Tessa, my wife scoffed. “I bet I can tell the difference between AI generated art and human art. Get me a mix of both and let’s see. So I made her a mix of 7 human and 7 AI created images and put her to the test. I would have had zero clue which was which!
There’s a good chance you’ve experimented by with the Chat GPT3 chatbot or DALL-E image creation. After much AI hype the last few years, it’s finally got real in the last few months. After 30 minutes chatting with chat GPT I got some chills down my spine, and the chatbot has passed exams from law, business and medical school, as well as helping hackers write malware.
AI art might seem less important, but millions of artists are under threat and an entire industry stands to be disrupted.
AI challenges the traditional concept of what constitutes art and who can be considered an artist. While AI algorithms generate visually stunning images, there is debate over whether they are truly creative or if credit should go to the human programmer. Also, AI art raises questions about authenticity, originality, and the value of AI-generated works. Some argue that AI art is a valuable addition to the art world, pushing the boundaries of what is possible and highlighting the role of technology in contemporary culture. Others believe it is a threat to traditional artistic practices and devalues the efforts of human artists.
And yes this is a cheap shot, but the last paragraph was written by chat GPT, not yours truly.
Anyway Here’s the link to the quiz. If you give it a go I’ll message you to tell you whether you defeated my wife or not ;). If you are brave enough Post your score in the comments!
“If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything” rings as true today as ever.
And I’d take it even further. “II you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for almost everything”
Why do you work your current job? Why do you live where you live? How do you spend your 16 waking hours? Where does your money go? Why do you vote left or right?
We might feel we have good reasons behind our actions, some underlying morality, or values that drive us. But are those reasons clear to us? Do we even know what values drive our thoughts, intents and actions? And when we understand what values really drive us, are we satisfied?
And what about me?
I’m selfish, quite lazy, and easily angered, while often callous in the face of others’ suffering. At times I’m low key addicted to social media. I don’t want to know how much time I spent last week mindlessly scrolling through BBC, the Economist and stuff.co.nz. I’m broken in more ways than I am comfortable sharing on a public blog and I fall for too many things for too many bad reasons. Low motivation, basic pleasure seeking, not enough sleep. And sometimes because I forget what I stand for.
Because I’m not just a weak person who falls for a lot of rubbish. That’s only a sliver of my true self. At my core I’m good, valuable, even bearing the image of God. I am designed to do good – to be an instrument of Love. I try and stand for what Jesus stood for and what I think he would value – if he were me, in my situation in December 2022 in Northern Uganda. Through articulating what values I try my best to live by, I will stand on firmer ground.
And who knows, maybe writing this blog will help me stick to these values better in 2023. Perhaps my values might even help you better understand yours, which might be very different from mine. So here goes!
Simplicity An Uncluttered life, an uncluttered heart. Free from the love of money and things. A sustainable life in solidarity with those that have less, in tune with a creation that groans at our excess.
Our married friends recently sold their car and bought an electric bike instead. Their life would be a little harder, but more satisfying and friendlier to the world. They were excited and energised by their beautiful step down to a simpler life
Of all my values, this is probably the most countercultural in 2023. The alternative value most of us live by (knowingly or not) might be “growth”, or “progress” or “up-and-to-the-right”. Bigger houses, bigger savings accounts, bigger lives. But the older I get, the more convinced I am that simplicity can be part of our solution to so many 2023 problems
Cost of living crisis – live simply. Housing crisis- Live simply. Climate change – Live simply. If many of us made the not-so-painful decision tomorrow to simplify our lives even by 20% and used those extra resources to help others or the environment, we might be just as happy (perhaps even happier) while we take a giant leap towards solving the worlds problems.
Live in houses 20% smaller. Eat 20% less meat. Drive a hybrid/electric car that uses 20% less petrol. Fly 20% less often. Have 20% less devices, or at least 20% smaller – cellphone screens are getting so big I can’t wrap my hands around them. Bt I digress..
Forgiveness “Make a clean break with all cutting, backbiting and profane talk. Be gentle with one another, sensitive. Forgive one another…”
Thousands of years after Jesus and many other spiritual leaders called humanity to put forgiveness high on our value list, it’s still an everyday struggle. I especially struggle with forgiveness in the moment. If I feel like a nurse has treated a patient badly, or someone tries to cheat on the football field then I too quickly get angry and struggle to let it go. In 2023 I want to be more of a person who can let small slights slide and forgive quickly. It isn’t going to be easy
We increasingly live in a culture where political and ideological opponents struggle to hold differences without harsh judgement. Increasing self righteousness and cancel culture blight all sides of the political spectrum. A recent New York times study showed that 1 in 5 American families reported that their relationships had been hurt by politics. While we harbour judgement and resentment, we just worsen own anxiety and hurt ourselves far more than our ‘enemies’. Forgiveness can set us free, while creating space where relationships can reform, grow and flourish.
More than ever I want to be the kind of person who can look past an insult, and be in healthy relationships with people I wholeheartedly disagree with.
Effective altruism My work is to provide quality healthcare for poor and mostly rural Ugandans. I stress that this not in anyway superior to other work, it’s just where I believe l’m most useful at the moment.But how much am I really helping? Over the last 5 years especially I have become convinced that we need to “do good better” (highly recommend the book). I now value using reason and evidence as much as possible to maximise the good we can do.
Good intentions aren’t good enough any more. Mother Theresa’s work bringing dignity to the dying and caring for the outcast was incredible. But better medical care of the dying could have better relieved suffering in many the people she cared for, and more effort could have been put into curing some conditions. She could have employed medical research to be more effective. At the time this oversight was understandable, the use of research in charity and development was only in its infancy. Now we would expect better.
Doing my best and following my instincts is not good enough. Whether through my work, or when I give money to charity I want do it in the most effective way and in a way that doesn’t hurt. Hundreds of studies are available to help us to decide whether to give people cash or cows. We all want to help others as much as possible, so lets research the best ways to do it.
