Wednesday, November 18, 2020

America's Colonial Election

 The political stalemate in the United States challenges many of the commonly held notions about democracy in the nuclear-armed, north American nation of more than 330 million people. The incumbent, authoritarian president, Donald Trump, at 74 already one of the oldest leaders in the G-20, is clinging on to power and refusing to accept defeat by the even older opposition leader, Joe Biden.

In advance of the election, Trump built a barricade - a "non-scalable" wall - around the presidential palace, officially known as the White House, in the country’s coastal capital of Washington DC, which only added to concerns that he may not give up power if he lost.

For the watching world, the question is how did it come to this? How could a country that promotes itself as a model democracy across the planet - "the shining city on a hill" - be so bad at conducting elections and containing a rogue president?

Strategically located between two of the world's largest economies, Mexico and Canada, America is a country of deep contrasts - of breathtaking natural beauty, natural resources and friendly people, but also of ethnic divisions and massive inequality and poverty. It is a country that leads the world in scientific and technological discovery, yet is ruled by a corrupt, rapacious elite and struggles to come to terms with the legacy of its racist and colonial past.

Similarly, while Trump and Biden have much in common - both are wealthy and accused of corruptly exploiting public office to corruptly benefit themselves and their family members - they represent very different visions of the oil-rich country, long regarded an island of stability in a troubled region.

Four years ago, frustrated by a political elite that had presided over years of declining fortunes and betrayed hopes, a section of the American society, primarily made up of members of the ethnic white majority living in the vast rural interior of the country, turned to Trump, a political outsider with a hateful message which exploited ethnic divisions, demonised immigrants and refugees and promised a return to a mythical great past.

Yet Trump has achieved the opposite - by wrecking the nation's traditional alliances and exacerbating its internal divisions, he has weakened the country and lowered its esteem in the eyes of the world. Even the economic successes, the foundation for his re-election campaign, have been blighted by his mishandling of the global pandemic which has so far led to the needless deaths of nearly a quarter of a million of his fellow citizens.

Biden has now been elected by the other half of Americans, a coalition of ethnic minorities and moderate whites, also on a platform of a return to a mythical past, only a more recent one. He has been essentially charged with undoing the chaos of the Trump years and healing the divisions.

However, the idea of a pre-Trump utopia is fiction. The fact is Trump is a symptom, not the cause of America's problems; he simply exploited what existed long before he appeared on the scene. Fixing the country will take more than replacing him with a member of the ancien régime.

One might say that the problem is both camps are not looking back far enough. As the political unrest that swept the country in the months leading up to the election indicated, the issues plaguing the US date back to its founding as the first English colony, the genocide that accompanied the conquest of the native population, the enslavement that allowed the exploitation of its resources and the discrimination that legitimises to this day gross inequality and allows the few to profit off the labour of the many.

As with other countries struggling with traumatic pasts, the US needs to come to terms with the legacy of that past which continues to poison ethnic relations between its citizens today. Here it could learn from other former colonies, such as South Africa and Kenya, which have experimented with truth and reconciliation commissions.

In addition, the US will need to examine and repair the systemic faults with its democratic arrangements. Although the country likes to think of itself as having escaped the clutches of colonial monarchy after securing its independence, the truth is just like many former colonies that retained colonial states after securing independence, in the US, the monarchy was reincarnated in the form of its powerful presidency.

Over the last two centuries, Britain's first-born has continued to increase the power of that office while simultaneously untethering it from constitutional restrictions. Where democracy was once thought of as a way for the people to rule themselves, the country has transformed it into a mechanism for basically appointing a king.

In the mould of their former colonial masters, Americans have come to treat their presidents like greater mortals and saviours, ascribing to them messianic qualities, carving massive monuments to them on mountains and treating their words as pearls of wisdom from on high. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris's description of Biden in her acceptance speech is in the same vein: "We have elected a president who represents the best in us. A leader the world will respect and our children can look up to. A commander in chief who will respect our troops and keep our country safe."

