The details are getting hazy now, much to my annoyance. I know I have them somewhere in my many notebooks. But even then, I wrote them down unwillingly, as it meant beginning that process of converting a person I knew into a mere story, or statistic. As any writer will tell you, it is an alienating experience, the last thing you want to do when remembering someone after their death.
My August trip to Ethiopia was marred by the sudden death of one Kagwa. Within the details of the life of someone not yet twenty-five years old, was the story of the crisis of the upper end of Uganda’s youth population bulge, of what also happens when a government abandons its people to the ravages of an economy over which it long lost command.
The actual circumstances seemed clear enough: he was one of the many—estimated to be perhaps three hundred to four hundred thousand—mainly young, mainly male motorcycle taxi operators that have come to wholly dominate the road transportation spaces of Uganda, as in many other African cities.
They have very bad PR: they are seen as lawless, unscrupulous, and often chaotic, especially should one have the misfortune of a traffic entanglement with them. The expected modus operandi is for every other passing rider to stop and engage the motorist in a rapidly escalating war of violent words, and physical threats, usually ending in some type of extortion in which even those that arrived last, and certainly did not witness the accident leave with some form of “compensatory” payment. The issue of who was actually in the wrong is often irrelevant.
Kagwa was as similar to, and as different from, all the others, which is a normal thing with a stereotype—you would be hard-pressed to find any person who wholly conforms to one.
What I certainly do remember is that, like many of his colleagues, Kagwa was not as he wished to be seen. He was in fact a plumber by training, who had found little employment in his chosen trade. Much like the cliché of the restaurants of Los Angeles being staffed by waiting staff who see themselves as actors, many of these gentlemen seem to be at a remove from themselves.
Of the five or six I use regularly, one is also a land broker, another an electrician, there is a lawn cutter and even a police informant. Two others—brothers, no less—are also both grass cutters, and yet another two are chauffeurs who do the school run using the parents’ cars before joining their fellow bikers at the “stage”.
Like with all trades, their skills have deteriorated through lack of frequent use (the electrician once made some positively hazardous “repairs” for me), and so the skill that paid them was ferrying people through the grinding traffic to which they are a contributing factor.
As is to be expected with such a system, the oversupply has created a crisis.
On the one hand, the formal economy has simply not trickled down. There is little formal employment, skilled or otherwise, into which these youth can be absorbed. On the other, two decades of a government policy of dismantling the public institutions—such as cooperatives and agricultural banks—that facilitated a viable interface between traditional agriculture and the modern food commodities market, has progressively collapsed the informal economy, principally rural agriculture.
This has broken a previously frugal but stable rural family-based employment system, and left the youth streaming into urban spaces, or even just urbanising rural spaces in search of new occupations. Often, they have bought a one-way ticket out of the extended family network, cashing in their birthright to make a down payment on their first bike.
This essentially lumpenised economy is the pool into which the human resource from all the other failing sectors drains. It survives because it must.
Having said that, incidents of boda boda riders being killed or suffering serious, often permanent injuries are legion. These young men are heavily over-represented in the orthopaedic wards. Kagwa was in fact the second fatality in our neighbourhood in the space of a few months after one Jjemba was flung helmetless over the bonnet of an SUV that had made a sudden turn, never regaining consciousness after his unprotected head hit the tarmac. The driver—a Chinese expatriate—was forced by a small mob to drive the man to a nearby hospital, but he refused to pay for the cost of a head scan despite having a substantial amount of cash on him, as was later found out at the police station he was then dragged to. The cash may have been more useful to him there, as he was later released without charge after a couple of days’ detention.
And so boda boda riders have acquired a reputation as violent and quarrelsome, a reputation complicated by the interests that then latch onto their predicament, like the constant inducements to work as informers while, ironically, being robbed by thugs pretending to be customers.
To be young is to have hope. So all these hinderances did not deter Kagwa from pursuing his interests. He was a keen member of the very local soccer league, replete with its own legends, and of their occasional jogging gang. He also knew where to buy the most lethal strains of moonshine, which was to be his undoing.