Simon and Raphel at Myene OneDay Health Center
Joy “I’ve learned by now to be quite content whatever my circumstances. I’m just as happy with little as with much, with much as with little. I’ve found the recipe for being happy whether full or hungry, hands full or hands empty. “ – Paul
Years ago I did a personality test “Strengthfinder” and one of my top strengths was positivity. I thrive on joy, seeing the best in people and situations. Joy is an engine for my soul, and I’m more likely to follow my other values when coming from a place of joyous contentment, rather than acting under obligation or just following a routine. In my “old age” however I have become increasingly cynical and pragmatic which can dampen that joy. I need to guard my heart to find that Joyous contentment Paul found in his middle ages, even while in prison.
Many of us in rich countries like New Zealand have opportunites most of the world doesn’t have. We can choose fulfilling work, to engage in hobbies and to rest and recreate, so we should make the most of that opportunity. As part of my renewed commitment to joy, my wife Tessa and I are going to take our weekly Sabbath day more seriously this year, marking each Sabbath by lighting a candle the day before.
Community I think that’s what our world is desperately in need of – lovers, people who are building deep, genuine relationships with fellow strugglers along the way” – Shane Claibourne
We need to know our neighbour to love our neighbour
Lucy our closest friend who lived with us for years sadly passed away 3 months ago. She spent hours on her veranda sharing laughs, life advice and stories both with rich people like us, and people from all walks of life among our community. Just by being herself with an open door and a huge smile she helped us connect with our local community, understand people’s journeys and just sometimes help out a little when the need arises.
When we are plugged into the lives of people around us, we understand, connect and respond better to their needs, as well as the needs of the wider world. Much of my generation seems to believe that if we just had the right government, or the right policies then utopia will descend. But I believe we can solve many of our society’s problems and create good from within communities, regardless of who happens to be in-charge this year.
Lucy holds Carlos as he cuts the cake for his welcome home party!
Next year I will try find joy in living simply among our community,forgiving as I go and effectively helping others.
The soccer world cup in Qatar is already sullied, perhaps even blighted. Unlike every previous edition I can remember, most of the pre-tournament hype has been negative. Qatar is rightly under fire on three fronts. First, their poor and even deadly treatment of migrant workers who built the stadiums. Second their poor record on LGBTQ+ rights, and of course the obvious – their reliance on oil. Almost everything you see in the desert in Qatar – the skyscrapers, the highways, the stadiums was built through sellin’ that black gold.
So many have called for a complete boycott on the tournament. Many bars in Germany are not screening the games. Celebrities like Rob Stewart and Shakira refused to perform in Qatar. Cities like Paris have refused up fan zones for the first time, even while their soccer team is owned by Qatari royalty. Most of us will join the Parisian style hypocrisy by moaning to our friends and complaining on social media, while watching the games anyway.
So why shouldn’t we boycott the world cup?
Because we are complicit in the same atrocities on display in Qatar. We are part of that same blight on humanity. The nation of Qatar is not an aberration, but a reflection of the dark side of our murky lives and the shady dealings of our world’s governments. Instead of a fairly meaningless boycott, we should use this world cup to examine our own hypocrisy and change our ways.
We Treat workers Poorly too
For years our lives in the Global North have rested on worker exploitation and mistreatment, similar or worse than that going on in Qatar. Much of the west’s current wealth was built on a history of slavery and indentured labour. Although conditions and wages have improved in sweatshops and factories, much of what we consume remains far from exploitation-free. Right now some of the cotton in our shirts might well come from Uyghur forced labour, part of China’s ethnic cleansing program. Our clothes factories in countries like Bangladesh still have terrible working conditions. Food in many Western countries is made cheaper through migrant laborers who work long hours for lower than minimum wage outside of labour laws. High profile examples include the Sicilian Olive oil industry and a huge chunk of America’s food industry.
Our everyday lives still rely on our fellow humans working for a pittance in poor conditions. How then do we have any right to be incensed about the Saudi Worker situation?
We don’t take minority rights seriously
Us “morally upright” westerners love criticizing other countries about their human rights records, while both forgetting our own recent history and our implicit support of many minority-oppressing countries. I’m going to single out two minority rights abuses which I am personally complicit in. The Chinese genocide of Uyghur Muslims, and the funding of the LGBTQ oppressing Ugandan government.
When people ask me how New Zealand makes money, I often flippantly reply “We sell milk to China”, which carries more than a grain of truth. Our “kind” leader Jacinda just met with the Dictatorial leader of our biggest trading partner, President Xi. Did she meaningfully address the abuses of a million Uyghur Muslims who have been locked up in “re-education” camps, subject to mass sterilization and forced to work in cotton fields? Did she make ending the Uyghur genocide, what could be the biggest human rights violation of our generation a bottom line for trade with China? Of course not. I’m a New Zealand citizen and very aware of my own complicity. My roads, schools and healthcare were funded by cozying up and selling milk to a regime that knows how to oppress minorities of all kinds, just like Qatar.
Two “kind” leaders getting on great?
Western countries also give millions of dollars in military and police aid to oppressive governments like Uganda where I live, where like Qatar being LGBTQ+ is not only illegal but can lead to imprisonment and police harassment. America has funded Uganda’s military and police to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, some of which used to oppress minorities – not only LGBTQ+ communities but immigrants and political dissidents. Why are we all of a sudden incensed by a country’s LGBTQ+ policy while our taxes fund the militaries of so many other countries whose records are just as bad?
We sup that oil. We are Qatar.
Confession: Earlier this year I paid the Qatari Royal family thousands of dollars and spewed out about 6 tones of CO2 directly into the atmosphere flying from Uganda to New Zealand and back flying Qatar Airways.
We (in the west) are the reason that Qatar in its current form even exists. Our thirst for oil fueled Qatar’s meteoric rise from their humble desert roots, to today’s rich metropolis which is able to host a football World Cup. Our cars and planes built those skyscrapers. Our lifestyles paid for those migrant workers to build those stadiums. We sup Qatari oil without a second thought, and now we are the indignant ones? In one sense we are Qatar. We built that country, we constructed those stadiums. Qatar’s oil runs through our veins.
