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Why Nigeria’s research institutes are passive in providing COVID-19 solutions

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Prof Toyin Falola


As a distinguished scholar of international repute, Prof Toyin Falola needs no introduction. An Ibadan-born Chief and Professor of History, who occupies a chair in the Humanities at the University of Texas at Austin, United States, spoke on why blacks are mostly affected by COVID-19 in America, the seemingly low inputs from research institutes in Nigeria to providing solutions to the pandemic, and how the virus will change the style of living and economy. He spoke to MUYIWA ADEYEMI (Head, South West Bureau).

Blacks are said to be mostly infected with COVID-19 in the United States of America (USA), is it true? If yes, why?
Information in the United States about all things related to COVID-19 is of course still underway, but so far, the research does indicate that racial minorities – especially African Americans – are experiencing the brunt of the crisis. For instance, a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that, among patients included in the research, there were more hospitalized blacks than would have been proportionately expected for their given communities. This was not the case for other races or ethnicities, including the Latinx/Hispanic community. Moreover, scientific researchers from Emory University, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Mississippi, and Georgetown University recently conducted a study that indicated that thus far, black Americans represent about 60 percent of deaths in the United States, even though black Americans only represent about 13 percent of the population in the United States.

The CDC and university researchers have hypothesized why this might be. In the United States, racial and ethnic minorities often live in densely populated housing situations due to institutionally racist policies that have existed for decades, if not centuries. Considering how immensely contagious this particular virus is, living in a densely populated area is exactly the opposite of what one would want because of frequent interactions with others and a lesser likelihood of being able to social distance. Additionally, people of colour are more likely to live in homes with multi-generational families, which means that older family members who are already more susceptible to the virus can be more easily infected. Also, these homes are usually far from reliable medical facilities and groceries, which means that household members may struggle to find the supplies and treatment that they need. Indeed, this crisis, like others, has exposed the weak and insidious structure of racism.

The CDC also noted that for the case of COVID-19, people of colour are disproportionately represented in “essential service” industries, which means that while statistically more white people may have the luxury of working from home, people of colour may not be able to do so. Instead, they are more likely to be forced to put themselves at risk on a daily basis by being around more people and performing more contact-based tasks.

Some people in Nigeria still doubt the authenticity of COVID-19. Indeed, some said it is not the same virus that has killed many in America and Europe that is ravaging in this clime?
Nigerians’ skepticism is rooted in a long history of mutual suspicion having its beginning in the deceitful relationship that the Nigerian elites keep with the proletariat. Elitist arrogance is reflected in a number of social engagements that combine them with the majority where those at the echelon of power, or the middle-class, approximate the behaviour of the common man with barbarism, primitivism, and crudeness. This, therefore, is consolidated by the wide distance that exists between these two divides and it, regrettably, places the have-nots below the social pyramid. As such, the masses are poised to take their pounds of flesh at every presented chance where their protest would be well received, or registered. Apparently, the emergence of a dreadful and fearful virus is the least expected around the world, and the absence of global anticipation of such occurrence is reflected in the social relationships kept with certain demographics, who have been the twin victims of power marginalisation and objects of ridicule. Etched in people’s subconscious, the elites therefore believed the occasions where they would need cooperation of the masses are predictable; for example, election period or the need for mobilisation for any reason. And in turn, the Nigerian masses have internalised that stratification, hence, their limited expectations from the elite.

However, COVID-19 presented the masses, the majority, an unusual opportunity to feed the elite of their malicious intentions against them, which have manifested in deceit, unfulfilled promises, and empty rhetoric. Therefore, the skepticism of the masses about the existence of the deadly virus was more of sarcasm than actual disbelief. Their indifference was a message to the powerful members of the society, who had long believed that there would not arise any situation that can make them rely on the social cooperation of the masses. And when it was more than necessary that every member of the community respects the laid down instructions for the containment of the virus, they responded derisively that COVID-19 was nonexistent, knowing that their feigned indifference would raise the elites heartbeat exponentially, as it was obvious that they do not want their medical welfarism compromised.

