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Interview with Dr. Reginald M.J. Oduor on Covid-19 Measures in Kenya

Professor Toby Green speaks with University of Nairobi lecturer Dr. Reginald M.J. Oduor on the impact of Covid-19 measures in Kenya

Q: Can you tell us about the initial Covid response in Kenya — the government’s measures, how strictly they were enforced, and how serious the initial Covid waves were?

The first Covid infection in Kenya was announced in mid March 2020. The daily infections remained below 100 for weeks, if not months. According to Kenya’s Ministry of Health, by 30th April, 2020, a total of 396 infections had been reported in a country of over 47 million people.

At first the government enforced the so-called “social distancing” for about three weeks, and then a series of lockdowns and curfews, as well as a mask mandate. The police came down hard on citizens who did not make it home in time despite the poor public transport services. Burials of people whose deaths were attributed to Covid were done under the strict supervision of security and public health officials. In several instances, people were buried by security personnel without the involvement of their kin.

Q: You are a philosopher, and East African communities have a rich history of philosophy and indigenous medical practices. So how did people respond to these top-down practices — and was there any debate in public or in private?

Yes, our various peoples had robust health systems in pre-colonial times, or else they would not have survived life in the tropics. However, the British colonisers dismantled those systems to a large measure, especially through the persistent disinformation that only Western medicine was credible. For example, the British colonisers deliberately conflated mchawi (Kiswahili for “wizard/witch”) with mganga (Kiswahili for “healer”) to concoct the strange term “witchdoctor”, which is itself a contradiction in terms because a witch cannot possibly be a doctor. The damage that resulted from this concoction continues to have a devastating effect on people’s confidence in indigenous health systems. As a result, there was no big outcry against the draconian Western hegemonic approach to Covid-19. However, a few of us protested on social media and in private discussions such as those on chat platforms. People also protested against the highhanded approach of the police, particularly in their enforcing of curfews. In fact, at one point the government apologised for police brutality.

Q: Can you tell us what the impacts of the restrictions have been for people in Kenya: on their lives, livelihoods, and education?

Those who were bereaved, whether by Covid or by other means, were traumatised by the public health measures governing funerals and burials. People who had died without any symptoms of Covid were tested for it, and if the virus was found, even more strict protocols kicked in, further aggravating the families’ pain.

Besides, the lockdowns were devastating to millions of Kenyans who have no monthly pay-cheques, and who must therefore literally earn their living on a daily basis as artisans, farm or factory hands, or small-scale traders. Indeed, many small-scale businesses collapsed, jeopardising the welfare of the many who directly or indirectly relied on them. Of course, the middle class (lawyers, university lecturers, engineers, among others) were able to work at home because of their access to the Internet, and so many of them thought those of us who belong to that class but who were protesting the lockdowns had lost our minds.

Formal education also took, and continues to take, a major beating from the restrictions, mainly because schools were closed for an inordinately long time. Children of relatively well-to-do parents could continue with some learning online, but the majority of the children have parents who simply cannot afford such facilities. Besides, the long closures now mean that children are currently being made to cover vast portions of content within an unrealistically short time. A considerable number of children who had to stay at home also suffered abuse from relatives and neighbours. The number of teen-age pregnancies increased substantially, and I suspect there are numerous less visible but devastating consequences on the mental health of many children directly related to the long school closures.

Q: Can you also tell us how the focus on Covid has affected other aspects of healthcare: routine vaccinations and treatments for endemic diseases?

There was a significant down-sizing of medical care for those with chronic conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, and cancer; people living with HIV/Aids missed their anti-retroviral drugs; young children missed their regular visits to the clinics. The lockdowns were particularly devastating because they were often announced and enforced with no prior notice. You can imagine a person with a severe disability who grants his or her care-giver three days leave to travel to another county, only for a curfew and/or lockdown to be announced while the care-giver is away and therefore unable to return, and yet whoever was holding fort for the care-giver is totally unable to continue offering support. I also met a husband who could not nurse his wife who was dying of cancer because he was in one county and her in another.

Q: From the point of view of your expertise in philosophy, and especially ethics and political philosophy, is there now any meaningful debate as to what the whole experience with Covid has meant for Kenya?

