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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

We Are Not the Wretched of the Pandemic

Casting Africans as the wretched of the pandemic seems to make sense, given the obvious inequalities. But it deprives us of agency and urgency.

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We Are Not the Wretched of the Pandemic
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“Kenya’s official languages are English, Kiswahili, and Silence.” ~ Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, Dust (2014)

I want to explore something I have been wrestling with over the last three weeks. About silences, and also about anger.

~~~

The Omicron variant of COVID-19 was first identified by scientific teams in southern Africa, and reported to the WHO on 24 November 2021. Since then, there has been a chaotic outpouring of news, speculation and reactions. We have also been furious about travel bans, about scientists being punished, about COVID being labelled as African, and about global vaccine inequality/apartheid.

Some of the dust is only now settling. Omicron has spread incredibly quickly worldwide, and has displaced older variants. European and North American healthcare systems are in danger of being overwhelmed. There is political fallout from the unpopular introduction of tighter controls.

The first cases from Omicron in Kenya have now been identified, but the variant has probably been here for some time. Daily case numbers began doubling just before Christmas 2021. We have entered our fifth wave.

This new variant seems extremely transmissible, but key aspects of its longer-term severity, and its ability to resist existing vaccines, remain unclear. Results from South Africa, Europe and North America about its “mildness” were eagerly projected onto a quite different population here, one with much lower vaccination levels – even as all those health systems went into crisis. New unpredictable variants are still likely to appear over the coming year.

We are still in a situation of uncertainty, but we are desperate to believe the pandemic is over.

~~~

I want to explore the psychological impact of the pandemic. There are things we need to understand, acknowledge, and address now. If we fail to do this, we may remain distracted or paralysed at a time when we really need to gather and refocus our energies.

The pandemic may be viral, but it has also created a mental health epidemic. Most of us are completely exhausted from the past two years. Our emotional and financial reserves are drained. Some of us are suffering from the longer-term effects of COVID, from isolation, or just from the stress of unpredictability.

~~~

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor wrote, “Kenya’s official languages are English, Kiswahili, and Silence.”

After the Omicron variant was announced, and the West responded with travel bans, I felt we should add a fourth language — and perhaps for Africa more broadly. Anger.

~~~

Fight, Flight or Freeze.

Many of you will recognise these as our classic responses to threats. We usually become angry in response to a source of fear — a threat. We want to fight, to protect ourselves from whatever threatens us. An ancient reactive part of our brain, the amygdala, takes over.

It has to act quickly.  It can’t do nuance.  It. Doesn’t. Have. Time.

Our amygdala has to flatten the world around us, divide it neatly into friends and foes.

~~~

Anger in itself is not a bad emotion. It evolved to protect us. Sometimes it is life-saving. Channelled well, outrage can change society in really positive ways.

However, in our modern, artificial, overcrowded, confusing, stressful and technological lifestyles, we have to be careful. Anger can be misplaced, destructive, and exhausting, especially if we become trapped within cycles of anger and trauma.

At this stage of the pandemic, we are frightened and exhausted. Some of us are on the verge of collapse and paralysis. We want this to be over.

We are also angry.

But the real cause of this anger — an invisible virus — is hard to attack.

~~~

Since COVID-19 emerged in 2019, the world has been a confusing and frightening place. COVID-19 fuelled a global crisis in an extremely unequal and unfair world.

The pandemic, and the accompanying lockdowns, created huge fears, personal losses, sickness, deep economic and psychological challenges. Many people struggled and some genuinely found it hard to understand why.

COVID-19 fuelled a global crisis in an extremely unequal and unfair world.

Lockdowns succeeded in reducing the initial spread, but this paradoxically undermined their justification. Without people visibly dying everywhere, some questioned whether news of the pandemic had a hidden motive. The reluctance of western media to show the suffering of white bodies also created a cognitive disconnect, especially in the US.

We were at war with an invisible virus — not with one another — but still tensions rose.

Our amygdala is not good at this new kind of war. It needs a recognisable enemy.

This medical crisis is not a fairy tale, with cartoon heroes and villains. However, when we are angry, frustrated and scared, the protective instinctive part of our brain activates.  It desperately wants to flatten complicated reality into a reassuringly simple cartoon version.

Who is attacking us?  Who are our enemies?

We needed someone to blame.

~~~

There has been a lot of coverage of far-right COVID conspiracy theories. Trump labelled COVID-19 the “China virus”, while allowing it to kill far more people in the US. An election year in the US cemented a crazy partisan divide, with right-wing politicians taking their stance against masks and vaccines. Public health was placed in opposition to personal freedoms. This soon spread to other countries online.

At a deeper level, the Christian far-right in the US doesn’t believe in evolution. A rapidly mutating virus is impossible to understand. A deliberately weaponized pathogen, developed in a lab, by godless people unlike them, made far more sense. There was someone (imaginary) to blame. They found their “real” enemy.

(This wasn’t a solely Christian problem. Religious “leaders” with political access in India also derailed the COVID response in their country, with disastrous global consequences.)

~~~

Conspiracy theories may be convoluted and nonsensical — but they are emotionally satisfying. In a confusing world, they give us someone clear to blame, to scapegoat.

The idea of the scapegoat comes from the Jewish tradition where, as described in Leviticus 16:21, the sins of a community were placed on a live goat, which was then chased off into the wilderness. I am not sure the scapegoat fully understood what was happening, and the goats I have consulted think this was probably not a huge punishment. However, the point was never really about the goat, but about the removal of sins from within the community.

Lockdowns succeeded in reducing the initial spread, but this paradoxically undermined their justification.

In the modern world, we still find scapegoats — people to blame.  They are not the real cause of our problems and chasing them into the wilderness does not resolve anything.  While the original Jewish ceremony may have served a genuinely useful social purpose, our modern versions do not.  Scapegoats are now useful distractions, used to stoke up and misdirect fear and hatred.

~~~

While there has been a lot of emphasis on far-right conspiracy theories, I think there is also a different but related phenomenon on the left.  After all, people who are scared and angry need to find someone to blame. We all need a scapegoat on whom to pile our complex, perhaps intractable problems — and then noisily chase them out of town.

This does not solve our problems — but it is something tangible we can do. It provides some temporary relief.

In the narratives of these conspiracy theories, pharmaceutical companies and Western governments have conspired to create global vaccine apartheid.  Greed, control or naked racism are the clear explanation in the wilder discussions online. There are wicked people to blame, and we must attack them.

Like any good conspiracy theory, there is a kernel of truth in these narratives. We live in a world that has been substantially shaped by capitalism, and that is still scarred by deep historical inequalities stemming from slavery and Western colonialism. Africa has been last on the list to receive vaccines. (Omicron may have emerged in Africa because of low vaccine coverage, allowing new variants to appear.)

We all need a scapegoat on whom to pile our complex, perhaps intractable problems — and then noisily chase them out of town.

A global public health emergency needed a global public health response. While there was immense public funding and coordination, it has been galling to see large pharmaceutical companies make massive profits from this catastrophe; the techniques and “recipes” for the vaccines must become public goods — not controlled for private profit.

There are very unpleasant echoes of past crises. As Zeynep Tupfecki has observed, most of the people who died in the HIV/AIDS epidemic did so after ARV medicines had been developed. Intellectual property rights and corporate profits took precedence over global health, and Africans bore the brunt of that approach.

~~~

We clearly need better global health systems.  However, this narrative that vaccine inequality was deliberate and racist — and our angry response — simplifies and obscures key issues.

There actually was a plan to make sure all countries received vaccines. This plan recognised that we were facing an interlinked global health crisis, and that we needed to address structural inequalities. COVAX was explicitly set up as “a global risk-sharing mechanism for pooled procurement and equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.”

Several things went wrong with this plan, but an angry backlash against vaccine inequality is now obscuring that history. This anger may prevent us from learning difficult lessons, or taking the time-critical action we need to focus on right now.

