WPF is dedicated to critical political thinking during the COVID-19 emergency.
The most important moment to think critically is when there appears to be the best reason for acting without hesitation. At the moment of crisis shock, when the epidemic curve is at its steepest and when lives are in danger, when scientific experts insist that the evidence requires that we obey certain commands, and detestable politicians sow confusion for the most nefarious motives—that is the moment to think most carefully. At this moment in the COVID-19 pandemic, some things are clear: the rules of responsible hygiene and personal risk reduction should be followed. But we should scrutinize the motives, interests, assumptions, and tricks of language that accompany such commonsense moralities. Small, apparently imperceptible differences in how we set our compass today, can cause us to make landfall on a very different shore to that we had expected.
There’s a hard lesson learned by every practitioner in a full-scale societal emergency—whether famine, war, massacre or epidemic: first, pause and think. Critical reflection is never, ever a luxury. Every post-disaster assessment contains the regret that there was a rush to action on the basis of assumptions that turned out to be incomplete, and expertise that turned out to be partial, short-cutting consultation and reflection.
We welcome practical, political, sociological, philosophical, and artistic reflections and analyses of our current predicament.
Barefoot Doctors and Pandemics: Ethiopia’s Experience and COVID 19 in Africa
Mulugeta Gebrehiwot, African Arguments, April 8, 2020
At the helm of the WHO today, Tedros should not forget the philosophy of public health that brought him to who he is. The Ethiopian Ministry of Health under the EPRDF won international plaudits for its professionalism and efficiency: a model of a well-run bureaucracy that could deliver results far in excess of most of its peers across the developing the world. But those successes were built upon doctrines of community-based public health, forged in the hardships of war by a guerrilla front that knew its survival depended on the trust of the people, so that it had no alternative but to deliver on effective, community-based health.
Thinking Critically in a Pandemic
Alex de Waal, Reinventing Peace, April 6, 2020
The most important moment to think critically is when there appears to be the best reason for not doing so. At the steepest incline of an epidemic curve, when lives are in danger, when scientific experts calmly insist that the evidence requires that we obey certain commands, and detestable politicians sow confusion for the most nefarious motives—that is the moment to think most carefully. The rules of responsible hygiene when threatened by contagion are not to be challenged. But we should scrutinize the motives, interests, assumptions, and tricks of language that accompany such commonsense moralities. Small, apparently imperceptible differences in how we set our compass today, can cause us to make landfall on a very different shore to that we had expected.
New Pathogens, Old Politics
Alex de Waal, Boston Review, April 2, 2020
There is a saying among epidemiologists: “If you’ve seen one pandemic, you’ve seen one pandemic.” Echoing this trade wisdom in an interview two weeks ago, Bruce Aylward, the assistant director of the World Health Organization (WHO), pointed out that each new pandemic follows its own logic, and those who rely on past experiences to draw conclusions for public health will make mistakes. With each new pandemic it is tempting to scour history books for parallels and lessons learned. But as many have stressed, the wisdom to be gained is often greatly exaggerated.
Condemned to Coronavirus?
Bridget Conley, Reinventing Peace, April 2, 2020
The largest population of detained people in the world resides in the United States. The geographic dispersion and variations of detention sites in the US work to hide the visibility of this population. If all these people lived in one place, let’s call it ‘Detentionville,’ it would form a city of around 2.3 million people, roughly the size of Houston, TX, Chicago, IL, or Paris, France. […] Whether the goal is to minimize coronavirus transmission across society, to protect detained people who are at heightened risk, or to improve the criminal justice system, we need to learn both to see the larger contours of Detentionville and the extreme variations within it. It is simultaneously national and local. While the affects of detention are not borne equally by all, the pandemic reveals that we all live near Detentionville.
COVID-19: “Know your Epidemic, Act on its Politics.”
Alex de Waal, Reinventing Peace, March 31, 2020
Every epidemic is different; government responses are usually the same regardless. Many governments apply what they think are the “lessons learned” from a previous pandemic to a new pandemic. Experts on pandemics think this is an error. A global pandemic unfolds in different ways in different countries, but governments usually adopt a standardized set of interventions regardless of their differences. One doctrine is useful in all situations: “know your epidemic, act on its politics.” This was learned the hard way.
Don’t expect the coronavirus epidemic in the US to bring down President Trump
Alex de Waal, The Conversation on March 18, 2020
The Trump administration’s mishandling of the coronavirus crisis has been widely condemned by health experts. But if the administration’s bungling proves costly to Trump in the November election, it will be an exception to the historical rule that epidemics haven’t led to political unrest or governments being voted out of office.Some kinds of health crises do have political consequences: Hunger has toppled governments. From the French revolution to the Arab Spring, food shortages have routinely caused riots and occasionally sparked revolutions. In the case of starvation, political cause and personal result are intuitively clear to those suffering: My family has gone hungry because the government has failed to ensure there’s enough food.
Can There Be A Democratic Public Health? From HIV/AIDS to COVID-19
Alex de Waal, African Arguments, March 19, 2020.
As we are re-learning with the coronavirus pandemic, the outbreak and global spread of a novel disease, which has neither vaccine nor proven cure, causes panic. More precisely, it causes political leaders and communities to resort to behaviours that intensify confusion and anxiety. Meanwhile, despite expert assurances to the contrary, public health ‘best practices’ are at best well-informed projections with the uncertainty factors on mute. At worst they can be superstitions.
Older essays by Alex de Waal Related Global Health Publications
Militarizing Global Health,’ Boston Review, 11 November 2014.
AIDS and Power: Why there is no political crisis, Zed Books, 2011
‘Governing a world with HIV/AIDS,’ Cairo Review of Global Affairs, Summer 2011
‘Reframing governance, security and conflict in the light of HIV/AIDS,’ Social Science and Medicine, 2010. 70.1, 114-120.
‘AIDS, Security and the Military in Africa: A Sober Appraisal,’ African Affairs, 2006, 105, 201-218