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Algeria’s lessons from The Plague in the age of coronavirus



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image captionThe Plague has been flying off bookshop shelves worldwide

The Mediterranean city of Oran was the setting for a famous fictional outbreak of bubonic plague in Algeria under French colonial rule. The BBC’s Lucy Ash finds parallels between Albert Camus’ novel The Plague and how the country is coping with the coronavirus pandemic amid political upheaval.

Although it was published 73 years ago, today The Plague almost feels like a news bulletin. It has been flying off bookshop shelves around the world as readers struggle to make sense of the global spread of Covid-19.

Sitting in his office in the Mohamed-Boudiaf Hospital, where many of Oran’s coronavirus cases are treated, Professor Salah Lellou says he is exhausted.

An expert on tuberculosis in Algeria’s second city, he’s been working flat out for months, rarely leaving the hospital before midnight.

“The sick arrived in a very serious condition. Everyone was panicking – patients and the staff. We had a terrible time of it.

“We’re not sure if we’ve arrived at the peak, or if there’s a second wave because right now we have another spike in cases.”

Haunted by the novel

The third worst affected country in Africa after Egypt and South Africa, Algeria has officially reported 43,016 cases of coronavirus, including 1,475 deaths.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionOran, a port city on the Mediterranean, was the setting for The Plague, which in the novel was in total lockdown

It imposed a strict lockdown after the first infection was recorded at the end of February and in much of the country night-time curfews remain in force.

With his salt and pepper moustache and receding hair, Prof Lellou is older than Camus’ hero, Dr Bernard Rieux, but he seems equally devoted to his patients.

Unlike many in Oran today, he is familiar with the novel set in his hometown and almost seems haunted by it.

“We weren’t able to avoid thinking about the plague Albert Camus described during this pandemic… Most patients were very scared, there were a lot of rumours going around. Everyone was caught off-guard.”

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionMedics have been under pressure during the pandemic

In Bouira, east of the capital, Algiers, a hospital director was cornered by angry relatives of a patient who had just died of Covid. He jumped out of the second-floor window of his office to escape, suffering multiple fractures.

“There was a parallel between coronavirus and Camus’ plague. People started to blame the authorities,” says Prof Lellou.

In Camus’ novel, the Cathedral of Sacré-Cœur in downtown Oran – now a public library – was the setting for a fiery sermon delivered by the Catholic priest, Father Paneloux, who tells the congregation they have “deserved” the calamity which has befallen them.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Algeria’s mosques have been closed and religious leaders like Sheikh Abdelkader Hamouya have been delivering health messages and sermons online.

He has a reputation as a progressive but when he reflects on the meaning of the pandemic, there are echoes of Camus’ 1940s Jesuit priest.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s a message from Allah to believers, and to all people, to come back to him. To wake up!” he says.

Virus halts protests

Many Algerians tell me that the real danger they face is less the coronavirus itself and more the way the authorities are exploiting it for other purposes.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionThe protesters want reforms in a country where a third of young people are unemployed

Before the pandemic brought the world to a standstill, Algeria was swept up in a wave of peaceful protests – known as the Hirak, Arabic for “Movement” – which eventually forced President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to step down in April 2019 after 20 years in power.

Despite the celebrations that followed, the candidates to replace the aged president all belonged to the old guard. A former prime minister became head of state in December after widely boycotted elections.

Abdelmadjid Tebboune promised to extend a hand to the Hirak movement to build a “new Algeria”. He talked of reforms and the need to “separate money from politics”.

But with no sign of desperately needed jobs, protests became increasingly tense, with scores of activists arrested.

The authorities say Algeria is threatened by a rerun of the bloody violence of the 1990s – known as “the black decade”.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionYoung volunteers have been distributing donated food aid to needy families during the lockdown

Just as the stand-off seemed to be reaching a climax, coronavirus emptied the streets. Activists like Afiff Aderrahmane agreed to temporarily halt the protests.

The web designer threw himself into charity work, setting up a website to put donors in touch with organisations which distribute food and other aid to needy families and the homeless during the lockdown.

“The Hirak during the quarantine transformed itself into one enormous act of solidarity,” he says.

Solidarity during a crisis is a major theme in The Plague.

Mr Aderrahmane could be seen as a modern-day version of Camus’ character, Jean Tarrou, who organises sanitary teams of volunteers to accompany doctors on house visits, transport the sick and support those in quarantine.

“In fact many Algerians have something in common with him… the urge to help others in difficult times,” says Mr Aderrahmane.