Our house is on fire. People are inside, still at risk, but some of us are standing outside —  feeling safe because we have been vaccinated — and yelling about who started the fire. Trying to find the people to blame, instead of figuring out how we can help right now.

~~~

Contracting most of the shared vaccines to one provider — the Serum Institute of India (SSI) — was a disastrous decision for COVAX. This decision may have been based on cost, but it was a strategic mistake to put so many eggs in one basket during an unpredictable global disaster.

Under Narendra Modi, India’s right-wing government did not take the COVID-19 pandemic seriously. A whole government department was set up to push herbal remedies, and other unproven treatments like steaming. Politicians were preoccupied with elections and religious rallies, which turned into super-spreader events. When the Delta variant began to ravage India in February 2021, the government retreated into full-scale denial.

It has been galling to see large pharmaceutical companies make massive profits from this catastrophe.

The situation in India was devastating. I was already helping to coordinate Indian volunteer group efforts, and I remember the horror of seeing the wave of infections grow rapidly, and then overwhelm the country. People struggled to find oxygen, medicines and ICU beds for their loved ones — or even for themselves.

Then things went quiet — which was even more ominous. The COVID wave was starting to ravage communities, and they had no one to ask for help.

However, the crisis in India was also an indication that a global crisis was brewing. SSI was meant to produce 700 million doses of the Astra-Zeneca vaccine for poorer countries in 2021. It had already encountered some production issues, and the Indian government, in its complacency, had not ordered doses for its own citizens until it was too late. At one point, facing threats from desperate Indian politicians, the CEO fled to London for his own safety.

Exports of the doses produced for other countries, including for Kenya, were blocked. Much of the vaccine famine we experienced early in 2021 was caused by this crisis.

Mistakes were made, and people were definitely culpable as well. However, this key event does not fit neatly into the angry narrative of vaccine apartheid. If the rich white West are the obvious villains, and black Africans are the clear victims — adding a complex disaster in India to the mix just messes up the neat fairy tale.

China developed its own vaccine. It has administered nearly three billion doses to its own people, and exported millions as well.  Cuba did even better, despite facing economic sanctions. After a delayed start, Latin America is doing far better with vaccinations, with larger countries nearing Western levels of protection.

The problem is not simply racism, but relative poverty. However, it is a better fairy tale if we just edit out the inconvenient parts.

~~~

In political theory, a surprising convergence between right- and left-wing extremes has often been noted. Starting from different initial points, positions seem to become more similar as they become more radicalised and angry. This is known as the “horseshoe theory”.

This links to how we flatten the world, and look for simple friends, foes, and scapegoats, as that part of our brain that responds instinctively takes over to protect us from threats. Traditionally, political theory has focussed on dry policy issues and class allegiances.  But with the rise of Trump and other populists mainstreaming conspiracy theories worldwide, a lot more research has been undertaken to explore deeper psychological issues around fear, uncertainty, and anger.

Politicians were preoccupied with elections and religious rallies, which turned into super-spreader events.

In a world dominated by powerful and often impersonal, confusing and opaque structures, our amygdala has to find someone to blame — like a classic Bond villain. Common examples are both right- and left-wing antisemitism, and attacks on globalisation.

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, pro- and anti-vaccine groups both see conspiracies organised by greedy pharmaceutical companies. The more you think about this, the more bizarre it seems — but here we are. Anger at international structures in general has also grown, leading to strange bedfellows. At one point, I saw Elon Musk attacking the World Food Programme, and left-wing people rallying to his side. I had to switch off my devices and lie down for a while.

~~~

The SARS-CoV-2 genome only contains about 29,903 bases of single-stranded RNA — 30kB of data, less than half the length of this article. This tiny virus is outwitting human civilization.

Our amygdala, and the adrenalin it activates, can save lives — but only in the right context. We need to act instinctively rapidly when we are running out of a house that is on fire — as did our distant ancestors when escaping predators.

However, in a slow-burning and confusing pandemic, our amygdala should not be allowed to take charge.

COVID-19 is being helped right now by our own fearful responses.

Right now, our house is on fire — and many of us are still trapped inside.  We instinctively want to save ourselves, get our boosters, and get away from the problem as quickly as possible.

However, as a country we are less than 10% fully vaccinated.  Our fire is far from out.

~~~

The last few years have been an “I can’t breathe” crisis on several levels.

Franz Fanon was a physician, psychiatrist and philosopher. His work on colonial violence, and the lasting psychological and cultural damage it caused, remains important to this day. After all, these past years have been a crisis of COVID, but also of George Floyd, and of Black Lives Matter.

I was very influenced by Fanon’s work, via Steve Biko, the South African anti-apartheid activist who built on Fanon’s work.  I first encountered these ideas around lasting cultural trauma when I was a peace worker for British Quakers, based in South Africa.  About a decade after that experience, I took part in the first large Rhodes Must Fall march in Oxford, which was extraordinarily moving and powerful.

Fanon talks of the colonial world as “a Manichaean World”, divided into light and dark.  White colonizers are seen as the light, and black colonized individuals are viewed as darkness, and the epitome of evil.

In a world dominated by powerful and often impersonal, confusing and opaque structures, our amygdala has to find someone to blame.

At this point, this should sound familiar. Surely the antidote to this colonial polarisation, a world where black is bad — is it’s opposite — white neo-colonial pharma as the epitome of evil?

However, this is simplistic — as I have demonstrated with the catastrophe in India.  I am reminded of a jingle for Lotus FM in Durban: “Not everything’s black and white. . .”

I would also argue that it is literally dangerous.

Painting Africa as the wretched of the pandemic, a whole continent victimised yet again by the West, deprives us of agency and urgency. It glosses over complex but really important details.

Most importantly, while the image gives us something to focus our anger on, a scapegoat to chase out of town, it also provides us with an excuse not to actually do anything difficult but useful ourselves.

We can safely exhaust ourselves shouting at foreigners in the West, and this venting is cathartic. We are now absolved from doing anything closer to home. Powerful and evil external actors are in charge — at least until some utopian revolution dawns.

~~~

Meanwhile, the reality which this narrative obscures is that vaccines have been arriving in Africa. Kenya now has millions of vaccines available, and the immediate but very real challenges are local logistics, and persuading people with mild vaccine reluctance to get vaccinated.

Unfortunately, anger at global pharma is being manipulated to make people on the ground more hesitant at a time when we need to reassure them that vaccines are safe and effective. It is still not quick and easy to get a vaccine in Kenya. Vague rumours about side effects and large wicked corporations are enough to put scared people off doing something that seems novel, risky and time-consuming.

But while overall Africa has lagged behind other countries on vaccine uptake, we have also seen much fewer deaths.  It is not entirely clear why this is — although it will probably be due to a complex mix of factors, including our younger demographics, and fewer comorbidities from diseases of affluence like obesity and diabetes.

Painting Africa as the wretched of the pandemic, a whole continent victimised yet again by the West, deprives us of agency and urgency.

As more vaccines became available during 2021, more of them went to countries where they were more desperately needed, rather than to Africa, which had lower case rates. The overall picture includes Latin America and South East Asia, which did get vaccines when they needed them more. The now high vaccination rates in these regions are being ignored by those arguing that there is a global vaccine apartheid.

We are also likely to experience a global oversupply of vaccines in 2022. Part of the reason pharmaceutical companies seem greedy is that they know vaccines are going to commodify. Increased supply will drive price reductions, so companies want to take profits while they still can. Free markets are not morally perfect, but when they scale up, they are incredibly powerful.

(I still believe we need a more global public control of vaccines that are essential to public health. Since the Delta variant overwhelmed India in May, and torpedoed collective efforts via COVAX, I have argued that we need a “Liberty Ships” approach to this pandemic — a wartime level of effort and resources. This did not happen fast enough, and we have lost lives as a result.)

~~~

Mirroring global vaccine inequality is local vaccine inequality.

I have been concerned for some time that the relatively privileged but tiny urban elites in Kenya would get themselves vaccinated then lose interest as their own lives returned to normal. Once vaccination rates in Nairobi reached about 20 per cent, and the lockdowns and curfews were eased, this did seem to happen; although most of Kenya’s counties still had very low levels of vaccination, the national conversation moved on, unconcerned.

