populist zealotry against experts and expertise. The valorisation of the politics of gut feelings masquerading as gifted insight and knowledge, suddenly vanished into puffs of ignoble ignorance that endangered the lives of millions of people. People found more solace in the calm pronouncements of professional experts including doctors, epidemiologists, researchers and health officials than loquacious politicians.

Populist leaders like President Trump and Prime Minister Johnson and many others of their ilk had taken vicarious pleasure in denigrating experts and expert knowledge, and decimating national research infrastructures and institutions. Suddenly, at their press conferences they were flanked by trusted medical and scientific professionals and civil servants as they sought to bask in the latter’s reassuring glow. But that could not restore public health infrastructures overnight, severely damaged as they were by indefensible austerity measures and the pro-rich transfers of wealth adopted by their governments.

Economic Meltdown

When the coronavirus pandemic broke out, many countries were unprepared for it. There were severe shortages of testing kits and health care facilities. Many also lacked universal entitlement to healthcare, social safety nets including basic employment rights and unemployment insurance that could mitigate some of the worst effects of the pandemic’s economic impact. All this ensured that the pandemic would unleash mutually reinforcing health and economic crises.

Photo. Rick Tap/Unsplash

The signs of economic meltdown escalated around the world. Stock markets experienced a volatility that run out of superlatives. In the United States, from early February to March 20, 2020 the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell by about 10,000 points or 35%, while the S&P fell by 32%. In Britain, the FTSE fell by 49% from its peak in earlier in the year, the German GDAXI by 36%, the Hong Kong HSI by 22%, and the Japanese Nikkei by 32%. Trillions of dollars were wiped out. In the United States, the gains made under President Trump vanished and fell to the levels left by his nemesis President Obama, depriving the market-obsessed president of one of his favourite talking points and justifications for re-election.

There are hardly any parallels to a pandemic leading to markets crumbling the way they have following the coronavirus outbreak. They did not do so during the 1918-1920 influenza pandemic, although they fluctuated thereafter. Closer to our times, during the flu pandemic of 1957-1958 the Dow fell about 25per cent, while the SARS and MERS scares of the early 21st century had relatively limited economic impact. Some economic historians warn, however, that the stock market isn’t always a good indicator or predictor of the severity of a pandemic.

The sharp plunge in stock markets reflected a severe economic downturn brought about by the coronavirus pandemic as one industry after another went into a tailspin. The travel, hospitality and leisure industries encompassing airlines, hotels, restaurants, bars, sports, conventions, exhibitions, tourism, and retail were the first to feel the headwinds of the economic slump as people escaped or were coerced into the isolation of their homes. For example, hotel revenues in the United States plummeted by 75 per cent on average, worse than during the Great Recession and the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks combined.

In the United States, the gains made under President Trump vanished and fell to the levels left by his nemesis President Obama

Other industries soon followed suit as supply chains were scuppered, profits and share prices fell, and offices closed and staff were told to work from home. Manufacturing, construction, and banking have not been spared. Big technology manufacturing has also been affected by factory shutdowns and postponing the launch of new products. Neither was the oil industry safe. With global demand falling, and the price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia escalating, oil prices fell dramatically to $20.3, a fall of 67 per cent since the beginning of 2020. Some predicted the prospect of $5 oil per barrel.

The oil price war threatened to decimate smaller or poorer oil producers from the Gulf states to Nigeria. It also threatened the shale oil industry in the United States because of its high production costs, thereby depriving the country of its newly acquired status as the largest oil producer in the world, to the chagrin of Russia and OPEC. Many of the US shale oil companies face bankruptcy as their production costs are fourteen times higher than Saudi Arabia’s production costs, and they need prices of more than $40 per barrel to cover their direct costs.

Falling oil prices combined with growing concerns about climate change, dented the prospects of several oil exploration and production companies, such as the British company Tullow, which has ambitious projects in Kenya, Uganda, and Ghana. This threatened these countries’ aspirations to join the club of major oil-producing nations. In early March, 2020, one of Tullow’s major investors, Blackrock, the world’s biggest hedge fund with $7 trillion, made it clear it was losing interest in fossil fuel investment.

Such are the disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic that 51 per cent of economists polled by the London School of Economics believe “the world faces a major recession, even if COVID-19 kills no more people than seasonal flu. Only 5% said they did not think it would.” According to a survey reported by the World Economic Forum, “The public sees coronavirus as a greater threat to the economy than to their health, new research suggests. Economic rescue measures announced by governments do not appear to be calming concern . . . The majority of people in most countries polled expect to feel a personal financial impact from the coronavirus pandemic, according to the results. Respondents in Vietnam, China, India and Italy show the greatest concern”.

51 per cent of economists polled by the London School of Economics believe the world faces a major recession

Many economies spiraled into recession. The major international financial institutions and development agencies have revised world, regional, and national economic growth prospects for 2020 downwards, sometimes sharply so. Estimates by Frost & Sullivan, a consultancy firm, show that world GDP which grew by 3.5% in 2018 and 2.9% in 2019, will slide to 1.7% if the coronavirus pandemic becomes prolonged and severe, and it might take up to a year or more for the world economy to recover. The OECD predicts that “Global growth could drop to 1.5 per cent in 2020, half the rate projected before the virus outbreak. Recovery much more gradual through 2021”.

The OECD Economic Outlook, Interim Report March 2020 notes,

Growth was weak but stabilising until the coronavirus Covid-19 hit. Restrictions on movement of people, goods and services, and containment measures such as factory closures have cut manufacturing and domestic demand sharply in China. The impact on the rest of the world through business travel and tourism, supply chains, commodities and lower confidence is growing.

It forecasts “Severe, short-lived downturn in China, where GDP growth falls below 5% in 2020 after 6.1% in 2019, but recovering to 6.4% in 2021. In Japan, Korea, Australia, growth also hit hard then gradual recovery. Impact less severe in other economies but still hit by drop in confidence and supply chain disruption”.

Compared to a year earlier, the once buoyant Chinese economy shrank by between 10 and 20 per cent in January and February 2020. The Economist states,

In the first two months of 2020 all major indicators were deeply negative: industrial production fell by 13.5% year-on-year, retail sales by 20.5% and fixed-asset investment by 24.5% . . . The last time China reported an economic contraction was more than four decades ago, at the end of the Cultural Revolution.

In the United States, the recovery and boom from the Great Recession that started in 2009 came to a screeching halt. Some grim predictions project that as businesses shut down and more than 80 million Americans stay penned at home unemployment, which had dropped to a historic low of 3.5 per cent, might skyrocket to 20 per cent. This spells disaster as consumer spending drives 70 per cent of the economy, and 39 per cent of Americans cannot handle an unexpected $400 expense.

This economic bloodletting removes the second boastful pillar of President Trump’s re-election strategy, the robust health of the US economy

Various estimates indicate that in the next three months the economy will shrink by anywhere between 14 and to 30 per cent, ushering in one of America’s fastest and deepest recessions in history. This economic bloodletting removes the second boastful pillar of President Trump’s re-election strategy, the robust health of the US economy.

UNCTAD has added its gloomy assessment for the world economy and emerging economies. Launching its report in early March, the Director of the Division on Globalisation and Development Strategies at UNCTAD noted that,

One ‘Doomsday scenario’ in which the world economy grew at only 0.5 per cent, would involve ‘a $2 trillion hit’ to gross domestic product . . . There’s a degree of anxiety now that’s well beyond the health scares which are very serious and concerning . . . To counter these fears, ‘Governments need to spend at this point in time to prevent the kind of meltdown that could be even more damaging than the one that is likely to take place over the course of the year’, Mr. Kozul-Wright insisted.

Turning to Europe and the Eurozone, Mr. Kozul-Wright noted that its economy had already been performing ‘extremely badly towards the end of 2019’ . . . It was ‘almost certain to go into recession over the coming months; and the German economy is particularly fragile, but the Italian economy and other parts of the European periphery are also facing very serious stresses right now as a consequence of trends over (the last few) days’.

The UNCTAD announcement continues,

So-called Least Developed Countries, whose economies are driven by the sale of raw materials, will not be spared either. ‘Heavily-indebted developing countries, particularly commodity exporters, face a particular threat’, thanks to weaker export returns linked to a stronger US dollar, Mr. Kozul-Wright maintained. ‘The likelihood of a stronger dollar as investors seek safe-havens for their money, and the almost certain rise in commodity prices as the global economy slows down, means that commodity exporters are particularly vulnerable’.

Africa will not be spared. According to Fitch Solutions, a consultancy firm,

We have revised down our Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) growth forecast to 1.9% in 2020, from 2.1% previously, reflecting macroeconomic risks arising from moderating oil prices and the global spread of Covid-19. While the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in SSA remains low thus far, African markets remain vulnerable to deteriorating risk sentiment, tightening financial conditions and slowing growth in key trade partners. The sharp decline in global oil prices resulting from the failure of OPEC+ to reach agreement on additional production cutbacks will undermine growth and export earnings in the continent’s main oil producers, notably Nigeria, Angola and South Sudan.

In Kenya, there were widespread fears that the coronavirus pandemic would bring the national airline carrier and other companies in the lucrative tourism industry to their knees. Similarly affected will be the critical agricultural and horticultural export industry. Aggravating the sharp economic downturns, some commentators lamented, is widespread corruption. Domestically, the ubiquitous matatu transport industry is groaning under new regulations limiting the number of passengers.

The economy was already fragile prior to the coronavirus crisis. In the words of one commentator in the Sunday Standard of March 23, 2020,

Companies were laying off, malls were already empty even before the outbreak and shops and kiosks and mama mbogas were recording the lowest sales in years. Matters are not helped by the fact that our e-commerce (purchase and delivery) does not account for much due to poor infrastructure and low trust levels.

Another commentator in the same paper on March 17, 2020 wrote, “It’s a matter of time before bleeding economy goes into coma”. He outlined the depressing litany: increased cost of living, gutting of Kenya’s export market, discouragement of the use of hard cash, producers grappling with limited supply, a bleeding stock market, irrational investor fears, and moratorium on foreign travel.

As the crisis intensified, international financial institutions and development agencies loosened the spigots of financial support. On March 12, 2020 the IMF announced,

In the event of a severe downturn triggered by the coronavirus, we estimate the Fund could provide up to US$50 billion in emergency financing to fund emerging and developing countries’ initial response. Low-income countries could benefit from about US$10 billion of this amount, largely on concessional terms. Beyond the immediate emergency, members can also request a new loan—drawing on the IMF’s war chest of around US$1 trillion in quota and borrowed resources—and current borrowers can top up their ongoing lending arrangements.

For its part, the World Bank announced on March 17 that,

The World Bank and IFC’s Boards of Directors approved today an increased $14 billion package of fast-track financing to assist companies and countries in their efforts to prevent, detect and respond to the rapid spread of COVID-19. The package will strengthen national systems for public health preparedness, including for disease containment, diagnosis, and treatment, and support the private sector.