Among those hopes was Kagwa’s desire to become a grown man by starting his own family. This is where the youth crisis bites: at that point of attempted transition into full adulthood, or some semblance of it, through the struggle to secure three things: a permanent home, a family, and a steady income.
Looking back, I can see now that that was the point at which all the situations in Kagwa’s life—born of the crisis in our city and economy-—became unsustainable, and may have indirectly led to his death.
After over a year of knowing him, Kagwa proudly showed me the logbook to his bike. He had finally paid off the last outstanding installments of the loan he had taken out to acquire the bike, which then died the very next morning.
The credit regime is quite burdensome. On taking the loan, one must pay a monthly installment which includes interest and administrative fees. Defaulting makes one vulnerable to repossession, no matter how long you have been making repayments, and then one has to pay off the defaulted amount, the equivalent of two months going forward, as well as a penalty fine to get their ride back.
With some companies, I am told, repayment terms are enforced by means of a hidden tracking device. I am not sure if one had been planted on Kagwa, as his usual ruse of parking the bike in the nearby churchyard and then skulking nearby until the heat was off, usually worked. I learned this from the occasions when Kagwa had apologetically declined to pick me up because he was in hiding from the loan company enforcers.
Once, to my surprise, less than a month after he had fixed his bike, he collected me on a brand new motorcycle, of which he was very proud. I became curious because it was me that had gifted him the money to get his old one back on the road.
I asked him what had happened: was he hiring out the old one (as some operators owning more than one would)? He said no and told me that he had sold it off. I asked him whether he had used the money from the sale to make a down payment on this new one. No. I asked if he had saved the money somewhere. Again no, he had had to spend it. I asked him what he had used to buy his new bike, and he told me that he had taken out another loan, from another company.
This was a life of pressure.
I do recall late one night before Christmas receiving a phone call from Kagwa. He was in desperate search of a chicken, but could not afford the seasonal prices. His wife had made it clear that she expected there to be chicken for dinner, and was not interested in excuses. He knew that I raised hens in the backyard because I often hired him to deliver the chickenfeed.
Kagwa’s wife later left him. Her replacement came with other demands, foremost amongst which was that he begin formalising their union starting with a first customary visit to her parents. This is where the money from the sale of his original fully paid for motorbike went.
Then came the demands for an actual wedding ceremony. All this left him deeply in debt and under such pressure that, according to his colleagues at the stage, it led to him drinking heavily and then riding ever longer hours with hardly a break.
Part of me is left wondering just how much of an accident his crash was. We shall never know. Some witnesses report that he seemed to head straight into the path of the large oncoming car. His chest was crushed and he died on his way to hospital.
Kagwa’s burial took place deep in the countryside, on a piece of land so recently acquired by his estranged father, that his was the first grave in it. The stories that emerged from his colleagues, framed by his modest wake through to his internment, painted a picture of pressure and crisis. And it is from them that I pieced together this picture of an unfolding crisis of unrealisable and imposed expectations.
On my return from Addis, I thought to pay the customary visit to Kagwa’s home, but was discouraged by his resentful workmates, angry with the lady now technically his widow, with whom he had one child to add to the one he had had with his previous wife who had already taken up with another man.
And there we have it: hope and youthful energy preyed on from afar and at very close quarters. A life that begun already foreclosed.
And him nowhere near thirty.
Remembering Thandika Mkandawire, A Beloved Teacher
I have been lucky to meet many intellectual giants in my life. The truly great, like Louis Henkin-my Constitutional Law Professor in Graduate School – and Thandika Mkandawire, are those that teach you effortlessly and joyously, and without even a hint of condescension.
I am utterly distraught to learn that my favourite political economist and teacher, Thandika Mkandawire, has died. My intellectual development took a different direction when I found Thandika Mkandawire after Graduate School, first through his, edited, 1987 book “The State and Agriculture in Africa,” and subsequently through the brilliant work he did on Africa’s economic development, World Bank policies and the African state in the 1990s and throughout the 2000s. I am certain that if I had not come across Thandika when I did, my intellectual development would have veered off in a completely different, almost certainly less fulfilling direction.
