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Beware, COVID-19 isn’t over yet

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People wear face masks ahead police checkpoint in compliance with state directive to curb the spread of COVID-19 coronavirus at Ojodu-Berger in Lagos, on May 4, 2020. – Kano, with around 12 million people, is the second most populous state in Nigeria. The Nigeria Centre for Disease Control on May 1, 2020, said the number of recorded infections across Kano rose to 219, up from 77 at the start of the week.<br />Kano has in recent days seen a spate of high-profile deaths including academics, bureaucrats, businessmen and traditional leaders. (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

Public and social centres are opening nationwide after about six months of COVID-19 induced lockdown. It began with extended trading hours in marketplaces, relaxed curfews, then religious centres and now schools. Let’s not get it twisted, it is not to suggest that the worst is over but to say that the government too, just like individuals, is getting jaded and fatigued. But at a time of new spikes and second wave imposing fresh lockdown in Europe and other developed economies, the Nigeria public has a reason to worry and not to let off the guard just yet.

The other day, COVID-19 global fatalities surpassed the one million mark. The grim milestone did not account for another one million that perhaps went unrecorded. The numbers are on the rise and the virus is burning through parts of the emerging world. India has been recording over 90,000 cases a day. Some European countries that hurriedly opened are facing the second wave. In America, the official death toll has exceeded 200,000. Just when the world thought it had suppressed the disease, the virus got emboldened.

But the reaction and palpable fatigue are getting ludicrous in Nigeria. When a spike failed to arrive as anticipated, a kind of ennui set in. Not only are the public dropping face masks further down the chin, it is now rare, if not odd, to be seen wearing a face mask in public. Our marketplaces are as dense and chaotic as ever without any recourse to physical distancing rules. Few motorists and commuters wear masks just to evade harassments at checkpoints. Officially restricted pubs, nightclubs, restaurants, cinemas and hotels in places like Lagos and Rivers have grown impatient. They pushed back with brazen openings and customers are just as happy. Most Nigeria would even deny that there is anything like coronavirus, despite it claiming over 1,114 lives out of over 58,600 people thus far infected. Our communal response to this pandemic is atrocious.

Our collective amnesia is not helped by the attitude of both the Federal Government and their state counterparts. Quality treatment has shown to heal the sick and slow down the death rate. But the initial zeal to beef up the health system and diagnostic centres has petered out. For instance, the government of Lagos State, the epicentre of the virus infections, is also scaling down its response services. Members of the medical response team are getting reduced, isolation centres are closing down and the sick are getting discouraged from coming forward for treatment. Across the land, politicians are getting wayward too. What is more surprising, even those at the presidency are playing host to parties and gathering in flagrant violation of the physical distancing rules, as if to say things are back to normal.

Now there are reported cases of fraud and criminal racket that have crept into testing protocols. Intending travellers are getting positive results, only to be told that they could negotiate with a hefty bribe to get it reversed. With about N50, 000, duly signed health certificates can be purchased over-the-counter. Why should anyone then take the virus or the government’s words seriously? And why would people not evade detection? These are all familiarities that are not healthy.

But the coronavirus is still as dangerous as viruses could be. Medical scientists are unanimous that viruses are microscopic organisms that can enter a living host to live and multiply. Think of them like an unwanted guest that shows up unannounced, moves into your house, eats out of your fridge and begins to reproduce. Your immune system realises that it’s not part of your normal bodily system, attacks it and tries to kill it. After that, it remembers the virus, so it can get rid of it straight away if it ever comes knocking again. Just like any living creature, viruses change themselves to survive in their environment. Over time, they change in ways that make it hard for our immune systems to recognise them. That’s how we end up with new versions of viruses, like this new version of coronavirus. Imagine your unwanted houseguest has come back, but with a wig, new glasses and more determined than before. Your immune system doesn’t recognise it, so it gets in the front door and in the house before you know it. That is the behaviour of this coronavirus and its war of attrition. The virus is patient and relentless. It would wait for human resolve to weaken, and then pounce aggressively like stage-four cancerous cells.

The Nigerian public, however, cannot afford to give up on their health and safety at this time. We all wanted to heave a sigh of relief with churches, mosques, schools, social centres and life returning to normal. State governments granting those wishes should never be mistaken to mean that we have reached the finish line in the race against the pandemic. Countries like Austria, Australia and the United Kingdom, with more sophisticated economy, health systems and grips on the COVID-19 containment, reopened too prematurely and had to battle a second wave with another blanket lockdown staring them in the face. Nigeria cannot afford that unfortunate position. Hence, the need to take extra caution with ourselves, our children and neighbours. The disease is easier on the young than the elderly. It does not immunise children, adults and other vulnerable groups from its devastating effects. So, this is a time to be anxious and extra vigilant.

Most worrisome still is that the government is getting laidback in fixing the healthcare system. It is bad enough that the public health system is not up to scratch at the outset of the pandemic. It is worse that the system has remained in its moribund state despite how surprisingly lucky we have been with the pandemic. But we must understand that the new spike overseas is an artefact of aggressive testing. If we are not scaling up screening or doing it properly, how are we to know how well or badly we are doing? Medical science now understands that the virus, beyond the lungs, also feast on other organs like the heart and kidney. It takes only efficient health systems to treat and repel threats. These are some of the lines of attack that this long-haul medical emergency needs.

In the best of all possible worlds, the pandemic would remain a part of daily life well into 2021. Vaccines, if accessible here, may not be ready or not as effective in the next one year. What is feasible and most logical now is more testing and tracing, social distancing, clear and sincere communication from the government. How this works is not a rocket science, though our government is getting it all wrong. We the public cannot afford to fall in line nor make another costly lockdown inevitable. It is for us, our lives and public good. The pandemic can abate if we do not live in self-denial but cumulatively continue to guard against it till it is all over. For now, coronavirus is not over because it is not over until it is over. So beware, complacency can kill!


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