Once Omicron was announced, there was a vast amount of anger at travel restrictions imposed on southern African countries. There were lots of legitimate reasons for the frustration, especially as Omicron was probably already in many countries, as has proved to be the case, but African scientists were effectively being punished for being the first to identify it.

Blanket travel bans are in any case not very effective at stemming the spread of variants and those travel bans have now been largely removed.  (Ironically, France is now restricting travellers from Britain, where Omicron case numbers are rising alarmingly.)

Part of the reason pharmaceutical companies seem greedy is that they know vaccines are going to commodify.

However, the anger I sensed seemed really unfocused and confused. Kenyans were also outraged, but there was little concern or interest in the actual variant, or in the rising cases in southern Africa — the countries with which we were apparently showing solidarity. Christmas concerts and parties continued. Some people seemed more worried about having their own travel plans, and their newly regained privileged lifestyles, threatened.  I felt like a lone voice, trying to remind Kenyans just how few of our own citizens were protected by vaccines.

I am not sure what Frantz Fanon would make of our bourgeoisie.  Che Guevara would actually have shot most of the people who wear those trendy t-shirts bearing his image. I doubt Fanon would have been impressed.

We have now got our reward, with exponentially rising case numbers in Kenya as well.

My feeling is that the outrage was actually based on the deeper fear that we would return to lockdowns, and that the pandemic was not actually over. Instead of focussing on the actual problem — a new variant — we found foreign scapegoats to yell at, allowing the thing which frightened us to take root.

~~~

For Fanon, the colonized were kept constantly on edge by an “atmospheric violence”, tensed in anticipation of violence. The pandemic has done something similar to our limbic systems. While not comparable to the traumas of slavery, we are constantly stressed, and on edge.

I am strangely reminded of Nietzsche’s criticism of Christianity as a “slave morality”. Good Christians, by turning the other cheek, did not push back against power. Returning to the Fight/Fright/Freeze stress response that I learnt about in school, it has been updated to include a fourth response sometimes called ‘Submit’, ‘Fawn’ or ‘Feign’.

The Slave Bible, published in 1807 in London, then circulated in Caribbean and North American plantations, was a disturbing later embodiment of Nietzsche’s criticism. Sections such as the exodus story, which might inspire hope for liberation, were removed. Instead, portions that justified and fortified the system of British Imperial slavery were emphasized.

The Slave Bible encouraged silence, subservience and passivity, in the face of injustice.  It was used to pacify people subjected to the worst forms of oppression and constant violence.

We found foreign scapegoats to yell at, allowing the thing that frightened us to take root.

The reality is more complex. Jesus himself was not passive. Theologians like Walter Wink have shown that turning the other cheek was actually a powerful act of resistance, given wider Roman culture. To turn the other cheek forced the aggressor to use their left hand, which would be seen as humiliating for the aggressor to other Romans. This would reclaim some power and agency for the Christian in a situation of powerlessness.

In the “atmospheric violence” of the pandemic, I sense we all feel disempowered. Some of us have become passive and withdrawn, while others have become angry and frustrated. However, instead of channelling the energy of anger into practical action to take care of one another, we are simply venting our frustrations publicly and fruitlessly – and sometimes counterproductively.

Some of us channel our frustrations against the pandemic restrictions of our own governments, or vaccination programmes – while others rail against international injustices.

Venting may feel helpful, but it is not reclaiming power or agency.  It may briefly feel good, but it is not really helping us.

~~~

Casting Africans as the wretched of the pandemic seems to make sense, given the obvious inequalities.  It is proving an incredibly powerful global rallying cry.

It makes people righteously, blindly, angry.  It directs all our fear and rage outwards.

It is also, however, a good way of absolving us from tackling the harder questions, much closer to home, or requiring more difficult practical action. The actors who matter are powerful and elsewhere, which limits our own direct responsibility to do more than yell from a safe distance.

We all have limited energy at the best of times, and right now most of us are depleted. Directing our energy at global injustice, while ignoring more local problems, feels wrong to me. We actually have vaccines and knowledge and hard work to do right now. Nobody else can or will do that work for us.

Perhaps this is why such anger is so attractive though.  If the problems are all global, we don’t have to look at our own broken health systems, venal politicians diverting COVID-19 relief funds, or the real challenge of addressing rumours that have spread over the past year about vaccine side effects. We can ignore the failings of our own leaders, who hold rallies and threaten our citizens, if our true enemies are global ones.

Anger directed at outside factors also prevents us from taking a hard look at how fragmented we ourselves are. While life-threatening famine was raging in large parts of Kenya, Nairobi was worried about cancelling Christmas parties and flight bans.

If you are reading this, you probably inhabit a tiny, relatively privileged bubble, just as I do.  Even those of us who want to improve vaccine access have little idea what is happening in other parts of the country. It is harder still to know how to help.

Fanon never wanted colonialism — or the struggle against colonialism — to define us, taking on a simplistic crusading missionary zeal ourselves.

~~~

I’ve been organising civil society work around COVID-19 for much of the year, but I’m struck by how few people are able to volunteer their time and energy. We are all exhausted, but it feels deeper than that.

In India, one genuine problem was that so many people wanted to get involved, which created lots of duplication and confusion, as so many people reinvented the same wheels, and made the same mistakes.

South Africa also has a much stronger civil society response than I have seen here. Kenya is one of the few places I know where activists are treated with suspicion. This feels like the shadow of both colonialism, and Jomo Kenyatta’s and Moi’s authoritarian rule. Repression and fear were normalised. Kenya suffered from atmospheric violence. The few brave activists became lightning rods — but with little support from those for whom they organised.

No country in the world had massive health service capacity in reserve, ready for a pandemic. A massive civil society effort has been needed everywhere but I simply have not seen one in Kenya. We are rightly frustrated at the incompetence and the colonial threats of our own Ministry of Health, but we are not yet willing to roll up our sleeves and get involved where we see obvious gaps. We complain loudly — but that is all we do.

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor talks of silence as one of Kenya’s official languages.

I feel that that silence has been breaking over the past decade. Kenyans are more forthright, more outspoken and more critical. The internet has helped many to speak up, and to find kindred spirits. There is also a lot of buried historical baggage to process, and economic frustration and inequality, and injustice as well.

We are rightly frustrated at the incompetence and the colonial threats of our own Ministry of Health, but we are not yet willing to roll up our sleeves and get involved.

This is an important part of becoming a healthier society — one not cowed by power. We are growing up, from literally being treated as the children of the nation, which suited our rulers just fine. We have suffered the consequences of arrogant power for far too long.

We have difficult baggage to process, and the pandemic has added layers of fear and frustration. There is a lot we need to face, and mourn, but being angry is a distraction from that. I also see a hollow and defensive kind of pride, used as a shield against any kind of criticism.

These are ways of covering up our pain.

Anger is becoming our fourth official language.

This is dangerous — especially since 2022 will be an election year.

~~~

What is the alternative?

Well, vaccines are here, and will keep coming.

Kenya has more vaccines in fridges than we’ve used in total so far.

We have a national mobilisation project — to ensure all of our people are safe.

The narrative that we are wretched victims also ignores all the inconvenient good news. How did Morocco or Botswana manage to vaccinate so many of their populations?

Within Kenya itself, some counties are doing much better than others.

What could we learn from them?

Who are our local heroes?