The case is laughably complicated by the familiar deceit of some members of the government, who were, apart from adopting Western-induced coping mechanism to the containment of the virus, milking the commonwealth using the virus as the conduit pipe. It was therefore logical that they questioned the authenticity of such medical emergency knowing that it was natural that people should genuinely rise to the occasion rather than nurse thoughts of siphoning the public wealth using the virus of health to swell the virus of the pockets. Hence, that reaction.

What is your take on the attitude of the academia or research institutes in Nigeria to finding solutions to COVID-19 pandemic?
There is absolutely nothing comfortable about my country, the giant of Africa. You don’t replace a baby with a dummy; you don’t give what you don’t have. Nigeria has been substituting competence for mediocrity all these years, now the chickens have come home to make Christmas, as they’ve always been doing at critical times like this. Recently, the Lagos chapter of the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) announced its decision to go on strike owing to the harassment of its members by the Nigerian Police Force.

Considering that these are men and women risking their lives to safe others without adequate equipment — protective and all that — or compensation in form of payment, insurance and what have you, how comfortable can one be thinking about Nigeria? Some people talk about brain drain in this sector as well as the academia you mentioned, but I call this (unfortunate) process of brain mobility because they are only on a temporary exile. When Nigeria gets its acts together, like it was in post-World War II reconstruction effort in Britain when the term was coined, I believe these brains will be available for the use of the country. Literarily, the brains that are being drained from use in the Nigerian state today are those professionals, who reside and work in Nigeria. This is because the ambience itself is brain draining. Maybe I could be a little bit comfortable if you can tell me one problem facing Nigeria that the academia has been engaged to resolve successfully. Researchers and academics, who want to make impact in their lives and society leave this clime to explore their limits elsewhere.

I don’t even think we have well-funded research institutes capable enough to carry out the research we are talking about here. Research of this nature is intensive, requiring a lot of funding. Unless any of them has access to foreign grants and sponsorship, I don’t see how they could go about it successfully. The last time I checked, a Nigerian-American Professor of Nuclear Science, Qancy Salako, once noted how his idea of inventing radio-carbon natural products isolated from herbs failed because of technical and financial support. In the same manner, after leaving the country to pursue his excellent research career in the U.S.— having felt uneducated in spite of his stellar certificates because he couldn’t invent anything — he made efforts to partner with the Nigerian government in setting up a pharmaceutical research Institute, again, the idea died a usual natural death. The structure doesn’t aid anything other than rent-collection.

In this kind of narrative, it is only human that people in the position to help safe the situation grow weary, leading to the lackadaisical attitude you have in mind and which is palpable. Come to think of it, malaria has been with us for God knows when, Nigeria has been producing countless medical experts all of over the world, solving this problem and inventing that remedy, but over half a century after independence, we still import malaria drugs, even from countries where such is not prevalent. That’s common malaria, now we are talking about a virus and not even an ordinary one, but a novel virus.

Can we blame Nigerians for not having confidence in local solutions, i.e., herbs, to solving health issues?
First, I think we need to be sure of the proportion of Nigerians that are not confident of the local alternative in solving their health challenges. If a survey were conducted, I’m not sure we can have more than 30 per cent of skeptics. Like I mentioned above about the malaria situation, the only remedy we have got aside the importation of malaria drugs is the herbal solution. In fact, some people prefer taking these herbs to consuming the imported synthetic drugs, for various reasons. While for some it is just a matter of preference, for others it is because of its efficacy over the imported drugs. Some also consume the local remedies because of the cost of buying drugs and the reasons go-on. Nigerians, for instance, are not rejecting the Madagascan local remedy for COVID-19, simply because it is locally made. In the same manner, unless in the case of those that have been entrapped in the colonial mentality, I don’t think anyone would reject a local remedy for any disease in so far as it is ascertained to be efficient. Even for the ones entrapped in the colonial mentality, health issue is beyond ideology. Some of this people go to India where they mix modern with traditional medicine to take care of their ailment and were even brought up with local medicines. So, I think the acceptability of local herbs to cure any medical condition depends on its efficacy. With government support and access to grants, local herbs could be modernised into forms that could enhance accurate measure of the quantity to be taken by different age group. After all, it is from these herbs that the synthetic drugs are drawn from.