As a side note, we are not only hypocritical but inconsistent. COP 27 was just held in Egypt, another non-democratic country which spent the last 8 years violently suppressing anyone that dared challenge their autocratic military rule. Amnesty international wants governments to impose sanctions on Egypt and stop supplying them with arms. But no-one boycotted COP 27
Better to change than Boycott
So I will watch the world cup, with moments of sombre and heavy reflection on all the ways I am complicit in this whole mess, and I’ll consider how I can make change for the better.
The Qatar World Cup is a poignant opportunity to reflect on how we are complicit in all the things we are complaining about in Qatar. Let’s reflect on our own hypocrisy, pressure our governments to do better (Go Phoebe, my sister in law!), and change our own lives – Buy less, fly less, eat less meat. That might contribute more than a boycott towards a better world which refuses to tolerate human rights atrocities, and doesn’t sup the Qatari oil.
Although we are yet to clock 3 months since the start of this epidemic, this 10th biggest Ebola outbreak ever has been full of twists, turns and strange tales. I penned this summary to help any regular Joe or Jill better understand to tell the outbreak. I tell a story, not trying to cover every detail. I’ve used three sections to tell the tale and have split each into three points, which I’m told is the way us humans like our information.
We start with Three epidemic Phases – how the epidemic has progressed. Key moments describes 3 key turning points, critical in shaping the epidemic to date. We then exploreThreeUpcoming Questionsabout the near future, before a final reflection.
Three epidemic Phases
Mubende steady spread – 1 month
The first month was defined by slow, steady spread in the epicenter of Mubende. Cases trickled in at only 2 new cases on average a day with almost all cases connected to known contacts. Luck was on our side with only a handful of cases spreading outside of the Mubende/Kassanda region. This was despite many stories of contacts escaping the district against government advice – some who even had Ebola. But Ebola never found a foothold in the 3 other districts where it briefly spread. For a time it seemed the outbreak might just begin and end in Mubende/Kassanda, but we were not to be so lucky.
Kassanda and Kampala clusters – 1 week
Just as it seemed we might have escaped the danger of a nationwide outbreak, two large clusters of cases emerged that threatened a national scale disaster. One large cluster emerged in Kassanda, the exact cause of which remains unclear. One possible cause was a body exhumed from the grave after a medical burial, which Dr. Geoffry Bire the assistant minister of health stated led to 23 Ebola cases in Kassanda.
The Kampala cluster however was the bigger worry as the city is highly populated, tightly packed and the gateway to the rest of the country for people, goods and diseases.
These two clusters led to as many new cases in just a week then we had seen in the previous month, and triggered the harsh Mubende / Kassanda lockdown, a huge U-turn from the government after they had “ruled out” lockdowns just a week earlier.
After these clusters emerged, the country held its collective breath as we wondered whether the outbreak really was under control as the government claimed? The Doctor’s association asked for a brutal Kampala lockdown, while many called for schools to be closed. The WHO rated the epidemic at having “very high” chance of national spread.
But in a remarkable turn of events, these two clusters haven’t produce the cascade of cases and exponential spread into a fully fledged epidemic that many expected – quite the opposite. We have seen an unexpected lull in new cases.
Unexpected Lull: – 1 week
For the last week, we have only seen 5 cases. Hundreds of contacts from the Kassanda and Kampala clusters produced only a handful of cases, and only a few other cases appeared outside these clusters. If the Mubende epicenter has cooled, and Kassanda and Kampala clusters have been contained then there’s a chance we could be in the beginning of the end of the epidemic, and there even remains a small chance for the epidemic to be officially over by the end of the year.
Late Identification of First Case: The previous 5 ebola outbreaks in Kampala were over almost before they started – for one key reason. Patient zero, the first case was quickly identified, contacts were traced and the disease wasn’t able to spread beyond a handful of cases. This outbreak however was detected far too late.
Patient zero was never identified and around 30 people caught ebola, half of who died before Ebola was even suspected. The first case tested positive perhaps a month after our mystery patient zero first caught the disease. This allowed Ebola at least a couple of cycles of unchecked spread in the community and outbreak wasn’t immediately snuffed out.
Mubende and Kassanda Lockdown
The government re-iterated their clear position continually during the first month of the epidemic. President Museveni said “No need for a lockdown, Ebola is easy to fight”. The health minister repeated many times “there will be no lockdown”.
But probably for the better, they changed their mind and on the 15th of October president Museveni announced a harsh 3 week lockdown in the 2 affected districts which allowed no public transport, evening to morning curfew and heavy army presence. We will never know for sure, but this lockdown could well have helped slow Ebola spread and contributed to the current unexpected lull.
Kampala Death and Spread.
Everyone feared Ebola spreading within Kampala – and for good reason. As the only jam-packed, bustling city in Uganda, Kampala may be the only place in Uganda where Ebola has a realistic chance of exponentially spreading and becoming an uncontrolled public health problem.
And the worst case scenario happened. A man travelled while sick with ebola from Mubende to Kampala, stopping at 4 health centers and a traditional healer on the way. While on his deathbed in a huge Kampala hospital he lied about his identity to medical staff while his wife and brother who had been caring for him disappeared into the Kampala ether and couldn’t be traced. Until a few days after he died when his wife turned up to deliver her baby in a health center, sick with Ebola… Through a potentially country-saving stroke of luck or genius, some brilliant human (they deserve to be knighted) figured out the man might have had ebola, his blood was tested and his body intercepted on the way home. You couldn’t make this stuff up.
Through this saga he spread Ebola to 7 people, with one of those spreading Ebola to 7 people and another spreading it to yet 4 more (see diagram below). Other contacts already under observation then caught Ebola. Fortunately, we haven’t seen spread outside of known contacts and based on the best information we have, we’re breathing a sigh of relief that the Kampala cluster might not lead to catastrophe.
Big upcoming questions
Is it really under control? The unexpected lull in the last with hardly any new cases has been an amazing development, and brings a huge sigh of relief, but we don’t yet know if this is the beginning of the end. Concerning cases continue to emerge, like this one in Masaka which appears not to be connected to a contact. Further clusters could still emerge out of sight of contact tracers.
