The need for a people-driven response to the coronavirus pandemic
Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, African governments should stop seeing non-governmental actors as a threat to their own legitimacy.
The scenes of police viciously assaulting citizens while enforcing a nighttime curfew, as well the death by suicide of a South African woman after being forced into a deplorable government quarantine facility, have exposed the brutal face of Kenya’s coercive response to the coronavirus pandemic. While many have condemned the incidents, some have also felt that coercion is necessary given the extreme threat posed by the virus, the need for urgent action and the failure of people to comply with the government’s directives. There is no time to debate the response, goes the argument. There is only time to act to save lives.
Yet there is a grave flaw at the heart of this argument. These very factors are what make it necessary that there is more, not less, public involvement. The threat is to the whole of society, and the response needs to involve the whole of society. Trying to move fast without having a cooperative public in tow is a recipe for failure, as the Kenyan government is learning. And the way to get a cooperative public as well as mobilize society is to engage with the people, not just order them about.
“Epidemics are tests of social and political systems,” writes the Zimbabwean academic and Associate Professor of African Politics at the University of Oxford, Simukai Chigudu, in a fascinating article for Africa Is A Country. Citing his book, The Political Life of an Epidemic: Cholera, Crisis and Citizenship in Zimbabwe, which looked into the roots of the 2008 cholera outbreak in his country, he notes that it is the “political, economic and social processes that … shape the trajectory of [an] epidemic,” not just the biological properties of the virus or bacteria involved.
This is not to say that the actions of governments are not important. The trajectory and the evolution of the pandemic so far have been largely dictated by the actions of states. The thousands of lives coronavirus has so far claimed are not evenly distributed globally, but rather concentrated in countries that for a variety of reasons either didn’t take the pandemic seriously or were slow to react to it. In a very real sense, it is not just the virus that is killing people; people are also dying from state inaction, incompetence and malfeasance.
The legacy of colonialism
Similarly, as the virus menaces Africa, it has been the actions of African governments—past and present—that have so far determined how the pandemic is unfolding on the continent. When fighting the disease, a crucial constraint for many African societies is the near universal failure to address the legacy of colonialism. In fact, as Prof Chigudu explains in relation to 21st century Zimbabwe, “the long-term factors that led to the cholera outbreak can be traced as far back as the late 19th century when Salisbury [today known as Harare] was founded as the administrative and political capital of Southern Rhodesia [the predecessor of what is now Zimbabwe].”
He goes on to write that rather than undoing the discriminatory nature of provision of public facilities, “colonial era by-laws, plans, and statutes largely remained in place, indicating the apparent tension between overturning the racial and socio-economic segregation of Rhodesian city planning and maintaining an inherited sense of modernity and orderliness in urban space.”
This experience will be familiar to many across the continent where, in the words of one of Kenya’s politicians speaking in Parliament in 1966, “Today we have a black man’s government, and the black man’s government administers exactly the same regulations, rigorously, as the colonial administration used to do.”
The persistence of colonial states and their twin logics of authoritarian exploitation and classist exclusion means that African governments begin with a deficit of public trust, as well as diminished capacity to implement policies. Just three years ago, Kenya was jailing doctors’ representatives for going on strike to demand a pay rise and improvements to services in public hospitals.
Corruption—another gift of colonialism—has focused attention on vanity projects that provide opportunities for looting, rather than on investments in basic health services. The result is high-end, expensive machines lying idle in hospitals that lack even basic amenities. The entire country, for example, only has around 400 isolation beds, and 155 intensive care unit beds for a population of over 48 million people.
The authoritarian and exclusionist streaks are also evident in the manner in which African governments are currently responding. In Kenya, rather than implementing a holistic approach that would mobilize all communities and civil society, the government has opted for a China-style top-down, dictatorial approach, one that decades of hollowing out of the state is now difficult to impose. Prominent activist Jerotich Seii has noted the “‘elite gaze’ that deploys a language of enforcement.” David Ndii, one of the country’s top economists and public intellectuals, has similarly decried the consequences of what he describes as a “boneheaded securocratic approach to a complex emergency.”
A holistic approach
Yet this need not be the case. Kenya has a long history of indigenous not‐for‐profit organizations, self-help societies and community-based organizations that it could leverage to win consent and mobilize society. In fact, in many communities, NGOs have become surrogates for the government, offering services that the state was either unable or unwilling to provide. They have even managed to penetrate into policy and decision-making levels.