It is this path that has led the country inexorably to Donald Trump. In order to reverse course, the US will need to pursue reform of its system, to reintroduce accountability and to pare back some of the powers of the presidency. Rather than focusing on choosing rulers, it has to encourage the participation of its citizens in the governance of their state.

One hopes that the political impasse and rising tensions in the country will be resolved peacefully since the American people deserve better. However, they must keep in mind that the election of Joe Biden is just the first step on the long road to democracy.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Is Traditional Medicine Africa's Secret Weapon Against COVID-19?

 Covid-19 infections across Africa are on the rise. Although the confirmed number of infected people on the continent is still about 5 per cent of the global total, and the rate of increase seems to be slowing, hopes that Africa would escape the pandemic relatively unscathed are fading.

In many countries, especially those south of the Sahara, already creaking public health systems will struggle to cope with an influx of critically ill patients needing intensive care. This region hosts just 3 per cent of the world’s conventionally trained medics, who face one-quarter of the global disease burden armed with just 1 per cent of its financial resources for healthcare.

Even so, the continent does have resources that can help it cope. Not only has it had extensive experience battling epidemics of infectious disease, such as the Ebola outbreak in 2014 and the Aids and cholera pandemics, it also has a wealth of traditional medical expertise that it has barely begun to exploit.

Talk of indigenous medicine is often greeted with condescending colonial stereotypes of witch-doctors peddling snake oil. This is not helped by the ridicule inspired by leaders like former Gambian strongman, Yahya Jammeh, who claimed to be able to cure Aids using massages and a herbal concoction, or by the attempts by the regime in Madagascar to market an unproven and similarly ineffective cure for Covid-19. Back in 1969, Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, condemned traditional healers as “lazy cheats who want to live on the sweat of others”.

Yet while quacks and fraudsters doubtless exist, there is compelling evidence that the majority of practitioners are skilled and experienced, and that their herbal prescriptions can be effective. As one recent study notes, scientific research “continues to validate therapeutic claims on medicinal plants made by traditional practitioners”. The Kenya Medical Research Institute also rejects the notion that they are inferior to conventional remedies.

Recognising this, the World Health Organization and the Africa Centre for Disease Control are collaborating in the use of traditional medicine as a basis for potential remedies for Covid-19. Indigenous medicine can also help offset manpower shortages where there are very few conventionally trained healthcare workers. Across Africa, there is one doctor for every 40,000, but one traditional healer for every 500.

By integrating their expertise and knowledge into the existing national health system, with appropriate safeguards, countries can bolster the deficit in medical personnel. This eases the burden on the public health system, freeing up resources to be employed in dealing with emergencies like Covid-19.

Three years ago, Kenya’s parliament adopted a new health law requiring the government to do just this. To date the law remains unimplemented. Apart from depriving the country of a valuable asset in the war against Covid-19, the lack of official recognition leads to continued stigmatisation of traditional medicine and makes it difficult for the public to distinguish between fraudsters and genuine practitioners. It starves the sector of the investment needed to translate indigenous knowledge into cheap, standardised and accessible medical services and products.

The problem exists across the continent. While most countries had by 2018 developed national or state level laws and regulations to govern traditional medicine, only three African states, Benin, Ghana and Mali, reported having an existing national plan for integrating it into their national health services. Such plans should be an urgent priority.

To tackle Covid-19 effectively, and ensure that it is able to provide affordable and sustainable medical services in the long term, Africa will need to mobilise all its resources. It would be a tragedy if, in this fight, the continent failed to use its most effective weapon: its people and their knowledge.


Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Our Worst Foe Is Civilization

In November of 1871, the then Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, contracted typhoid fever, a deadly disease which at the time was blamed on sewer gas, a noxious vapor which arose out of the modern conveniences that were a feature of middle- and upper-class homes. Water closets had been heralded by sanitary science as the safest and most efficient means for disposal and, despite the foul smell they were associated with, having one was still considered a privilege. “The pestilence that walketh in darkness” the Times called it, declaring that “our worst foe is Civilization”.