On March 19, the European Central Bank announced,

As a result, the ECB’s Governing Council announced on Wednesday a new Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme with an envelope of €750 billion until the end of the year, in addition to the €120 billion we decided on 12 March. Together this amounts to 7.3% of euro area GDP. The programme is temporary and designed to address the unprecedented situation our monetary union is facing. It is available to all jurisdictions and will remain in place until we assess that the coronavirus crisis phase is over.

Altogether, The Economist states,

A crude estimate for America, Germany, Britain, France and Italy, including spending pledges, tax cuts, central bank cash injections and loan guarantees, amounts to $7.4trn, or 23% of GDP . . . A huge array of policies is on offer, from holidays on mortgage payments to bail-outs of Paris cafés. Meanwhile, orthodox stimulus tools may not work well. Interest rates in the rich world are near zero, depriving central bank of their main lever . . . What to do? An economic plan needs to target two groups: households and companies.

Some of the regional development banks also announced major infusions of funds to contain the pandemic. On March 18, “The Asian Development Bank (ADB) today announced a $6.5 billion initial package to address the immediate needs of its developing member countries (DMCs) as they respond to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic”.

On the same day, the African Development Bank announced “bold measures to curb coronavirus”, but this largely consisted of “health and safety measures to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus in countries where it has a presence, including its headquarters in Abidjan. The measures include telecommuting, video conferencing in lieu of physical meetings, the suspension of visits to Bank buildings, and the cancellation of all travel, meetings, and conferences, until further notice”. No actual financial support was stipulated in the announcement.

Trading Ideological Places 

As the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic escalated, demands for government support intensified from employers, employees and trade unions. The pandemic is wreaking particular havoc among poor workers who can hardly manage in “normal” times. As noted above, across Kenya jobs were already being lost before the coronavirus epidemic. Those in the informal economy are exceptionally vulnerable because of the extensive lockdown the government announced on March 22, 2020.

Those earning a precarious living in the gig economy face special hurdles in making themselves heard and receiving support. With the lockdown of cities, couriers become even more essential to deliver food and other supplies, but they lack employment rights, so that many cannot afford self-isolation if they become sick. Customer service workers at airports and in supermarkets have sometimes been at the receiving end of pandemonium and the anxieties of irate customers.

The pandemic is wreaking particular havoc among poor workers who can hardly manage in “normal” times

The pandemic has helped bring political perspective to national and international preoccupations that suddenly look petty in hindsight. For example, as one author puts it in a story in The Atlantic of March 11, 2020, “It’s not hard to feel like the coronavirus has exposed the utter smallness of Brexit . . . Ultimately, Brexit is not a matter of life and death literally or economically. The coronavirus, meanwhile, is killing people and perhaps many businesses”.

The same could be said of many trivial political squabbles in other countries. In the United States, one observer notes in The Atlantic of March 19, 2020,

In the absence of meaningful national leadership, Americans across the country are making their own decisions for our collective well-being. You’re seeing it in small stores deciding on their own to close; you’re seeing it in restaurants evolving without government decree to offer curbside pickup or offer delivery for the first time; you’re seeing it in the offices that closed long before official guidance arrived.

The author concludes poignantly, “The most isolating thing most of us have ever done is, ironically, almost surely the most collective experience we’ve ever had in our lifetimes”. And I can attest that I have seen this spirit of cooperation and collaboration on my own campus, among faculty, staff, and students. But the pandemic also raises questions about how effectively democracy can be upheld under the coronavirus lockdowns. Might desperate despots in some countries try to use the crisis to postpone elections?

Also upended by the coronavirus pandemic are traditional ideological polarities. Right-wing governments are competing with left-wing governments or opposition liberal legislatures as in the United States to craft “big government” mitigation packages. Many are borrowing monetary and fiscal measures from the Great Recession playbook, some of which they resisted when they were in opposition or not yet in office.

In terms of monetary policy, several central banks have cut interest rates. On March 15, 2020, the US Federal Reserve cut the rate to near zero in a coordinated move with the central banks of Japan, Australia and New Zealand. The Fed also announced measures to shore up financial markets including a package of $700 billion for asset purchase and a credit facility for commercial banks. Three days later, as noted above, the European Central Bank launched a €750 billion Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme. These measures failed to assure the markets which continued to plummet.

The pandemic has helped bring political perspective to national and international preoccupations that suddenly look petty in hindsight

As for fiscal policy, several governments announced radical spending measures. On 20 March, the UK announced that the government would pay up to 80 per cent of the wages of employees across the country sent home as businesses shut their doors as part of the drastic coronavirus containment strategy. This followed the example of the Danish government that had earlier pledged to cover 75 per cent of employees’ salaries for firms that agreed not to cut staff.

In the United States, Congress began working on a $1 trillion economic relief programme, later raised to $1.8 trillion. The negotiations between the two parties over the proposed stimulus bill proved bitterly contentious. For President Trump and Republicans it was a bitter pill to swallow, given their antipathy to “big government”. It marked the fall of another ideological pillar of Trumpism and Republicanism. For some, the demise of these pillars marks the end of the Trump presidency, which has been exposed for its deadly incompetence, autocratic political culture, and aversion to truth and transparency. We will of course only know for sure in November 2020.

Might desperate despots in some countries try to use the crisis to postpone elections?

In Kenya employers, workers, unions and analysts have implored the government to undertake drastic measures to boost the economy by providing bailouts, tax incentives and rebates, and social safety nets, as well as increasing government spending. Demands have been made to banks to extend credit to the private sector and to the Central Bank to lower or even freeze interest rates for six months. The Sunday Nation of March 22 reported pay cuts were looming for workers as firms struggled to keep afloat, and that the government had scrambled a war chest of Sh140 billion to shore up the economy and avert a recession.

Home Alone

Home isolation is recommended by epidemiologists as a critical means of what they call flattening the curve of the pandemic. Its economic impact is well understood, less so its psychological and emotional impact. While imperative, social isolation might exacerbate the growing loneliness epidemic as some call it, especially in the developed countries.

According to an article in The Atlantic magazine of March 10, 2020, the loneliness epidemic is becoming a serious health care crisis.

Research has shown that loneliness and social isolation can be as damaging to physical health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. A lack of social relationships is an enormous risk factor for death, increasing the likelihood of mortality by 26 percent. A major study found that, when compared with people with weak social ties, people who enjoyed meaningful relationships were 50 percent more likely to survive over time.

The problem of loneliness is often thought to be prevalent among older people, but in countries such as the United States, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, “The problem is especially acute among young adults ages 18 to 22”. Research shows that the feeling of loneliness is not a reflection of physical isolation, but of the meaning and depth of one’s social engagements. Among the Millennial and Gen Z generations loneliness is exacerbated by social media.

Photo. Anaya Katlego/Unsplash

Several studies have pointed out that social media may be reinforcing social disconnection, which is at the root of loneliness. This is because while social media has facilitated instant communication and made people more densely connected than ever, it offers a poor substitute for the intimate communication and dense and meaningful interactions humans crave and get from real friends and family. It fosters shallow and superficial connections, surrogate and even fake friendships, and narcissistic and exhibitionist sociability.

Loneliness should of course not be confused with solitude. Loneliness can also not be attributed solely to external conditions as it is often rooted in one’s psychological state. But the density and quality of social interactions matters. The current loneliness epidemic reflects the irony of a vicious cycle, a nexus of triple impulses: in cultures and sensibilities of self-absorption and self-invention, some people invite or choose loneliness either as a marker of self-sufficiency or social success, while the Internet makes it possible for people to be lonely, and lonely people tend to be more attracted to the Internet.

Among the Millennial and Gen Z generations loneliness is exacerbated by social media

But technology can also help mitigate social distancing. To quote one author writing in The Atlantic on March 14, 2020, “As more people employers and schools encourage people to stay home, people across the country find themselves video-chatting more than they usually might: going to meetings on Zoom, catching up with clients on Skype, FaceTime with therapists, even hosting virtual bar mitzvahs”. Jointly playing video games, watching streaming entertainment, or having virtual dinner parties also opens bonding opportunities.

Besides the growth and consumption of modern media and its disruptive and isolating technologies, loneliness is being reinforced by structural forces including the spread of the nuclear family, an invention that even in the United States has a short history as a social formation. This is evident in sociological studies and demonstrated in the lead story in the March 2020 edition of The Atlantic.


The article shows that for much of American history people lived in extended clans and families, whose great strength was their resilience and their role as a socialising force. The decline of multigenerational families dates to the development of an industrial economy and reached its apogee after World War II between 1950 and 1975, when it all began falling apart, again due to broader structural forces.

One doesn’t have to agree with the author’s analysis of what led to the profound changes in family structure. Certainly, women did not benefit from the older extended family structures, which were resolutely patriarchal. But it is a fact that currently, more people live alone in the United States—and in many other countries including those in the developing world—than ever before. The author stresses, “The period when the nuclear family flourished was not normal. It was a freakish historical moment when all of society conspired to obscure its essential fragility”.

He continues, “For many people, the era of the nuclear family has been a catastrophe. All forms of inequality are cruel, but family inequality may be the cruelest. It damages the heart”. He urges society “to figure out better ways to live together”. The question is: what will be the impact of the social distancing demanded by the coronavirus pandemic on the loneliness epidemic and the prospects of developing new and more fulfilling ways of living together?

Coronavirus Hegemonic Rivalries

At the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, China bore the brunt of being both the victims and the victimised. The rest of the world feared the contagion’s spread from China and before long the disease did spread to other Asian countries such as South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Iran. This triggered anti-Chinese and anti-Asian racism in Europe, North America, and even Africa.

For many Africans, it was a source of perverse relief that the coronavirus had not originated on the continent. Many wondered how Africa and Africans would have been portrayed and treated given the long history, in the western and global imaginaries, of pathologising African cultures, societies, and bodies as diseased embodiments of sub-humanity.

Disease breeds xenophobia, the irrational fear of the “other”. Commenting on the influenza pandemic in The Wall Street Journal, one scholar reminds us, “As the flu spread in 1918, many communities found scapegoats. Chileans blamed the poor, Senegalese blamed Brazilians, Brazilians blamed the Germans, Iranians blamed the British, and so on”. One key lesson is that to combat pandemics global cooperation is essential. Unfortunately, that lesson seems to be ignored by some governments in the current pandemic, although like in other pandemics, good Samaritans also abound.

For many Africans, it was a source perverse relief that the coronavirus had not originated on the continent

As China, South Korea, and Japan gradually contained the spread of the disease, and Italy and other European countries turned into its epicenter, and as the contagion began surging in the United States, the tables turned. While the Asian democracies largely managed to contain the coronavirus through less coercive and more transparent ways, it is China that took centre-stage in the global narrative. As would be expected in a world of intense hegemonic rivalries between the United States and China, the coronavirus pandemic has become weaponised in the two countries’ superpower rivalry.

