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Coronavirus diary – Part 6

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A reader of this diary asked the question: “After COVID-19, what next? Are we going to learn anything? She ended with a prayer: “May God heal the world, Amen.” My tentative response: “We will learn nothing”. I believe that the question was posed with the Nigerian context in mind: our worldview and general way of doing things. I address the social impact of COVID-19 in this installment. In this analysis, I adopt a dual perspective. Firstly, I focus on the Nigerian way of doing things. Secondly, spotlight some changes occurring globally. In the Nigerian context, I argue that the dominant current will remain the same business-as-usual attitude. In broader terms, I argue that the changes that will occur in the world will not be as result of the impact of COVID-19 but due to the transformation of productive forces.

There are short-term arguments about the impact of COVID-19 by emergency experts inviting short –term donor funding on virtual platforms. These may well turn out to be a flash in the pan, fleeting prognoses than concrete because this moment shall pass. So, back to the question posed by my reader: what next?

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The pattern of arguments is that COVID-19 has made impossible visiting friends and families physically. Shuttering has aggravated domestic violence that is gender-tinged. The men are battering their partners unable to put up with their mutual repulsive idiosyncrasies which work-time had hitherto mediated. As the New York Times puts this dilemma, “Movement limits imposed by countries around the world have forced people to spend much more time at home, leading to a surge in domestic abuse cases”. Dining-out has become a momentary taboo to avoid contracting COVID-19. Civility has been attenuated to bow, leg-hug, eye-contact and no handshake, no hugging, no kissing, apart from the confines of our bedrooms for those certified negative. COVID-19 has not changed the lot of millions in the world without electricity, pipe-borne water, food and shelter. Interestingly, India, the second most populous country in the world has given palliative measures that included “free food rations for 800 million disadvantaged people, cash transfer to 204 million poor women, free cooking gas for 80 million households, among others.” This is not likely to continue after COVID-19. While many are hungry, there is a momentary change to dietary pattern with people inclining towards phyto-nutrients to boost the immune system. This is not a general practice and will not continue after COVID-19.

Environmentally, there is awareness that our planet is having a momentary relief from greenhouse effect and other abuses. Truly, our fauna partners are coming ashore with ease while others hitherto in the wild are roaming urban centres. According to Matt McGrath, Environment correspondent, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), “No war, no recession, no previous pandemic has had such a dramatic impact on emissions of CO2 over the past century as Covid-19 has in a few short months” as emission is projected to drop by 4-8 percent amounting to about 2 to 3 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas. Again, this will be short-lived. A sharp rise is expected post-COVID-19 and environmental activists have Mount Everest in the front.

On my hunch, consequential vaccine will not be produced in the current health emergency. Research in medical and allied sciences will continue, perhaps in ways that are proactive and anticipating how shifting population and environmental boundaries might engender new infectious diseases and the probable cures. The race for a vaccine might be as intensive as it is now but will follow the dynamics of each outbreak. On their part, the social sciences and humanities have a great deal of role to play in mapping the future. Already there is a deluge of calls for papers.

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At a global level, European Central Bank has doled out financial resources to hedge the economy of member states from the foreseeable slowdown. The US stimulus package is in the region of about $2.2 trillion among others to boost economic activities. Financial bail-outs on generous terms are being arranged for developing countries. United Nations Economic Commission (UNECA) has lobbied the Breton Woods Institutions (BWIs) and International Financial institutions (IFIs) for a loan portfolio of $100 billion out of which $44 billion is moratorium on debt servicing obligation for all African countries with a projected additional $50 billion for the “building back process in 2021” contingent on the continuation of the current emergency. The BWIs, the G7 and G20 as well as the IFIs are primed for supportive financial input and agreement on what Masood Ahmed, President of the Centre for Global Development, called “useful, if limited, debt standstill for the poorest countries”. To be sure, International Monetary Fund (IMF) has a $1trillion standby credit facility for the needy. Nevertheless, finance capital and multinational vehicles will continue their realisation quest and the extraction of surplus value from the working class of the metropoles and the peripheries. This will mean, as always, the expansion of the boundary of poverty. Despite its obvious failure, neoliberalism may be mediated in some countries by doses of Keynesianism in the short term. With renewed indebtedness, African countries will not aspire to this policy direction. To borrow Paul Commack’s phrase, they will more or less continue their policy of attacking the poor. Possible oases will not be ruled out.

Now the crucial question on Nigeria: how have we lived prior to COVID-19? At the individual level, every Nigerian is struggling with a generalized societal disorder to feed, clothe and house him/herself. The resources for these needs are being sought in the tiny formal sector; sprawling informal sector in the urban areas and shadow markets; and peasantry of the rural communities. The quest is accompanied by fair and square deals as well as sleaze. Governance is at best non-existent with bare relevance to the governed. The presence of the rulers is only felt during election times when branded miserable gifts are shared. As is well-known votes hardly count—results are either rigged through barefaced manipulation of results or awarded by judicial math.

Corruption is rule of the thumb in transactions at the governmental level. The number of those indicted, serving prison terms, walking free through plea-bargaining, millions of dollars (Abacha loot) being repatriated and the apparent profiteering by COVID-19 expenditure testify to the point being made. For the populace, they toil to provide for themselves basics of living—food, clothing and housing.

Social amenities like primary health centres (PHCs), pipe-borne water, electricity and motorable roads are barely available to them.

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Attitudinal disposition such as craving for wealth, building of mansions, display of sartorial elegance, driving luxurious cars, drinking, womanizing and vain haughtiness will not change because COVID-19 is just a fleeting moment. Recall that at the beginning of the lockdown, whisky and brandy were in high demand because it was wrongly believed that those products could burn off the virus deposits in the throat. Similarly, in Kenya, Hennessy had to issue a disclaimer to the effect that Hennessy had no curative relationship with COVID-19. Churches will bounce back with an admixture of ritual of prophecies and messages of salvation. As St. Paul averred, “the just shall live by faith”. Globally, the rush to get out of the shutters and lockdowns with scant regard to the deadly virus underlines the fickle-mindedness of man.

Economically, the price of oil, mainstay of Nigeria’s economy, is plummeting while the government of the day is taking more loans to make up for revenue shortfall and ostensibly to fight COVID-19. Under it Rapid Financing Instrument, the IMF has approved for the country a loan of $3.4 billion. Ironically, agencies saddled with fighting COVID-19 are obviously handicapped with Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu of the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) admitting that they are doing what is possible within the situation limits. Diversification is still a singsong while constitutional strictures inhibit provincial efforts at exploiting the available wealth of natural resources. Will these change because of COVID-19? No! The same absence of commonsense that has governed policy space in the country is continuing and will continue after COVID-19 unless commonsense prevails.

Finally, the fundamental change post-COVID-19 will occur in the operationalisation of the outputs of the fourth and fifth industrial revolutions. These include the deployment of artificial intelligence, robotics and augmented reality in industrial production, services and communication. These productive forces will largely shape labour and human relations. Above all, it will bear the badge of global inequality with the poor countries held up in debt overhang.
Akhaine is a professor of political science at the Lagos state University.

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