When will Vaccine trials start? At least 3 vaccines are ready for final stage testing, at least one of which will probably work. We have been told for weeks vaccine trials may start “in a week or two” but they haven’t yet started. If the outbreak is on the way out, could the arrival of vaccines even be “Too late” and they won’t even get tested properly?
Will restrictions end? We are getting mixed messages on restrictions. The ministry of health called for early closure of schools, even as the epidemic is in a lull. Mubende/Kassanda restrictions are due to be lifted soon, and we’ll see whether they will really be lifted. As we saw during covid, lockdowns cause enormous suffering and can we really justify ongoing restrictions with so few new cases at the moment?
Final reflection – This strain of Ebola doesn’t spread easily.
There have been so many missed cases, escaped sick people and other opportunities for Ebola to spread widely that never led to new clusters of spread. Here are just a few examples. Early in the epidemic a group of contacts including two positive cases escaped from Mubende isolation, some moving as far as Tanzania on public transport and never spread the disease. A medical student with Ebola broke isolation rules and travelled many hours to his home village with no consequences. A woman in Mityana’s mother AND baby died before anyone thought to test for Ebola, and yet again there was no spread outside the family. A small but significant number of cases haven’t been traced to any known case, meaning that Ebola must have spread on a small scale and fizzled out without public health officials ever knowing.
With this in mind, and after seeing so many “lucky misses”, it seems that this strain of Ebola isn’t highly infectious like covid, influenza or measles and may even be less infectious than other Ebola strains. This strain of Ebola doesn’t spread easily. Given what we have seen so far in this outbreak, it’s hard to imagine Ebola ever spreading beyond a few cases in country with a strong health system with high trust in government institutions. Despite late recognition of the outbreak, slow public communication about new cases, low public trust of government and numerous incidents where infectious patients had many community contacts, this outbreak hasn’t spread widely or got out of control.
This is good news for low income countries like Uganda that have functional health systems but can’t yet mount slick, tightly controlled public health responses to outbreaks. With help from exeperinced international partners, reasonable contact tracing and vaccines, perhaps Ebola as a public health issue is starting to seem somewhat less scary than after the horrendous 2014 West African outbreak.
But it’s far from over yet. Even though this strain doesn’t spread easily, a national public health disaster may still be possible if more mistakes are made and we are unlucky. Keep following our ebola updates every day or two on our St. Philips facebook page here.
“While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table. When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.”
Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me.
The poor will always be with you…”
These words are so profound I can’t do them justice, but here goes!
The disciples’ perspective “Why this waste?”
It should both empower and chill us to the bone that much of the money we spend on ourselves would be better spent by someone less well off. This makes intuitive sense. One extra dollar won’t even buy us a coffee and we barely notice if one extra dollar enters our bank account. But imagine if you only earn one dollar a day. That extra dollar buys the pen and book which allows your child to go back to school. So much value, relief and joy from just one dollar! This utilitarian thinking is behind that effective but oh-so-cringe fundraising technique…
“For the cost of just one coffee a day, you could feed/clothe/educate/save/empower….”
Experience, the disciples and science tell us that once we achieve a middle class income, every extra dollar we spend only increases our happiness by a tiny amount. As a 10 year old I was overwhelmed with joy when I bought an ice cream with my pocket money. I remember the euphoria of buying a watch with my first paycheck from a summer job. This dwarfs the negligible serotonin hit I get these days every time I buy a new Ferrari…
So if we have this remarkable power to love others with our money more effectively than we can love ourselves, perhaps the best thing to do is to give away every dollar we earn over a certain amount. The extra money will hardly help our happiness, but imagine what it could do for someone else? If we earn 70,000 dollars a year, how can we justify keeping more than say $50,000 when that extra 20,000 dollars could transform the life of someone less fortunate? Whenever we spend excess money on relatively frivolous things, the disciples’ cry of “why this waste?”rings in our ears.
Mary shocks the disciples when she pours out a half litre of high-end nard perfume on his feet. Imagine the cost of a half litre of Chanel no. 5. How would you react when it was poured out in front of you It’s hard to argue with the disciples’ logic “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.”
But Jesus immediately replies “
“Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me.”
Jesus sees her loving heart heart. What was a flagrant (fragrant?) waste of money was also an instinctive, selfless act to honour someone who had turned her life around. If someone had pulled you out of poverty and an abusive life controlled by men would you not have done the same?
Jesus knows that we are compassionate human beings, and there are moments where will lavish our resources on things that don’t make utilitarian sense. Maybe this isn’t the most logical or strictly ‘best’ thing to do, but it’s deeply human and hey, we aren’t perfect. But straight after affirming Mary’s lavish love, Jesus challenge goes deeper than we could ever expect.
“The poor will always be with you”
This is where the rubber hits the road. At first reading Jesus might seem flippant, dismissing the plight of the poor, but only because (unlike the disciples) we don’t know what he’s quoting. This is a direct quote from an 3000 year old Deuteronomy passage, which calls for the kind of radical economic justice that would shock even a modern day left wing politician.
“The poor will always be with you. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.”
In Deuteronomy 13, God commands that his people should cancel ALL debts every seven years (what???), and they should lend people “whatever they need” even in the year before the debts are forgiven. After 6 years of service, richer Israelites should not only release any servants working for them, but send them off with animals, crops and wine to kick-start their new life. This economic agenda is so radical and so far ahead of its time it’s no wonder the israelites did a pretty bad job of actually implementing it.
Through invoking this passage Jesus goes deeper and takes us beyond simple argument about whether a lavish act of perfume pouring makes logical sense. What matters is not whether this particular pot of perfume was wasted on a lavish act of love. What matters is that we devote our entire lives to economic justice. His point is that the poor will always be with us so poorer people will always be needing our love and help.