Fascism and repression

The sanitary teams organised by Tarrou may reflect Camus’ own experience of fighting in the French resistance.

image copyright@Nime_BD

image captionWalid Kechida, portrayed here by cartoonist Nime, is behind bars for irreverent images shared on Facebook

Written just after World War Two, the novel has often been interpreted as an allegory for the Nazi occupation of France with the rats that bring the disease representing the “brown plague” of fascism.

But it can be interpreted in myriad ways and may also contain lessons for the excesses of an authoritarian state.

Walid Kechida,

the young creator of Facebook page Hirak Memes, was charged in April with offending the president and religious authorities with his irreverent images.

Although the authorities released some political prisoners to mark Independence Day on 5 July, many high-profile detainees like Kechida remain behind bars.

Earlier this month, prominent journalist Khaled Drareni was sentenced to three years for “inciting an unarmed gathering” and “endangering national unity”.

The government also passed a controversial law against “fake news” and blocked three websites that had been covering the pandemic and protests.

From 4,000 miles away, a radio station has been trying to fill the information gap.

Radio Corona International was set up by Abdallah Benadouda, an Algerian journalist now based in Providence, Rhode Island, in the US.

In 2014, he got on the wrong side of Said Bouteflika, the then-president’s brother, was sacked, blacklisted and after getting death threats, he and his wife fled.

The radio station airs each Tuesday and Friday to pay homage to the days of the street protests – and Benadouda says it helps to keep the flame of the Hirak burning.

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media captionCelebrations after the president of Algeria resigned

“I’m trying to do my best to be part of the revolution. So my body is in Providence but my mind and my heart are in Algeria.”

In The Plague, there is a French journalist – Raymond Rambert – who’s been sent to report on housing conditions in Oran and finds himself trapped as the city goes into lockdown. He is desperate to return home.

I think of Benadouda as the mirror opposite of Camus’ character. He is a journalist stuck on the outside, yearning to get back in. And his anguish increases with the mounting repression in Algeria as he worries about the safety of his contributors there, where frustration is increasing.

‘Inoculated against violence’

But like the vast majority of Algerians, Benadouda fears chaos. During the 1990s when the military fought an Islamist insurgency, 200,000 people died and 15,000 were forcibly disappeared.

Abdelkader Djeriou, the star of a gritty TV drama set in Oran, agrees. The actor often addressed huge crowds during the Hirak and was briefly imprisoned last December.

“Our experience of what we call ‘the black decade’ has inoculated us, it gave us some maturity to not be confrontational, and to avoid violence.

“This pandemic has really caused the mask to slip. We’ve seen that it’s civil society which helps the poor and those in need.”

Camus understood that when disaster strikes, people show their true colours.

The current crackdown on anti-government protests is a far cry from the freedom Algerians enjoyed at the start of the Hirak.

Algerians who know the novel might have recognised Camus’ warning against complacency at the very end of the book when he says that the plague bacillus – however the reader interprets it – never dies or disappears for good.

You can listen to Lucy Ash’s BBC World Service Assignment programme about Algeria’s Plague Revisited here.

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Year of the Overcomer-Prophet Elvis Mbonye



The eagerly awaited first fellowship of controversial Prophet Elvis Mbonye left viewers shocked as he declined to issue his now famous prophecies citing a refusal to settle for the new normal. In an on online service watched by thousands, the Prophet said him prophesying would “ be a concession to gathering online, rather than physically” further stating that it is not the will of God that church should meet online!

The Covid-19 SOPs given by the government and Ministry of Health have heavily impacted gatherings and as a result, ministries with large congregations have resorted to online services. The prophet however insists that this is a ploy to diminish the influence of the Kingdom of God.

He however proceeded to give the Prophetic Word of the year , saying “This is the year of the Overcomers” amidst cheers from those present. He also stated that this would not be a “gloomy” year, probably meaning that this would be a good year. Given that many of his prophecies have actually come to pass, should we pay more attention to him? We eagerly await the prophecies this year.

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Kabuleta blasts Media over “COFIT” reporting in new rant.



Presidential hopeful Joseph Kiiza Kabuleta has expressed dissatisfaction with the media over what he says was”alarmist reporting” over the Covid-19 pandemic which he calls “COFIT” a term we believe is a wordplay between covid and profit, a view held by many that claims that the disease was exaggerated to maximize funding and corruption. Kabuleta has come to be known for his straight shooting style and admirable command of facts and policy, even being touted as the “smartest candidate” in the is the full statement:


By Joseph Kabuleta

“Don’t look at where you fell, but where you slipped”

We know where the media fell. They fell when they were caught in the crossfire between opposition politicians and trigger-happy security hitmen; when they were unfairly targeted as they went about their noble duty of covering this explosive elective season. Sadly, some journalists are nursing wounds; others weren’t so lucky.
But it’s important for us to understand where they slipped.