History is clear that this is not the first time the world is facing this kind of pandemic, how did they survive it? Pandemics happen, they are a fact of life. As we try to come to terms with the current situation and understand how our lives have changed, will change, and are currently changing, many have turned to past outbreaks to try to obtain some answers and guidance.

We turn first to the ancient plague, the Black Death (1346-1353). Back then, people did not have the scientific knowledge we have today, so, they did not understand the exact cause of the disease. What they did know though, was that closeness and proximity to others, especially in urban settings, seemed to make things worse. To protect themselves, officials in the city of Ragusa, in southern Italy, began forcing newly arrived sailors to remain on their ships. The sailors were only allowed to enter the city when they could prove they were not sick, after isolating for 40 days. This is what is commonly identified as the beginnings of the practice of quarantine.

To deal with repeated outbreaks of plague in London, the British developed a system that would separate and identify the sick. Some practices included marking homes with plague victims by stringing a bale of hay to a pole outside their door, and making those with infected family members carry a white pole when out in public. During the final large outbreak in 1665, Londoners went so far as to ban all public entertainment.

When European explorers arrived in the Americas in the 15th century, they brought with them smallpox, which had been around for centuries already. However, indigenous communities in the New World had no natural immunity to the disease, and millions of them were killed. Smallpox continued to be a recurring menace around the world, killing three out of ten people it infected, until Edward Jenner developed the first smallpox vaccine in the late 18th century. Other communities in places like Turkey and China also engaged in inoculation against smallpox, done by rubbing pus from an infected person into an open wound on a healthy person to trigger an immune response. It is this inoculation method that saved many in Boston during a smallpox epidemic in 1721. A West African slave, Onesimus, was purchased by prominent minister Cotton Mather in 1706. Onesimus told Mather about a procedure he had previously received that made him impervious to smallpox. Mather and the physician Zabdiel Boylston advocated for this inoculation method to be used, but many feared this procedure that they did not understand. In the end, of the 242 people Boylston inoculated, only six died, whereas the rest of the population in Boston had a one in seven death rate.

The thing is, many of these lessons from history are already common sense. Most of us receive yearly vaccinations, and engage in common practices such as staying home when we are sick, so as to avoid passing our illness on to others. Similar to what happened in London during their years of plague, as previously mentioned, many countries have now put systems in place to identity those with the COVID-19 virus, so the public is informed about which locations they should avoid or exercise extra caution in. This method of identifying the sick is controversial, with many pointing out the violation of personal rights to privacy. However, examples of societies both in the past and present, like London in 1665 and South Korea today, show that this is an effective method of combating widespread disease.

One last historical lesson, drawn from the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, is crucial to informing our response to today’s COVID-19 situation. When the pandemic hit the continent of Africa, it came in three waves. The first, beginning in May 1918, reached North Africa, Abyssinia (Ethiopia), South Africa, and Portuguese East Africa. The second wave hit sub-Saharan Africa beginning in August, and then the last wave hit parts of Southern Africa in the fall. One of the factors that facilitated this transmission throughout the continent is the mass exodus from populations in urban centers to rural areas, which helped spread the virus from coastal cities deep into central Africa. This panicked movement only served to spread the virus, and prolong the duration of the epidemic.

What we can continue to do today, and need to continue to do to protect ourselves, is to learn from history. Stop any unnecessary travel, practice social distancing and quarantine, avoid crowded urban spaces, and trust in science to create solutions such as vaccinations.