I was – at the time- young, restless, and, intellectually, very adventurous. Graduate school had lit a spark in me. But it had left me somewhat jaded. I had suddenly realized that I did not care for legal doctrine. I liked – and still like- law’s forensic tools – but I found doctrine sterile: it was either noisily obvious or complicatedly trivial. This was especially so when lawyers launched into voluble disputations on some arcane point. True, jurisprudence had real insight but then jurisprudence is academic law. Most of the rest of law is applied, or to put it differently, law is to jurisprudence what accounting is to economics.
There I was then: June 1993, a newly-minted graduate bristling that my training till then had neither asked nor answered the questions that had taken me to graduate school. I wanted to know what to do when those sworn to implement the laws regularly ignored them. I did not know what incentives or disincentives to put in place to discourage dictators or corporate chiefs from stealing public money. Could such incentives and disincentives be legally designed? I wondered why theories of sovereignty did not address the ways in which economic prescriptions by multilateral agencies subverted people’s control over governments in debtor countries. I knew what the rule of law was and could speak and write with great eloquence about its characteristics. Yet if you asked how institutional design might help secure it, I could not answer you. This background is necessary to explain just what a profound effect Thandika had on me.
My journey towards acquiring the perspectives and tools that would eventually help me grapple with these questions begun in two places, with Thandika Mkandawire’s “The State and Agriculture in Africa” and with all-night, whisky-inspired debates and arguments with David Ndii at Invergara Club. (David won’t like these confidential disclosures!) Thandika gave me different perspectives on how to understand the state. In this book, I learnt to look into and to question the fiscal basis of the state, any state. That is to say, I learnt to ask how a state raised revenues because, it turned out, as I learnt still later, that revenues and where they came from, shape how a state treated its citizens. Does the state raise revenues from taxes or from mineral rents? States that live off taxes –called merchant states – must have some implicit understanding with the key tax-paying groups in society. For this reason, governance in such states is likely to be more inclusive. States that live off rents- called rentier states- rest on narrow, exclusionary bargains between politicians and the companies involved in extraction. Mineral economies are essentially off-shore economies: Governments in states with such economies don’t care for public support. They survive by repression or co-optation, that is, by buying-off opponents.
This analysis opened my eyes to much that I had missed in my education. It sent me scurrying in unfamiliar but exciting research directions. Now I could explain why so many mineral or oil rich countries were either so fragile or so dictatorial. I now knew why populations in those countries were often poor: Politicians would rather squirrel the money away to tax havens than invest in public services. They paid no political price if they did that.
Thandika was always brilliant: He had the uncanny ability to illuminate a subject or to upend received wisdom with a simple vignette. I remember being extremely impressed by Paul Collier’s and Nicholas Sambanis brilliant work on conflict. Collier and Sambanis had put to bed the old canard that African conflicts are caused by ancient ethnic hatreds and grievances through a series of empirical studies showing that most conflicts could actually be explained by greed. That is, they offered evidence that most conflicts were driven by the scramble for lootable resources. Thandika was not persuaded by this thesis and though I do not know whether he ever wrote an essay that specifically responding to this argument he wrote a number of penetrating essays that very cleverly chipped away at the argument. His 2002 deceptively low-key essay, “The Terrible toll of Post-Colonial ‘Rebel Movements’ in Africa: Towards an Explanation of the Violence against the Peasantry” is particularly on point. Thandika asked a simple question, “Why are African rebel movements so violent towards peasants?” He returned the answer, which felt so intuitively right to me, that it was because the rebels were invariably urban elites who had migrated their disputes to rural Africa. This was astonishingly obvious when I thought about it. Until the violence after the 2007 election, Kenyan elites squabbling over the presidency had always taken their blood letting to the rural areas.
