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Lockdown: Flying Blind in the Season of Coronavirus

9 min read.

The government’s contingency plan for tackling the coronavirus is not clear and so far appears to focus on surveillance and containing the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. It needs to invest in the clinical set-up beyond capacity but the supply of oxygen ventilators and other materials is likely to be complicated by the greatly increased demand in the global market.

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A dozen military trucks roll out of the memorial cemetery in Bergamo, northern Italy, on the evening of March 19, 2020. Three more follow them. Each is carrying bodies that have been piling up for days inside the cemetery church because the city crematorium cannot cope with the deaths from the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the coffins being loaded onto the trucks by forklift holds the body of 74-year-old Italian software engineer Duilio Scaricamazza, recently returned from an East African business trip that took him to Uganda, Kenya and Djibouti in early February.

The closest the world has come to this scale of tragedy from a contagion in recent times are the Ebola outbreaks in West Africa, which the World Health Organisation classified as a public health emergency of international concern in July last year.

Videos of the military trucks are the only ritual of Duilio’s final journey through which his family and friends will reach closure. He had passed all the screening tests at the departure and arrival lounges in Kampala and Nairobi. Airport thermometers and thermal scanners, notorious for failing to detect Ebola, serious acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and H1N1 influenza, are no match for the fever, cough and shortness of breath that are the symptoms of the coronavirus disease.

Those who contract the coronavirus can sometimes fail to show any of these symptoms and it is not clear if Duilio was infected before his return home to Italy but, in less than a month, he was dead from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

On December 31, 2019, Chinese authorities reported to the WHO country office that they had detected a pneumonia of unknown cause in Wuhan. WHO subsequently classified the outbreak as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on January 30, 2020, giving it its name, COVID-19, on February 11, 2020, and declaring it a pandemic a month later.

“Once you have a system that warns you of an oncoming pandemic like this one, you will have the time to map out your immediate areas of focus. For example, had Kenya had an early warning system that could show us where the first case would potentially come from, we would have cancelled flights to and from those places as a national security priority”, says anthropologist and media columnist Gabriel Oguda.

After news of the epidemic first broke in Wuhan, where 91 Kenyan students live and nine artistes were visiting, Ambassador Sarah Serem decreed that these 100 people would not be repatriated for fear of infecting one another, and bringing the disease home.

Less than a month after Serem’s statement, on February 27, 2020, Kenya Airways suspended airport security guard Ali Gure from his job for posting on his social media page a photograph of a Chinese airline landing at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport with 239 passengers on board.

The Law Society of Kenya, two doctors and a lawyer obtained a High Court order the following day temporarily stopping flights from China and other coronavirus hotspots. Jolted by Justice James Makau’s order, which also required the government to take robust measures to prepare for the virus, President Uhuru Kenyatta established a coronavirus task force and ordered the completion of an isolation facility in seven days.

By then the horse had bolted and the country had begun a hopeless search for Patient Zero. No one seemed to know where to find him or her.

A fortnight after the court decision, Kenya announced it had found its first COVID-19 case—a 27-year-old arriving from the United States through London. Just two days later, on March 16, 2020, Kenyatta ordered a shutdown of schools, workplaces and a ban on large gatherings—and called a national day of prayer.

Erroneously described as a flu-like disease, COVID-19 is actually the collapse of the breathing system when the lungs swell and fill with fluid.

By then the horse had bolted and the country had begun a hopeless search for Patient Zero

Dr Warurua Mugo, a Nairobi-based chest specialist, explains that the virus enters the body through the nose or mouth and makes a home in the air sacs where it infects the protective epithelial cells, hooks itself onto membranes, and begins to multiply thus closing off the supply of oxygen and causing swelling in the lungs as they fill with fluid. The patient is overwhelmed by a sensation of drowning, and only a respirator and supplemental oxygen can hold death at bay because there is often the risk of multiple organ failure or septic shock.

