By Ian Karusigarira (Ph.D.)
Lecturer, National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, Japan
With the ongoing Hitachi-sponsored research project, JSAS Board members and their collaborators have been learning that in the relentless battle against the COVID-19 pandemic, societies in Africa and the world over implemented a range of measures, from mandatory restrictions to ambitious vaccination campaigns. As we navigate the uncertain terrain of a post-pandemic world, it's only natural to reflect on the decisions made along the way. Were mandatory restrictions and vaccinations the right course of action, or could we have taken a different path to achieve similar outcomes? In this newsletter, Dr. Ian Karusigarira delves into the nuances of our pandemic response, examining whether there might have been alternative approaches to safeguard public health and freedom simultaneously.
The world is yet to recover from the shock associated with the invasion of Covid-19 in the world, the responses, and later, the sudden silence of its interest in the misery of its victim (the world). The globe’s humans are still grappling with the uncertainties of its disappearance from media which had made it the routine bulletin. Meanwhile, to the eyes reading this, Covid-19 is not a storyline deserving a space in the media platforms today.
From the African perspective, China was the best candidate for its triumphant entry as would have been the US, and the rest of the imagined West. In this case, Africa was at first perceived as immune from an unwarranted global isolation of the already crumbling continent. For some observers (of course intoxicated with the excesses of medical postulations) believe that the end of Covid-19 is attributed to a successful vaccination campaign that rolled out almost six months after the outbreak. Yet, others suggest that Covid-19 was a result of weaponization of scientific knowledge for personal gratification, a conspiracy stance with which I subtly associate.
No sooner had Africa slept in glaring contentment of “we are finally not the pandemic’s victims” than the first shock hit Uganda from a traveling passenger aboard Emirates airline that was diagnosed with the vicious virus (corona for lack of a local name). Of course, other countries on the African continent had already witnessed Covid-19 cases days before. Meanwhile, the “heroic scientific innovators” were relentlessly scratching their heads night and day to devise the vaccination to help mitigate the impact of the virus, as well as provide a lasting solution to the biggest world problem for the past century (and for the futuristic analysts, the next century too). Most interestingly, the move to innovate the “most needed vaccination of the century” (the use of quotation marks here alludes to a sarcastic connotation of the reality) came with it the precedented politics of who was the authentic innovator holding China, India, and Russia at the ransom of vaccine manufacture validation.
Face masks became part of the routine purchases and laundry. At first it was an offense if one was found not wearing a mask, an unfounded offense related to the deliberate attempt to spread a harmful infection/disease, attempted murder (assuming that the infection would likely lead to death), and disobedience of the presidential directives (here, the president assumed position of the “most high”). Later, considering the increase in infection rates and deaths supposedly from Covid-19, wearing a mask became a voluntary action by an already panicked society. In Rwanda (though not the country of my interest) if one was found without wearing a mask, the culprit would be involuntarily taken to the stadium where other deviants were taken and a class about how to wear a mask was conducted for a whole day (meaning day and night). In Japan (also not a focus of this write-up but important), the tradition of wearing masks existed even before Covid-19. Prior to this 2019 nightmare, it was only natural for an ordinary Japanese to wear a face mask if they are diagnosed or suspected to be infected with an infectious disease such as influenza and flu. It is not surprising, thus, that a big section of Japanese (unlike elsewhere in world) still wears masks in public places. However, what is interesting about Japanese society was that even though there was shared cognition that wearing a mask is a first line of infection prevention, the reports indicated a radical increase in infection rates in routine bulletin during the peak years that’s 2020 and 2021. The movement of the people from point A to point B characterized strict observance of the Covid-19 guidelines. However, the relations at their destinations had a different characteristic. For example, when the groups met for a meal, they forgot temporarily that Covid-19 thrives in the exchange/sharing of the respiratory spaces (the air we breathe). This could, in part, explain the resurgence in Japan. Yet, the reduction and later, the perceived disappearance of Covid-19 cannot be reduced to the wearing of masks and vaccination, in my opinion.
Although the silence of Covid-19 fatalities, infection, and hybridity from mutations has not been openly celebrated, the people (especially in Africa, a continent that had not experienced widespread vaccination) have uneducated doubts about the correlation between Covid-19 Vaccination and the mitigation of Covid-19. It may also be suspicious to make Covid-19 vaccination mandatory for all children that will be born in the near future.
What exactly went wrong? How did we react?
I am in tandem with Dr. Laban K. Kinyua’s verbatim questioning words “didn’t the world really panic? Would we have done things differently? Or, can we do things differently if situations like this occurred?”. Honestly speaking, the African-ness in me (without any deliberate intention to advantage or disadvantage any type of world’s peoples) would not have allowed me to respond the way I responded. For example, I am yet to come to peace with the feeling about involuntary vaccination that was tagged to access to the global environment (travels abroad) and access to local services including hotels and public offices both in Uganda and Japan). If I had a choice, I would have let pass the insertion of an unvalidated substance into my body system (at least unvalidated by my conscience).
Covid-19 policing also presents an irony. Uganda restricted the movement of people from their neighborhoods (including jogging) except for the essential workers whose mobility had the equal potential of reinfection as they would freely move around as well as go to hidden night clubs where the outlaw situation presented a return to normalcy (at least in that night’s moment).
Covid-19 brutality became a new normal where the law enforcement treated kinetic approaches as the best approach to taming the rapid infection rates since the government had not fully developed the scientific capability. In areas of health policing, maybe we would have done things differently.
For the regime in Uganda, the uninvited guest presented itself with a consolidation ingredient (in what many have called the Covid-19-democracy/autocracy). The 2021 election was a typical containment of dissenting voices while framing social distance and other Covid-19 guidelines as the election’s operational parameters for the exercise of “free will” and adult suffrage. The sharp lines were drawn separating the ideal participatory politics (the use of participatory politics is a careful lack of interest in the word “democracy”) and what was happening slightly before, during, and after the election.
Alternative medicine fanatics became profoundly pronounced rather clearly. A sneak into the city roadside temporary markets like in Kalerwe (located in Kawempe division, Kampala metropolitan) displayed lemons, garlic, onions, and honey (for making a “concoction”) and local assorted herbs (for steaming and drinking) as the latest natural resources that would intervene in these difficult times. Specialists of alternative medicine also tirelessly worked to innovate a Covid-19 herbal treatment called Covidex which is still on the market in most pharmacies in the country. Local solutions to global problems gave confidence to the resilient local/traditional assets/systems. Herbal medicine has since 2021 become an acceptable health-restorative response.
In the area of social research, even if the scholars’ physical access to their fields was restricted, the hybridized research was improvised. In this case, the researcher’s positionality became more lenient to the research subjects. The researchers also had a chance to stand in the peripheries of their fields and observe their research interviewers as well as the interviewees comparatively. Where the researcher used the online tools conveniently, such tools gained authenticity more than the condition in the past.
Additionally, the pandemic (uninvited guest) presented itself with the opportunity to ponder about the future uncertainties. Under-reaction, indifference, or over-reaction may be core divides for policy makers and lay people alike while deciding the course of action for the individual or societal benefits. In my opinion (which is not so important), defining secure spaces and leaving the liberty to choose whether or not to join such secure spaces may be a great maneuver. Deciding that people should not leave their homes as a preventive approach was seen to produce adverse effects. Some people wondered if Covid-19 was worse than hunger and starvation. Thus, some interventions can give rise to even more severities. Questions about boarder closure and control may push the economies into even severer marginalities. Although I may not demand for your immediate response, how would you react to my and Dr. Kinyua’s puzzle of the world’s peoples’ Covid-19 responses?