Perhaps Thandika’s most influential work- with colleagues like Bayo Olukoshi – was his 20 year interrogation of the neo-liberal stipulations of the World Bank – sold to Africa first as Structural Adjustment Programmes and then as Poverty Reduction Strategies. The neoliberal agenda put forth by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher came to Africa and the developing countries dressed up as the Washington Consensus. First as Executive Secretary of CODESRIA and later as Director of United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, UNRISD, Thandika was in the thick of debates about the viability of the Washington Consensus as policy prescription. He was completely vindicated by the dramatic unraveling of the Washington Consensus -in its neoliberalism garb- in the 2008 financial crisis.
Thandika and a handful of African scholars fought long and hard to liberate Africa’s development debate from the stranglehold of the so-called North American Africanists. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s these Africanists were extremely influential in policy circles in the West. Though their advice was regularly sought, Thandika was deeply disenchanted with their work. This research argued that under-development was as a result of neo-patrimonial politics: neopatrimonialism was itself defined in segmental and hierarchical terms. The standard model has the President and his ‘tribes-mates’ sitting as patrons atop the state, their hands on the public kitty, serving a web of grateful clients who repay him with loyalty and votes. On this view, Africa was under-developed because these neopatrimonial webs undermined or eroded rational policy making.
Thandika could not abide this empirically bankrupt argument. He felt that the Africanists were selling snake-oil to policy makers in Washington and London. He noticed – as did other African scholars – that Africanist circles were not only hermetically sealed against perspectives from scholars working in the field in the continent, they had also become intellectually incestuous – liberally quoting and cross-referencing each other. They were not promoting debate, they were more like congregants at a neo-liberal wake. Thandika thought that the neopatrimonial perspective – though highly privileged and valued in donor circles in western capitals –offered nothing useful analytically. And even worse, it had no predictive value.
Thandika’s interpretations of the possibilities of democracy in Africa were always original, cautiously optimistic and always refreshing. He had genuine flashes of insight. He made me question much that I thought self-evident. He hated complacency. I was privileged to participate in many fora with him. I remember, in particular, a discussion panel I shared with him and Prof. Anyang Ny’ongo in Accra Ghana in April 2014 during the “Pan-African Conference on Inequalities in the Context of Structural Transformation.” It was the first time that I got a really good chance to have a chat with him. What humility, what gentle persuasion and what intellectual charm. I have been lucky to meet many intellectual giants in my life. The truly great, like Louis Henkin-my Constitutional Law Professor in Graduate School – and Thandika Mkandawire, are those that teach you effortlessly and joyously, and without even a hint of condescension.
God speed you along, Beloved Teacher. Here is Laban Erapu’s ‘Elegy’ that you may not walk alone to underworld:
When he was here,
We planned each tomorrow
With him in mind
For we saw no parting
Looming beyond the horizon.
When he was here,
We joked and laughed together
And no fleeting shadow of a ghost
Ever crossed our paths.
Day by day we lived
On this side of the mist
And there was never a sign
That his hours were running fast.
When he was gone,
Through glazed eyes we searched
Beyond the mist and the shadows
For we couldn’t believe he was nowhere:
We couldn’t believe he was dead.
I WILL MISS YOU.
Tributes to a Great African Mind: From Nyong’o, Mutunga and Shivji
Thandika will be sorely missed by the entire African intellectual community. His brilliance was matched by his humility, wit and willingness to mentor new generations of scholars to change the fate of the African people.
I remember one weekend in Dakar, Senegal, when Thandika and I had had a long afternoon talking and having some beer in his apartment. We were discussing Marxist approaches to the study of African politics which Thandika thought was rather deficient, with “everything being reduced to relations of production however poorly understood.” The year was 1979, and the African Institute for Economic Planning and Development (IDEP) was at its highest point of radical intellectual firepower, headed by Samir Amin, the eminent political economist of the “accumulation on a world scale” fame. The Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) had just been born literally on the ribs of IDEP, headed by Abdala Bujra, the well known Kenyan anthropologist. Thandika straddled between the two institutions, subsequently succeeding Bujra to ensure that CODESRIA became the springboard for most young African scholars as astounding social scientists.