Serving others is a long game. Become a person of generosity and love is not primarily about criticising others who might be wasteful, or virtue signalling on social media or voting for what we see as ‘progressive’ political parties, but about living whole lives of integrity and love. Lives bent towards those who are struggling and marginalised. Not just today, but tomorrow, and tomorrow next.
Jesus challenge “the poor will always be with you” is an invitation to follow him into a deeper journey, beyond from the hustle and bustle of trying to “make it”, the distraction of social media, and the polarisation of modern politics. A journey which will cost us much, but give us so much more. Are we willing?
And its’ no surprise that this whole thing happened while Jesus was visiting Simon, a man with leprosy, a crippling disease full of social and religious stigma.
300 years ago (as the tall tale goes) a young and spoilt European royal didn’t understand why the peasants complained so much during a famine. They cried out that they had no bread to eat, so she replied with a tablespoon of disdain, a cup of ignorance and not even a pinch of compassion.
“Let them eat cake”
President Museveni has now written himself into the annals of history with a similar comment, but in the opposite direction. When faced with complaints that Ugandans couldn’t afford bread amidst skyrocketing food prices, Museveni replied…
“If there is no bread eat Cassava!”
Cassava is a root vegetable, common fare here in Uganda. Calling it the food of the poor isn’t entirely accurate, as many including myself enjoy cassava, and in some parts of the country its a staple. Cassava in general however the cheapest carbohydrate, so Museveni’s quip was seen by many as a flippant insult to a population struggling to stay afloat in a sea of rapidly rising prices.
Ugandan Ongim Along tweeted “…Last time someone told us to use papaya leaves as soap for washing and bathing. Now another one tells us to eat cassava instead of bread. Next use chilly leaves as toilet paper.” One thing is for sure, inflation problems in low income countries can’t be solved just by eating Cassava. While the middle class in high income countries feel the pinch of rising prices, a quiet calamity engulfs the poor in low income countries. While high income governments subsidise fuel and food, low income governments do nothing to soften the blow. In high income countries, businesses can reduce their high margins to mask increasing prices, but here margins were already so tiny there was no room to move and prices skyrocket. People already living hand to mouth have to choose between soap and cooking oil.
The Ugandan Beureau of statistics and Bank of Uganda has fabricated “calculated” a laughably inaccurate annual headline inflation of 6.3% at the end of May (You won’t find even one commodity that has increased that little in the last year). This is presumably to reassure the population that everything is fine. Perhaps they are mistaking monthly inflation for annual, who knows? I would conservatively estimate annual inflation as over 20%, as reflected in the above chart.
And to make things worse salaries aren’t rising like in high income countries, enough at least to soften the inflation blow. Salaries here haven’t moved because the economy can’t handle it. We would love to pay our nurses more, but the money coming in from our patients hasn’t increased – in fact it our revenue dropped as everyone is squeezed for cash and patients de-prioritise healthcare.
During the last 6 months, our OneDay Health centers haves seen less patients coming through the doors. We’ve asked our communities what has changed, why they have stopped coming in when their family is sick. The answers have often been simple, a two word phrase “cene pe” – “there’s no money“
“There’s no money”
Thee little money people have is used for other priorities. Even subsistence farmers still need to buy soap (at twice the price) and send their kids to school. Healthcare that was previously seen as essential gets shuffled one rung down the priority list, sometimes with fatal consequences. Many patients are now coming in to our health centers too late, arriving to our health centers in critical condition.
Inflation is wrecking the poor, but we’re not hearing about it
And the worst is yet to come with no end in sight to higher prices. As people’s meagre cash reserves disappear there will come a reckoning. There have already been major protests in Peru, Guinea and Kenya and in the coming months we will see the rising discontent expressed in all kinds of ways. We can only hope that interest rate hikes and a rapid resolution to the Ukraine war bring some relief /
So what can we do?
Start with your neighbours – We struggle together
Before thinking of those in other places, always start with your own community. Support those around you who are struggling financially and psychologically. Spend 5 minutes considering which of your friends might be doing it toughest at the moment, then give them a call, ask how you can help. A small food gift, a discussion about finances or just a listening ear might make the difference between a good week and a bad one. We struggle together.
Keep a global perspective – We struggle together
Even as you are squeezed by the rising price of food and fuel, consider those in Uganda and around the world who suffer more than you. Read some articles and talk to people you are connected with in low income countries. This may also have the nice effect of cultivating more gratefulness for your own daily bread. Find some solidarity that we are all struggling with inflation together while praying for the global situation to improve, and peace in Ukraine. We struggle together.
Continue to support the poor – We struggle together
Keep donating to things you are already connected to. As your own financial situation worsens, often giving to others might be the first cut you make. It may seem counterintuitive, but hard global times might be the time to increase your giving – of course within the realms of possibility. If you’re not sure what to give to, read my article about how to give money well. Initiatives like Give Directly provide money efficiently for the poor, and our very own OneDay Health provides the only quality healthcare option for many remote rural communities here in Uganda
As always I’d love to hear your thoughts on the issue and I appreciate any criticisms and corrections. The great thing about a blog is that I can (and often do) change it when I realise I’ve made mistakes.
So much love to all of you struggling with the current inflation issue. We struggle together.
Four truths coronavirus has revealed about humanity. The corona story is far from over. But this unprecedented (I won’t say it again) pandemic has revealed much about the state of humanity. About who we are as people. About what we really value. These truths were already there, simmering under the surface but corona has brought them into the light. What floated in the ether has crystallised. Here are four truths I have observed about us, humanity, homo sapiens, that have become clear during the pandemic.
Truth 1. Humans can solve problems really fast.
In just over a year we did the improbable and invented not one, but around 10 vaccines, almost 10 times faster than we had ever done before. Putin’s daughter was jabbed with the aptly named “Sputnik V” just 9 months after the first corona case, and Astrazenica produced 100 million doses by the end of the first corona year.
Our ability to focus our energies to invent complex lifesaving technology is astonishing.