Today the world is stalked by another pestilence, one that does not spare the wealthy and has already afflicted the current Prince of Wales. In the words of the Times 150 years ago, "it is a more terrible, more constant, and far more insidious danger which now occupies the foreground in public anxiety”. Much of the concern is driven by the fact that Covid-19 is not just a disease of the poor. As Prof Alex Broadbent of the University of Johannesburg asks: “Would we care about the increased risk of fatal pneumonia that Covid-19 might cause in Africa, if it did not also greatly increase the risk of fatal pneumonia for prime ministers, business people and university professors, including those in countries where infectious disease and its terrors are supposed to be of historical interest only”? As sewer gas did, coronavirus has “shifted the focus away from the fever dens of the poor to the bedchambers of princes and, more frequently, "ordinary middle-class houses" as sites of disease and death”.

The pandemic is devastating more than just health systems. It is also shattering the illusion of safety engendered by systems which for centuries have concentrated global resources in a few societies, families and individuals while leaving many across the globe without access to basic life-sustaining necessities. And once again, the blame is being laid at the door of “Civilization”, this time in the form of globalization. "It's globalization that has allowed covid 19 to spread around the world at such incredible speed" declares Deutsche Welle, decrying how reliant the West has become on cheap medicines and products from China and India. illustrating just how dependent the world has become on just one economy, China. declares John Gray.

The coronavirus has hugely increased, at least in the short term, the costs of global inequality and exploitation. The question is whether “civilization” will win out as it eventually did in London, where following the Prince's recovery, sanitary reform became a national priority. Will the global pandemic pave the way for reform of the global system to make it more equitable or is John Gray right when he declares in the New Statesman that “the era of peak globalisation is over”?

Undoubtedly, continuing along the same path would entail the powerful accepting vulnerability as the price of inequality. After all, while the poor are paying a steep price for a disease that the wealthy are primarily responsible for spreading, Max Fisher and Emma Bubola note in their piece for the New York Times, that “in an epidemic, poverty and inequality can exacerbate rates of transmission and mortality for everyone”. Therefore in the absence of a vaccine (and a viable one is reckoned to be 12-18 months away), as long as the poor continue to get sick, so will the rich and powerful. How those at the top of the global food chain, be they the citizens of the global North or elites in the global South, act to reduce that vulnerability will depend on the extent to which they are willing to share the wealth along with the diseases.

On the other hand, while it is true that economic globalization has been taking a pummeling of late, a significant retreat as Gray prophesies seems unlikely. Already, there is talk of reopening economies and resuming normal life. Yet without globalization and the accompanying “worldwide production and long supply chains”, the new normal would be an expensive one. It is questionable whether countries like the US and Germany could afford to produce goods and medicines at the cost that they import them from countries like China and India. Or whether their citizens would be willing to forgo access to cheap iPhones to protect the one-percenters.

The other option open to the rich and powerful to reduce their vulnerability is to reform the global systems rather than retreat from them. That will require recognition that their privileged lifestyles are underwritten, as Umair Haque, the London-based consultant and author, notes, by “centuries … of colonialism, capitalism, supremacy, patriarchy”. That has created a world where Europe, which grows no coffee, can make 5 times more from coffee exports than sub-Saharan Africa which does. The global vulnerability to diseases like covid 19 rests on such distortions and inequalities.

Changing this will be impossible if the mold is not broken. And building a world that works for everyone will require more than just tinkering at the edges. As Haque puts it, “without building global systems, nothing much will change”.

At the close of the 19th Century, the scourge of sewer gas was not resolved by reducing the number of flush toilets within individual homes and retreating back into a world of cesspools and outhouses. It was ended through improvements in the unseen plumbing and infrastructure that ensured the sewer system worked for everyone. Not only did London get a new sewer system but in the 1870s and 1880s, hundreds of patents for sewer trap designs as well as water closets and flushing devices.

Similarly, the coronavirus pandemic can provide an impetus for a flood of ideas on how to construct a better global order, rather than for retreating from it. Doing so will not be easy or cheap. But it can be done if the West is willing to invest the resources that it has taken from the rest of the world. And to stop taking a dump on them.