I remember that afternoon very vividly. Thandika was full of innovative ideas and impatient with some pedantic social science scholarship on the African scene. I was surprised Thandika had hardly published on any of the innovative ideas he had which he expressed so convincingly. So I challenged him to stop being a typical African in love with the oral tradition and begin writing and publishing. It did not take long before he hit the road, leaving me miles behind in a very short time. Not long ago Thandika sent me the following mail:
“Here is an article I recently published in World Politics. Remember it is you who once challenged me to begin writing when we were in Dakar. I will never forget that.”
The article was on “Neopatrimonialism and the Political Economy of Economic Performance in Africa: Critical Reflections” (World Politics, Vol. 67, No. 1, January 2015). I found this article perhaps one of the best analysis and critique of development theories in Africa, debunking theories of those who view the state as a pariah in Africa. Those who lump all African heads of state and government as “big men” out to eat state and society to the bone didn’t sit pretty with Thandika in this article either. Seeing the future of Africa as foretold, doomed and bereft of any meaningful development almost for ever is something that could pass as propaganda but not social science. On 25th of October 2013, Thandika wrote me as follows:
“Early this year I met Willy Mutunga (later our Chief Justice) who reminded me of a meeting at your house where we drafted the principles of the Kenyan constitution. It is nice to see some things come true.”
Neither Willy nor I worked on these principles with any idea that after the constitution was promulgated we would occupy the positions that we eventually did. Thandika was, of course, miles away only to be happy eventually that his contribution to our struggle eventually paid some dividends in Kenya’s social progress.
That is why Thandika could never accept a “one shoe fits all” view in of Africa’s political economy. Not all African middle classes are “comprador” nor are all African states dependent in the same way on external forces. Class relations are historically given within social formations which can be subjected to analysis by the same theoretical models of political economy that are capable of bringing out their similarities and differences. This comes out very clearly in Thandika’’s World Politics article I have referred to above.
When I was writing the “Introduction” to a book I recently published on “Presidential or Parliamentary Democracy in Africa: Choices to be Made”(Nairobi: Booktalk Africa, 2019), I remembered that sometime in the mid-nineties, when we met as young Kenyan academics to discuss how we could advance the democratic struggle in our country, Thandika happened to be among us. As usual, he was always very ready to contribute productively to such discussions. We were so sure that the Moi regime was the only impediment between us and democracy.
But Thandika, always ready to be an intelligent gadfly at such times, posed the question: “Have you people thought about what kind of government you want to put in place after Moi which will be acceptable to the Kenyan people and which will achieve the democracy you seem to be looking for?”
From this statement one can see where Thandika’s theory of the “national democratic and developmental state” as a progressive alternative to the presidential authoritarian regimes of the Moi type came from. He had a deep commitment to democracy rooted in popular acceptance by the people because it is, among other things, capable of paying democratic dividends.
On a light note, we used to drink a beer in Dakar called “flag”. For Thandika, these letters stood for “Front de Liberation Alcoholic de Gauche.” We were definitely leftist Africans committed to the liberation of our continent. But we were not always drunk!
Rest In Peace Thandika.
P. Anyang’ Nyong’o is a public intellectual, educationist and is the current Governor of Kisumu county.
I first met Thandika in Nairobi in 1993. Kenya Human Rights Commission was then engaged in drafting a model constitution that was published in 1994. We used the model constitution to mobilise and organize Kenyans to demand a new constitution to breathe life into the then new political dispensation, multi-partism.
I have this great photograph of Thandika seated next to a dosing Peter Anyang Nyong’o. The two of them gave us a brilliant discussion on the ideology, politics, and economics of constitution-making. Thandika was wide awake through out. When Peter woke up he amazed all of us by responding to Thandika. This is the only time I have witnessed geniuses at work, one with his eyes wide open, and the other with eyes closed. The major difference between the two was not just the status of their eyes. Thandika was persuasive, calm, patient, always smiling, a present-day Socrates, and the very nemesis of what we used to call in Dar “academic terrorists.” (Let me be clear I do not believe Peter was one of those, but he can be at times intellectually intimidating and arrogant!). That Model Constitution owes a lot in its content to the advice both professors gave us. That critical education has accompanied me in my various careers. I have come to frown upon the lawyers professional refrain and brag that we are learned when we are, indeed, very ignorant of other disciplines that are foundational to our discipline. Thus I have come to value multi-disciplinarities and inter-disciplinarities.