And not only the vaccine. Wastewater covid tests detect tiny traces of virus, helping countries like New Zealand detect new outbreaks before anyone tests positive. One dollar corona tests allow us to test anywhere, any time. The English used a staggering 2 billion rapid tests in 2021, an average of 30 tests per person. Tracing apps help Countries like Taiwan track virus spread in real time. Our ability to innovate, invent and solve problems goes from strength to strength.
Allow me a brief diversion – this makes me doubly concerned about our climate crisis. While scientists saved millions of lives from coronavirus with a smorgasbord of technology, over the last 20 years we have invested hundreds of billions to find technical fixes for climate change but to little avail.
No magic energy source. No magic carbon capture machine. Unlike with corona, no technological fix.
On this rare occasion I disagree with Bill Gates – our innovative abilities have thus far failed us and seem unlikely to solve our climate crisis. Maybe us rich people will actually have to change our lifestyles and flee from fossil fuels (“fly, you fools!”). But I digress…
Truth 2. The Rich get Richer, the Poor get Poorer and we don’t care.
Inequality is the worst it has been in 50 years. Not only has corona exposed the gap between between the haves and the have nots, the divide has become a canyon. The richest 0.1% of the population have shown that a plague is still a great time to amass wealth while the poor either stayed poor or go evet poorer. In America 10 silicon valley billionares swindled 300 billion dollars (what does that number even mean?) of wealth from the poorer half of the population as the internet became even more important while we sat at home. In New Zealand house prices skyrocketed a mind boggling 50% in two years. It’s now impossible for the young middle class to buy a house. In Uganda coronavirus aid money poured into the pockets of megarich, megacorrupt politicians. Their kids stayed well educated on zoom while 99.99% of Ugandan children sat at home with schools closed for over 2 years. School only opened a few months ago, and now Uganda’s poor have a generational education catastrophe on their hands.
And to top off, trillions of dollars of coronavirus relief money was printed by governments and poured mostly into the hands of the rich. Even little old New Zealand printed 50 billion dollars, much of which lined the bank accounts of wealthy companies. Governments worldwide showed they were perfectly willing to ignore their poorest people to keep the economy rolling and keep the middle class happy. What to do when businesses can’t operate? Pour cash into their bank accounts.
And what happens when you print that much money? Inflation! There was some excitement that wages had risen during the pandemic, but it turns out the cost of living has increased even more. And in case you think it’s just richer countries suffering from inflation, have a look at the insane hike in food prices in Sri Lanka, Kenya and Uganda. And what are governments doing to help the poor with these high prices? Not much, because they don’t care. At least the economy is rolling now (suffering yes, but rolling), damn the poor.
Truth 3: A “Gobal Village” is a myth. Humans are selfish.
Within a year, laboratories in China, the UK, Russia and the USA all invented different vaccines which stopped people from dying from corona. Hundreds of millions of doses were produced within months. This should have been a decisive victory for us clever, innovative, compassionate humans (see Truth 1). Surely within a year we would vaccinate the whole world and life could go back to normal. Our question as a global village of good humans should have been
“How can we save the most human lives with this vaccine?”
But instead, what we did with this miraculous vaccine revealed our selfish natures. We protected our own at any cost. If we were truly a global society, our goal should have been clear – vaccines for the worst hit countries first, then for everyone else. But despite WHO protestations it turns out you that can just vaccinate your own country, take the pressure off your own hospitals and leave millions to die in other countries. Winston Churchill’s star fell after we discovered he unnecessarily allowed millions to die of famine in India during the second world war. Can we look at our own “progressive” society and say we are any better?
What will future generations think of thegreat vaccine moral failure of 2021?
If truth 2 was that we don’t care about growing inequality within our own countries, then truth 3 extends across borders. We should have started by vaccinating Peru, Mexico and Bulgaria which had the highest death rates in the world. We should have rushed to India in the midst of an enormous outbreak. Instead every country fought tooth and nail for their own own vaccines. England and Canada ordered 5 times as many doses as they had people. Others stored millions of extra doses in fridges while body bags lined up in other countries. We are not a global village. We are selfish.
Truth 4. Our Bodies Matter
Over the last 100 years our life expectancy has improved by over 30 years, from a miserable 50 in 1900 to around 80 now. This improvement is thanks to many factors including reduced poverty, better hygeine and improved medical care. During the last 50 years this increase in life expectancy is even more impressive, as our life expectancy has continued to increase, while we have become progressively less healthy. While rates of obesity, heart disease and diabetes have skyrocketed due to our unhealthy diets and sedentary lifestyles, medical innovation has kept us alive for longer and longer (see truth 1).
Coronavirus however reminds us that our bodies matter. Those less healthy died of corona in exponentially higher numbers. Heart disease and diabetes enabled coronavirus to kill far more than it would have had we had looked after our bodies better. Our unhealthy lifestyles contributed to our demise. The countries that suffered worst from coronavirus, mostly in South America and Eastern Europe, had the deadly combination of both unhealthy populations and substandard health systems. The USA is renowned for Obesity and unhealthy lifestlyes, and we all saw the result. This is not to blame any individual for their death, but to help us realise that both as individuals and a society that we need to take the health of our bodies more seriously. Conronavirus showed us that we can no longer treat our bodies like they don’t matter, relying on medicine to keep us rolling into our twilight years.
Where I live in Uganda, surprisingly few died of coronavirus. Much of this was due to a young population, but also due to the population being healthier. Most people are subsistance farmers with an active lifestyle and healthy diets low in fat and processed food. Heart disease and diabetes are increasing, but remain rare especially among the rural population. Sub-saharan Africa was the only region in the world where most countries were not overwhelmed by coronavirus, even while their health systems are among the worst in the world.
Our bodies matter. When a disease like coronavirus hits our healthy body, the odds are in our favour. If not, the odds turn.
What other truths have emerged?
These are just four truths I have observed. Four of many. They may not be the most insightful, nor the most important. What has coronavirus taught you about humanity during this strange time?
Just two days ago my wonderful Uncle Andrew died. Although I was not close with him myself, my parents and also my sister were, and he contributed much to their lives especially in recent years. Our prayers, sorrow and gratitude are with his family, especially his wife Janice and children Katie, Emma and Hamish.