Who needs our help?

~~~

We stand at the beginning of a New Year.

I actually think it will be a hopeful one, as far as the pandemic is concerned.

Even with new variants like Omicron, science is incredibly powerful. In particular, the mRNA platform is able to rapidly create new targeted vaccines.

There is also unprecedented global solidarity. Unlike during other previous crises, such as conflicts or famines, rich countries were the first to suffer the devastating consequences of the pandemic, so there is huge empathy. We can tell our stories online in compelling ways, and these stories resonate.

Even more than science and compassion, economically speaking, the world will put resources into ending the pandemic. Highly infectious diseases simply cannot be contained by travel restrictions. Our world is simply too interconnected and interwoven.

It is also an election year in Kenya. We can look at how politicians and governors have performed, and the state of their health programmes. This is the one time we have some leverage.

Anger is a call to action that we can channel into things that are more useful than empty, exhausting rage and the accompanying disempowering sense of victimhood. Action will be truly healing, as we find ways to take back control, after the helplessness of the past two years.

For some reason, we have also been lucky. The level of COVID deaths and serious illness in Kenya have been undercounted – but they still aren’t as high as in some other countries. This isn’t because of our excellent scientists (that’s southern Africa) or our experience with Ebola (west and central Africa). It may be demographics, geography, and exposure to other pathogens. The answer will probably be a mix of different factors.

So far, strangely enough, we’ve actually escaped the worst of it; we have simply not been the wretched of this pandemic. The worst of what I saw in India, and in many other countries, did not befall us. Our biggest challenge now is to get our own population vaccinated, with the now fairly available vaccines, so that we are better protected against new variants.

It may be demographics, geography, and exposure to other pathogens. The answer will probably be a mix of different factors.

We need to take a deep breath and take stock of where we actually are right now. Instead of fighting battles from last year, and knowing all that we now, what should be our focus?

~~~

Our next challenge is climate change, and that will be much harder. Especially for Africa.

We need to end this crisis, and in doing so, learn how to deal with our own fears and anger, our need for simple scapegoats, if we are to stand a chance of addressing the climate crisis.

COVID-19 was relatively minor, but it still shook our civilisations. Climate change is a truly existential threat.

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Long Reads

The Possibilities and Perils of Leading an African University

This is the first of a ten-part series of reflections on various aspects of my experiences over six years as Vice Chancellor of USIU-Africa that will be expanded into a book.

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The Possibilities and Perils of Leading an African University
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For six years, from 2016 to 2021, I was Vice Chancellor (President) of a private university in Kenya, the United States International University-Africa. It was an honor and privilege to serve in that role. It marked the apex of my professional academic life. It offered an incredible opportunity to make my small contribution to the continued development of the university itself, put into practice my scholarly research on African higher education, and deepen my understanding of the challenges and opportunities facing the sector at a time of tumultuous change in African and global political economies.

When I took the position, I was quite familiar with both African universities and Kenya as a country. I was a product of African higher education having undertaken my undergraduate studies at the University of Malawi, my home country, in the 1970s. I had done my PhD dissertation at Dalhousie University in Canada on Kenya’s economic and labor history where I spent about fifteen months in 1979-1980.

Later, I taught at Kenyatta University in Nairobi for five and half years between 1984-1989. That is one reason the position of Vice Chancellor at USIU-Africa eventually proved attractive to me.  I would be returning to my African “intellectual home.” Or so I thought. I came back to a different country, as I will elaborate later in my reflections.

After I left Kenya at the beginning of January 1990, I spent the next 25 years at Canadian and American universities. But Africa was always on my mind, as an epistemic and existential reality, the focus of my intellectual and political passions, the locus of my research work and creative writing. My scholarly studies on intellectual history examined the construction of ideas, disciplines, interdisciplines, and higher education institutions and their African provenance, iterations, and inflections.

Over the years I had published numerous books and papers on African studies and universities including in 2004 African Universities in the 21st Century (Vol.I: Liberalization and Internationalization and Vol II: Knowledge and Society), and in 2007 The Study of Africa (Vol. I: Disciplinary and Interdisciplinary Encounters and Vol.II: Global and Transnational Engagements).

In early 2015, I was commissioned to write the Framing Paper for the 1st African Higher Education Summit on Revitalizing Higher Education for Africa’s Future held in Dakar, Senegal March 10-12. I was also one of the drafters of the Summit Declaration and Action Plan. So, I was well versed on the key issues facing African higher education. But leading an actual African university proved a lot more complex and demanding as this series will show.

The vice chancellor’s position at USIU-Africa was advertised after the Dakar Summit. Initially, it had little appeal for me. My earlier experiences at Kenyatta University had left me wary of working as an “expatriate”, as a foreigner, in an African country other than my own. In fact, in 1990 I wrote a paper on the subject, “The Lightness of Being an Expatriate African Scholar,” which was delivered at the renowned conference convened by the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, held in Uganda in late November 1990, out of which emerged the landmark Kampala Declaration on Intellectual Freedom and Social Responsibility. The paper was included in my essay collection, Manufacturing African Studies and Crises published in 1997.

The paper began by noting, “The lack of academic freedom in Africa is often blamed on the state. Although the role of the state cannot be doubted, the institutions dominated by the intellectuals themselves are also quite authoritarian and tend to undermine the practices and pursuit of academic freedom. Thus, the intellectual communities in Africa and abroad, cannot be entirely absolved from responsibility for generating many of the restrictive practices and processes that presently characterize the social production of knowledge in, and on, Africa. In many instances they have internalized the coercive anti-intellectualist norms of the state, be it those of the developmentalist state in the South or the imperialist state in the North, and they articulate the chauvinisms and tyrannies of civil society, whether of ethnicity, class, gender or race.”

The rest of the paper delineated, drawing from my experiences at Kenyatta, the conditions, contradictions, constraints, exclusions, and marginalization of African expatriate scholars in African countries that often force them to trek back to the global North where many of them studied or migrated from, as I did.

Once I returned from the diaspora back to Kenya in 2016, I soon realized, to my consternation, that xenophobia had actually gotten worse, as I will discuss in later sections. It even infected USIU-Africa that took pride in being an “international American university.” In my diasporic excitement to “give back” to the continent, to escape the daily assaults of racism that people of African descent are often subjected to in North America, Europe and elsewhere, I had invested restorative Pan-African intellectual and imaginative energies in a rising developmental, democratic, integrated and inclusive post-nationalist Africa.

Over the next six years, I clang desperately to this fraying ideal. It became emotionally draining, but intellectually clarifying and enriching. I became an Afro-realist, eschewing the debilitating Afro-pessimism of Africa’s eternal foes and the exultant bullishness of Afro-optimists.

In 2015, as I talked to the VC search firm based in the United States, and some of my close friends, and colleagues in the diaspora I warned up to the idea of diaspora return. The colleagues included those who participated in the Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship Program (CADFP). The program was based on research I conducted in 2011-2012 for the Carnegie Corporation of New York (CCNY) on the engagement of African diaspora academics in Canada and the United with African higher education institutions.

CADFP was launched in 2013 and I became chair of its Advisory Council comprised of prominent African academics and administrators. This was one of four organs of the program; the other three were CCNY providing funding, the Institute for International Education (IIE) offering management support, and my two former universities in the US (Quinnipiac) and Kenya (USIU-Africa) hosting the Secretariat. Several recipients ended up returning to work back on the continent long after their fellowships. I said to myself, why not me?

For various reasons, my position as Vice President for Academic Affairs in Connecticut had turned out to be far less satisfactory than I had anticipated. I was ready for a new environment, challenges, and opportunities. So, I put in an application for the USIU-Africa vice chancellorship. There were 65 candidates altogether. The multi-stage search process replicated the ones I was familiar with in the US, but it was novel in Kenya where the appointment of vice chancellors tends to be truncated to an interview lasting over a couple of hours or so in which committee members score the candidates sometimes on dubious ethnic grounds.

At the time I got the offer from USIU-Africa, I had two other offers, a provostship in Maryland, and as founding CEO of the African Research Universities Alliance. Furthermore, I was one of the last two candidates for a senior position at one of the world’s largest foundations from which I withdrew. I chose USIU-Africa after long deliberations with my wife and closest friends. Becoming vice chancellor would give me an opportunity to test, implement, and refine my ideas on the Pan-African project of revitalizing African universities for the continent’s sustainable transformation.

USIU-Africa had its own attractions as the oldest private secular university in Kenya. Originally established in 1969 as a branch campus of an American university by that name based in San Diego that had other branches in London, Tokyo, and Mexico City, it was the only university in the region that enjoyed dual accreditation by the Commission for University Education in Kenya and the Western Association of Schools and Colleges in the United States. Moreover, it was the most international university in the region with students from more than 70 countries; an institution that seemed to take diversity and inclusion seriously; a comprehensive university with several schools offering bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral programs; one that boasted seemingly well-maintained physical and electronic infrastructure poised for expansion. The position prospectus proclaimed the university’s ambitions to become research intensive.