If someone is sitting by the roadside sipping on his brew and he sees a gang of people sprinting past him, as if for their lives, it’s understandable if he impulsively joins without asking questions. But if after nine months he is still sprinting, and has still not asked any questions, then there’s something terribly wrong with him.

When we first went into lockdown in March, it was probably the best course of action because we didn’t know the full extent of the Cofit threat. But in the first 90 days, it was clear to all and sundry that it was never going to rank among Uganda’s top health challenges. And that’s not my opinion.

The Daily Monitor on July 15th quoted Dr Baterana Byarugaba, the Mulago Hospital Executive Director, describing the Cofit strain in the country as a mild form of flu which does not require hospital admission since it can be treated at home or in lower health facilities.
“l told Ugandans right from the beginning that the type of coronavirus we expect in Uganda is the mild one. It can be treated at health centre II, III, IV or the district hospital,” the top Medic said.

I read the story with glorious delight supposing that finally common sense, (or should I say science sense) would inform our decisions as a nation. But it’s difficult to know where science stops and politics starts. It’s become clear over the months that Cofit is not just a virus that causes respiratory problems, it’s a lot more than that; it’s a weapon in the hands of politicians that gives them power beyond their wildest dreams. In America, for instance, Democrat Congressman Jim Clyburn said Cofit is a “tremendous opportunity to restructure things to fit our (leftist) vision” while actress and activist Jane Fonda said that Cofit was “God’s gift to the left.”

Our media could have taken the side of poor Ugandans by showing the immense suffering and death from preventable sicknesses that resulted from the harsh Cofit measures; they could have highlighted the plight of businesses permanently closed and workers rendered redundant and sent back to villages. They could have wondered why truck drivers were testing negative in Kenya and positive in Uganda, or wondered why Cofit deaths only started after Prophet Museveni showed us a macabre lineup of coffins in his address, or why every celebrity who dies since then is ruled as Cofit (no autopsy required)

They could have told us that according to Worldometer, Cofit has a 0.28% mortality rate (or a 99.72 survival rate) and that it doesn’t rank anywhere in the Top 10 of Uganda’s health challenges; they could have told us that a child dies of malaria every two minutes (and Uganda accounts for 3% of the world’s malaria fatalities), which means that more Ugandans die from mosquitoes in ten days than Cofit has (allegedly) killed in the nine months it’s been on our lips.

Ugandans (especially of my age) have lived through real pandemics. As a young man growing up in the early 90s, nobody had to remind me that AIDS was real. Goodness me, I knew it was! And I didn’t need police to force me to wear protection, I knew the consequences. The fact that we are constantly being reminded that ‘Cofit is real’ tells a story of its own.

The media could have asked why Uganda, with one of the lowest Cofit cases or deaths, still holds on to a 9:00pm curfew when Kenya moved to 11:00pm in September, as did South Africa and several countries. The media could have told us that Malawi, Burundi, Tanzania and, recently, Ghana all held successful elections with full blown campaigns in 2020, and we aren’t hearing people dropping dead from Cofit in any of those countries. May be they should have tried to find out if people are dropping dead in Tanzania which altogether ignored all Cofit measures and went on to acquire middle-income status while Ugandans were still in lockdown.

They could have told us about the asymptomatic Cofit patients who were filmed dancing the night away in hospital wards, or of people suffering from other diseases who dare not go to hospital because they fear to be given a fake Cofit label and held for two weeks against their will.

The media could have told us that Cofit deaths across the world have been grossly inflated. Minnesota lawmakers say Cofit deaths could have been inflated by 40% after examining death certificates (according to The Washington Examiner) while Fox News reported that in Colorado 45% of Cofit corpses “were also found to have bullet wounds”.

They could have told us that 22 European countries, all of which had tens of thousands of Cofit deaths, opened their schools in the fall, and there has not been any reported spikes in cases as a result. They could have told us that more people have been killed by security men enforcing Cofit measures than by the virus itself.

Well, they could have…but they didn’t. And that’s where they slipped.

Instead they chose to go down the path of alarmist reporting and in so doing became, inadvertently or otherwise, enablers of Uganda’s trillion-shilling Cofit enterprise. Like Squealer in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the media used flowery language to drum up fear by keeping people’s eyes transfixed on swelling numbers while the thieves carried their loot and stashed it away, and loan money was distributed among family members or used in regime prolongation.

The recent joint television news bulletin, and the adverts that followed, were the peak of hysterical reporting. “Zuukuka Tusaanawo” (wake up, we are perishing) screamed an advert featuring top media personalities. What a load of……(fill in appropriate word).