Here in Uganda, death is far more common than in New Zealand and it confronts us continually. Our neighbour Lucy is tightly connected to our surrounding community, and hardly a month goes by where she doesn’t attend a funeral – or a wedding. There are more deadly illnesses here that affect younger people, and Uganda’s weak health system with low numbers of health workers and poor medicine availability fails to prevent too many unnecessary deaths.
So I encounter death all too often through my work. I’ll never forget last year when I got a call from a nurse in one of our remote OneDay Health centers with the bad news that a young man had been bitten by a snake. His family refused to take him to hospital due to lack of money, and after a few hours he died at the health center. I’m proud of our 33 nurses ina their remote OneDay health centers, that while they often brush with death they are in the everyday business of saving lives. Through offering women life through family planning and antenatal care, curing malaria and pneumonia, and life saving emergency medication. It seems a strange juxtaposition that just today we sent out our annual report celebrating 100,000 patients treated in the most remote areas of Uganda, while at the same time I mourn my uncle and consider easter.
Each time I encounter death I am struck by an obvious yet easily ignored truth. Life is temporary. I can’t help but be reminded both of the precious time we have and of our own mortality. A good friend of my uncle just shared with me.
“We are all reminded that our time on earth is temporary so we must use it well.”
Or in the words of Gandalf “All we have to do is decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
Death and life can feel so close. The space between is thin, even at our first breath. The most dangerous moment in all of our lives (and our mothers’) is the very moment of our birth. At that borderline both overflowing joy and deep sorrow are near realities, hanging in the balance.
And of course we don’t know how long that time is. Many of the greatest people have had their lives cut too short, some due to their greatness. Kurt Cobain died before 30. Martin Luther King was murdered before he reached 40. Ugandan Bishop Janani Luwum was martyred before 60 for standing up to Idi Amin’s corrupt government. Uncle Andrew was only 69.
As a Jesus follower this paradox comes home to me even more this weekend. He died far too young in his mid thirties, with only 3 years to carry out his mission and do all the stuff we’ve heard about. Call his disciples, bring new life and healing to physical, spiritual and emotional wounds, start a world changing movement and then be betrayed by one of his closest friends. In this strange story Jesus went willingly to his own death, to provide a new kind of life for everyone. To redeem not through power or violence, but through weakness and sacrifice. To offer us a life full of unlikely yet beautiful paradoxes. A life where we should somehow put others above ourselves (still haven’t figured that out). A life which is eternal but starts now. A life where death remains abhorrent but has somehow been overcome and need no longer be feared. A life which fills and covers that space in between our earthly life and death.
So as I mourn Andrew, remember Easter and keep our sacrificial remote nurses in my heart, I am filled with sorrow. But not despair, because of a belief I hold close to my soul. I live in hope that life is eternal, not ending after physical death. And when I encounter that space between life and death, I try and hold my faith within the profound mystery of what is, and what is to come.
“So we’re not giving up. How could we! Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace. These hard times are small potatoes compared to the coming good times, the lavish celebration prepared for us. There’s far more here than meets the eye. The things we see now are here today, gone tomorrow. But the things we can’t see now will last forever.” Paul – from a prison cell
I was inspired to pen this piece after gawking at this Stuff.co.nz article. The writers’ intent was to demonstrate that high fuel prices were a disaster. But as I read I became confused, even incredulous. Was the article a spoof? Some complaints seemed more positive then negative, a step in the right direction. Where people expressed inconvenience and frustration, I saw aglimpse of a better future. A healthier, more grounded and more sustainable world.
I won’t deny there are downsides to the fuel price hike. Poor people suffer as with any price rise. Scumbag oil companies and governments find new pseudo-economically viable places to drill, which never should be touched. Russia funds their war machine through the sky high oil prices Germany and France continue to pay.
But fuel prices have to rise, a lot higher than even nowif we are to have any chance to halt this climate crisis. Yes this current price hike is abrupt. Yes we aren’t ready. Yes our electric car infrastructure is non-existent. Yes Public transport isn’t fit for purpose. But what we see from these regular folks’ responses are small ways that high fuel prices can push us simple humans in the right direction. And our groaning creation takes a tiny breath.
So here’s why high fuel prices are fantastic
We Go Local
“I’ll have to rethink where my daughter goes to school in the future if it keeps increasing, because we school out of area,” King said.
Although its nice to choose where we send our kids to school, a great way to burn less oil is to share most of our lives with our proximate community. Local school, local shops, local doctor, local church, local friends. In New Zealand cities at least, most people live within a 20 minute walk (or 10 minute bike) of all important amenities and we don’t need to drive to reach them.
High fuel prices force us to do what’s painful, but better for us and the planet – spend most of our lives closer to our home. Attend local schools. Go to the local Thai restaurant rather than Macdonalds at the mall. Buy clothes from our local thrift shop. Make friends with our neighbours. A richer, more simple life. If high fuel prices force us to think twice or thrice before driving across town, the benefits might be deeper than ‘just’ mitigating the climate crisis.
We Go Electric
Last week I talked to a friend (who yes, has a pretentious Nissan Leaf) who was excited about unexpected conversations the fuel price hike had triggered. “Two of my friends are probably going to buy electric cars. And for the first time ever my parents are even talking about EVs!” We don’t have New Zealand data yet but other countries like England have seen a surge in EV sales as people balk at the fuel hikes. In just one week in early march sales surged by almost 40%.
If governments like New Zealand’s fail to incentivise electric cars through providing good infrastructure and significant subsidies, sky high fuel prices might be the catalyst we need to supercharge the transition.
We Go Public
Presbyterian Support Northern manager Alistair Houston: “One client has stopped using her car and only uses it for urgent matters. The car is now seen as a luxury she cannot afford to just ‘pop out in,’” Houston said.