Six months before my wife and I packed our bags for Kenya, I took up a fellowship at Harvard University to work on a book titled, The Transformation of Global Higher Education: 1945-2015 that was published in late 2016. I had long been fascinated by the history of ideas and knowledge producing institutions around the world, and this book gave me an opportunity to do so, to examine the development of universities and knowledge systems on every continent—the Americas, Europe, Asia, and of course Africa. Writing the book filled me with excitement bordering on exhilaration, not least because it marked the second time in my academic career that I was on sabbatical.

I thought I was as prepared as I could be to assume leadership of a private African university. As I showed in my book, by 2015, private universities outnumbered public ones across the continent, 972 out of 1639. In 1999, there were only 339 private universities. Still, public universities predominated in student enrollments, and although many had lost their former glory, they were often much better than most of the fly by night profiteering private institutions sprouting all over the place like wild mushrooms.

Africa of course needed more universities to overcome its abysmally low tertiary enrollment ratios, but the haphazard expansion taking place often without proper planning and the investment of adequate physical, financial, and human resources only succeeded in gravely undermining the quality of university education. The quality of faculty and research fell precipitously in many countries and campuses as I have demonstrated in numerous papers.

Serving in successive administrative positions ranging from college principal and acting director of the international program at Trent University in Canada, and in the United States as center director and department chair at the University of Illinois, college dean at Loyola Marymount University, and academic vice president at Quinnipiac University, I had come to appreciate that once you enter the administrative ladder, even if it’s by accident or reluctantly as was in my case, there are some imperatives one has to undertake in preparing for the next level.

Universities are learning institutions and as such university leaders at all levels from department chairs to school deans to management to board members must be continuous learners. This requires an inquisitive, humble, agile, open, creative, entrepreneurial, and resilient mindset.

It entails, first, undergoing formal training in university leadership. Unfortunately, this is underdeveloped in much of Africa as higher education leadership programs hardly exist in most countries. As part of my appointment, I asked for professional training opportunities to be included in my contract for the simple reason I had never been VC before so I needed to learn how to be one! In summer 2016 and summer 2017, I attended Harvard University’s seminars, one for new presidents and another on advancement leadership for presidents. Not only did I learn a lot, I also built an invaluable network of presidential colleagues.

Second, university leaders must familiarize themselves with and understand trends in higher education by reading widely on developments in the sector. In my case, for two decades I became immersed in the higher education media by subscribing to The Chronicle of Higher Education and later Times Higher Education, and reading the editions of Inside Higher EducationUniversity World News, and other outlets. As vice chancellor I took to producing a weekly digest of summaries of pertinent articles for the university’s leadership teams. I got the impression few bothered to read them, so after a while I stopped doing it. I delved into the academic media because I wanted to better understand my role and responsibilities as an administrator. Over time, this morphed into an abiding fascination with the history of universities and other knowledge producing institutions and systems.

Third, it is essential to develop the propensity for consulting, connecting, and learning from fellow leaders within and outside one’s institution. As a director, chair or a dean that means colleagues in those positions as well as those to who one reports. The same is true for deputy vice chancellors or vice presidents. For provosts and executive vice presidents and presidents the circle for collegial and candid conversations and advice narrows considerably and pivots to external peers.

In my case, this was immensely facilitated by joining boards including those of the International Association of Universities, the Kenya Education Network, better known as KENET, and the University of Ghana Council, and maintaining contacts with Universities South Africa. These networks together with those from my previous positions in Canada and the United States proved invaluable in sustaining my administrative and intellectual sanity.

Fourth, it is imperative to develop a deep appreciation and respect for the values of shared governance. Embracing and practicing shared governance is hard enough among the university’s internal stakeholders comprising administrators, faculty, staff, and students. It’s even more challenging for the external stakeholders including members of governing boards external to the academy. This was one of the biggest challenges I faced at USIU-Africa as I’ll discuss in a later installment.

Fifth, it is critical to appreciate the extraordinary demands, frustrations, opportunities and joys of leadership in African universities. Precisely because many of these universities are relatively new and suffer from severe capacity challenges of resources in terms of funding, facilities, qualified faculty, and well-prepared students, it creates exceptional opportunities for change and impact. Again, as will be elaborated in a later section, I derived levels of satisfaction as vice chancellor that were higher than I had experienced from previous positions in much older and better endowed Canadian and American institutions where university leaders are often caretakers of well-oiled institutional machines.

Sixth, during my long years of university leadership at various levels I had cultivated what I call the 6Ps: passion for the job, people engagement, planning for complexity and uncertainty, peer learning, process adherence, and partnership building. This often encompasses developing a personal philosophy of leadership. As I shared during the interviews for the position and throughout my tenure, I was committed to what I had crystallized into the 3Cs: collaboration, communication and creativity, in pursuit of the 3Es: excellence, engagement, and efficiency, based on the 3Ts: transparency, trust, and trends.

Seventh, it is important to pursue what my wonderful colleague, Ruthie Rono, who served as Deputy Vice Chancellor during my tenure, characterized as the 3Ps: protect, promote, and project, in this case, the mission, values, priorities, and interests of the institution as a whole not sectarian agendas. She often reminded us that this was her role as Kenya’s ambassador to several European and Southern African countries during a leave of absence from USIU-Africa, to safeguard Kenya’s interests. Unfortunately, outside the management team, this was not always the case among the other governing bodies as will be demonstrated later.

Eighth, as an administrator one has to balance personal and institutional voices, develop an ability to forgive and forget, and realize that it’s often not about you, but the position. Of course, so long as you occupy the position what you do matters; you take credit and blame for everything that happens in the institution even if you had little to do with it. Over the years as I climbed the escalator of academic administration, I confronted the ever-rising demands and circuits of institutional responsibility and accountability. You need to develop a thick skin to deflect the arrows of personal attack without absorbing them into your emotions. You need to anticipate and manage the predictable unpredictability of events.

Ninth, I had long learned the need to establish work balance as a teacher, scholar, and administrator. In this case, as an administrator I taught and conducted research within the time constraints of whatever position I held. I did the same during my time as vice chancellor. I taught one undergraduate class a year, attended academic conferences, and published research papers to the surprise of some faculty and staff and my fellow vice chancellors. I always reminded people that I became an academic because I was passionate about teaching and research. Being an administrator had actually opened new avenues for pursuing those passions. I had a satisfying professional life before becoming vice chancellor and I would have another after I left.

There was also the question of work-life balance. Throughout my administrative career I’ve always tried to balance as best as I can my roles as a parent, husband, friend, and colleague. Moreover, I maintained outside interests especially my love for travel, the creative, performing and visual arts, voracious reading habits developed in my youth over a wide range of subjects and genres, not to mention the esthetics of cooking and joys of eating out, and taking long walks. I found my neighborhood in Runda in Nairobi quite auspicious for the invigorating physical and mental pleasures of walking, which I did every day for more than an hour during weekdays and up to two hours on weekends.

Not being defined by my position made it easier to strive to perform to the best of any ability without being consumed by the job, and becoming overly protective of the fleeting seductions of the title of vice chancellor. I asked colleagues to call me by my first name, but save for one or two they balked preferring the colorless concoction, “Prof.” Over the years I had acquired a capacity to immerse myself and enjoy whatever position I occupied with the analytical predisposition of an institutional ethnographer. So, I took even unpleasant events and nasty surprises as learning and teachable moments.

This enabled me to develop the tenth lesson. Leave the position when you’ve given your best and have the energy to follow other positions or pursuits. When I informed the Board of Trustees, Chancellor, and University Council fourteen months to the end of my six-year contract that I would be leaving at the end of the contract, some people within and outside USIU-Africa including my fellow vice chancellors expressed surprise that I was not interested in another term.

The fact of the matter is that the average tenure of university presidents in many countries is getting shorter. This is certainly true in the United States. According to a 2017 report on the college presidency by the American Council of Education, while in the past presidents used to serve for decades—my predecessor served for 21 years—“The average tenure of a college president in their current job was 6.5 years in 2016, down from seven years in 2011. It was 8.5 years in 2006. More than half of presidents, 54 percent, said they planned to leave their current presidency in five years or sooner. But just 24 percent said their institution had a presidential succession plan.” Whatever the merits of longevity, creativity and fresh thinking is not one of them!