Remember, all the tyranny we have witnessed in this season has been done in the name of Cofit, and such sensationalist reporting justifies it; it gives dictators like Museveni the perfect pseudo-moralistic cover to unleash their most despotic fantasies while actually pretending that it’s for the good of the people. Unfortunately, the terror has now spread to the very media people whose hyperbole enabled it in the first place. There is such a thing as the law of cause and consequence, after all.

Instead of the media walking out of pressers and threatening to boycott government functions, let them threaten to stop all Cofit reporting. Museveni himself would come running with chocolate in hand.

If the president extended curfew by just two hours, for instance, he will have put as many as 200,000 Ugandans back to work especially in the hotel, restaurant and entertainment industries; but he doesn’t care, and sadly neither do many middleclass Ugandans who suppose that it’s their moral obligation as responsible citizens of the Global Village to fret over Cofit just because their ‘fellow citizens’ in Europe and America are doing so. Of course they can afford to do that because their corporate jobs have, for the most part, insulated them from the devastation of the government-instituted Cofit measures. They can enjoy working at home, beer in hand, as they listen to CNN and BBC and still expect the full complement of their salaries at the month end, and that makes them feel every bit like ‘their brothers’ overseas.

Such aspirational conformists are more likely to be offended by my stance on Cofit because they haven’t traversed crook and creek of this country and seen the damage reigned on this fragile society; not by the virus, but by the measures supposedly instituted to mitigate it.

You see, perhaps the most enduring damage this regime has done to our society is creating a three-part hierarchy of class and needs. At the zenith are a handful of connected ‘1986 generation’ and their families who feel entitled to all power and wealth. Beneath is a small (and shrinking) middleclass, and at the bottom of the pyramid is a mass of peasants. Every society, to various degrees, is ordered in the same fashion, but what makes Uganda unique is that the megalomaniacs at the top don’t give a nickel about the plight of the middleclass and the middleclass in turn don’t care a bit about the quandary of the peasant. The charlatans at the top will impose punitive taxes on the middleclass, then dip into NSSF coffers at a whim to share out their savings, and no one can stop them.

And the middleclass Ugandan, armed with his medical insurance, and safe in the knowledge that his wife is unlikely to die in child birth (20 Ugandans do EVERY DAY), and his children are very unlikely to die of malaria (20 do EVERY DAY), or from malnutrition (thousands do every year), will go around trumpeting Cofit because it’s more relevant to his status than malnutrition or malaria.

I could just as easily go down that path. I could also close my eyes to mothers failing to get breast milk because they can only afford half a meal a day (black tea with a piece of cassava), and the malnourished babies that emerge as a result; I could close my eyes to the teenage girls that were given out in marriage because schools closed, or those given out to meet family needs; I could ignore the fact that our president is opening 5-star markets in cities which have 1-star referral hospitals; I could also choose to look the other way and enjoy my middleclass lifestyle, but as an aspiring leader, I cannot.

As a leader, my aspiration is to remove the privileged/entitled class, to expand the middleclass (and their income), and to shrink the peasantry; but mostly to blur the lines that separate each category.
It doesn’t bode well for our country if the average Corporate Ugandan knows more about racism in America than about extreme poverty in Teso or Busoga because that disqualifies him/her from the solution to those local problems.

And finally, I have come to the realization that the biggest pandemic afflicting our country is poverty and the virus that causes it is called M7-1986. Vaccination against it is January 14

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Muntu Blocked in Kamwenge



Alliance for National Transformation presidential candidate Gen. Mugisha Muntu has been blocked from campaigning in Kamwenge according to a statement he released earlier today.Below is the full statement:

Today in Kamwenge, as we have done since the start of the campaign season, we headed out to speak with the people. We had earlier in the week agreed on the venue with security agencies. No one had anticipated that it would rain as much as it did, making it impossible for us or the people to access.

After identifying an alternative place only 100m away from the original venue, negotiating with the owner and communicating the same to the public, we headed to the second venue only to be stopped by police.

Our policy has always been to do all we can to be reasonable, even in the face of unreasonable action on the part of the state. We engaged the police leadership in a civilized, respectable manner well knowing that they intended to not only frustrate us, but cause us to act in ways that would give them an excuse to cause chaos. This was on top of their intimidating the radio we had booked and duly paid to appear on.

While we are confident that we are on the right side of both the law and reason, we have chosen not to endanger the lives of our supporters or the general public by escalating the situation. We will do everything humanly possible to avoid a single life being lost or blood being shed on account of our campaign.

And yet this truth remains: the regime’s days are numbered.



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