“[When] WHO declared the first case of [COVID-19], that’s the day the president should have summoned the Health minister and asked him to constitute that corona team. We needed not to wait for the virus to start causing havoc before starting to run all over the place”, says Oguda.

What started as a droplet has turned into a steady trickle, with cases popping up in rural spots where people arriving from Europe and the United States have visited.

By March 15, 2020, Kenyatta felt compelled to order suspension of travel into the country except for national and permanent residents, self-quarantine for those who had arrived 14 days earlier, a shutdown of schools, and heightened hand hygiene and physical distancing.

With the count of COVID-19 cases reaching 25 in the country, some 96 people traced, tested and released, and the search on to trace 700 others believed to have come into contact with the infected, tighter restrictions are coming into force. Kenyatta’s new salesman, the former spin-master and one-time information communication technology minister Mutahi Kagwe, has been gently turning the screws since taking charge as Health Cabinet Secretary, with the country headed into a likely lockdown. Bars and restaurants have been closed, worship congregations banned, funeral attendance has been limited to only 15 family members and the number of passengers allowed in a public transport vehicle cut by half as exhortations to increase physical distance and wash hands regularly have doubled.

The patient is overwhelmed by a sensation of drowning, and only a respirator and supplemental oxygen can hold death at bay

Although Kenya was the first country on the continent to go into a 30-day slowdown, it has been swiftly followed by South Africa, which announced a 21-day lockdown and suspended all flights. Nigeria and Egypt, which identified COVID-19 patients ahead of Kenya, have similarly ordered lockdowns, as have Uganda and Rwanda, Angola, Burkina Faso and Namibia which were initially measured in their response. Tanzania and Sierra Leone, both of which were hesitant to take strong action, are following suit.

“It is overwhelming”, says Dr Ouma Oluga, the secretary-general of the Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists Union. “Doctors and health workers are a worried lot. Political directives that might be [well-intentioned] are being issued without adequate preparation on the ground, and therefore not congruent with reality”.

Countries have been cautioned against fighting the pandemic blindfolded, and as the WHO Director-General, Tedros Ghebreyesus, said on March 16, 2020, the way to fight back is through “testing, testing and testing”.

“Our numbers are likely to be underestimated because of low testing capacity”, Oluga adds. “Stringent criteria on who to test, because not everybody needed to be tested, meant waiting for people to be ill before testing”.

Danni Askini, an American healthcare professional, was billed $34,927 (Sh3.7 million) for the treatment she received after contracting Covid-19. Testing alone cost her $907 (Sh96,142). India’s government announced a 4,500 Rupees (Sh6,255) cap on what private laboratories can charge for two polymerase chain reaction tests for coronavirus.

The coronavirus epidemic is also showing up Kenya’s low investment in research. The National Influenza Laboratory in Nairobi, the Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) in Nairobi, Kisumu and Kilifi as well as the University of Nairobi have the capacity to test for the coronavirus, and could be supported by private laboratories at Aga Khan University Teaching Hospital and Lancet Kenya. The shortage of testing kits has meant that results, which would typically come in after six to eight hours, are instead available in 24 hours. Chinese billionaire Jack Ma and his Alibaba Foundation donated 1.1 million test kits to Africa this week, with Kenya slated to receive 20,000 test kits, 100,000 masks and 1,000 medical suits and face shields.

What started as a droplet has turned into a steady trickle, with cases popping up in rural spots where people arriving from Europe and the United States had visited

There are two ways to become immune: one is to experience the infection to create antibodies, or receive a vaccine to stimulate antibodies without experiencing the disease. Britain had initially opted to tough it out and wait for those who would die of COVID-19 to do so before the pandemic stabilised, thereby creating what scientists refer to as herd immunity. It changed tack after WHO admonished the strategy: “Not testing alone. Not contact tracing alone. Not quarantine alone. Not social distancing alone. Do it all”, said Ghebreyesus.