This encounter was long before I read Antonio Gramsci, the Italian exemplary revolutionary and philosopher who spent 10 years in Mussolini’s fascist prisons. We now know that Gramsci in his Prison Notebooks developed the theory of the organic intellectual, the intellectual Jan Ziegler in Foreword to Yash Tandon’s book, Trade is war: The west’s war against the world writes, “who, through his analyses, his visions, becomes an indispensable auxiliary of social movements.”
Thandika was an organic intellectual. He has died. However, his vision, writings, analysis, and his intellect are all immortal. He has, along with my other teachers (Issa Shivji, Karim Hirji, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Micere Mugo, Angela Davis, Wangari Maathai, Yash Tandon, Paul Zeleza, Alamin Mazrui, Dan Nabudere, Samir Amin and many others) fundamentally educated me in the social movements I have been in since the 1990s, and in my careers outside those social movements, through his writings.
As we envision Africa and a planet that is just, peaceful, non-militaristic, non-violent, ecologically safe, equitable, prosperous, and socialist, Thandika’s immortal work will be among those that will help us resurrect radical Pan Africanism, think through a new free and emancipated Africa, and a new world without neoliberalism.
Dr Willy Mutunga is a public intellectual and former Chief Justice of Kenya
A renowned and well-respected Pan-Africanist intellectual, Thandika Mkandawire, joined the ancestors on 27th March 2020 in the early hours of the morning. Sadness enveloped his colleagues, friends and the African intellectual community at large. Issa Shivji could not find prose to express the loss – he just jotted down these words (a poem?) in Kiswahili on the same day. Ida Hadjivyanis translated it to English.
Thandika mpenzi wetu
Tumetandika mkeka wa kuomboleza.
Ewe Issa, mkeka wa nini!
Kifo ni usumbufu tu
Endeleeni na mapambano
Kujenga ustaarabu mbadala
Uliosheheni haki na usawa
Dar es Salaam, 27/03/2020
Thandika our beloved
We are grieving
The mat is laid for mourning.
O Issa, why this mat!
Death is but an interruption
Let it not unsettle you all
The struggle must continue
To liberate Africa
To Unite Africa
To create that alternative civilisation
That overflows with justice and equality
Prof. Issa G. Shivji, author, poet and academic, is one of Africa’s leading experts on law and development, presently occupies the Mwalimu Julius Nyerere Research Chair in Pan-African Studies of the University of Dar es Salaam.
Coronavirus Outbreak out of Control in US
American social practices, as well as entrenched cultural values like individualism, have greatly contributed to the spread of coronavirus even as doctors struggle to contain the pandemic amid fears that there will not be enough beds or ventilators for the critically ill, nor enough supplies to protect healthcare workers.
If we covered coronavirus like we covered Ebola
In 2014, I spent more than six months covering Ebola in West Africa, two of them in the “hot zone” of Liberia. Global press coverage spurred clichéd response back home in the USA, from negative stereotypes about culture and hygiene to irrational panic. This is a piece of satire that imagines covering America’s global health emergency in the same way the US looked at one “over there”—revealing both the absurdity of imperial exceptionalism and the unwelcome fact that the weaknesses of the American “superpower” are not so different from those in so-called “s**hole countries.” But of course they are. Yet most of us are schooled to see the familiar as better than the foreign, and it’s easy to forget that we share the same weaknesses—and the same risks—as those we are taught, implicitly and explicitly, to see as less capable, less valuable, less worthy.
A new, deadly disease is exploding virtually unchecked in the United States of America, threatening the global economy and public health worldwide.
