Stories from the Pandemic
Updated: Sep 17
Covid-19, Panic, Politics and Corruption
By V. L Ssali
The early days
Looking back, it is really difficult to pinpoint when exactly the panic about corona virus took hold in Japan. Was it the moment on January 16th when we heard of the first confirmed case in Japan, a Kanagawa man who had previously travelled to Wuhan in China? Was it the February 1st announcement that a passenger who, on January 25th, had disembarked at Hong Kong from the Diamond Princess, now docked in Yokohama Bay, had tested positive? The fate of thousands of passengers on the giant cruise ship, many of them Japanese, would dominate the news headlines for weeks. Was it the 30th March announcement that that tarento and comedian Ken Shimura had died at the age of 70 from complications of a COVID-19 infection? By then, we were beginning to hear of clusters of infection at facilities for the elderly and disabled, even at a university. Graduation ceremonies in many places had been cancelled, and entrance ceremonies were mostly out of the question. There was panic and uncertainty all over the place. I remember accompanying a relative to hospital for a regular check-up on March 14th, and some of the tensest moments of my life. A face mask did not feel good enough. I was weary of sitting on a hospital bench, and alas, I had to get into a shower immediately on getting back home. Such was the panic at the onset of this invisible enemy, an unprecedented event at least for our generation.
To Lock or Not to Lock-Down
While by mid-March many countries were under quarantine, placing millions of people in effective lock-down, life in Japan was still going on normally. It felt strange, even wrong sometimes, that while many countries were virtually closing their economies down due to increasing Covid-19 cases, the Japanese government was wavering over whether to declare a state of emergency or not. Indeed, on April 7th, when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe finally declared a state of emergency in Tokyo and six other hard-hit Japanese prefectures to fortify the fight against the coronavirus outbreak, he and his officials were being quoted as saying “Japan cannot legally enforce European-style hard lockdowns” (The Japan Times, April 8, 2020).
On April 16 the government would expand the state of emergency to include all 47 prefectures, and also announce a plan to give 100,000 yen to every registered resident of Japan. The state of emergency, however, meant no strict quarantine with penalties as was the case in other countries. “Many foreign observers are puzzled by Japan’s odd response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which some call a “soft lockdown,” wrote Japan Times’ contributing writer, Lawrence Repeta. “Governors like Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike can strongly request that people stay home but they cannot order them to do so” (Japan Times, April 14, 2020). That ambiguous situation could rightly scare anyone resident in Japan, especially in Tokyo where increases in infection were hitting daily records.
The measures, nevertheless, have remained what they are: the authorities basically “requesting” social distancing and other measures. And that’s where Japan’s secret is. Those “other measures” have either always been here, or they have met disciplined ears. Civil society has been in it all together with the government, and there are no political discussions about wearing masks or washing hands. Even with the June resurgence of infections, after the late May lifting of the state of emergency in all prefectures, and after the threshold of new infections had been deemed to have hit 0.5 per 100,000 people, cases in japan have remained relatively low. Uncertainty, and sometimes lack of confidence in governing and political decisions, will always be neutralized here in Japan by cultural confidence and the resilience of civil society.
A political Virus
As months have gone on, one thing has become clear: not even a life-threatening pandemic can escape the throngs of politics. Nowhere has Covid-19 been politicized more than in the US where President Trump has famously pitched daily political battles with the WHO, China, and, mainly, his domestic political rivals, even as his government has for months been accused of lacking clear policies to fight a virus that has to date affected over 6 million and killed over 180,000 Americans. Most observers agree that it is by no coincidence that in Brazil, another right wing, populist leader, President Bolsonaro, “has minimized the importance of the pandemic and focused on political battles…he has often minimized the severity of the pandemic, repeating mantras such as “just a little flu”, “only the elderly are at risk”, the “economy must come first” and “social isolation is an extreme measure” (Daniela Ponce,
Nature Reviews Nephrology, Springer Nature July 16, 2020).
Home Sweet Home: lessons from Asia
With the pandemic still raging, and many countries that had initially been successful seeing resurgences, it is difficult to declare which countries are winning. Nevertheless, initial reports showed many Asian countries with real threats had taken good and quick measures to beat Covid-19. These included Cambodia, Bhutan, Malaysia, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand, Singapore, South Korea, and of course, China. Meanwhile sub-Saharan Africa was initially spared of the first wave that would supposedly bring her medical services to an inevitable collapse. Cases came and rose rather slowly, but steadily. And to be fair, quite a few countries including Burkina Faso, Djibouti, Mauritius, Somalia, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivore, and Egypt, have been hailed as “winning” (source: endcoronvirus.com, August 2020 updates). Unfortunately, a lot of negative publicity around the virus has also been associated with the African continent.
Corruption and the Virus
In East Africa, veteran Ugandan journalist and blogger, Charles Onnyango Obbo, used the caption “a thief for all Seasons” on one of his Covid-19 related articles. He argued that “Not even Covid-19 will stop the corrupt”, and that “even in the face of a pandemic that has taken so many lives, ruined millions of livelihoods, and set back the progress of most of our countries by decades, the corrupt aren't able to draw a line and say, "no, this we will not steal" (The East African, 13 July, 2020).
I was initially impressed by the decision the Museveni regime made in my native Uganda to effectively lock the country down as early as March 18th. Uganda was also one of the first African countries to impose travel restrictions on her citizens and others traveling from countries with high infection rates. There were of course worries that sudden as it was, the lockdown would leave millions of people in the greater Kampala metropolitan area basically starving as the majority of them live from hand to mouth. Nevertheless, any lockdown in sub-Saharan Africa looked like the lesser of two evils. The effects of widespread community infections on the national economies and their pre-existing healthcare deficiencies would have been far greater than those of temporary lockdowns.
In Uganda, while a small number of businesses were allowed to reopen on May 5th, others remained closed until the end of July. By then Uganda had 1, 154 confirmed cases and only 3 deaths, quite a big achievement for such a vulnerable country. But hear this: by the same date, the BBC was reporting that at least 12 people had allegedly been killed by security officers enforcing measures to restrict the spread of coronavirus (https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-53450850)! The Museveni government was also obviously playing partisan politics when the President, as early as March, outlawed anyone who provided Covid-19 relief to their neighbors and said they would be charged with attempted murder. Indeed, one opposition member of parliament from Central Uganda, Francis Zaake, was arrested and tortured in April for providing relief to members of his constituents (https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/04/28/uganda-opposition-leader-reported-tortured-police). Meanwhile several government officials were being arrested and jailed for coronavirus supplies theft.
And Uganda is not alone. Sources say a Deputy Health Minister in the Democratic Republic of Congo leaked a letter to the prime minister accusing Cabinet members of receiving kickbacks on contracts for the coronavirus response, while health workers went unpaid for months. South Africa has also reportedly announced a probe into allegations of corruption involving billions of dollars in relief fund to ease the impact of Covid-19. In Kenya, there have been reports of corruption in the use of money donated by the World bank for the fight against Covid-19.
Back to veteran Journalist Onnyango Obbo: “Coronavirus-related corruption is a barometer of just how deep the rot runs in our governing structures, and how broken public morality is. It also raises the question of whether anything is left that is so sacrosanct the corrupt will not touch, or would wish to but are too afraid” (The East African, 13 July, 2020).
When historians write the stories of how the two giant continents of Africa and Asia have faired in the face of their post-colonial crises, there will inevitably be arguments about the role of the state and governance in the destinies of countries in these two regions. I predict leadership in the face of this unprecedented pandemic will be a big factor in the Afrasian battle of wits.