A major reason for the declining term of American university presidencies is, as William H. McRaven, a former military commander who planned the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, declared as he announced his departure as chancellor of the University of Texas system after only three years, “the job of college president, along with the leader of a health institution, [is] ‘the toughest job in the nation.’ In my case, there was a more mundane and compelling reason. My wife and I had agreed before I accepted the position that I would serve only one term. Taking the vice chancellorship represented a huge professional and financial sacrifice for her.

By the time I assumed the position, I believed I had acquired the necessary experiences, skills and mindset for the pinnacle of university leadership. Over the next six years I experienced the joys and tribulations of the job in dizzying abundance. This was evident almost immediately.

Two days after we arrived in Nairobi, we were invited to the home of one of my former students at Kenyatta University and the University of Illinois. Both he and his wife, who we knew in the United States from the days they were dating, were prominent public figures in Kenya; she later became a cabinet minister in President Kenyatta’s administration. We spent New Year’s Day at their beautiful home together with their lovely and exceedingly smart two daughters and some of their friends and relatives eating great food including roasted meat in Kenyan style. It was a fabulous welcome. We felt at home.

But the bubble soon burst. Hardly two weeks later, our home in the tony neighborhood of Runda was invaded by armed thugs one night. I was out of town at a university leadership retreat. My wife was alone. While she was not physically molested, she was psychologically traumatized. So was I. The thugs went off with all her jewelry including her wedding ring, my clothes and shoes, and our cellphones and computers. My soon to be finished book manuscript on The Transformation of Global Higher Education was in my stolen computer. It was a heinous intellectual assault.

Our Kenyan and foreign friends and acquaintances showered us with sympathy and support. Some commiserated with us by sharing their own stories of armed robbery, what the media called with evident exasperation, Nairoberry. We later learnt there was more to our hideous encounter, the specter of criminal xenophobia. It was a rude awakening to the roller coaster of highs and lows we would experience over the next six years during my tenure as Vice Chancellor of USIU-Africa.

Both of us had fought too many personal, professional, and political battles in our respective pasts to be intimidated. We were determined to stay, to contribute in whatever way we could to higher education in our beloved motherland.

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Scapegoats and Holy Cows: Climate Activism and Livestock

Opposition to livestock has become part of climate activism. Veganism is growing, particularly amongst affluent Westerners, and billions of dollars are flowing into the associated “animal-free meat and dairy” industry. This will result in yet more people forced off their land and away from self-sufficiency, give more profits and power to corporations, and may have little or no positive impact on the environment.

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Scapegoats and Holy Cows: Climate Activism and Livestock
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Until recently, Greta Thunberg kept a filmed appeal to stop eating meat and dairy as the first item on her twitter account—she has been a vegan for half her life, so that is not surprising. Her message begins with pandemics but swiftly segues to climate change, as might be expected. (Assertions linking deforestation with pandemics are tenuous and speculative: there is no established link between COVID19 and deforestation or the wildlife trade.) The film was made by Mercy for Animals, which she thanks.

The film remained top of her twitter account for months. She has several million followers, so the value of the advertising she gave this little-known not-for-profit must run into millions of dollars. As opposition to livestock has become a major plank of climate activism, it is worth looking at how the world’s biggest climate influencer chooses to influence it.

Greta Thunberg’s 2021 Mercy for Animals film: “If we don’t change, we are f***ed.”

Greta Thunberg’s 2021 Mercy for Animals film: “If we don’t change, we are f***ed.”

Mercy for Animals is an American NGO with the stated purpose of ending factory farming because it is cruel to animals, a fact with which few would disagree. There are other reasons to shun factory-farmed meat as opposed to meat from animals raised on pasture, not least because some of the meat thus produced is subsequently heavily processed using unhealthy ingredients and then shipped long distances. The reason factory-farmed meat remains profitable is, obviously, because it is cheap and those who cannot afford expensive free range or organic have little other choice.

There is no doubt that factory farming is an industrial process that pollutes. There is also no doubt that an average Western—especially urban—diet contains a lot of unhealthy things, including too much meat. But whether or not folk who eat sensible amounts of local, organic meat and dairy, and try to stay fit and healthy, would have any significant impact on the planet’s climate by changing their diet is another matter, which I will come back to.

Mercy for Animal’s beliefs go much further than opposing animal cruelty. The organisation believes in speciesism or rather anti-speciesism, the idea that humans have no right to impose their will on other animals or to “exploit” them. It is a view that is shared by a growing number of people, especially vegans in the Global North. Thunberg goes as far as believing that only vegans can legitimately “stand up for human rights,” and wants non-vegans to feel guilty. Even more radical is Google founder, Larry Page, who reportedly thinks robots should be treated as a living species, just that they are silicon-based rather than carbon-based!

Whatever novel ideas anti-speciesists think up, no species would evolve without favouring its own. Our ancestors would never have developed their oversized brains if they had not eaten scavenged or hunted meat, and we have always lived in symbiosis with other animals, sometimes to the benefit of both. It seems likely that the wolf ancestors of dogs freely elected to live close to humans, taking advantage of our hearths and our ability to store game. In this, the earliest proven instance of domestication, perhaps each species exploited the other.

Having visited many subsistence hunters and herders over the last half century, I know that the physical – and spiritual – relationship they have with the creatures they hunt, herd or use for transport, is very different from that of most people (including me!). Most of us now have little experience of the intimacy that comes when people depend at first-hand on animals for survival.

Hunters, for example, often think they have a close connection with their game, and it is based on respect and exchange. A good Yanomami huntsman in Amazonia does not eat his own catch but gives it away to others. Boys are taught that if they are generous like this, the animals will approach them to offer themselves willingly as prey. Such a belief encourages strong social cohesion and reciprocity, which could not be more different from Western ideals of accumulation. The importance of individual cows to African herders, or of horses to the Asian steppe dwellers who, we think, started riding them in earnest, can be touchingly personal, and the same can be found all over the world.

Our ancestors would never have developed their oversized brains if they had not eaten scavenged or hunted meat

Everyone knows that many small children, if they feel safe, have an innate love of getting up close and personal to animals, and projects enabling deprived city kids to interact with livestock on farms can improve mental wellbeing and make children happier.

This closeness to other species is a positive experience for many, clearly including Thunberg; her film features her in an English animal sanctuary and cuddling one of her pet dogs. Those who believe speciesism is of great consequence, on the other hand, seem to seek a separation between us and other animals, whilst paradoxically advancing the idea that there is none. Animals are to be observed from a distance, perhaps kept as pets, but never “exploited” for people’s benefit.

Mercy for Animals does not stop at opposing factory farming. It is against the consumption of animal products altogether, including milk and eggs, and thinks that all creatures, including insects, must be treated humanely. Using animals for any “work” that benefits people is frowned upon. For example, the foundation holds the view that sheepdogs are “doubly problematic” because both dogs and sheep are exploited. It accepts, however, that they have been bred to perform certain tasks and may “experience stress and boredom if not given . . . work.” In a communication to me, the organisation has confirmed that it is also (albeit seemingly reluctantly) ok with keeping pets as they are “cherished companions with whom we love to share our lives”, and without them we would be “impoverished”. Exactly the same could be said for many working dogs of course.

Anyway, this not-for-profit believes that humans are moving away from using animals for anything, not only meat, but milk, wool, transport, emergency rescue, and everything else. It claims “several historical cultures have recognized the inherent right of animals to live . . . without human intervention or exploitation,” and thinks we are slowly evolving to a “higher consciousness” which will adopt its beliefs. It says this is informed by Hindu and Buddhist ideals and that it is working to “elevate humanity to its fullest potential.”