I have not seen much debate in academic circles about this. Many colleagues seem to believe that the Covid-19 measures were reasonable by and large, and a number of them have repeatedly expressed that view. Many of them seem to be at peace with most or all of the measures. However, a few are unhappy with the measures, but dare not speak in public.

Q: Can you also tell us about how Kenyans have responded to the vaccination programme, and how this has impacted discussions on civil rights?

What we have in Kenya is not just a vaccine programme, but rather a vaccine mandate — a requirement to get the shot or forfeit certain freedoms and services. A number of Kenyans held out against taking the shots until it was suggested that their jobs were on the line. Besides, public debate hit a kind of crescendo towards the end of 2021 when the government, which had categorically indicated that it would not force people to take the shots, decreed that only those who had taken them would be allowed in public transport, shopping malls, government offices, among others. This was particularly distressing because it was enforced most vigorously during the end-of-year holiday season. Many who desperately wanted to fly to destinations around the country or out of the country could not do so unless they walked over to designated desks at the airports to take the shots. This resulted in considerably vigorous debates on social media platforms.

More importantly, several groups filed petitions in the High Court challenging the constitutionality of the mandate. The High Court has consolidated the petitions, and they are still before the courts, with the latest mention having taken place on 16th May 2022.

I have sought to encourage public debate by writing two feature articles about the Covid-19 measures. The first is titled “COVID-19 Vaccine Mandates in the Light of Public Health Ethics”, in which I argue that vaccine mandates are instances of state overreach, as they violate human dignity, human agency and human rights, thereby eroding the very foundation of democratic society. I conclude it with the question: “If government can determine what goes into my body, what remains of my personal liberty?” The second is titled “Reflections on Medical Ethics in the Era of COVID-19”, in which I aver that the intense centralisation of health services has killed the doctor-patient relationship, while hospitals have now become centres for gathering detailed patient information that is exploited by pharmaceutical companies. Partly on the basis of these articles, I have had some friendly and enlightening discussions with a few compatriots on Twitter, but I think the debate ought to have been much more robust and sustained than it has been.

Q: I have described what has gone on in Africa as “medical colonialism” — is this fair?

Yes it is fair, and in line with V.Y. Mudimbe’s observation, in his The Invention of Africa, that “’colonialism’ and ‘colonization’ basically mean ‘organization’, ‘arrangement’. The two words derive from the Latin word colére, meaning to cultivate or to design.” He goes on to point out that the Western colonisers have all tended to organize and transform non-European areas into fundamentally European constructs.

Yet what has happened with regard to Covid-19 measures is more than colonialism — it is imperialism: I call it public health imperialism because it purports to rob people around the world of the right to human agency, and to place that right in the hands of an elite in Geneva, Washington DC, and perhaps a few other centres in the Northern hemisphere. This has made the peoples of Africa and indeed of other parts of the world feel that they have nothing to offer in the fight against this virus. The political elite in poor countries are being lured with cash donations in the name of managing Covid-19 in exchange for the sovereignty of their countries, and of course most of the cash is being misappropriated, and yet the financiers do not really seem to mind.

Q: What needs to be done in the future to avoid this sort of response?

In all honesty, what has happened was bound to happen because of the nature of the current global system in which a few wealthy countries are able to dictate terms of engagement to numerous poor countries. Some scholars now make the important distinction between de-colonisation (through which countries get flags, national anthems, etc. and join the UN but remain puppets of their colonial masters), and de-coloniality (through which the structures of economic, political, epistemological and cultural domination are dismantled). Walter Mignolo’s The Darker Side of Western Modernity, and On Decoloniality: Concepts, Analysis and Praxis by Walter D. Mignolo and Catherine E. Walsh are relevant in this regard.

Clearly, decoloniality is still light years from being attained. The tragedy of the Covid-19 measures cannot be addressed in isolation — it flourishes because of the current hierarchical world order, and I fear more or probably worse of the same kind of thing awaits humanity round the corner. It is instructive that those who have unleashed such terror on humanity have so far expressed no remorse for their despicable actions.

Yet we must urge all and sundry to constantly bear in mind the World Health Organisation’s memorable definition of health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” This would inspire the WHO itself and all other public health authorities to address health holistically instead of chasing one virus and thus neglecting so many other aspects of human flourishing.