On March 19, 2020, China marked a milestone since the outbreak of the coronavirus when it was announced that there were no new domestic cases; the 34 new cases identified that day were all brought in by people coming from abroad. An article in the New York Times of March 19, 2020, reports,

Across Asia, travellers from Europe and the United States are being barred or forced into quarantine. Gyms, private clinics and restaurants in Hong Kong warn them to stay away. Even Chinese parents who proudly sent their children to study in New York or London are now mailing them masks and sanitizer or rushing them home on flights that can cost $25,000.

The Asian democracies largely managed to contain the coronavirus through less coercive and more transparent ways

Even before this turning point, as coronavirus cases in China declined, the country began projecting itself as a heroic model of containment. It anxiously sought to furbish its once battered image by exporting medical equipment, experts, and other forms of humanitarian assistance. Such is the new-found conceit of China that, to Trump’s racist casting of the “China virus” some misguided Chinese nationalists falsely charge that the coronavirus started with American troops, and scornfully disparage the United States for its apparently slow and chaotic containment efforts.

Another article in The New York Times of March 18, 2020, captures China’s strategy for recasting its global image.

From Japan to Iraq, Spain to Peru, it has provided or pledged humanitarian assistance in the form of donations or medical expertise — an aid blitz that is giving China the chance to reposition itself not as the authoritarian incubator of a pandemic but as a responsible global leader at a moment of worldwide crisis. In doing so, it has stepped into a role that the West once dominated in times of natural disaster or public health emergency, and that President Trump has increasingly ceded in his ‘America First’ retreat from international engagement.

The story continues,

Now, the global failures in confronting the pandemic from Europe to the United States have given the Chinese leadership a platform to prove its model works — and potentially gain some lasting geopolitical currency. As it has done in the past, the Chinese state is using its extensive tools and deep pockets to build partnerships around the world, relying on trade, investments and, in this case, an advantageous position as the world’s largest maker of medicines and protective masks . . . On Wednesday, China said it would provide two million surgical masks, 200,000 advanced masks and 50,000 testing kits to Europe . . . One of China’s leading entrepreneurs, Jack Ma, offered to donate 500,000 tests and one million masks to the United States, where hospitals are facing shortages.

Some analysts argue that the coronavirus pandemic is accelerating the decoupling of the United States from China that began with President Trump’s trade war launched in 2018. American hawks see the pandemic as bolstering their argument that China’s dominance of certain global supply chains including some medical supplies and pharmaceutical ingredients poses a systemic risk to the American economy. Many others believe Trump’s “America First” not only damaged the country’s standing and its preparedness to deal with the pandemic, but also to create the international solidarity required for its containment and control.

In the words of one author in The Atlantic of March 15, 2020,

Like Japan in the mid-1800s, the United States now faces a crisis that disproves everything the country believes about itself . . . The United States, long accustomed to thinking of itself as the best, most efficient, and most technologically advanced society in the world, is about to be proved an unclothed emperor. When human life is in peril, we are not as good as Singapore, as South Korea, as Germany.

Some commentators even go further, contending that the pandemic is facilitating the process of de-globalisation more generally as countries not only lock themselves in national enclosures to protect themselves, but seek to become more economically self-sufficient. It is important to note that throughout history, there have been waves and retreats of globalisation. The globalisation of the late 19th century, which was characterised by massive migrations, growth of international trade, and expansion of global production chains with the emergence of modern multinational and transnational corporations, retreated in the inferno of World War I and the Great Depression.

The globalisation of the late 20th century, engendered by the emergence of new information and communication technologies and value chains, the rise of emerging economies as serious players in the world system, among other factors, had already started fraying by the time of the Great Recession. The latter pried open not only the deep inequalities that neo-liberal globalisation had engendered, but also gave vent to a crescendo of nationalist and populist backlashes.

Ironically, the coronavirus pandemic is also throwing into sharp relief the bankruptcy of populist nationalism. It underscores global interconnectedness, that pathogens do not respect our imaginary communities of nation-states, that the ties that bind humanity are thicker than the threads of separation.

Universities Go Online

The coronavirus pandemic has negatively impacted many industries and sectors, including education, following the closure of schools, colleges and universities. However, fear of crowding and lockdowns has also boosted online industries ranging from e-commerce and food delivery to online entertainment and gaming, to cloud solutions for business continuity, to e-health and e-learning.

The coronavirus pandemic is likely to leave a lasting impact on the growth of e-work or telecommuting, and other online-mediated business practices. Before the pandemic the gig economy was already a growing part of many economies, so were e-health and e-learning.

According to the British Guardian newspaper of March 6, 2020, General practitioners (GPs) have been “told to switch to digital consultations to combat Covid-19”. The story elaborates,

In a significant policy change, NHS bosses want England’s 7,000 GP surgeries to start conducting as many remote consultations as soon as possible, replacing patient visits with phone, video, online or text contact. They want to reduce the risk of someone infected with Covid-19 turning up at a surgery and free GPs to deal with the extra workload created by the virus . . . The approach could affect many of the 340m appointments a year with GPs and other practice staff, only 1% of which are currently carried out by video, such as Skype.

Another story in the same paper also notes that supermarkets in Britain have been “asked to boost deliveries for coronavirus self-isolation”.

The educational sector has been one of the most affected by the coronavirus pandemic as the closure of schools and universities has often been adopted by many governments as the first line of defense. It could be argued that higher education institutions have even taken the lead in managing the pandemic in three major ways: shifting instruction online, conducting research on the coronavirus and its multiple impacts, and advising public policy.

Ever since the crisis broke out, I’ve been following the multiple threats it poses to various sectors especially higher education, avidly devouring the academic media including The Chronicle of a higher EducationInside Higher EducationUniversity BusinessTimes Higher Education, and University World News, just to mention a few.

Ironically, the coronavirus pandemic is also throwing into sharp relief the bankruptcy of populist nationalism

These papers and magazines alerted me early, as a university administrator, to the need to develop early coronavirus planning in my own institution. A sample of the issues discussed in the numerous articles can be found in the following articles in The Chronicle of a higher Education (see textbox below).

Clearly, if these fifty articles from one higher education magazine are any guide, the higher education sector has been giving a lot of thought to the opportunities and challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic. Some prognosticate that higher education will fundamentally change. An article in the The New York Times of March 18, 2020 hopes that “One positive outcome from the current crisis would be for academic elites to forgo their presumption that online learning is a second-rate or third-rate substitute for in-person delivery”. There will be some impact, but of course, only time will tell the scale of that impact.

Certainly, at my university we’ve learned invaluable lessons from the sudden switch to learning online using various platforms including Blackboard, our learning management system, Zoom, BlueJeans, Skype, not to mention email and social media such as WhatsApp. This experience is likely to be incorporated into the instructional pedagogies of our faculty.

But history also tells us that old systems often reassert themselves after a crisis, at the same time as they incorporate some changes brought by responses to the crisis. As the author of the article on “7 Takeaways” (see textbox below) puts it, “Many forces exerted pressure on the traditional four-year, bricks-and-mortar, face-to-face campus experience before the coronavirus, and they’ll still be there when the virus is conquered or goes dormant”.

It is likely that at many universities previously averse to online teaching and learning, online instructional tools and platforms will be incorporated more widely, creating a mosaic of face-to-face learning, blended learning, and online learning.

Whither the Future

Moments of profound crisis such as the one engendered by the coronavirus pandemic attract soothsayers and futurists. The American magazine, Politico, invited some three dozen thinkers to prognosticate on the long-term impact of the pandemic. They all offer intriguing reflections. For community life, some suggest the personal will become dangerous, a new kind of patriotism will emerge, polarisation will decline, faith in serious experts will return, there will be less individualism, changes in religious worship will occur, as well as the rise of new forms of reform.

The coronavirus pandemic is likely to leave a lasting impact on the growth of e-work or telecommuting, and other online-mediated business practices

As for technology, they suggest regulatory barriers to online tools will fall, healthier digital lifestyles will emerge, there will be a boon for virtual reality, the rise of telemedicine, provision of stronger medical care, government will become Big Pharma, and science will reign again. With reference to government, they predict Congress will finally go digital, big government will make a comeback, government service will regain its cachet, there will be a new civic federalism, revived trust in institutions, the rules we live by won’t all apply, and they urge us to expect a political uprising.

In terms of elections, they foresee electronic voting going mainstream, Election Day will become Election Month, and voting by mail will become the norm. For the global economy, they forecast that more restraints will be placed on mass consumption, stronger domestic supply chains will grow, and the inequality gap will widen. As for lifestyle, there will be a hunger for diversion, less communal dining, a revival of parks, a change in our understanding of “change”, and the tyranny of habit no more.

In truth, no one really knows for sure.