We all exalt our own morality of course, but professing a higher consciousness than those who think differently casts a supremacist shadow. The alleged connection with Indian religions is a common argument but remains debatable. The sacredness of cows, for example, is allied to their providing the dairy products widespread in Hindu foods and rituals. The god Krishna, himself a manifestation of the Supreme Being Vishnu, was a cattle herder. The Rig Veda, the oldest Indian religious text, is clear about their role: “In our stalls, contented may they stay! May they bring forth calves for us . . . giving milk.” Nearly a third of the world’s cattle are thought to live in India. Would they survive the unlikely event of Hindus converting to veganism?

Most Hindus are not wholly vegetarian. Although a key tenet of Hindu fundamentalism over recent generations is not eating beef, the Rig Veda mentions cows being ritually killed in an earlier age. The renowned Swami Vivekananda, who first took Hinduism and yoga to the US at the end of the 19th century and is hailed as one of the most important holy men of his era, wrote that formerly, “A man [could not] be a good Hindu who does not eat beef,” and reportedly ate it himself. Anyway, the degree to which cows were viewed as “sacred” in early Hinduism is not as obvious as many believe. The Indus Civilisation of four or five thousand years ago, to which many look for their physical and spiritual origins, was meat-eating, although many fundamentalist Hindus now deny it.

Vegetarians are fond of claiming well-known historical figures for themselves. In India, perhaps the most famous is Ashoka, who ruled much of the subcontinent in the third century before Christ and was the key proponent of Buddhism. He certainly advocated compassion for animals and was against sacrificial slaughter and killing some species, but it is questionable whether he or those he ruled were actually vegetarian.

We all exalt our own morality of course, but professing a higher consciousness than those who think differently casts a supremacist shadow.

Whatever Ashoka’s diet included, many Buddhists today are meat-eaters like the Dalai Lama and most Tibetans—rather avid ones in my experience—and tea made with butter is a staple of Himalayan monastic life. Mercy for Animals however remains steadfast to its principles, asserting, “Even (sic!) Jewish and Muslim cultures are experiencing a rise in animal welfare consciousness.”

Mercy for Animals might look at how racists have supported animal rights over the last hundred years, sometimes cynically and sometimes not. “Concern for animals can coexist with a strong strain of misanthropy, and can be used to demonise minority groups as barbaric, uncivilised and outdated . . . in contrast to supposedly civilised, humane Aryans. . . . The far right’s ventures into animal welfare is sometimes coupled with ‘green’ politics and a form of nature mysticism.”

Mercy for Animals was founded by Milo Runkle, a self-styled “yogi” who lives in Los Angeles. He was raised on an Ohio farm and discovered his calling as a teenager on realising the cruelty of animal slaughter. He is now an evangelical vegan who believes an “animal-free” meal is, “an act of kindness”. He is also a keen participant in the billion-dollar Silicon Valley industry trying to make and sell “meat and dairy” made from plants, animal cells and chemicals. He is a co-founder of the Good Food Institute and sits on the board of Lovely Foods. Like others in the movement, he rejects the term “fake” and insists that the products made in factories—that are supported by billionaires like Richard Branson and Bill Gates—are real meat and dairy, just made without animals.

The multi-million dollar Good Food Institute is also supported by Sam Harris, a US philosopher who came to prominence with his criticism of Islam, which he believes is a religion of “bad ideas, held for bad reasons, leading to bad behaviour”, and constitutes “a unique danger to all of us.”

Milo Runkle, in white, and vegan friends, 2019.

Milo Runkle, in white, and vegan friends, 2019.

Ersatz animal products are of course ultra-processed, by definition. They use gene modifications, are expensive, and produce a significant carbon footprint, although figures for the gasses emitted for any type of food depend on thousands of variables and are extremely complex to calculate. The numbers bandied about are often manipulated and should be viewed with caution, but it seems that the environmental footprint of “cultivated meat” may actually be greater than that of pork or poultry.

Is opposing livestock—and not just factory farming—and promoting veganism and fake meat and dairy a really effective way of reducing environmental pollution? Few people are qualified to assess the numerous calculations and guesses, but it is clear that there are vastly different claims from the different sides in the anti-livestock debate. They range from it contributing some 14 per cent of greenhouse gases, to a clearly exaggerated 50 per cent—and the fact that livestock on pasture also benefits the atmosphere is rarely mentioned by its critics. Thunberg plumps for a vague “agriculture and land use together” category, which she thinks accounts for 25 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions, but which of course includes plants. It is also important to realise that some grazing lands are simply not able to produce human food other than when used as animal pasture. Take livestock out of the picture in such places, and the amount of land available for food production immediately shrinks.

In brief, some vegetarians and vegans may produce higher greenhouse gas emissions than some omnivores—it all depends on exactly what they consume and where it is from. If they eat an out-of-season vegetable that has travelled thousands of miles to reach their plate, it has a high carbon footprint. The same thing, grown locally in season, has a much lower carbon footprint. If you are in Britain and buy, for example, aubergines, peas, beans, asparagus, or Kenyan beans, you are likely consuming stuff with a high environmental impact.

Mercy for Animals might look at how racists have supported animal rights over the last hundred years, sometimes cynically and sometimes not.

In any event, there is no doubt that a locally sourced, organically raised—or wild—animal is an entirely different creature from one born and living in a factory on the other side of the world. There is also no doubt that the factory version could be a legitimate target for climate activism. So could the felling of established forests, whether it is for cattle, animal feed or any number of things.

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Why should anyone who does not want real meat or dairy want to eat an expensive lookalike made entirely in a factory? Is it mere taste, habit, or virtue signalling? Few would dispute that the food we eat is at the centre of our identity. This has long been recognised by social scientists, and is in plain sight in the restaurant quarter of every city, everywhere in the world. “You are what you eat” is also as scientific as it is axiomatic.

3D printed meatDiet is central to many religions, and making people change what they eat, whether through the mission, schoolroom, or legal prohibitions, has long been a significant component in the colonial enterprise of “civilising the natives”. Many traditional indigenous diets are high in animal protein, are nutrient-rich, and are low in fat or high in marine sources of fat. Restricting the use of traditional lands and prohibiting hunting, fishing and trapping—as well as constant health edicts extolling low animal fat diets—have been generally disastrous for indigenous people’s wellbeing, and this is particularly noticeable in North America and Australia. The uniquely notorious residential schools in North America, where indigenous children were taken from their families and forced into a deliberately assimilationist regime, provided children with very little meat, or much of anything for that matter. Many died.

Western campaigns around supposedly improving diet go far beyond physical welfare. For example, the world’s best known breakfast cereal was developed by the Seventh Day Adventist and fiercely vegetarian Kellogg brothers in 1894. They were evangelical about the need to reduce people’s sex drive. Dr Kellogg advocated a healthy diet of his Corn Flakes, which earned him millions. He separately advised threading silver wire through the foreskin and applying acid to the clitoris to stop the “doubly abominable” sin of masturbation. Food choices go beyond animal cruelty or climate change!

The belief that meat-eatingparticularly red meatstimulates sexual desire and promotes devilish masturbation is common in Seventh Day Adventism, a religion founded in the US in the 1860s out of an earlier belief called Millerism. The latter held that Christ would return in 1844 to herald the destruction of the Earth by fire. Seventh Day Adventism is a branch of Protestantism, the religion that has always underpinned American attitudes about material wealth being potentially allied to holiness. I have written elsewhere on how Calvinist Protestant theology from northern Europe underpins the contemporary notion of a sinful humankind opposing a divine “Nature”, and it is noteworthy that Seventh Day Adventism starts at exactly the same time as does the US national park movement in the 1860s.

Restricting the use of traditional lands and prohibiting hunting, fishing and trapping have been generally disastrous for indigenous people’s wellbeing.

Although this is not widely known by the general public, Seventh Day Adventism is one of the world’s fastest growing religions, and has sought to push its opposition to meat into wider American attitudes for over a century. For example, the American Dietetic Association was co-founded by a colleague of Kellogg, Lenna Cooper, in 1917. It evolved into the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and is now the world’s largest organisation of nutrition and dietetics practitioners.

