Paul Mugari Corresponent
It’s better to begin this discussion with a working definition of populism. Populism has been defined as a political approach, by some leaders of political outfits. It strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups. Political scientists have said that populism seeks to create a clash between the common people who are usually in the majority, and the ruling elites, often viewed as the establishment.
There are arguments for and against populism, with some sociologists describing it as an ideology which can be necessary. An approach associated with the political scientist Ernesto Laclau presents populism as an emancipatory social force through which marginalised groups challenge dominant power structures.
However modern world leader have also identified negative aspects of populism. Political scientists, Jordan Kyle and Yascha Mount, described the whole rule of former Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi as a populism project which resulted in huge national debt ending in untold suffering and collapsed. According to Kyle and Yascha, during Berlusconi years in office, he had made dozens of unrealistic promises, vilified his political opponents, and attacked the independence of judicial institutions on his way to power. Sounds familiar? Nothing new under the sun.
This is because a populist leadership seek to appease the people at any expense, and therefore creates a notion that whatever “the people” do is always right. And that whatever the ruling elite does is always on the wrong as self-serving.
In popular discourse, the populist leader has been describe as a politician who present overly simplistic answers to complex questions in a highly emotional manner, or with opportunism. This characterise politicians who seek to please voters without rational consideration as to the best course of action.
The former British Prime Minister Tony Blair described populism as unprogressively destructive and advocated for a leadership driven from the centre.
Covid-19: The enemy
The book of Solomon teaches us about “a time for everything”, and we join the whole world in a Covid-19 pandemic in which many people are perishing, and many are infected and suffering, and the many more are anxious and petrified. We have a common enemy now in Zimbabwe which has been described as invisible through the naked eye but a serious threat to life. Covid-19 does not discriminate. We have to remind the most powerful and the weak, and those in between, that Boris Johnson missed an important government meeting (COBRA).
He is reported to be recovering at home. The honourable prime minister spend a few nights in a London Intensive Care Unit. The question which kept being asked is whether this was avoidable. Was it? How? This is a point of reflection for the leadership, for the community, and for each family. What sacrifices are we prepared to make now or then? Hospital admissions, absence, recovery and recovery at home? Can this all be avoided? How?
Let’s remind ourselves of the current Covid-19 crisis ordeal and the anxiety of what next? The winter approaching Zimbabwe and our preparedness. The whole world has been closely focusing on the outbreak of this respiratory disease and the disease continues to spread.
The experts in science and specialists in healthcare have urged strategic planning and adequate protection strategies and plans. This means very tough decisions for the leadership in local and national government. And this is not a time for populist moves and point scoring stances for political gains.
The populists will seek to appease and overpromise, and to look good. The risks we face are huge, and everyone is at risk. On the contrary it’s a time to unite against a vicious common enemy. An invisible enemy that experts say, it enters one’s body unaware and causes sickness. Winning the war against this enemy requires that we know more the about enemy, how it attacks and how it can be fought. Information is power, unity is strength.
Engaging the experts
A Zimbabwean surgeon, Dr Antony Mutamba, has written an excellent article explaining the corona virus itself, how it infects and spreads, how to treat it at home and the treatment in the hospital. There are some interesting points to note on the article: According to Dr Mutamba, Covid-19 hasn’t been fully understood yet, Covid-19 afflicts the lungs in a way similar to high-altitude sickness, in a manner different from other lung diseases.
This means not many people understand about this new devastating disease, let alone the public. The public might not fully understand the risks involved here. This places a huge burden on the shoulder of the leaders, and in deed this includes the leader of the opposition.
If this Covid-19 is a disease which little is known so far, it means it not a time for popularist responses to initiatives taken to deal with the current pandemic. The idea of appeasing the masses for political mileage during this pandemic is an irresponsible one. We would call for a point of reflection on the current pandemic, and for politics to seek unity and get involved instead of distancing self when certain tough initiatives are taken.
The experts have shed on the journey of the Covid-19 sufferer in the hospital and stated that hospital care is not always straight forward. The used of mechanical ventilators can led to further complications, and according Dr Mutamba, that can part explain the high mortality rates in hospital admissions. This means one big lesson: Prevention is better than cure. Any initiatives which discourages crowding where there are no proper sanitary and hand washing facilities should be welcome. It will aid us in our fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.
The virus causing Covid-19 is transmitted via the respiratory tract, the most common entry point being the nose. This may occur by inhaling infected droplets or small, aerosolised particles. Common ways in which such transmission happens is either by direct contact (within a few feet) of someone who has the disease or by touching the nose with your own hands after the hands having touched an infected surface such as a door knob or table top etc. Knowledge of the following basic principles results in understanding common preventive methods. That makes crowded places a high risk for contracting and spreading of this pandemic.
The City of Harare has been reported to have taken a tough initiatives recently. Harare City Council teams demolished illegal structures around the city. These were of vendors’ cabins and stalls in Mbare and Highfield. The affected people have expressed their disappointment. The disappointment is indeed justified because people have lost livelihoods. Yet, in the context the fight against Covid-19, the action is justified too.
Clearly this was an easy decision to make or some madness as some politicians have claimed. There is no running water and good sanitation in these areas, the risks of contracting Covid-19 would be high. The arguments around the “prevention is better than cure” certainly do not make these decisions easy. There can be times when both sides of the argument can be correct. Those are the times when leadership can be seen as compared to populism. The populist will tell people what they want to hear, and the leader will tell people what they need to know. History will be the judge. All sides must reflect well before any moves. The experts should be consulted, and politics aside.
This is a time to listen to advise from healthcare and scientific experts and following local and international guidelines. No quick fix, no default responses and no slogans on twitter handles. Fighting this disease is our joint responsibility. The government, the opposition and the people must work together and find ways to engage each other without conditions. Those who aspire to take the top job should demonstrate their leadership skills, especially when faced with a dilemma.
The whole world is now talking about a new normal life after the coronavirus, with progressive countries encouraging positive attitudes in the fight against the pandemic. Some political leaders in other countries are urging their governments not to return to “business as usual” after the coronavirus lockdown, but to embrace positive changes that discourage crowding, like working from home. Zimbabwe must embrace leadership, unity and cooperation during this period.
This is not a time for cheap political point scoring, or making false promises, or striking news headlines about “distancing self” to fan populism. On the contrary it’s time to engage others across the political divide, to show strong leadership, and tell our people what they need to know.
The huge challenges and risks to all presented by the Covid-19 pandemic must now force the main opposition party to join the dialogue, and practically engage the government in the fight against the real enemy. The government will have a tough call in making the very difficult decisions, and the often controversies surrounding any tough choice.
In the case of the Covid-19 fight and initiatives, these must be guided by the experts. We all know that little is known about this enemy. The necessary sacrifices must be made in due time. As for the opposition, this the best excuse to join the dialogue and not to distance themselves.
Populism has its time, and that’s certainly not during a pandemic.