Textbox


  1. American Colleges Seek to Develop Coronavirus Response, Abroad and at Home, January 28, 2020. Focuses on limiting travel to China and preparing campus health facilities.
  2. Coronavirus Is Prompting Alarm on American Campuses. Anti-Asian Discrimination Could Do More Harm. February 5, 2020. Focuses curbing anti-Asian xenophobia and racism on campuses.
  3. How Much Could the Coronavirus Hurt Chinese Enrollments? February 20, 2020. Focuses on the possible impact of the coronavirus on Chinese enrollments the largest source of international students in American universities.
  4. Colleges Brace for More-Widespread Outbreak of Coronavirus, February 26, 2020. Focuses on universities assembling campuswide emergency-response committees, preparing communications plans, cautioning students to use preventive health measures, and even preparing for possible college closures.
  5. Colleges Pull Back From Italy and South Korea as Coronavirus Spreads. February 26, 2020. Self-explanatory.
  6. An Admissions Bet Goes Bust: For colleges that gambled on international enrollment, now what? March 1, 2020. Focuses on the dire financial implications of the collapse in the international student market because of the coronavirus crisis.
  7. The Coronavirus Is Upending Higher Ed. Here Are the Latest Developments. March 3, 2020. Focuses on universities increasingly moving classes online, asking students to leave campus, lobbying for stimulus package from government, imposing travel restrictions, and worrying about future enrollments.
  8. CDC Warns Colleges to ‘Consider’ Canceling Study-Abroad Trips. March 5, 2020. Self-explanatory.
  9. Enrollment Headaches From Coronavirus Are Many. They Won’t Be Relieved Soon. March 5, 2020. Focuses on the financial implications of declining prospects for the recruitment of international students.
  10. The Face of Face-Touching Research Says, ‘It’s Quite Frightening’. March 5, 2020. Highlights research on the difficulties for people not to touch their faces, one of the preventive guidelines against the coronavirus.
  11. U. of Washington Cancels In-Person Classes, Becoming First Major U.S. Institution to Do So Amid Coronavirus Fears. March 6, 2020. Self-explanatory.
  12. How Do You Quarantine for Coronavirus on a College Campus? March 6, 2020. Provides guidelines on who should be quarantined, what kind of housing should be provided for quarantined students, the supplies they need, and what to when students fall ill.
  13. As Coronavirus Spreads, the Decision to Move Classes Online Is the First Step. What Comes Next? March 6, 2020. Provides advice on making the transition to online classes.
  14. With Coronavirus Keeping Them in U.S., International Students Face Uncertainty. So Do Their Colleges. March 6, 2020. Provides guidelines on how to help with the travel, visa, financial and emotional needs of international students.
  15. Going Online in a Hurry: What to Do and Where to Start. March 9, 2020. Provides guidelines on how to prepare for course online assignments, assessment, examinations, course materials, instruction, and communication with students quickly.
  16. Will Coronavirus Cancel Your Conference? March 9, 2020. Self-explanatory.
  17. What ‘Middle’ Administrators Can Do to Help in the Coronavirus Crisis. March 10, 2020. Provides advice to middle managers in universities on how to community with their people, be more responsive and available than usual, convene their own crisis response teams, and keeping relevant campus authorities informed of major problems in your unit.
  18. Communicating With Parents Can Be Tricky — Especially When It Comes to Coronavirus. March 10, 2020. Provides advice on how to provide updates to parents some of who might oppose the closure of campus.
  19. Are Colleges Prepared to Move All of Their Classes Online? March 10, 2020. Notes that this is a huge experiment as many institutions, faculty members, and even students have little experience in online learning and provides some guidelines.
  20. Why Coronavirus Looks Like a ‘Black Swan’ Moment for Higher Ed. March 10, 2020. Offers reflections on the likely impact of the move to online teaching in terms of prompt universities to stop distinguishing between online and classroom programs.
  21. Teaching Remotely While Quarantined in China. A neophyte learns how to teach online. March, 11, 2020. A fascinating personal story by a faculty member of his experience with remote teaching while living under strict social isolation, which has gone better than he expected.
  22. When Coronavirus Closes Colleges, Some Students Lose Hot Meals, Health Care, and a Place to Sleep. March 11, 2020. On the various social hardships campus closures bring to some vulnerable students.
  23. How to Make Your Online Pivot Less Brutal. March 12, 2020. Offers advice that it’s OK to not know what you’re doing and seek help, keeping it as simple and accessible as you can, expect challenges and adjust.
  24. Preparing for Emergency Online Teaching. March 12, 2020. Provides resources guides for teaching online.
  25. Academe’s Coronavirus Shock Doctrine. March 12, 2020. Discusses the added pressures facing faculty because of the sudden conversion to online teaching.
  26. Shock, Fear, and Fatalism: As Coronavirus Prompts Colleges to Close, Students Grapple With Uncertainty. March 12, 2020. Reports how college students are reacting to campus closures with shock, uncertainty, sadness, and, in some cases, devil-may-care fatalism.
  27. As the Coronavirus Scrambles Colleges’ Finances, Leaders Hope for the Best and Plan for the Worst. March 12, 2020. Reflects on the likely disruptions on university finances from reduced enrollments and donations.
  28. What About the Health of Staff Members? March 13, 2020. Discusses how best to ensure staff continue to be healthy.
  29. As Coronavirus Drives Students From Campuses, What Happens to the Workers Who Feed Them? March 13, 2020. Discusses the challenges of maintaining non-essential staff on payroll during prolonged campus closure.
  30. 2020: The Year That Shredded the Admissions Calendar. March 15, 2020. Self-explanatory.
  31. How to Lead in a Crisis. March 16. Insightful advice from the former President of Tulane University during Hurricane Katrina.
  32. Colleges Emptied Dorms Amid Coronavirus Fears. What Can They Do About Off-Campus Housing? March 16, 2020. Reports on how some institutions have taken a more aggressive approach to limiting the spread of the virus in off-campus housing.
  33. How to Quickly (and Safely) Move a Lab Course Online. March 17, 2020. The author discusses his positive experiences to move a lab course quickly online and still meet his learning objectives through lab kits, virtual labs and simulations.
  34. University Labs Head to the Front Lines of Coronavirus Containment. March 17, 2020. Discusses how university medical centers have taken the lead in coronavirus research and due to the national shortage of testing kits used tests of their own design to begin screening patients.
  35. Hounded Out of U.S., Scientist Invents Fast Coronavirus Test in China. March 18, 2020. An intriguing story of how the US’s crackdown on scholars with ties to China has triggered a reverse brain drain of Chinese-American scholars to China inadvertently promoting China’s ambitious drive to attract top talent under its Thousand Talent program. It features a scholar and his team that are leading the race to develop coronavirus treatment.
  36. Coronavirus Crisis Underscores the Traits of a Resilient College. March 18, 2020. Discusses the qualities of resilient institutions including effective communication, management of cash flow, and investment in electronic infrastructure.
  37. Coronavirus Creates Challenges for Students Returning From Abroad. March 18, 2020. Self-explanatory.
  38. As Coronavirus Spreads, Universities Stall Their Research to Keep Human Subjects Safe. March 18, 2020. Self-explanatory.
  39. The Covid-19 Crisis Is Widening the Gap Between Secure and Insecure Instructors. March 18, 2020. Self-explanatory.
  40. Here’s Why More Colleges Are Extending Deposit Deadlines — and Why Some Aren’t. March 18, 2020. Discusses how some universities are changing their admission processes.
  41. How to Help Students Keep Learning Through a Disruption. March 18, 2020. Provides guidelines on how to keep students engaged in learning and support instructors throughout the crisis.
  42. As Classrooms Go Virtual, What About Campus-Leadership Searches? March 19, 2020. Discusses how senior university leadership searches are being affected and ways to handle the situation by reconsidering the steps, migrating to technology, and staying in touch with candidates.
  43. If Coronavirus Patients Overwhelm Hospitals, These Colleges Are Offering Their Dorms. March 19, 2020. Discusses how some universities are offering to donate their empty dorms for use by local hospitals.
  44. As Professors Scramble to Adjust to the Coronavirus Crisis, the Tenure Clock Still Ticks. March 19, 2020. Discusses how at many universities junior faculty remain under pressure to meet the tenure timelines despite the various institutional disruptions.
  45. ‘The Worst-Case Scenario’: What Financial Disclosures Tell Us About Coronavirus’s Strain on Colleges So Far. March 19, 2020. Reports the financial straights facing many universities and that Moody’s Investors Service issued a bleak forecast this week for American higher education.
  46. As the Coronavirus Forces Faculty Online, It’s ‘Like Drinking Out of a Firehose’. March 20, 2020. Recorded video interviews with four selected instructors by The Chronicle to collect their thoughts on how they are managing the sudden change.
  47. A Coronavirus Stimulus Plan Is Coming. How Will Higher Education Figure In? March 20, 2020. The article wonders how universities will fare under the massive stimulus package under negotiation in the US Congress. It notes “Nearly a dozen higher-education associations have also asked lawmakers for about $50 billion in federal assistance to help colleges and students stay afloat” and an additional $13 billion for research labs.
  48. Covid-19 Has Forced Higher Ed to Pivot to Online Learning. Here Are 7 Takeaways So Far. March 20, 2020. The takeaways include the fact that “What most colleges are doing right now is not online education,” “Many of the tools were already at hand,” “The pivot can be surprisingly cheap,” “This is your wake-up call,” The pandemic could change education delivery forever…”, “… but it probably won’t”
  49. ‘Nobody Signed Up for This’: One Professor’s Guidelines for an Interrupted Semester. March 20, 2020. An interesting account on how one faculty changed his syllabus and communicated with his students.
  50. The Coronavirus Has Pushed Courses Online. Professors Are Trying Hard to Keep Up. March 20, 2020. Makes many of the same observations noted above.

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Paul Tiyambe Zeleza is a Malawian historian, academic, literary critic, novelist, short-story writer and blogger.

Long Reads

The True – Hidden – Cost of the Proposed Lamu Coal Plant

The claim by Amu Power that the proposed Lamu Coal Plant will generate cheap electricity and provide employment does not hold up to scrutiny.

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The True – Hidden – Cost of the Proposed Lamu Coal Plant
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It is common knowledge that coal has significant impacts on the environment, human health and livelihoods, and oceans and marine life yet Amu Power, the entity behind the proposed 1,050 MW Lamu Coal Plant, is minimising these risks and arguing that the plant is necessary on economic grounds.  Their arguments do not hold up under scrutiny.

Amu Power makes three claims about the plant:  1) that it will provide cheap electricity – their marketing states that the plant will provide electricity at KSh7.8/kWh; 2) that it will create employment opportunities for Kenyans; and 3) that inexpensive electricity from the coal plant will spur manufacturing in Kenya and transform the country into a middle-income economy by 2030.

In January 2021 the Kenya Power and Lighting Company (KPLC) sold electricity to domestic consumers at KSh24.06/kWh. In comparison, the KSh7.8/kWh promised by Amu Power looks great. But that is what KPLC, not its customers, will pay. This amount is a component of only one line item, known as the Fuel Cost Charge (FCC), of the total cost per kilowatt hour that KPLC charges consumers.

In January 2020, the Fuel Cost Charge was KSh2.58/kWh for residential and commercial consumers. This means that the electricity Amu Power is offering is at least three times more expensive than what KPLC is currently paying.

That in itself should put an end to any economic argument for the Lamu Coal Plant.  However, and as we shall see, the true costs of this plant are much higher.

1) Claim: Coal as a cheap source of power

Three inputs to the cost-of-electricity equation demonstrate that power from the plant will always cost more than KSh7.8/kWh and will therefore never be competitive against renewable resources:  1) price of coal; 2) capacity factor; and 3) hidden costs.

Price of coal: When Amu Power sold the idea of the Lamu Coal Plant to Kenya in 2014, their plan was to import coal from South Africa because there will be no coal available in Kenya to fuel the plant in the foreseeable future.

Amu Power’s claim that electricity from the plant would cost KSh7.8/kWh was based on a coal price of US$50/metric tonne. However, even at the time they made the claim, the average price of South African coal delivered to Kenya was already 50 per cent higher — over US$77.3/metric tonne. Coal prices fluctuate and so will the cost of power from a coal plant. At least once in the past six years, South African coal has been higher than US$106/metric tonne — more than twice what Amu Power quoted to convince the Kenyan government to give the company a permit.

The Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) between Amu Power and KPLC provides formulae to calculate the cost of electricity from the plant. Inputting a coal price of US$77.3/metric tonne — with all other of the proponent’s assumptions holding steady — increases the cost of electricity from the plant to KSh8.98/kWh. At a coal price of US$106/metric tonne, it would go up to KSh10.21/kWh.

In 2017, the Ministry of Energy and Petroleum (MoEP) projected the price of coal will be USD$108/tonne in 2040. That would make the cost of electricity from the Lamu Coal Plant at least KSh10.27/kWh, almost four times the FCC today.

Cost of electricity based on price of coalBut accounting for a more accurate cost of coal does not bring to an end the adjustments necessary to Amu Power’s fantasy pricing. There are two other factors that must be taken into account to arrive at a more realistic price for the electricity from the proposed coal-fired plant.