Protestants figuring out what God wants humans to eat dates from before Seventh Day Adventism. The famous founder of Methodism, John Wesley, did not eat meat; some years after he died, a few of his followers started the vegetarian Bible Christian Church in England’s West Country. They sent missionaries to North America a generation before the foundation of Seventh Day Adventism and were also closely involved in establishing the Vegetarian Society in England in 1847three years after Christ did not come to end the world with fire as originally predicted. It was this society that first popularised the term “vegetarian”. In 1944, a hundred years after that non-appearance of Christ, the word “vegan” was coined.

Fundamentalist Christians might believe that humankind’s supposedly vegan diet in the Garden of Eden should be followed by everyone, and that is obviously open to question from several points of view. What is clearer, and worth repeating, is that the “normal” Western urban diet, particularly North American, contains a lot of highly processed factory foods and additives and is just not great for human health.

In 1944, a hundred years after that non-appearance of Christ, the word “vegan” was coined.

It is also true that, in spite of generations of colonialism trying to erode people’s food self-sufficiency, hundreds of millions of people still depend on eating produceanimal as well as vegetablewhich is collected, hunted, caught or herded by their own hands, or by others close by, often sustainably and organically. Perhaps rather paradoxically, Thunberg visited Sami reindeer herders the year before her Mercy for Animals film. They are recognised as indigenous people in her part of the world and are about as far from veganism as is possible. They not only eat the reindeer, including its milk, cheese and blood, but also consume fish, moose and other animals. As far as I know, there are no indigenous peoples who vegan anywhere in the world.

Sami haute cuisine, about as far from veganism as imaginable.

Sami haute cuisine, about as far from veganism as imaginable.

Like the Sami, about one quarter of all Africans depend on sustainable herding, and the pastoralists in that continent have an enviable record of knowing how to survive the droughts that have been a seasonal feature in their lives for countless generations. It is also the case that pasturelands created or sustained by their herds are far better carbon sinks than new woodlands.

Some wild as well as domesticated animal species feed a lot of people. In spite of conservationist prohibitions and its relentless demonisation, “bushmeat” is more widespread than is admitted and remains an important nutritional source for many Africans. Denigrating it has an obviously racist tone when compared to how “game” is extolled in European cuisine. If you are rich, you can eat bushmeat, if you are poor, you cannot.

Many do not realise that bushmeat is openly served in African restaurants, particularly in South Africa and Namibia, the countries with by far the highest proportion of white citizens. During the hunting season, no less than 20 per cent of all (red) meat eaten is from game with, for example, ostrich, springbok, warthog, kudu, giraffe, wildebeest, crocodile and zebra all featuring on upmarket menus. Meanwhile, poor Africans risk fines, beatings, imprisonment or worse if they hunt the same creatures. When “poachers” are caught or shot, Western social media invariably erupts with brays of how they deserve extreme punishment.

 The Carnivore, Johannesburg (also in Nairobi), “Africa’s Greatest Eating Experience”, makes a feature of bushmeat on its menus.

The Carnivore, Johannesburg (also in Nairobi), “Africa’s Greatest Eating Experience”, makes a feature of bushmeat on its menus.

Some conservationists would like to end both herding and hunting and, even more astonishingly, advocate for Africans to eat only chicken and farmed fish. In real life, any step towards that luckily unattainable goal would result in an increase in malnutrition, in the profits of those who own the food factories and supply chains, and probably in greenhouse gas emissions as well.

Controlling people’s health and money by controlling their access to food has always featured large in the history of human subjugation. Laying siege was always a guaranteed way of breaking an enemy’s body and spirit. If most food around the world is to be produced in factorieslike fake meat and dairythen the factory owners will control human life. The drive to push small-scale hunters, herders and farmers off their land, supposedly for rewilding or conservation, is a step towards that ruin.

The clamour against meat and dairy goes far beyond opposition to factory farming, and that is the problem. Of course, there is nothing wrong with celebrating vegetarianism and veganism, but claiming they are a product of a higher consciousness or morality, and labelling those who do not follow the commandment as cruel or guilty if they stick to their existing diet, as Thunberg and Runkle do, turns them into religious beliefs. These invariably encompass fundamentalist undertones that can tip all too easily into violence against non-believers.

“Meet [sic] is murder” – vandalism of meat and cheese shops is a common tactic of vegan activists.

“Meet [sic] is murder” – vandalism of meat and cheese shops is a common tactic of vegan activists.

Some vegans go beyond persuasion, and try to force others to their belief whether they like it or not. One way in which they do this is by raiding factory farms illegally to “liberate” the animals, as Milo Runkle did, or they engage in other low-level vandalism like spray-painting meat and cheese shops or breaking windows, or go further and wreck vehicles. The fact that the most extremist animal rights activistsusually referencing veganismdo all of this and a great deal more, including physical threats, arson, grave robbing (sic), and planting bombs, is unfortunately no invented conspiracy theory.

The most extreme protests involving firebombs and razor blades in letters are normally reserved for those who use animal tests in research. The homes of scientists are usually the targets, although other places such as restaurants and food processing plants are also in the firing line. One US study found that the activists behind the violence were all white, mostly unmarried men in their 20s. Their beliefs echoed those of many ordinary climate activists. They included supporting biodiversity; that humans should not dominate the earth; that governments and corporations destroy the environment; and that the political system will not fix the crisis.

An organisation called Band of Mercy (unrelated to Mercy for Animals) was formed in 1972 and renamed the Animal Liberation Front four years later. Starting in Britain, where by 1998 it had grown to become “the most serious domestic terrorist threat”, it spawned hundreds of similar groups in forty countries around the world. Membership is largely hidden but they do seek publicity—in one year alone, they claimed responsibility for 554 acts of vandalism and arson.

Of course, moderate vegans are not responsible for the violence of a small minority, but history shows that where there are lots of people looking for a meaningful cause, some will support those they latch onto in extreme ways. In brief, there is a problematic background to opposing meat and dairy that should be faced. Big influencers must accept a concomitantly big responsibility in choosing what to endorse. The most powerful influencers who demonise anything must be sensitive to the inevitability of extremist interpretations of their message.

The drive to push small-scale hunters, herders and farmers off their land, supposedly for rewilding or conservation, is a step towards that ruin.

We know that digital communication is a new and effective way of stoking anger that can lead to violence. For example, the risk that Muslims in India today might be murdered by Hindu fundamentalists if they are even suspected of eating beef seems to have increased with the proliferation of social media. Characterising a meal as cruel if it includes meat or even dairy, as Runkle wants us to, could be used to stoke deadly flames far from his West Coast home.

Hindu fundamentalists, having lynched a Muslim suspected of storing beef, burn his effigy in response to an inquiry that found that he had not.

Hindu fundamentalists, having lynched a Muslim suspected of storing beef, burn his effigy in response to an inquiry that found that he had not.

More broadly, well off influencers trying to make others feel guilty about what they eat should be careful about unintended consequences. Disordered eating damages many people, especially young girls who already face challenges around their transition to adulthood. In addition to everyday teenage angst and biology, they are faced with the relentless scourge of social media, now with eco- and COVID19-anxiety as added burdens. In a rich country like the UK, suicide has become the main cause of death for young people. In that context, telling people they are guilty sinners if they carry on eating what they, or their parents, have habitually eaten could set off dangerous, cultish echoes.

On another level, corporations and NGOs should stop trying to deprive people of any food self-sufficiency they might have left, and stop kicking them off their territories and into a dependence on factories from which the same corporations profit.

The obvious lesson from all this is to eat locally produced organic food as much as possible, if one can. That is a good choice for health, local farming, sustainability, and reducing pollution. Those who want to might also choose to eat less meat and dairy, or none at all. That is a good choice for those who oppose animal slaughter, believe milk is exploitation, or decide that vegan is better for them. However, claiming veganism means freedom from guilt and sin and is a key to planetary salvation is altogether different and, to say the least, open to question.

Thunberg’s core message in her Mercy for Animals film is “We can change what we eat”, although she admits that some have no choice. In reality, choosing what to eat is an extraordinarily rare privilege, denied to most of the world’s population, including the poor of Detroit and Dhaka. The world’s richest large country has 37 million people who simply do not have enough to eat, of anything; six million of these Americans are children. Those lucky enough to possess the privilege of choice do indeed have an obligation to use it thoughtfully. In that respect anyway, Thunberg is right.

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