In 1985, reformist Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping, advised then Zimbabwean prime minister Robert Mugabe, on the importance of fact based decision making that is not clouded by blind belief — philosophical or otherwise. According to Zhang Weiwei, Deng’s interpreter; Mugabe — a belligerent communist to boot- had chided Deng — a reformist communist leader — for pursuing ‘capitalist’ policies. It is said that an irritated Deng started off by urging Mugabe to pay attention to China’s unsuccessful experiences of the past.

Knowing how leftist Mugabe was, Deng is said to have “spent a considerable amount of time recounting the lessons China had learnt from being ‘left’”. Then came the bombshell! An astounded and unbelieving Mugabe was told that China had learnt from being leftist and had been punished for the mistakes of such an approach. Realities on the ground and not ideological beliefs should drive leadership decisions he insisted — the principle of seeking truth from facts.

In Malawi the fight against covid-19 seems to be getting ‘entangled’ with politics and religion in a way that calls on Malawians to seek truth from the facts of the pandemic. Since taking office, the new Malawi president’s immediate steps in dealing with the unfolding covid-19 crisis in the country have included constituting a new national covid-19 task force to lead the fight against the virus.

In a positive first in at least a decade, the task force membership is fairly inclusive with opposition party leadership even included. Surprisingly especially given the country’s strong deference to religion and religious guidance, religious leaders are not represented on the task force.

The gravity of this omission did not take long to start manifesting itself. On Wednesday 15 July the state president called on the nation to join him in national prayers and three days of fasting to ask for God’s help in defeating the virus. At least two facts arise from global experience that Malawians must collectively seek truth from this call.

The first has to do with the exercise of religious power by politicians. Because of the potency and tendency of power and its deployment, democratic societies have invested inordinate amounts of time delineating the breadth and limits of executive power. Over the last centuries one of the lessons learned globally is the need to separate the state with religion in democracies.

Lankford and Moore, the former a US senator and the latter a church leader offer the following reason on why this is important; “When religion is used for political purposes, it empties religion of its eternal meaning and becomes just one more cynical method of acquiring power”. From this, it seems reasonable that the intent is not to diminish the role of religion in democratic societies, but to rather ensure that religious authority is acquired, exercised and deployed by the appropriate institutions and their leaders.

The second issue relates to emerging evidence on covid-19 and its tendency to capitalize on compromised immunity. On the same day president Chakwera called for 3 days of fasting, experts on the disease where warning people to ensure they don’t compromise their immune systems. One main way to do this is to ensure the correct nutrition they urged.

Applying this to the Malawi context, could it be that while the fact is that Malawi is a God-fearing country, the truth is religious power must be exercised by religious and not political leaders?

The question is certainly not moot. This is especially when one considers that in 2018 only 2 out of every 10 Malawians stated that they trusted political leaders a lot. Contrast this with the fact that 7 out 10 Malawians said they trusted religious leaders a lot. It is almost inevitable to conclude that their omission in the task force was an opportunity missed to have the people that Malawians trust most work together with technical health and socioeconomic experts to drive behavior change.

Similarly, could it be that while its factual that fasting has its spiritual and health benefits, the truth of Covid-19 is that fasting only compromises the immune system offering it a gateway to terrorize?

This is not to suggest that the president should not have led the call for prayers. Rather, the clear prominence of religion and disparity in trust levels between politicians and religious leaders suggests that the president may have done well to, at the minimum, start off by including representatives of religious leaders in the national task force.

This arguably would have facilitated a conduit between religions and experts, in turn ensuring that the populace is best advised on how to ensure there is a balance between exercising religious beliefs and not compromising health. In all this, the president would still preserve his superintending role.

As Robert Mugabe left his meeting with Deng Xiaoping, his host, realizing how unconvinced Mugabe was by his advice, told his interpreter that unfortunately Mugabe seems to be one of those that defies facts in preference of beliefs.

Coming back to Malawi, ultimately a decision must be made, and a path traveled with all its attendant consequences. And while the president may argue he is also a theologian; it is worth remembering that the role Malawians elected him for was to be the commander in chief and state president as per the constitution of the Republic. In democracies presidents are unfortunately allowed to have that single role regardless of whatever other expertise they have.

Fortunately, modern democracies always insist on inclusiveness. This allows the president to defer religious leadership to the appropriate institutions and for these to work together with the relevant experts. Hopefully, the country will be able to see the wood from the trees and make a decision that is based on realities. Failure to seek truth from facts like Mugabe did 35 years ago is evident in the state that Zimbabwe is in today.

Experiences in countries such as New Zealand and Egypt and Rwanda on the African continent, among the many examples, attest to the real power of seeking the truth from facts and implementing practical policies. On the contrary, countries that have resisted facts and the new normal they demand are paying dearly.

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George Lwanda

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