2) Capacity Factor:  This is the actual amount of electricity generated by a plant as compared to the maximum amount it can produce. Amu Power’s projected price of KSh7.8/kWh is not only based on an inaccurate price of coal, but it is also based on the assumption that the plant will run at 85 per cent capacity.  For context, the global average utilisation for a coal-fired plant in 2019 was 54 per cent.

According to Amu Power, at 85 per cent capacity the Lamu Coal Plant would generate 7,305 gigawatt hours of electricity each year, which would enable it to meet the inflated demand forecasts presented in the MoEP’s 2011 Least Cost Power Development Plan. Based on more realistic demand forecast scenarios, in 2017 the Ministry calculated that the plant would generate – at most – only a third of Amu Power’s pledge. More damaging, in 2020, the MoEP calculated that in a fixed-case scenario the Lamu Coal Plant would operate at 2.8 per cent in 2030, at 4.6 per cent in 2035, and at 14.4 per cent in 2040. In an optimized, best-case scenario, the MoEP calculated that the plant would reach an operating capacity of only 26.2 per cent in 2040 (two-thirds into its lifespan). Therefore, based on the MoEP’s own calculations, Kenya does not need a 1,050 Mw coal plant.

The PPA commits ratepayers to paying Amu Power KSh37 billion annually for each of the 25 years the plant is expected to operate – a total of KSh900 billion. This capacity payment – approximately KSh100 million every single day – will be paid regardless of how much electricity the plant produces. If the plant is operating, the annual capacity payment is amortised and included in the price we pay per kWh for electricity.  That is significant because the higher the capacity factor, the less we pay per kWh.

The MoEP’s 2020 calculation that in an optimised, best-case scenario, the plant will operate at 26.2 per cent capacity – and not the 85 per cent capacity that Amu Power needs to make their electricity even marginally cost-competitive with geothermal and wind – is thus significant because a change in the capacity factor has more of an impact on the price of electricity from the plant than a change in the price of coal.

Coal-fired electricity from the proposed Lamu Coal Plant will be two to ten times more expensive than from current sources of generation.

If the plant operates at 26.2 per cent, the cost of electricity will be KSh19/kWh (using Amu Power’s claim of US$50/tonne). But if we also include a more realistic price of coal (US$77.3/tonne – the actual price in 2014), electricity from the plant would cost KSh20/kWh. Using the most recent highest price of South African coal (US$106/tonne), the cost would be KSh21/kWh, nearly eight times what we are paying now.

Cost of electricity based on price of coalWhen the Institute of Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) analysed the 2017 MoEP data, it found that the plant would more likely run at between 5 per cent and 34 per cent capacity. If the plant runs at 5 per cent capacity, the price of electricity increases by KSh79.3/kWh, and at 34 per cent capacity, it goes up by KSh7.4/kWh, for a price range of between KSh15.2 and KSh87.1/kWh (assumming coal were miraculously available at US$50/tonne).  If coal were at US$77.3/metric tonne, the price of the electricity generated by the Lamu Coal Plant would be between KSh17/kWh (at 34 per cent capacity) and KSh88/kWh (at 5 per cent capacity).

Cost of electricity based on price of coalPlotting the price of electricity under the MoEP fixed-case scenarios, things look even worse.  At 2.8 per cent capacity – assuming US$$77.3/tonne of coal – electricity from the plant would be KSh154/kWh, at 4.6 per cent it is KSh95/kWh, and at 14.4 per cent it is KSh33/kWh.

This is not looking good for Kenyans. But there are more adjustments needed to generate a more realistic price of electricity from the Lamu Coal Plant.

3) Hidden Costs:  There are two hidden cost centres that make the economics of the plant even worse for Kenyans – the Power Purchase Agreement itself and unaccounted-for construction costs.

The PPA and Letter of Support signed by the Kenyan government guarantee that Amu Power will be paid KSh37 billion annually for providing a plant to generate electricity – even if the plant does not produce a single kilowatt. These two documents guarantee that the Government of Kenya will pay Amu Power if the plant ceases to operate due to a political event, a change in the law, or a force majeure event including acts of God, epidemics, plagues, terrorism, labour disputes, public unrest, or piracy.

If the Government of Kenya is on the hook for the bill, this means that Kenyans will need to pay extra to ensure that Amu Power makes its profits for the remainder of the 25 years.  Based on the amount of electricity consumed annually in Kenya in 2018 and 2019, paying the KSh37 billion to Amu Power via KPLC would increase the price of electricity by KSh4.6/kWh for 25 years.  We would not be getting even a kilowatt of electricity for this tariff while Amu Power owners would be doing nothing and still making billions off the backs of Kenyans.

The other hidden cost is that of construction. In order for the electricity generated in Lamu to be available on the national grid, a transmission line must be built to transport the electricity from Lamu to Nairobi and in order for coal to get from the proposed mine in Kitui, a railway line must be built from Kitui to Lamu. Neither of these costs is included in the price of the plant.

The latest Least Cost Power Development Plan 2020-2040 estimated that the transmission line will cost approximately KSh55.9 billion.  The Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) estimates that the railway line will cost KSh290 billion.  In addition, prior to coal being sourced from Kitui, a 15 km conveyor belt must be built to bring the coal that is delivered to the port at Kililana in Lamu to the site of the coal plant at Kwasasi. The ESIA does not provide a cost for the conveyor belt.

Amu Power owners would be doing nothing and still making billions off the backs of Kenyans.

Together, the railway and transmission lines add at least an additional KSh345.9 billion to the cost of the plant.  Because the costs for transmission lines and railroads were not included in the formula calculating the price of electricity from the Lamu Coal Plant that was disclosed in the PPA, we do not know if our electricity bills will increase per kWh to cover the cost of these necessary components of the plant or if, instead, Kenyans will pay for this via taxes. A rough calculation using the formula for electricity pricing shows that if KSh345.9 billion is repaid over 25 years via our utility bills and the plant is operating at 26.2 per cent capacity (the MoEP’s best-case scenario), the cost will increase by an additional KSh6/kWh.

Looking at the reality of the price of coal inputs, plant utilisation, and the full cost of construction, it is clear that the Lamu Coal Plant cannot possibly generate electricity for KSh7.8/kWh. It is much more likely that the electricity from the coal plant will cost KSh26/kWh assuming a more realistic cost of coal (US$77.3/tonne), with the plant running at 26.2 per cent capacity as predicted by the MoEP, and that rail and transmission costs are amortised over the 26.2 per cent capacity factor.

It is possible for the cost to be as low as KSh15/kWh if the cost of coal is US$77.3/tonne and the plant operates at the international average of 54 per cent utilisation, with rail and transmission costs amortised over 54 per cent capacity factor. Or it could be as high as KSh213/kWh if coal costs US$100/tonne, the plant operates at the 2.8 per cent utilisation rate in the MoEP’s lowest fixed-case scenario, and rail and transmission costs are amortised over the 2.8 per cent capacity factor.

Cost of electricity based on price of coal2) Claim:  Coal as an employment creator

The Lamu Coal Plant Environmental Impact Assessment states that the plant will employ between 2,000 and 3,000 people during the 42-month construction period and 400 people during its 25 years of operation.

While on the face of it this seems like a good thing for Kenya, it is important to look closely at the jobs lost due to the construction and operation of the plant, the jobs gained, and who gets these jobs.

To explore this, we can look at the two main industries in Lamu, tourism and fishing. Pre-COVID data found that tourism injects over Ksh2 billion per year into Lamu’s economy and pays over KSh500 million in taxes each year. This sector directly employs more than 3,000 locals in hotels and restaurants and several thousand more as boat operators for the visiting tourists, and tourist guides.

Particulate emissions from the coal plant will result in significant damage to the historic buildings and structures in Lamu Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The effluent emissions will cause ocean temperatures to rise, destroying the coral reefs and increasing toxicity which will make it unsafe for tourists and locals to swim, snorkel, and dive.  With the plant in operation, Lamu will no longer be a pristine and unique tourist attraction.

Most significant is the impact of the smoke from the stacks at the plant. The Kaskazi winds blow from October through May, when the island welcomes 80 per cent of its tourists. The winds blow from the northeast – the direction of the plant – and across the archipelago.  This air will carry the toxic, noxious emissions from the plant to Lamu as well as cause haze pollution that will reduce visibility of the shoreline so beloved of tourists and locals.  The Lamu Tourism Association expects that business will drop by at least 80 per cent due to this pollution.  As such, the industry expects to lose, at a minimum, 2,400 jobs. There are not many alternative sources of income in Lamu and most of these people will be permanently unemployed.

Together, the railway and transmission lines add at least an additional KSh345.9 billion to the cost of the plant.

The approximately 6,000 people who derive their livelihoods from participating in Lamu’s KSh1.5 billion fishing industry will be similarly affected.  Most are local fishermen who use hand-crafted fishing boats and equipment to fish close to the shoreline.

The plant’s emissions and effluent, and the leachate from coal ash waste which is to be stored in a flood zone along Manda Bay, will increase the nitrogen content, water temperature, and heavy metals and carcinogens in the bay. This will negatively impact the quantity, quality, and health of fish and shellfish.

As the water in the bay becomes inhospitable for fish, the industry will move farther into the Indian Ocean. Unfortunately, the boats and equipment used by most of the local fishermen are not appropriate for deep ocean fishing. The move to deeper waters also leads to a transformation and consolidation in the industry where larger companies with petroleum-based deep-sea fishing vessels make it noncompetitive for local independent fishermen even if they were to obtain the necessary boats and equipment.  In addition, not as many fishermen are needed on the commercial vessels and few locals will be able to retain their jobs. The work requirements on a commercial fishing boat are such that the Chair of the Lamu Beach Management Unit estimates that only 1 per cent of current fishermen will find work on commercial vessels and that 70 per cent of local fishermen will completely lose their livelihoods.  The rest of the fishermen are expected to find other, non-fishing, work locally.

Amu Power has falsely led the public to believe that locals who may lose their jobs due to the coal plant will gain employment during its construction and operation. But they are not transparent about who will get these jobs.

If built, the Lamu Coal Plant would be the first in East Africa. This means that, as a country, we do not have the experience and expertise needed to be among the skilled workforce that will get the better-paying jobs. The coal plant’s Environmental and Social Impact Assessment confirms that 1,700 Chinese expatriates will construct the coal plant leaving us with between 300 and 1,300 jobs to allocate to Kenyans during the construction phase of 3.5 years — less than half what was promised, even in a best-case scenario. The jobs allocated to Kenyans are not skilled labour and do not make up for the thousands who will have lost their livelihoods due to the impacts from the plant.

The ESIA states that the plant will employ 400 people once it is operational. It does not disclose how many of these positions will be technical, requiring experience and expertise that we do not yet have, nor how many will be unskilled jobs – such as coal handling, which comes with health risks – given to Kenyans. Even so, 400 jobs over 25 years neither reemploys the number of local fishermen and people in the tourism industry who will have lost their jobs due to the plant, nor reduces current levels of unemployment in the region.

