• In Kenya, rather than implementing an all-of-society approach that would mobilise communities and civil society, the government has opted for a China-style top-down, dictatorial approach.
• When President Uhuru Kenyatta established the 21-member National Emergency Response Committee on Coronavirus, there was no one from outside of government included.
“Epidemics are tests of social and political systems” writes Simukai Chigudu, in a fascinating article for the online platform, Africa Is A Country.
Chigudu is a Zimbabwean academic and Associate Professor of African Politics at the University of Oxford.
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 Zimbabwe, 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 bacterium involved.
This is not to say the actions of governments are not important. The trajectory and the evolution of the Covid-19 pandemic so far have been largely dictated by the actions of states.
The thousands of lives it 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. They are also dying from state inaction, incompetence and malfeasance.
Similarly, as coronavirus menaces Africa, it is the actions of its governments – past and present – that have so far determined how the pandemic is unfolding on the continent.
In fighting the epidemic, 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 state 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 socioeconomic 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 Africa, where, in the words of Masinde Muliro — one Kenya’s independence 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 African governments begin with a deficit of public trust and well as diminished capacity to implement policies.
This is evident in the manner in which African governments are currently responding.
In Kenya, rather than implementing an all-of-society approach that would mobilise communities and civil society, the government has opted for a China-style top-down, dictatorial approach, one that decades of hollowing out the state have left it incapable of enforcing.
Prominent activist Jerotich Seii has noted the “‘elite gaze’ that deploys a language of enforcement” while 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”. Yet this need not be the case.
Kenya has a long history of indigenous not‐for‐profit organisations, self-help societies and community-based organisations that it could leverage to win consent and mobilise society. In fact, in many communities, NGOs have become surrogates for government, offering services where the state was either unable or unwilling to do so. They have even managed to penetrate into the policy and decision-making levels.
Sadly, however, there is little evidence the government today is doing much to incorporate the expertise and experience of NGOs 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, there was no one from outside of government included.
Non-governmental actors, from professional associations to churches to volunteer, community and civil society organisations will need to be involved in the “whole-of-society approach” that the WHO says is required to successfully face the threat posed by Covid-19. And not just as “rowers”.
Governments will need to urgently recognise that involving others in the formulation as well as the implementation of policy need not be perceived as a threat to their own legitimacy.