Houston, we don’t have a problem – your complaint is rather a profound solution, the only way forward through our climate crisis. “The car is now seen as a luxury”
Forgive me father, for I have sinned. While in New Zealand I loved fishing in the mountains. To reach the most beautiful places on earth, I drove hundreds of kilometers often alone in the car and released hundreds of kilos of carbon. Perhaps what I did is no longer defensible, but I am sure that it was a luxury. I made a luxurious, selfish trade-off between damaging our fragile earth and my personal pleasure and fulfilment.
In our current climate situation, whenever we use a personal petrol vehicle at the very least we should give thanks and be grateful for that luxury. For a convenient gift whose days are numbered.
Yes, moving away from the personal petrol paradigm is rough on poorer people who can’t easily access poor public transport systems, and we should already have non-petrol car solutions, but needs must. As cynical and populist as our governments’ sad move was to slash our fuel tax, they made a great move in halving the cost of public transport. A huge step towards normalising the only way forward.
Buses, trains and car pooling have to enter our common consciousness and become a norm. As petrol prices get higher not only are we forced to make hard decisions about our own transport, but governments like we’ve already seen in New Zealand will be forced to both improve and fund public transport to soothe the wrath of their penny-pinched populous.
So if the recent fuel price hikes push us even an inch towards go local, go electric and go public, then I’ll celebrate every cent of the hike.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God”
We had our opportunity to be those blessed peacemakers – this war never needed to happen. As troops gathered on the border of Ukraine, we had the power to stop this war from ever happening. All trade with Russia should have stopped until the tanks pulled back. All Russian money in foreign banks seized until the troops immobilised. The oil pipelines which supply a third of Europe’s oil cut off until Putin promised never to attack. Even in little old New Zealand we should have seized the assets of Russian billionaires – just last year one Oligarch invested 100 million dollars in Kiwibuild! In just one day the west could have crippled Russia’s economy, brought the country to its knees and they could well have abandoned the idea of war. With close to zero foreign trade and foreign money Russia couldn’t function and they would have been forced to withdraw. We could have not tolerated this war.
We don’t tolerate sexism, we don’t tolerate racism, we don’t tolerate homophobia.
But yes, we still tolerate war.
Still more shocking is that is that even after the war began, we didn’t cut Russia off fullstop. It’s bizarre that with all the useless rhetoric “condemning” Putin and Russia, oil still freely flows down a 1200km pipe from Russia to Europe. Money still flows between American and Russian banks. Russian ambassadors still sit happilyin plush offices around the world. It’s a sick joke that Commercial airlines avoid Ukraine, while they still fly in and out of Moscow.
Even the stock markets were surprised by how pathetic we were. Only a day after the start of a war, most global stock exchanges ROSE yesterday because they were surprised how light global sanctions were. Even cynical inverstors thought that perhaps the developed world would do better than business as usual – they were wrong.
Why is this? Why do we do nothing when we have so much power?
We are far, far more selfish than we think we are.
We pretend to care that tens of thousands of people will die in Ukraine but we don’t really. We aren’t willing to sacrifice anything in order to live in a world where one country invading another without even a humanitarian pretense isn’t an option. Our Democracies therefore are working perfectly, responding to our selfishness. Our pragmatic governments know their citizens are selfish, so they leave Ukraine to rot. They know we would rise against them if oil prices went up 30% after we turned off the Russian tap. Biden bizarrely reassured us that “Our sanctions package is specifically designed to allow energy payments to continue”. They know we would vote them out next election if the world went into recession as it recovered from zero Russian trade. Our leaders know that our primary drive is to maximise our own pleasure and minimise our pain. They know the terrible truth that we tolerate war more than we tolerate inflicting even a little suffering on ourselves.
In Canada tens of thousands of people are protesting the government’s response to covid. In New Zealand the biggest protest in my lifetime is on the doors of parliament, and it’s mostly a selfish one. We used to protest about big stuff on behalf of other people. Against the Vietnam war, against apartheid in South Africa. Now all we can muster a decent protest about is the loss of minor freedoms.Where are the thousands of New Zealanders and Canadians banging down the parliament doors on behalf of innocent Ukrainians getting slaughtered? Where is the viral hashtag “NoWar” covering our social media feeds? Where are the journalists condemning our governments for their fatal inaction?
Many of us have foooled our selves that at the we really are caring, peaceloving people who would sacrifice something when the need arose. Climate change inaction should have already exposed this lie. Our response to the Ukraine invasion has proved it beyond doubt.
The myth of a progressive democratic utopian world is dead. We should be ashamed of ourselves.
At least we can take this opportunity to look in the mirror. Why do we still tolerate war? How can we do better? I’ll share three ideas. Yes they are flawed and naïve but perhaps someone will find them useful
1. Realise our own complicity. There are important societal awakenings of our complicity as individuals in issues like racial injustice and the climate crisis. The Ukraine war is no exception – we are part of what has allowed this to happen. Once we realise the ways our selfishness and greed play into the problem, we can find ways to be part of the solution. Am I willing to pay a price? Could I suffer higher petrol prices and inflation to make war less tolerable?
2. Bring the discussion home. It’s easy but perhaps not useful to obsess over the state of the war in Russia and muse about what might happen next. More useful would be to discuss what our own country could to do make the war end more quickly. Are there any Russian investments in our own country which could be targeted? Do our banks have interests in Russian oil? If we move the social and mainstream media discussion away from things we can’t change, and towards things we can then perhaps our politicians and government will feel more obliged to do more.
3. Revive the art of unselfish protest. Our current generation has become complacent in the art of peaceful, unselfish protest. We know from past efforts such as the global anti-Vietnam war protest and civil rights movements that when a significant minority rise up against complacent government, change can happen. If groups around the world protested against their government’s tolerance of war, then our democracy might be swayed away from complacency and towards action. Maybe oil pipelines could be cut. Maybe bank transfers could be stopped. Maybe we could move a step closer towards a world where war was finally intolerable.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God”
N.B: Here’s a couple more great suggestions from Dr. Peter Hill’s comment below
– For the prayers amongst us, we can ask for forgiveness where we are complicit, and pray that those in power would do the right thing, including or own leaders and the young president of Ukraine.
– Write to your local Member of parliament. If they know that we care, they might be more inclined to act.