Amu Power has falsely led the public to believe that locals who may lose their jobs due to the coal plant will gain employment during its construction and operation.

The plant will therefore create job opportunities for expatriates at the expense of thousands of fishermen and locals who are dependent on fishing and tourism as a source of employment while creating – at best – 1,700 jobs over a 25-year period and causing approximately 4,200 job losses in the fishing industry and 2,400 in tourism – a net loss of 4,900 Kenyan jobs.

3) Claim:  Coal will help Kenya transform into a manufacturing economy 

Manufacturing is one pillar of President Kenyatta’s Big Four agenda. The government’s aim is to raise the contribution of manufacturing to GDP from the current for 9.4 per cent of constant-price [inflation-adjusted] GDP to 20 per cent of GDP by 2022. Amu Power has sold the point that coal provides inexpensive baseload power that is required to boost Kenyan manufacturing to achieve President Kenyatta’s goals. Baseload electricity is the electricity that is always available to commercial and residential consumers. Coal plants run 24-7 so historically they have been used for baseload electricity (as have natural gas and diesel turbines). In contrast, wind and solar are considered intermittent sources of electricity because wind does not blow and the sun does not shine 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

But Amu Power ignored two things:  1) there are less expensive options for baseload power in Kenya and 2) coal-fired electricity will increase the cost of manufacturing in Kenya.

1) There are less expensive options. Amu Power’s claim that Kenya needs coal for its baseload electricity ignores both that coal is more expensive per kilowatt hour than natural gas and wind power and – more significantly for Kenya – that it is cost competitive with geothermal. Kenya has among the highest geothermal potential in the world – 7,000 to 10,000 MW.  Unlike wind and solar, geothermal energy is available for electricity generation 24 hours per day, every day of the year. Unlike coal, it is locally available and is not dependent on purchasing fossil-fuel inputs whose costs fluctuate wildly on international markets.

Kenya’s Least Cost Power Development Plan 2017-2037 states that the price of power from geothermal plants is, on average, about a third the cost of electricity from coal: US$10 cents/kWh compared to US$29.5 cents/kWh.  Because geothermal (like wind and sunshine) is free, it is less expensive in the long-term than coal-fired electricity (and has none of the environmental impacts of coal which increase the community’s burden of costs for environmental clean-up and healthcare due to increased cases of pulmonary and cardiac diseases).

Unlike coal, geothermal energy is locally available and is not dependent on purchasing fossil-fuel inputs whose costs fluctuate wildly on international markets.

2) Coal-fired electricity will increase the cost of manufacturing in Kenya. Considering more realistic capacity factors and the prices of coal, rail, and transmission lines, the cost of electricity from the Lamu Coal Plant ranges from KSh15 to KSh213/kWh (instead of the KSh2.58/kWh commercial enterprises paid for FCC in January 2021).  If the Lamu Coal Plant is built, the price of electricity for industry could be more than ten times higher than what they are currently paying (in January 2021, commercial consumers paid between Ksh14.61 and KSh23.82 per kWh of electricity).

In order to manufacture with such electricity costs, the prices of goods produced in Kenya would also have to increase, rendering Kenyan products uncompetitive locally and undesirable on international markets.

Conclusion

None of the three claims made by Amu Power to convince the government that Kenyans not only need, but will benefit from, a coal plant hold up under examination.  Coal-fired electricity from the proposed Lamu Coal Plant will be two to ten times more expensive than from current sources of generation, causing dramatic increases in our electricity bills. The Lamu Coal Plant will create jobs for Chinese expat workers and cause an overall loss of 4,900 Kenyan jobs.  The cost of electricity from the Lamu Coal Plant will make manufacturing in Kenya so expensive that not only will the country not deliver on the president’s Big Four Agenda, but Kenyan goods will become non-competitive on local, regional, and international markets.

The poor economics of the Lamu Coal Plant will be disastrous for Kenya’s economy. It will make electricity unaffordable for most Kenyans and will eliminate competitive growth in the manufacturing sector. Furthermore, with the Lamu Coal Plant saddling Kenyans with billions in debt and hundreds of megawatts of expensive excess generation capacity, the Kenyan government will be prevented from investing in sustainable, low-cost, local sources of electricity generation, hampering the country’s economic development for decades.

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BBI: A Textbook Case of Compounding Constitutional Illegalities

The issues that Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga have identified as bedevilling the country have already been assigned by the constitution or the law to existing and established state agencies.

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BBI: A Textbook Case of Compounding Constitutional Illegalities
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The phrase “compounding illegalities” aptly describes the approach and processes taken by Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga to change the constitution through the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI).

The following have been the defining processes for BBI thus far. One, the formation of the BBI Steering Committee and Taskforce; two, the decision that the mandate of the BBI is to propose constitutional reforms; three, the decision that BBI constitutional amendments will be introduced through a popular initiative; four, submission of the BBI Bill and verification of its support by the IEBC; five, the referendum path being scripted by BBI proponents. Each of these steps has been riddled with a myriad of illegalities.

Let us discuss these processes one at a time.

BBI taskforce

The BBI Taskforce was born out of the opaque “truce” between Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta following the dramatic swearing in of Raila Odinga as the People’s President on 9 March 2018 that was presided over by Miguna Miguna. It is unclear the extent of the considerations that placated Raila and led him to the “handshake” with Uhuru at a time when he professed that everything he stood for was diametrically opposed to Uhuru’s beliefs. What was made public, however, were the nine issues that the two identified as afflicting Kenya’s democracy. The issues ranged from ethnic antagonism to a lack of a national ethos with regard to corruption.

The launch of the BBI Steering Committee soon followed on 24 May 2018. The membership of the Steering Committee was drawn from Uhuru and Raila’s long-term loyalists, with persons considered politically non-controversial included to give the membership a veneer of diversity. The Steering Committee had only three terms of reference: (i) evaluate the national challenges identified in the BBI (handshake) communiqué and make recommendations on the necessary “reforms that build lasting national unity”; (ii) draw up policy and administrative reform proposals to address the challenges identified, and (iii) consult with members of the public.

After it issued its first report, the Steering Committee’s term was extended on 20 January 2020 and its description was changed to a Taskforce. Its revised terms of reference were to conduct public participation to validate its report. However, a mischievous mandate was sneaked into the Taskforce work: “proposing constitutional reforms”.

I must pause here and identify how, even this early in the process, Uhuru violated the constitution and the law. The illegalities are at least at three levels. First, all the nine issues that he and Raila identified as bedevilling the country were already issues assigned by the constitution or the law to already existing and established state agencies. Let us sample a few. One – ethnic antagonism and inclusivity are the mainstay functions of the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC). Two – corruption is the single issue assigned to the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC). Three – the constitution and other laws have already established all manner of agencies and structures to deal with every aspect of devolution, including the Summit (the body bringing together the president and all governors), the Inter-governmental Relations Technical Committee and the Inter-governmental Budget and Economic Council. Finally, we already have institutions – ranging from the IEBC, the NCIC, and the judiciary among others – to deal with electoral justice.

Essentially, what Uhuru did in establishing the Steering Committee and Taskforce to deal with his and Raila’s nine issues was to usurp responsibilities that have already been assigned by the constitution and the law to established state institutions and hand them over to a select group of friends and loyalists to steer.

But there are those who will argue that part of Uhuru’s constitutional mandate as the President and Head of State is to foster national unity and it is therefore within his powers to appoint a taskforce to assist with this constitutional task. But this argument misses the fundamental point that the President is required to be the first in line to respect the functional mandate of the institutions established by the constitution and the law and not to do anything that undermines or minimises their authority.

The second level of illegality has to do with how Uhuru and Raila settled on members of the taskforce. The constitution insists that, with the exception of the personal staff of the president and his deputy, anyone selected to undertake a public function by and for the executive must undergo a merit-based and competitive selection process. This is to ensure that those assigned public duties are qualified to do what they are assigned to do and are not just sycophants of the appointing authority.

Essentially, what Uhuru did was to usurp responsibilities that have already been assigned by the constitution and the law to established state institutions.

The third illegality is unilaterally starting a consequential constitutional revision project without first creating a legal framework to guide the process. Revising a constitution is too sacrosanct a task to be left to three half-baked terms of reference contained in a nondescript gazette notice and assigning the work to a taskforce that is not accountable to the people. Worse, the fact that the constitutional mandate was sneaked into the terms of reference of the taskforce at the last minute only aggravates the disregard Uhuru has for the law.

Popular initiative

The constitution provides two pathways to its amendment. The first is through a parliamentary initiative. The second is the popular initiative. The parliamentary pathway to amending the constitution largely mirrors the manner in which regular laws are introduced in parliament. Ordinarily, and ideally, the executive formulates policy on an issue. That policy is transmitted to the office of the attorney general who works in tandem with parliament to translate it into a draft law. The draft is then introduced in parliament by a member of parliament – ordinarily the majority leader or a member of a political party aligned to the executive.

There is logic to this process. Parliament exists largely to ensure that whatever action is taken by the executive is regulated by law. Ensuring that every action of the state derives its authority from the law is essentially what the principle of the rule of law is all about. But, importantly, the law-making function of parliament is intended to restrain the executive or other arms of government from transgressing on areas not assigned to them or undertaking their work in a way that is inimical to the principles of constitutionalism and rule of law. Hence, the law-making power of parliament is not passive but, at its core, involves ensuring that the law it enacts provides for the necessary guardrails against abuse of public power and sufficient guidance to those charged with implementing public responsibilities.

But how does this relate to the popular initiative process? The point here is that the constitution created the parliamentary initiative process for use by state actors including the executive and this is the path the constitution expects Uhuru and other government actors to take if they want to amend the constitution.

Why then the popular initiative process?

The constitution created this path for the people who do not wield state power to initiate the process of changing the constitution. Understanding the popular initiative as the people’s pathway to amending the constitution is critical for a number of reasons. To start with, it reaffirms the constitutional principle of sovereignty of the people – giving the people a pathway to changing the constitution that is not at the mercy of the political leadership.

The second reason is perhaps the most relevant given our circumstances and experience with the BBI thus far. The constitution and the law intend that the person or persons sponsoring amendments through the popular initiative fully bear the costs and inconveniences of initially mobilising the required threshold of at least one million voters to support the proposed amendment. It is only after the promoters deliver the bill and the supporting signatures to the IEBC that the constitution requires that state agencies – starting with the IEBC – engage with and deploy state resources in processing the bill and other ensuing procedures.

Revising a constitution is too sacrosanct a task to be left to three half-baked terms of reference contained in a nondescript gazette notice.

When the state hijacks the popular initiative process it unfairly inverts power relations between the people and the ruling elites. It also negates the entire constitutional intention of creating a popular initiative pathway since the use of state resources by state officers in order to popularise and attain the initial support of at least one million voters is unfair and discriminatory because similar public resources are not available to the people – who have no favour with the state – when pushing for amendments through the popular initiative.