In what ways will COVID-19 change the global system and global economy?
In the short-term, we are already aware of the immediate changes COVID-19 has brought to our lives. Air travel is limited, many of us have been forced to work from home, students around the world are learning online, and businesses are struggling to stay afloat.

What is less immediately clear is how these changes will continue into the future, and how COVID-19 will shape our lives permanently. To try to best predict how our lives are going to change, we can turn to history for some answers. What are some significant events in the past that have generated widespread change around the world?

Perhaps, one of the most significant events in recent living memory is the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States. One of the impacts from the September 11 attacks that most of us encounter in our lives on a regular basis is the changes to aviation regulations and security proceedings that were implemented after the event. Longer airport lines, stricter restrictions, and full-body scans are now the norm. Is it possible that COVID-19, which was helped along by the large numbers of flyers crisscrossing the globe every day, will bring about even stricter flying restrictions, this time with a health-focused component? Will temperature checks, health declarations, and other methods of contact tracing become standard features of commercial air travel? This is all still speculation. However, what we know for certain is that there will be changes in how we move around the world.

Changes in the flow of goods and people will have wider impacts on the global economy. Everything is dependent on the ability to easily move things around from place to place. Our supply chains have become globalised, so one finished product depends on parts sourced from multiple countries. Much of the global labour force is mobile too; migrants, both domestic and international, are crucial workers in most countries’ economies. In particular, industries dependent on the easy mobility of people, such as aviation, hospitality, and tourism will be greatly impacted. Also disproportionately impacted are fields that require more up-close and personal contact with clients, such as the food service and beauty industries. Many in these fields have lost their jobs. For those of us fortunate enough to be able to work from home, many are discovering that they are more efficient, with less time spent traveling to and from the office, and happier. It is possible that digital workspaces will become more accepted, even after the COVID-19 pandemic has ended.

What COVID-19 has revealed are many of the pre-existing cracks in the system that many previously chose to ignore. The current crisis has highlighted how interdependent we all are, with popular slogans such as “Together Apart” making the rounds on social media sites. This awareness of our interdependence has the potential to make people ask for more supportive social safety nets. It could change our entire labour system to be more humane, with more protection for workers, better wages, more reasonable working hours, and more security in the form of things like paid leave. The more protection workers have, the less likely they are to find themselves in impossible situations where they are out of work and can’t make basic rent payments, due to forces entirely outside of their own control. However, ultimately, the ability of COVID-19 to change the global system and global economy will largely depend on how our governments and institutions respond to the crisis.

Can you postulate on the post COVID-19 economy in Africa especially in Nigeria?
In the preceding question, I analysed issues of global relevance. Most of them will also apply to us in Nigeria and Africa. At the close of 2019, Africa’s economic growth had stabilised at 3.4 per cent and was expected to pick up to 3.9 per cent in 2020 and even 4.1 per cent in 2021. The African Development Bank Group, otherwise known as Banque Africaine de Developpement, a multilateral development finance institution which comprises three entities, The African Development Bank, the Africa Development Fund, and the Nigeria Trust Fund also serving as a financial provider for African governments and private companies investing in the regional member countries, made positive observations about Africa’s economic direction. It stated that, for the first time in about a decade, the continent’s investments accounted for more than half of its growth and that private consumptions accounted for less than one third. It, however, delivered this news with one caveat, and it is that, this growth has not been all embracing; only about “a third of African countries achieved inclusive growth, reducing both poverty and inequality”.