The US, as it is known, is the largest economy in the world, a position secured unfairly by its imposition of the US dollar as the global trading currency. The country regularly styles itself as “the leader of the free world”.
That leadership has failed miserably in recent weeks, as a pathogen known as SARS-CoV-2, or “coronavirus” for short, has spread, with very little detection, across the country of more than 300 million people.
“It’s spreading like wildfire from person to person,” said Papi Kabongo, a bus driver in Kinshasa whose uncle, Jean-Jacques Muyembe, discovered Ebola in 1976.
“There are clear, simple, easy things we know can help, but people there don’t listen. They don’t even wash their hands!”
The spread has largely overrun the country’s crumbling healthcare system and outmanoeuvred its byzantine insurance infrastructure. Doctors now fear there will not be enough beds or ventilators for the critically ill, nor enough supplies to protect healthcare workers.
“We’ve been telling them for years, ‘Your system is fragile. You need to be ready for this’”, said Albert Williams, Liberia’s minister of health during that country’s unprecedented Ebola outbreak. “But they’re deeply uninterested in international cooperation or advice”.
A frightened population has begun hoarding chloroquine pills following the recommendation of the American president, Donald Trump, who has acted as a kind of “witch doctor”, or traditional healer, during the outbreak. Trump has said he believes the pills may treat the disease. A supposed preventive dose has already killed one man, in the hot, dusty region of Arizona.
Some US government officials have made efforts to encourage or require people to distance themselves from each other—measures which are known to have helped contain or end outbreaks in China, South Korea and Hong Kong—but the US president, Donald Trump, is prioritising the economy over public health, and Americans themselves have largely refused official advice.
Meanwhile, traditional American social practices, as well as entrenched cultural values like individualism, have greatly contributed to the spread of coronavirus, whose carriers can be highly contagious even without showing any symptoms.
“If I get corona, I get corona. At the end of the day, I’m not going to let it stop me from partying”, said Brady Sluder, a student on spring break in the infamous party town of Miami, Florida. “I’ve been waiting, we’ve been waiting for Miami spring break for a while”.
Experts say that even young, healthy individuals can contract the disease without their knowledge, putting anyone they come into contact with at risk.
“Before you know you have it, maybe you’ve given it to five people. And who did they give it to? And if they are elderly, you maybe have signed their death warrant”, said Muhammed Abubakar, dean of humanities at National University in Abuja. “This is a sad example of American exceptionalism in its purest form”.
In addition to Americans’ almost magical belief in their immunity to rules of all kinds, the country has faced a serious erosion of trust in official institutions in recent decades.
“These people don’t trust their government,”, said Emmanuel Mawema, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Zimbabwe-Harare. “They still manage to hold what we would technically call elections, but the wider society has been broken for a long time.”
This breakdown in trust has a deep history. Though the country has not experienced violent conflict recently, the United States is wrought with long-standing political divisions between its urban and rural tribes, which have repeatedly renounced efforts to find common ground.
“It’s almost as if they are opposed to the common good on principle”, said Tesfaye Haile, who spent eight years as Ethiopia’s ambassador to the United Kingdom. “This kind of division and the institutional inertia it creates is simply the way of life there”.
Experts say the US is poised to soon look like neighbouring Europe, where cases of the virus have soared in recent weeks, and doctors in some countries are disconnecting life-support services from patients over 65.
“In countries like the US, where life is cheap, it can create painful choices”, said Simon Odhiambo, who directs the Global Human Rights Network, headquartered in Nairobi. “We’ve been saying for years that health is a human right all states must respect, or it can put everyone at risk. This is what we meant”.
Other countries, too, fear the failures of the United States will put their own populations at risk.
“We don’t have any cases right now”, said South Sudanese President Salva Kiir. “We’ve closed the airport and our land borders. This may create real economic hardship for our people, but we won’t allow anyone coming from or through the United States to put our people at risk. It’s a matter of national security”.
CORRECTION: Europe is not a neighbour of the United States. We regret the error.
All the names here are fictitious, unless otherwise indicated (with a link to verifiable, accurate information).
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