“Herd immunity eventually develops but over a long period time of continuous exposure. I disagree with epidemiologists who expose everyone who expect immediate herd immunity because it can develop after 50 to 60 years . . . you lose it with time . . . the casualties would be too high, and vulnerable people will die”, Oluga says.

Shutdowns are an attempt to break transmission in order to enable health services to regroup and deal with the cases that show up. But the messaging has not been without its light moments. Justifying the ban on bars, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni said, “Drunkards sit close to one another. They speak with saliva coming out of their mouth. They are a danger to themselves. All these [merrymaking activities] are suspended for a month”.

The irony of asking Kenya to go into lockdown when much of its population is already cooped up in congested and unsanitary residential areas, has been completely lost on the government. According to the Economic Survey 2019, there were 14,865,900 people working jobs in the informal sector. “The informal sector is characterized by small scale activities, easy entry and exit, skills majorly gained from vocational schools, less capital investment, no or limited job security and self-employment”.

“This sector excludes illegal activities,” the Survey adds. These statistics belie the precarious nature of the jobs in the informal sector: they are day-wage occupations that finance hand-to-mouth survival. Only 2,765,100 people are in formal wage employment and just 152,200 are in self-employment.

The Kenyan Section of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ-Kenya) has appealed to the government to issue directives on food prices and other basic commodities as well as medicines and items that will be important in preventing and treating COVID-19.

The coronavirus epidemic is also showing up Kenya’s low investment in research

Additionally, ICJ-Kenya has urged the government to develop and implement socio-economic responses for Kenyans in informal employment who are not able to “work from home” and who would need assistance in meeting their basic needs.

Big economic players like tourism and travel, as well as horticulture, are in shutdown in an economy that had been projected to grow at 6.2 per cent. Central Bank of Kenya governor Patrick Njoroge announced that Kenya would be seeking $350 million emergency assistance from the World Bank.

Relief offered so far by the government in the form of free hand sanitisers, Loon balloons from which 4G internet will increase mobile phone coverage, and waiver of mobile money transaction fees charged by banks, does little to address the lived realities of people. Digital contact tracking is emerging as one of the tools—albeit controversial—for tackling the pandemic. Correspondence to Safaricom seeking confirmation that the firm would be assisting in tracking passengers who arrived in the country early this year—especially given that two Chinese telecommunication companies were able to track the movement of people out of Wuhan in the early days of the epidemic—did not receive a response.

Salome Bukachi, professor of medical anthropology at the University of Nairobi, says dialogue with the community can contribute to creating protocols for quarantine, lockdown and isolation in a manner that balances respect for social backgrounds and public health needs.

Alessandro Scarci, an Italian lawyer based in Kenya for the past 20 years who has been following developments in his home country, says no health system can withstand the pressure from the pandemic. Milan, which is one of the wealthiest parts of Europe, has seen one of the best health systems collapse. “Even if you think you can improve the health system, without 1,000 per cent containment, you cannot manage this pandemic if you do not contain people”, says Scarci. “Unless there are plans to distribute food and water for free in poor residential areas, and the armed services patrol the streets, there is going to be a riot,” he adds ominously.

Oluga agrees that a lockdown is probably the best option, but for developing countries with insufficient cash reserves and chronic underfunding of social protection, this path is fraught with difficulty. Some 2.5 million people live in slums in Kenya, where houses can be as small as 12 feet by 12 feet, without reliable water or sanitation services.

Acts of austerity belie the crisis waiting to explode in Kenya and on the continent. Treatment requires isolation beds, respirators and oxygen. And it requires people. So far, Kenya has announced that it has trained 1,100 health workers. Those numbers will prove woefully inadequate if more infections show up.

Milan, which is one of the wealthiest parts of Europe, has seen one of the best health systems collapse

Shortages of testing materials and capacity, as well as the low numbers of healthcare workers has meant that where one patient is diagnosed with the disease, seven doctors are in isolation, he adds. The effect on an already strained health workforce is likely to be devastating.