At the global stage, the World Bank had more subdued opinions on Africa’s economic situation at the close of 2019. With earlier projections expected to bring about what it termed an ‘economic recovery’, this growth was later to stabilize at 2.4 per cent. With growing global headwinds such as a deceleration of major trading activities by major trading partners, higher policy uncertainty and falling commodity prices being compounded by the domestic fragilities in several countries. In Nigeria, South Africa and Angola, three of the continent’s largest economies, this was especially felt as growth was subdued below historical averages; contraction was recorded for a fifth consecutive year on per capita basis. Outside these big-three economies, growth also slowed in several industrial commodity export countries in 2019, resulting from weaker prices and lesser demand, which deaden activity in extractive sectors, as in Liberia, Congo and Namibia. However, new investments in oil and mining boosted activity and countries like Ghana, Mauritania and Guinea, exporters of agricultural commodities, made gains despite mild slacks.

Despite the uneven growth indices recorded in the region, 2020 growth projection was set at 2.9 per cent with calculated assumptions. These include: improved investor confidence in the larger economies, increase in oil production, ease in energy bottlenecks and a continuous robust growth among agricultural commodity exporters. Growth in Nigeria was expected to increase to about 2.1 per cent, though its macroeconomic framework; with multiple exchange rates, high persistent inflation, foreign exchange restrictions and an overtaxed central bank, did little to inspire confidence. It is with such outlook that the region and especially Nigeria welcomed the new-year (2020).

Just as the world and especially Africa’s economies were settling into the new-year; before any major trade deals could be concluded and the annual quarterly reports declared, the world was hit with a globe-wide pandemic which slowed down and eventually crippled economic activities as a result of the necessitated lockdowns implemented. However, for Nigeria, an oil producing country hugely (over 90 per cent) dependent on its proceeds, things had started to take a down turn in January even before the virus struck, global oil prices which were at 67.21$ at the close of 2019, dropped to 63.65$ in January 2020. Just a few months prior in 2019, the Nigerian government had passed into law a budget of $35bn, projecting a daily crude production of 2.18 million barrels at $57 per barrel. As of April 2020, its daily crude production was at 1,777.000 barrels/day at $9.12 (at the lowest) and rising to $34.76 as at May 2020. This has resulted in budget cuts, which are predicted to affect infrastructure investments, health and education funding and almost every sector of the Nigerian economy.

The world-bank’s latest (biannual) ‘Africa’s Pulse’ report has had to review its economic growth projection in sub-Saharan Africa from an initial 2.4 per cent in 2019 to about -2.1 per cent and -5.1 per cent in 2020 depending on the success of the measures taken to mitigate the pandemic’s effects. In other words, the region will experience its first recession in 25 years and Nigeria’s second in less than five years given the 2017 episode. The best case scenario is where this current growth plunge is immediately followed by an equally sharp recovery which is highly unlikely for Nigeria given its pre-existing myriad of economic challenges ranging from its largely mono-economy, to its infrastructural deficit, huge debt profile, dwindling foreign reserves, huge underutilized human resources (burden) and security challenges. The (immediate) future promises to be rocky.

Given that Africa and indeed Nigeria is only just experiencing its first real surge in the number of COVID-19 cases, one can safely say, the lockdown situation, which is having diverse negative effects on both the private and public sectors, is not letting up soon. The first attempt at relaxing the lockdown, which has resulted in a surge in the number of cases of infected persons, has informed a more cautious and slow re-opening of the economy. This deepens the damages being wreaked on private and public businesses thereby extending the economic recovery period.

This recovery period would be slow and marked with a lot of hardship resulting from the numerous cut back measures necessary for any comeback. With the current ‘crises’ in the oil sector, the Nigerian economy would be forced to diversify, reduce cost of governance at all levels, which means more unemployment and greater risk of strife and unrests.

Post COVID-19 Africa and indeed Nigeria would have to brace up for the lasting effects of the pandemic. The cost of handling the crises both monetary and otherwise is bound to leave a huge dent both on the national psyche, individual and co-operate accounts. There is the possibility of a food crises resulting from the disruption of this farming circle, which might necessitate greater importation of basic food items in a time where the government really cannot afford them. This may lead to more borrowing, more debts, and an even longer recovery period.


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COVID-19Toyin Falola
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