As Professor Jennifer Brass noted in her PhD thesis a decade ago, “Contrary to both normative arguments that government should ‘steer’ the ship of state (make policy) while private actors ‘row’ (implement policy), and the belief that government is eroding or becoming irrelevant to the governance process, this dissertation shows that NGOs are now joining public actors and agencies at many levels in decision and policy making regarding service provision.”
Sadly, however, there is little evidence that the Kenyan government is doing much to incorporate the expertise and experience of nonprofits and other civil society actors into its planning for COVID-19. When President Uhuru Kenyatta established the 21-member National Emergency Response Committee on Coronavirus at the end of February, he did not reserve a single seat for civil society. In this, the President went against his own National Contingency Plan which recommended the establishment of a National Public Health Emergency Steering Committee to “provide policy, strategic directions” which would include heads of “responding NGOs.”
Perhaps the Kenya government’s reluctance to engage with civil society organizations should not come as a surprise. After all, this is a government that for the best part of the last decade has made the demonization of civil society (which its mouthpieces on social media happily branded “evil society”) a cornerstone of its propaganda efforts. Still, it is clear that the state alone cannot address this crisis.
Non-governmental actors, including professional associations, churches and volunteer, community and civil society organizations, will need to be involved in the “whole-of-society approach” that the World Health Organisation (WHO) says is required to successfully face the threat posed by COVID-19. And not just as “rowers.” Across the continent, governments will need to urgently recognize that involving others in the formulation, as well as in the implementation, of policy need not be perceived as a threat to their own legitimacy. As Prof Brass writes, “Governance is not the removal of government, but the addition and acceptance of other actors, including NGOs, in the steering process.”
How effective are lockdowns?
The absence of non-governmental actors at the decision-making table may also be manifesting in the choices that African countries are making. For example, many have opted to go the way of China and other (though by no means all) European countries by imposing “lockdowns”— shuttering factories, businesses and markets; banning mass events from church services to political rallies; and forcing people to stay at home or imposing stringent restrictions on their movement. These lockdowns are an attempt to curtail the rate of spread of the disease and ensure that already fragile health systems are not overwhelmed. Beginning with Rwanda, the lockdowns have swept the continent, affecting economies large and small, from Nigeria to Uganda. In addition, by the end of March, nearly all countries had some form of travel restrictions, with more than half imposing full border closures.
However, in an article for The Conversation, Professor Alex Broadbent and Professor Benjamin Smart argue that a one-size-fits-all approach may have lethal consequences for Africa. They note that the “the major components of the recommended public health measures—social distancing and hygiene—are extremely difficult to implement effectively in much of Africa” and that the net effect of lockdowns “may thus be to prevent people from working, without actually achieving the distancing that would slow the spread of the virus.” They also question the value of “flattening the curve” in a scenario where at the best of times public healthcare is inaccessible to a huge proportion of the population.
Similarly, in an interview with Africa Report, John Nkengasong, the director of the Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, which is part of the African Union, also pointed out that lockdowns are not only difficult to sustain but would also “lead to other consequences, such as shortages of food, medicine and other basic supplies.” He also said that the shutdown of air travel and closing of borders across the continent was making it more difficult to coordinate the distribution of desperately needed medical supplies and equipment. Making much the same point on the Kenyan news program Punchline, Dr. Mary Stephens of WHO said that blanket travel bans and border closures would prevent African countries from accessing external medical experts needed to plug gaps in their health systems.
The resort to force by governments across the continent to counter the resistance of their populations to such measures speaks to the lack of a social consensus for the necessity of such measures. It is the poor, for the most part, who will bear the pain of the lockdowns, especially the many working in the informal sector who cannot afford to stay at home for a day, let alone for weeks. Yet they are almost completely excluded from the decision-making table.
If communities were allowed to have a say, perhaps they would point out that there are other options and examples that African countries could look to. In the Far East, for example, countries and cities like Japan, South Korea as well as Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan, while not yet out of the woods, have managed to tackle the pandemic within their borders while largely avoiding crippling lockdowns.
Nobel laureate Amartya Sen famously declared that “no famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy”. He noted that democratic governments, “facing elections and criticisms from opposition parties and independent newspapers,” would be compelled to take decisions to avert disaster.
Democracy may not be such a sure shield against epidemics, but it is clear that, at least on the African continent, its absence, and the prevalence of governments used to wielding clubs and guns against their citizens rather than listening to them, may be turning a looming disaster into a catastrophe.