Briefly, not only did Uhuru violate the law by hijacking the popular initiative pathway to amending the constitution when the law required him to use the parliamentary initiative pathway, but he has also abused his powers by deploying state resources to raise support for BBI constitutional amendments.

IEBC verification and approval by county assemblies

The constitution imposes three foundational obligations on the IEBC as an independent constitutional commission: to protect the sovereignty of the people; to secure observance of democratic values and principles by all state organs; and to promote constitutionalism. However, the IEBC’s handling of the BBI process goes against these obligations. The violations range from caving into undue pressure from the promoters of BBI, failing to observe the basic requirements of verification of signatures, using a makeshift administrative (legal) framework that was promulgated without complying with the law and, worse, violating the provisions of that framework.

Let us start with the lack of a proper legal framework. There is no law that guides the IEBC in its verification of signatures or any other aspects entrusted to it in processing the request to amend the constitution through a popular initiative. Yet there are very many issues where it is unclear  what the IEBC can or cannot do with regard to a popular initiative to amend the constitution. A law or proper guidance from the court is necessary if for no other reason other than to render IEBC actions legal.

A few examples of the gaps will suffice here. Although the constitution requires that a popular initiative have “supporting signatures” and that the IEBC will then “verify that the initiative is supported by at least one million registered voters”, given that the IEBC does not maintain a database of signatures of voters, it is unclear how it should undertake the verification exercise or what it would actually verify. Similarly, it is unclear whether the IEBC has an obligation to provide the public with information about who signed to support the popular initiative, and if so, through which medium.

Yes, the IEBC does not make law. That is the work of parliament. However, the IEBC has an obligation to request parliament to prepare the necessary regulatory framework to ensure its work and processes are guided by law. Where parliament refuses or fails to enact a guiding law, the IEBC has the option to go to court to seek guidance, especially given the importance of the process.

The law-making power of parliament is not passive but involves ensuring that the law it enacts provides for the necessary guardrails against abuse of public power.

An illustration is necessary here. In 2014, when the Embu County Assembly impeached Governor Martin Wambora it quickly noticed that, while the constitution allowed the deputy governor to take over the governor’s position, there was no national law to determine how the arising vacancy of a deputy governor would be filled. Parliament, which has the authority to pass such a law, had not done so. The County Assembly moved to the Supreme Court to ask for guidance. The Supreme Court provided that guidance because it found that both the position of the governor and of the deputy were so crucial “to the operations of County Government, it is inconceivable that, constitutionally, they could remain fallow until the next cycle of a general election.” Equally, the amendment of the constitution is too crucial a matter for the IEBC to allow itself to rely on guesswork when it has all along had the option to seek authoritative guidance from the Supreme Court.

What the IEBC has done is to illegally arrogate itself law-making powers by cobbling together some vague administrative procedures that it claims to use to guide its verification process.

But this is where it gets even more interesting. The IEBC failed to follow even its own procedures when verifying BBI signatures. First, its administrative procedures require it to compile and publish the list of supporters on its portal for two weeks. The procedures further allow it to receive complaints from members of the public whose information is either wrongly included or is excluded. However, the IEBC was in such haste to facilitate the BBI bill that it published the names for only four days before forwarding it to the County Assemblies.

Lack of a regulatory framework to guide a constitutional amendment driven by a popular initiative not only affects the IEBC but also nearly every step of the process. For example, there is no law that guides the county assemblies on how they should undertake the crucial step of approving the amendment bill. In fact, in 2019, the High Court ordered parliament to enact a law to seal this legislative lacuna. Again, parliament has failed to pass that law.

Yet, it is quite ironical that when the two Speakers – Justin Muturi and Ken Lusaka – were notifying parliament that it would start the process of considering the BBI bill they loudly stated that even parliament did not have the necessary law of parliamentary procedures to guide its own procedure of processing the bill. The Speakers had a quick solution to this – make up the rules and procedures as you go. Then parliamentarians were quite surprised when their process quickly hit a snag as they were unsure whether they were permitted to amend the BBI bill or not.

Uhuru violated the law and abused his powers by deploying state resources to raise support for BBI constitutional amendments.

Admittedly, there are currently two unsatisfactory bills pending in parliament intended to guide the entire constitutional amendment process – including how to resolve issues relating to preparing for and conducting the referendum. Those bills are full of regulatory gaps including the procedure in parliament. Still, instead of parliament prioritising the passing of these laws, it is focussing on pushing the BBI bill through. A classic case of putting the cart before the horse.

But why does passing a law to regulate the process matter?  Because that is what rule of law is all about – the authority to exercise public power must find its validity in a rule, a law. Law provides a framework through which those entrusted with public power to undertake certain processes can be objectively audited for compliance with the law and the constitution. Discretion, especially unregulated discretion, only breeds anarchy. It allows those with power to manipulate public processes for their own personal gain. In many ways, that is the story of BBI.

Crystal-balling future violations

The BBI bill is now before parliament. There are a few things that should be constitutionally clear about how parliament should process the bill. First, and unlike most county assemblies which voted for the bill using a single motion to approve it, parliament must subject the bill to the rigours of the mandatory three readings that bills undergo in parliament before they become law. This is because, under the constitution, parliament has the ultimate responsibility to pass the constitutional amendments into law – especially where a referendum may be unnecessary. The enormity of this responsibility demands that it must use a proper, predictable, accountable and constitutionally compliant procedure.

Second, parliament has the obligation to facilitate adequate public participation. The constitution requires that, for a constitutional amendment proposed through a parliamentary initiative, the period provided by parliament for public participation should not be less 90 days. Yet, this minimum timeline is constitutionally ring-fenced between the first and second reading of the bill. Similar timelines should apply for a popular initiative and for parliament’s passing of the BBI bill. However, Parliament has already indicated it will not comply with this timeline because Uhuru and Raila have imposed a deadline for passing the BBI bill.

Third, the bill is passed by parliament if it is supported by a majority of members in both houses. This is important. A majority of members means at least over 50 per cent of all members of each house and not just those present in parliament at the time of voting.

But given the extent to which promoters of the BBI bill have already violated the constitution, and the haste with which they are pushing for the bill to pass, it is highly conceivable that parliament will violate the very clear rules and expectations of the constitution. Parliament has already committed the first sin by rushing public participation.

Another likely BBI illegality will relate to the referendum. As it is, the BBI bill cannot avoid a referendum because it is packed with issues that require a referendum based on Article 255 of the constitution. This includes re-organisation of the executive, changing the composition and roles of the National Assembly and the Senate, and numerous issues concerning devolution and tampering with the independence of autonomous institutions. There is much more.

At least two violations relating to the referendum are being primed. The first is the possibility that BBI proponents – and especially the president – will only designate certain matters to go to referendum and insist that those issues not submitted to the referendum are adopted into the constitution regardless of the outcome of the referendum. This is problematic because the constitution provides that “if a bill to amend the constitution proposes an amendment relating to a matter” that requires a referendum, the president cannot assent to the bill until after the referendum is held. This means that if the bill is not approved through a referendum the entirety of the amendment bill fails.

The IEBC has an obligation to request parliament to prepare the necessary regulatory framework to ensure its work and processes are guided by law.

But in the case of the BBI bill, there is a more fundamental problem which makes it impossible to reconcile the process concerning the referendum and assent. The BBI bill has always been constitutionally irredeemably defective in its content. Irredeemably defective because a bill to amend the constitution – either though a parliamentary or a popular initiative – should not contain more than one matter. Essentially, it was illegal for BBI promoters to include in one bill so many unrelated issues. Each issue should have gone into a separate bill. This is actually the issue I should have started this analysis with because the point I am making here is that the BBI bill that was force-fed to the IEBC, bribed through the county assemblies and is now being walked through Parliament has – in its content – been unconstitutional from the start.

This brings me to the second likely violation concerning the referendum that we can expect and this is what the BBI proponents have told us already; the BBI referendum will field only one question. This is wrong. Firstly, the law already authorises multiple questions and leaves that decision to the IEBC to make. Secondly, not only was it unconstitutional for BBI proponents to include in the amendment bill a myriad unrelated changes but demanding that only one question be presented at the referendum will be aggravating this cardinal sin.

It is not over yet

When on 8 February 2021 the High Court issued orders restraining the IEBC from facilitating and subjecting the BBI bill to a referendum, it made a fundamental observation. It observed that that rushing the bill through the various stages “does not inoculate the resultant proposed constitutional amendment from the possibility that it could yet, upon final disposition of these Petitions, be declared invalid.” The litany of violations of the constitution that litter the path the BBI has travelled would make a great mockery of the constitution if the amendments proposed by BBI are eventually pronounced to be part of the Kenya 2010 Constitution.

Ultimately, the passing of the BBI will represent the moment that tested whether Kenyans recognise that the supremacy of the constitution, rule of law and the sovereignty of the people as enshrined in the 2010 Constitution are not mere words. It will be the true and defining moment pitting the people against a gluttonous, insatiable and incorrigible ruling elite.

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In the Name of Jesus: How the Church Forced Tanzania to Change its Stance on COVID-19

Tanzania’s recent admission of the presence of COVID-19 in the country is thanks to the intervention of church leaders who have a history of intervening in matters of national importance.

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In the Name of Jesus: How the Church Forced Tanzania to Change its Stance on COVID-19
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By the time President John Magufuli went to the St. Peter’s Church on that sunny Sunday on 21 February 2021 he already knew that he had lost the debate on the coronavirus situation in Tanzania. The reality, as many anticipated, had proved him utterly wrong. The decision to attend the mass took place against the background of widespread calls from various religious leaders who, after witnessing the unprecedented number of deaths in their respective parishes, decided to defy the government’s rhetoric that Tanzania was coronavirus-free.

Church leaders felt obliged to tell their followers the truth authorities kept denying; that COVID-19 was in fact present in the country and that they needed to protect themselves against the disease. President Magufuli’s attendance at the mass followed hard on the heels of pushbacks against his COVID-19 approach, including from his own Catholic Church, something that made skeptics wonder if the devout Catholic would show up at the service. That he did led some observers see the decision as a tactical one, aimed at preventing a further shrinking of his authority –  and even relevance –  when it comes to the issue of COVID-19.

While at the church, President Magufuli, who had until then acted as he wished as far as COVID-19 was concerned, pointed out that he had nothing against people wearing facemasks, while also warning that not all facemasks are appropriate and that Tanzanians face the risk of being supplied with faulty facemasks if they are not careful. Magufuli claimed that there was “an economic war” going on and urged his people to wear only those facemasks that are approved by his ministry of health or made locally by Tanzanians themselves.