In Nairobi, nurses at Mbagathi Hospital—the institution designated as the isolation centre for COVID-19—went on strike to protest against uneven training and unavailability protective gear. Moreover, there is a limit to the number of patients healthcare workers can handle.

Already, the number of people currently being traced is quickly outstripping the 120-bed capacity at Mbagathi, the additional 60 beds at the Kenyatta National Hospital and the 300 reserve places at the Kenyatta University Teaching and Referral Hospital. Around the country, Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital (25), Kakamega Hospital (25), Meru County’s Level 5 Hospital (20), Coast General Hospital (19) and King Fahd Hospital in Lamu (8) bring the national total to just under 600 beds.

Still, questions linger about what will happen on April 16 when the 30-day measures announced by the government are supposed to be reviewed. What is the end-game in managing the COVID-19 epidemic in Kenya? After the lapse of the first 30-day measures, what would be the next steps? What are the best and worst-case scenarios for managing COVID-19 in Kenya after April 16? These questions were sent to CS Kagwe and to the Principal Secretary at the Ministry of Health, Susan Mochache, with no responses forthcoming.

On Tuesday, March 24, 2020, Law Society of Kenya lawyer Ochiel Dudley said the government had not filed its contingency plan for tackling the coronavirus as required by the High Court—but the judge was hesitant to ‘recall a general from the battlefront’.

So far, official scenario mapping has appeared to focus on surveillance and containing the spread of the pandemic. “We need to invest in the clinical set-up beyond capacity and think about what are we doing when people come to hospital”, says Oluga. “If treating, what we are doing needs to be endorsed and published in the form of second, practical guidelines”. Besides the headaches of infrastructure in terms of availability of beds in intensive care, the supply of oxygen ventilators and other materials will likely be complicated by the greatly increased demand in the global market.

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Kwamchetsi Makokha is a journalist with over two decades on the frontline of the struggle for human dignity. Co-editor (with Arthur Luvai) of the East African poetry anthology, 'Echoes across the Valley', he escapes into literature, the performing arts and agriculture. He is currently Programme Advisor at Journalists For Justice.

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Educating the Native and the Ivy League Myth

Elite schools in the US continue to place a premium on institutions, not ideas. Where you went to school is what matters.

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As a young student, I was always fascinated by the “top” universities and the erudite people that emerged from those august institutions. My first contact with Ivy League people was when I arrived at Mpala Research Centre in Laikipia in 1999 to start my MSc research. I met students and faculty from Princeton University (which is a trustee of the research centre) and was reassured that they looked “normal”, given all the academic challenges and foibles that a Kenyatta University student like me had. After I finished my MSc, the administration was impressed enough with my work to offer me a job as resident scientist, which I took up with the alacrity of someone catching a big break through hard work (I got a rude awakening later, but that’s a story for another day). As part of my job, I was to supervise a group of Princeton undergraduates undertaking a senior field project and, wanting impress, I sharpened my ecologist brain, especially because I thought I would be instructing some of the world’s sharpest young minds. Now I laugh at my consternation when, after mapping out clear and easy ecological transects for them, they strayed off into a neighbouring ranch and I got a call from the security personnel there that they were sunbathing topless on the research vehicle (they were ladies) and that the boss might be offended.

Later on, I asked a postgraduate student from the same institution how these ladies could be so casual about their studies and she couldn’t hide her amusement at my ignorance. “Grad school is competitive. Undergrads get in because of money and name recognition.” I was stunned, but I remembered this when I saw the poor work they submitted at the end of their study. Being an aspiring lecturer (and a student of the late brilliant Prof R.O. Okelo) I marked them without fear or favour, assuming that they would be used to such standards at Princeton. I was told that I couldn’t give them such low marks because they were supposed to qualify for med school after their biology degrees.