Of course, these claims are questionable. How, for example, did the government allow the importation of virus-infected facemasks? If those masks are already in the market, why haven’t the authorities launched a manhunt to confiscate the merchandise for destruction and bring those responsible to justice? Still, the president’s positive remarks about a disease he has spent a lot of his time downplaying were welcome. This is especially so considering the fact that his statement came barely a month after the Head of State admitted the presence of a new coronavirus variant in Tanzania, in a speech during which he also claimed that COVID-19 vaccines were inappropriate.

But while many are breathing a sigh of relief, it is important to point out that the government’s current position on COVID-19 in Tanzania did not just come out of thin air. It is solely thanks to church leaders who fearlessly decided to break the silence by saying enough is enough. After spending months dilly-dallying, peddling falsehoods and outright denials in the face of numerous documented and undocumented deaths of innocent citizens, the clergy decided to intervene to fill the vacuum left by the press, professional associations and civil society organisations which, out of the fear of reprisals or mere opportunism, had given the government carte blanche to play with the lives of its citizens.

The clergy’s intervention motivated by the troubling events that started occurring in Tanzania at the beginning of 2021. On 20 January, for instance, UWC East Africa, a school in the Moshi District of Kilimanjaro Region, announced that it was suspending all presential teaching after one of its students tested positive for COVID-19 and another displayed symptoms of the killer disease. Kilimanjaro regional commissioner Anna Mghwira, however, promptly denied the reports and demanded that the school apologise. Whether the school’s claims were true or false doesn’t matter. What does matter at this moment is that it was soon after this that reports of pneumonia-related deaths started coming in in astonishing succession.

Some of the deaths reported in the month of January 2021 include that of a popular hip-hop artist, Ilunga Khalifa alias Cpwaa, who died at the Muhimbili National Hospital (MNH) of pneumonia-related complications. Others are former legislator Gregory Teu who died following a short illness, Deputy Commissioner of Prisons Julius Sang’uti who died at Benjamin Mkapa Hospital in the capital Dodoma, and Special Seat MP Martha Umbula who died in India where she had been hospitalised. Others include a seasoned political analyst Prudence Karugendo, Ankunda Muro, mother of Arumeru District Commissioner Jerry Muro, who died while receiving treatment at MNH, former Permanent Secretary Richard Mariki and former Kigoma Regional Commissioner Emanuel Maganga who died in Tabora shortly after arriving at Mirambo Hospital for treatment. On the list is also Bukoba Catholic Bishop Ireneus Mbahulira who died at Mugana Hospital in Misenyi District, with the area’s auxiliary bishop Methodius Kilaini saying that Bishop Mbahulira had been on a ventilator while in hospital.

While many more people were reported to have died, the government seemed reluctant to admit the existence of COVID-19 in the country and take the measures that any responsible government would deem necessary to take to control of the situation. This was despite reports indicating that the South African coronavirus variant had been found in travellers from Tanzania, which led the UK to ban Tanzanians from entering the country, while some countries such as Turkey airlifted their ailing citizens out of Tanzania.

It is against this background that the Tanzania Episcopal Conference (TEC) was the first to issue a statement on 26 January pointing out that COVID-19 poses a dangerous threat to the safety of many Tanzanians and urging its congregation and the general public to take all necessary precautions to protect themselves against the pandemic. In an interview with the German broadcaster, the TEC Secretary General Dr Charles Kitima told DW that the TEC was forced to issue the statement after noticing an unprecedented number of deaths in their parishes. “For example,” explained Dr Kitima, “in our parishes located in big cities, we used to have one or two requiem masses per week. But nowadays it is everyday, there’s something wrong.” A day later, on 27 January, Magufuli admitted that COVID-19 was present in Tanzania.

On 3 March 2021 Dr Kitima revealed that, between mid-December and February, more than 25 priests, 60 nuns and two members of the laity had died of various causes including respiratory issues, a revelation that invited a reprimand from the government’s chief propagandist, Hassan Abbasi, who warned against what he described as the “arbitrary” release of statistics on diseases such as COVID-19.

His acknowledgement of the presence of COVID-19 in Tanzania notwithstanding, Magufuli did not take any measures to combat the spread of the virus. Even now the government will not admit that there are people dying of COVID-19, the cause of death given being respiratory complications. So people keep on dying with many people announcing the deaths of their relatives and loved ones through various social media platforms.

It would be misleading to claim that all these deaths are COVID-19-related since authorities continue to refuse to test people for the disease. But the rapid succession of deaths was enough to freak the hell out of people who now knew that something was wrong. Some of high-profile people who were reported dead in the month of February include the First Vice President of Zanzibar, Seif Sharif Hamad, who died at the Muhimbili National Hospital after he tested positive for COVID-19, former Bank of Tanzania governor Prof Benno Ndulu, and Chief Secretary John Kijazi. In Mbeya, so many deaths were reported that a regional commissioner, Albert Chalamila, banned the use of the word “sudden” in death announcements.

Even now the government will not admit that there are people dying of COVID-19, the cause of death given being respiratory complications.

Against this background of indifference and carelessness, church leaders intervened again, with the Christian Council of Tanzania (CCT) this time warning Tanzanians that they are not safe against COVID-19 and calling on them to protect themselves against the disease. On February 12, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania (ELCT) also asked its congregation to hold a special prayer against COVID-19 while insisting on the need to take all necessary care to avoid contracting the virus.

Other church leaders continued to use their positions and pulpits to urge Tanzanians to take precautions against COVID-19. At the same time, others were coming out to urge people to take precautions with a ruling Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM) legislator for Mbulu constituency, Zacharia Isaay, asking the government to stop beating about the bush on COVID-19, saying that people in his constituency were dying at an unprecedented rate and that he was tired of burying them.

The church may have forced the government to admit to the presence of COVID-19 in Tanzania but not to mount effective intervention mechanisms to combat the negative effects of the pandemic. Apart from urging people to resort to traditional herbs and steam inhalation therapy to keep themselves safe, the government hasn’t made public its COVID-19 response plan. Government officials themselves are far from observing the safety guidelines recommended to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In many state functions, government officials can be seen not wearing facemasks or maintaining social distance. But getting the government to bow to pressure and confess publicly that Tanzanians are at risk of dying of COVID-19 is no small matter and for this the church deserves some praise. By speaking out, the church acted upon its long and glorious history of intervening in matters of national importance, especially at a time when it is the only institution in the country that can take the bull by the horns in the interests of the people.

With the exception of its history of neutrality during the struggle against German and British colonialism in Tanganyika, and its relative indifference during Tanzania’s single party rule, the church has played a notable role in the country’s political life, particularly since the introduction of fundamental political reforms during the 1990s which included the re-introduction of multi-party politics, a process which took place under the leadership of the late Benjamin Mkapa.

In Justice, Rights and Worship: Religion and Politics in Tanzania, Prof Rwekaza S. Mukandala explains that religion became one of the forums where pertinent issues such as corruption, embezzlement of public funds and other vices that the political system had failed to deal with were addressed. It was during this time that the Catholic bishops, in February 1993, issued one of their strongest statements ever when they blamed the government for the deteriorating economic, social and political situation in the country. Around the same time, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tanzania (ELCT) issued its famous Bagamoyo Statement where it spoke of the worsening political, economic and social conditions in the country and the need for the government to take appropriate actions.

In Mbeya, so many deaths were reported that a regional commissioner banned the use of the word “sudden” in death announcements

Since then, church leaders have been acting as mediators between the government and opposition parties, especially following highly contested elections where claims of vote-rigging threaten the peace of the country and during other heightened political moments, by taking part in the provision of civic education to their congregations which includes, but is not limited to, providing voter education to their followers so that they can make informed decisions at the voting booth.

When President Magufuli came into office in late 2015, the relationship between the church and the state was rather bitter and strained thanks to the government’s crackdown on the press and civil society, and its attacks on fundamental rights and freedoms like the freedom of expression and the right to assembly. The churches’ attempts to warn against these tendencies pitted church leaders against reactionary government officials who went as far as threatening to shut down churches it accused of “mixing politics and religion”.’

So far no church has been shut down in Tanzania but the government has tried to minimise the role that the clergy can play in the country’s politics. During the 2020 general elections, for example, the government denied the Tanzania Episcopal Conference (TEC), alongside other experienced Civil Society Organisations, permits to observe the elections, a task that the TEC has been undertaking since Tanzania’s multi-party election of 1995.

Another tactic which has been employed by the state to force the clergy into silence is to harrass church leaders who engage in matters of national interest by arresting and detaining them on trumped-up charges of “threatening the national security”. Bishop Emmaus Mwamakula of the Uamsho Morovian Church who was arrested and detained for seven days ahead of planned demos to demand a new constitution, is the latest case of such harrassment.

As far as the relationship between religious leaders and the Magufuli administration is concerned—with the notable exception of Sheikh Ponda Issa Ponda of the Council of Imams who has been a thorn in the flesh of the authorities for many years and who has been able to maintain such a reputation at huge personal cost—Christian leaders have been more open and forthcoming when it comes to standing with the people against state repression than their Muslim counterparts.

Getting the government to bow to pressure and confess publicly that Tanzanians are at risk of dying of COVID-19 is no small matter and for this the church deserves some praise.

The clergy intervened in the COVID-19 situation in Tanzania at the most critical moment when absolutely nobody had the guts to tell the king to his face that he was naked. Church leaders came out to confront the dangerous rhetoric by government officials who kept on fooling people by telling them to go about their business and leave COVID-19 to God who would miraculously take care of it. At his press conference on 3 March 2020, TEC’s Dr Kitima urged Tanzanians to take all the necessary precautions against the pandemic, urging them to ignore the baseless claims that their God would intervene on their behalf. “Prayers alone are not enough,” Dr Kitima correctly pointed out. “We need to also consider scientific findings.” That it took religious leaders to insist on the usefulness of science in combating a pandemic while the leaders of a secular state were busy endangering the lives of their people by promoting superstition will be the biggest irony in Tanzania’s history of secularism.

The clergy may have forced the “denialist government” of Tanzania to abandon its false claims that the country was coronavirus-free. While such a development is a step in the right direction against the COVID-19 pandemic, merely acknowledging the presence of COVID-19 will not save Tanzanians from dying of the disease. A lot is still at stake. With President Magufuli remaining skeptical of the COVID-19 vaccines, and the Director General of the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR), Prof Yunus Mgaya, saying that there is no need for Tanzania to rush for the vaccines, calling them a product of “neo-colonialism”, Tanzanians risk being locked out of the world, as the recent announcement by Saudi authorities that COVID-19 vaccines would be a mandatory requirement for anyone preparing for the 2021 Hajj vividly shows.

Church leaders have successfully shown that pressure works and now is the time for others – the press, the CSOs, the WHO, trade unions, etc. – to join forces and pressure the government into prioritising the fight against COVID-19 for the safety of Tanzanians. We are at a critical moment in our history where our actions or inaction will determine our future relevance and how we will be judged by future generations. We have the opportunity to make the best out of this moment and we must seize it for silence in the face of extinction is no virtue and a fair and responsible society cannot be built upon servitude, opportunism and such a frigid and killing indifference.

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