They strayed off into a neighbouring ranch and I got a call from the security personnel there that they were sunbathing topless on the research vehicle.

The next cohort included one serious student who I actually enjoyed instructing and who finished her course successfully. By that time though, I was getting restless and had started writing an academic and financial proposal for my PhD, and I finished it about six months after my student had returned to the US to graduate. The then Director of Mpala, Dr Georgiadis, refused to let me do my PhD on the job, so I submitted my proposal to several conservation organizations, including the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society. I received a positive response from them (offering me a grant) which hit me with a strange mixture of feelings. First of all, I was elated at the prospect of starting my PhD, but I was completely baffled by the signature on the award letter. It was signed by the undergraduate student that I had supervised about eight months earlier. An American undergraduate who had spent two months in Africa was somehow qualified to assess a PhD proposal on the ecology of African wildlife written by an African MSc holder. It was my rude awakening to the racial prejudice that is de rigueur in African conservation practice. But I had to get my academic career moving, and indulge my first taste of the ultimate luxury that my competence and my work could afford me, which was the ability to say “NO”. It was with extreme pleasure that I wrote and signed my letter of resignation from my job at Mpala, leaving it on the Director’s desk.

Years later, after I finished my PhD and had a useful amount of conservation practice under my belt, I attended the Society for Conservation Biology conference in Sacramento, California, where there was a side event featuring publishers from several Ivy League universities. I excitedly engaged them because at the time Gatu Mbaria and I were in the middle of writing “The Big Conservation Lie”. I pointed out to all of them that there were no books about conservation in Africa written by indigenous Africans, but they were uniform in their refusal to even read the synopsis of what we had written. I later understood why when I learned that in US academia, African names — as authors or references — are generally viewed as devaluing to any literature.

An American undergraduate who had spent two months in Africa was somehow qualified to assess a PhD proposal on the ecology of African wildlife written by an African MSc holder.

From Sacramento, I made the short trip to Stanford University in Palo Alto, to give a seminar to an African Studies group. I felt honoured to be making an academic contribution at an Ivy League university and I prepared well. My assertions about the inherent prejudices in African conservation practice were met with stunned silence by the faculty, many of whom are involved with conservation research in Africa. One bright spot in that dour experience was the brilliant PhD student who echoed my views and pointed out that these prejudices existed within academia as well. I later found out that he was Kenyan — his name is Ken Opalo and he now teaches at Georgetown University.

Fast forward to today. The Big Conservation Lie was published, and after the initial wailing, breaking of wind, gnashing of teeth and accusations of racism, Mbaria and I are actually being acknowledged as significant thinkers in the conservation policy field and our literary input is being solicited by various publications around the world. Now, the cultural differences between how European and American institutions treat African knowledge are becoming clear (certainly in my experience). I have been approached by several European institutions to give talks (lectures), and have contributed articles and op-eds (to journals and magazines) and one book foreword. Generally, the approach is like this:

“Dear Dr Ogada, I am_______ and I am writing to you on behalf of________. We are impressed with what you wrote in _____ and would appreciate it if you would consider writing for us an article of (length) on (topic) in our publication. We will offer you an honorarium of (X Euros) for this work, and we would need to receive a draft from you by (date). . .” Looking forward to your positive response. . .”

When inviting me to speak, the letters are similarly respectful and appreciative of my time. The key thing is the focus on and respect for one’s intellectual contribution. Publications from American Ivy league schools typically say:

“Dear Dr Ogada, I am __________, the editor of __________. We find your thoughts on _______ very interesting and we are pleased to invite you to write an essay of________ (length) in our publication. Previous authors we have invited include (dropping about 6-8 names of prominent American scholars).

The entire tone of the letter implies that you are being offered a singular privilege to “appear” in the particular journal. It is even worse when being asked to give a lecture. No official communication, just a casual message from a young student saying that they would like you to come and talk to their class on__________ (time and date on the timetable). No official communication from faculty or the institution. After doing that a couple of times, I realized that the reason these kids are so keen to have an African scholar speak to them and answer all their questions is because they need his knowledge, but do not want to read his publications, or (God forbid) have an African name in the “references” section of their work.

The reason these kids are so keen to have an African scholar speak to them and answer all their questions is because they need his knowledge, but do not want to read his publications.

European intellectuals seem to be catching on to the fact that knowledge and intellect reside in people, not institutions. That is why they solicit intellectual contributions based on the source of an idea they find applicable in that space and time. Name recognition doesn’t matter to them, which is why they seek people like Ogada, who doesn’t even have that recognition in Kenya. The elite schools in US still place this premium on institutions, which is why whenever an African displays intellectual aptitude, those who are impressed don’t ask about him and his ideas, but where he went to school. They want to know which institution bestowed this gift upon him.

For the record, I usually wait about a week before saying “no” to the Ivy League schools. Hopefully, they read my blog and will improve the manner in which they approach me, or stop it altogether.

Aluta continua.

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Cuba Can Help Vaccinate the World

On 25 January, the Progressive International will host a special briefing live from Havana with Cuba’s leading scientists, government ministers and public health officials as part of its Union for Vaccine Internationalism.

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2022 began with a “tsunami” of new Covid-19 cases crashing over the world, according to the World Health Organization. Over 18 million cases have been recorded in the past week alone, a record number since the pandemic began two years ago. In the first 10 days of January, nearly 60,000 Covid-19 deaths have been recorded worldwide — though the total death count is far higher than the official statistics describe.

The Omicron variant is reported to have less “severe” implications among vaccinated patients. But the world remains perilously under-vaccinated: 92 of the WHO’s member countries missed the 2021 target of 40 percent vaccination; at the current pace of rollout, 109 of them will miss their 2022 targets by July.

These statistics tell a story of a persistent vaccine apartheid. Across the EU, 80 percent of all adults have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19. Meanwhile, only 9.5 percent of people in low-income countries have received a single dose. Omicron is a death sentence for thousands in these countries — and as the virus travels across the Global South, new variants will emerge that may be less “mild” for the vaccinated populations of the North.

But the governments of these Northern countries refuse to plan for global vaccination — or even meet their own pledges. By late last year, they had delivered only 14% of the vaccine doses that they had promised to poorer countries through COVAX, the UN vaccine-sharing initiative. Big pharmaceutical corporations are focused almost exclusively on production of boosters for the world’s rich countries, creating a shortfall of three billion doses in the first quarter of this year.

President Joe Biden could easily help fill this shortfall by compelling US pharmaceutical corporations to share their vaccine technology with poorer nations. But he has so far refused to do so. A new production hub in Africa — where only 3 percent of people are vaccinated — is now trying to replicate the Moderna vaccine. But without Moderna’s help, or Joe Biden’s executive action, production could take more than a year to begin.

Amidst this crisis of global solidarity, Cuba has emerged as a powerful engine of vaccine internationalism. Not only has the island nation successfully developed two Covid-19 vaccines with 90 percent effectiveness, and vaccinated more than 90 percent of its population with at least one dose of its homegrown vaccine, Cuba has also offered its vaccine technology to the world. “We are not a multinational where returns are the number one reason for existing,” said Vicente Vérez Bencomo of the Finlay Vaccines Institute in Cuba. “For us, it’s about achieving health.”

But the US and its allies continue to oppress and exclude Cuba from the global health system. The US blockade forced a shortage of syringes on the island that endangered its vaccine development and hindered mass production. US medical journals “marginalize scientific results that come from poor countries,” according to Vérez Bencomo. Meanwhile, the WHO refuses to accredit the Cuban vaccines, despite approval from regulators in countries like Argentina and Mexico.

That is why the Progressive International is sending a delegation to Havana: to combat misinformation, to defend Cuban sovereignty, and to help vaccinate the world.

Bringing delegates from the Union for Vaccine Internationalism, founded in June 2021 to fight the emerging apartheid, the Progressive International will convene Cuban scientists and government representatives to address international press and members of the scientific community in a showcase of the Cuban vaccine on 25 January.

The goals of the showcase are both local and global. Drawing attention to the promise of the Cuban vaccine and the perils of the US embargo against it, the showcase aims to forge connections between Cuba’s public biotech sector and manufacturers who might produce the vaccine and help the Cuban government recuperate the costs of its development.

In the process, the showcase aims to set an example of international solidarity in the face of the present global health crisis, advancing the cause of vaccine internationalism around the world.

This article was first published by Progressive International.

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DRC: Bring Patrice Lumumba Home

The return of Patrice Lumumba’s remains must not be an occasion for Belgium to congratulate itself, but for a full accounting of the colonial violence that led to the assassination and coverup.

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For much of the past year, there have been plans for the sacred human remains of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s first post-independence prime minister, Patrice Émery Lumumba, to finally be returned to his children in Belgium, and then repatriated to the Congo. Originally scheduled for a ceremony on June 30, 2021, the 61st anniversary of the country’s independence passed with Lumumba’s remains still in the custody of Belgian authorities. The ceremony with Belgian King Philippe, current Prime Minister Alexander de Croo of Belgium, and Congo President Felix Tshisekedi, was then planned for January 17, 2022, the anniversary of the assassination. Last week, Tshisekedi announced another delay—this time until June 2022. The official reason for the delay was the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the Congo, but the pandemic crisis is deeply entangled with a series of other political maneuvers and other crises that are undoubtedly factors in the decision.

At the center of this story, Lumumba’s family continues to be victimized. As Nadeen Shaker recently reported, his children were forced to escape to Cairo during their father’s house arrest, never to see him again. The disturbing fact that the remains of Lumumba spent another Independence Day in Belgium may provide opportunities for metaphor and analogy, but, amid the widespread complicity in this ongoing desecration, the most important outcome must be to respect the ethical and legal claims of his children, which daughter Juliana Lumumba described in an open letter to the Belgian king last year.

The story of the execution and its aftermath is well told by Ludo de Witte in The Assassination of Patrice Lumumba. On January 17, 1961, Lumumba was killed along with comrades Maurice Mpolo and Joseph Okito by Belgian authorities, with the support of neocolonial Kantangan separatists and the US. Two days later, Gerard Soete, Belgian police commissioner of Katanga, and his brother exhumed the body to chemically eradicate all physical evidence of their crime in order to prevent the kind of mobilization which its identification would inspire. Though the execution was kept secret for nearly a month, its announcement inspired exactly what his executioners feared, as African people throughout the world engaged in protest and other revolutionary acts of remembrance—from the well-known demonstration at the United Nations, and other cities throughout the world to a legacy in a visual, musical, and literary culture that continues to this day.

In February 1961, while the Cultural Association of Women of African Heritage organized a major protest at UN headquarters in New York, Lumumba’s widow Pauline Opango Lumumba led a march of family and supporters to the UN offices of Rajeshawar Dayal in Kinshasa. There, she requested that the UN help her receive the remains of her husband for a proper burial. After Ralph Bunche offered “apologies” for the New York protest, Lorraine Hansberry “hasten[ed] publicly to apologize to Mme. Pauline Lumumba and the Congolese people for our Dr. Bunche.” Meanwhile, James M. Lawson of the United African Nationalist Movement and other Black activists organized a wake for Lumumba at Lewis Michaux’s Harlem bookstore. When Pauline died in Kinshasa in 2014, she was still waiting to bury her husband. She, and her iconic demonstration, are memorialized in Brenda Marie Osbey’s poem “On Contemplating the Breasts of Pauline Lumumba,” which is part of a long line of African American efforts to uplift the Lumumba family. The immediacy of Pauline’s demands remains after 6 years.

While Lumumba’s body was dissolved in sulphuric acid, Soete, like the US lynchers of Sam Hose and so many others, kept trophies of his victims as he traveled from the Congo to Belgium, often displaying them for friends and journalists. After Soete died, his daughter Godelieve continued her father’s tradition, culminating in a bizarre 2016 interview, during which a reporter found the remains in her possession. (In her efforts to defend her father, Godelieve further revealed that his brutality was visited upon his children.) The Belgian police intervened and, for the past five years, Lumumba’s remains have been held by the Belgian government responsible for his death. In September 2020, a court finally ruled they should be returned to the family.

These most recent delays are occurring at a time when the ongoing mistreatment of human remains is receiving public attention. The case of the Morton Collection at the University of Pennsylvania led activist Abdul-Aliy Muhammad to uncover the ongoing desecration of the remains of Tree and Delisha Africa, who were killed when the city of Philadelphia bombed their family’s home on May 13, 1985, leading to the discovery that the city held additional remains of the victims of its violence against the MOVE organization.

Since 2005, in South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) created the Missing Persons Task Team to identify the remains of the Black victims of the country’s apartheid era. Drawing on the expertise of researchers with experience in similar initiatives in Argentina and elsewhere, this government project has been deliberate in its efforts to include the families of the missing at all stages, while seeing their work as integral to the larger mission of the TRC, and further representative of a larger model of repatriation of human remains and possessions. As different as these cases of violence may be, government sanction—at multiple levels and taking different forms—remains constant.

In an October 2021 program hosted by Friends of the Congo, Juliana Lumumba explained that for her, as the daughter of a martyr, repatriation and memorialization of her father’s remains were not finite events to be completed like items checked off of a to-do list. Rather, the return must be part of a wider and ongoing process: “I told Belgium, that if we want a reconciliation we need reconciliation of memories because we can not make a reconciliation when our memories [are] so different and so contradictory.” Juliana’s words carry a particular weight at a time when the Special Parliamentary Commission on Belgian Colonial History has received a sharply critical historical report that may or may not lead to meaningful action of the sort that the family has demanded.

Lumumba’s son Guy-Patrice Lumumba opposes Tshisekedi’s efforts to exploit the repatriation for political gain. Tshisekedi himself is familiar with some of the political challenges of memorialization after the remains of his own father, longtime popular opposition leader Etienne Tshisekdi, spent more than two years in Europe before their return in 2019 after Felix’s election. Felix is quickly losing whatever claim he had on his own father’s mantle (see Bob Elvis’s song “Lettre à Ya Tshitshi for a recent indictment of the president’s abandonment of his father’s mantle). He may find value in an association with a revered nationalist icon amid political protests from opponents concerned about his overreaching efforts to control the country’s powerful electoral commission as the 2023 election cycle approaches.

Meanwhile, the younger Tshisekedi’s international standing has been consolidated through his position as head of the African Union, where his responsibilities include negotiating for the provision of COVID-19 vaccines for member states. He recently met with President Biden and made an official visit to Israel, the latter of particular concern given its historical involvement in mercenary efforts against pro-Lumumba rebels and its ongoing role in the plunder of the Congo’s resources (to say nothing of Tshisekedi’s support for Israel’s occupation of Jerusalem and its status as an observer at the African Union). Such actions highlight the extraordinary distance between Lumumba’s legacy and Tshisekedi’s leadership.

For decades, the Lumumba family has made a series of unanswered demands through formal inquiries and legal appeals. A group of scholars and activists have also asserted the return of Lumumba’s remains must not be an occasion for Belgium to congratulate itself, but rather an opportunity for a full accounting of the colonial violence that led to the assassination and its subsequent coverup.

Hopefully soon, Lumumba’s family can mourn on their own terms and have all of their demands for justice met immediately and without equivocation.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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