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Coronavirus diary – Part 39

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Christmas is celebrated globally by Christians and non-Christians alike. With the havoc of COVID-19, no one could easily predict the colour of Christmas 2020. One of the preventive COVID-19 protocols is the avoidance of large gatherings. Christmas is a time of conviviality and mixing in multitude. With a spiraling second wave of COVID-19 in Europe and America, it was only proper to err on the side of caution by raising the red flag. To warn against our natural inclination to social gatherings in form of partying and family re-union was the right thing to do. 

In Britain, a spoof of Bob Geldof and Midge Ure’s song titled “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” on the famine in Ethiopia in the 1980s set the tone. The spoof, which debut on December 17, 2020, mocked Boris Johnson and his Cabinet over their handling of the coronavirus pandemic in Britain. The lines run thus: It’s Christmas time with households mixing everywhere, / and at Christmas time infections spike and we don’t care. And in our five-day window you can spread your viral load, so throw your arms around your nan at Christmas time. /But say a prayer, pray for the northern ones. /At Christmas time, it’s hard when you’ve lost all of your income. /There’s a world outside Westminster, a world of bitterness and fear./Where all the pubs are closing because they’re stuck in higher tiers./ And the Big Ben bell that tolls here are their clanging chimes of doom./Well tonight thank God it’s them instead of you./And there’ll be less aid to Africa this Christmas time./Because we’ve given all your cash to all our friends in governmental perks like the app that didn’t work. /Do they know it’s Covid time at all?

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My approach for measuring the impact of COVID-19 on the celebration of the nativity of Jesus Christ this year was through personal communication. Professor David Simon, my teacher, and a friend presented in lurid prose the prospect of Christmas in the United Kingdom. I reproduce here his expectation: “The system of tiered restrictions according to the virus prevalence rates was proving inadequate so the UK was subject to a second lockdown during the northern autumn.

Its precise duration varied across the 4 ‘nations’ with devolved authority over health matters, ranging from a fortnight in late October/early November in Wales to 4 weeks from early November to early December in England. In all cases, the blow was softened by promises of a 5-day Christmas window when restrictions would be relaxed to allow free travel within the UK so that families could reunite with up to 3 households together. However, the prevalence rate in parts of Kent and eastern boroughs of London actually rose during England’s Lockdown 2, an early warning that all was not well. The government hence increased restrictions in London and the South East to Tier 3 in mid-December, still insisting that the 5-day Christmas window would operate. Then on Saturday 19th December, after urgent meetings between ministers and the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies, London and the South East and parts of Eastern England were summarily put into a new, yet-tougher Tier 4 in which any household mixing is banned and travel severely restricted, while restaurants and pubs, personal services like hairdressing and nail bars, along with non-essential retail were closed again with immediate effect. Northern Ireland and Wales will start new lockdowns on Boxing Day (26th Dec). This latest U-turn by Prime Minster Boris Johnson within 24 hours has effectively cancelled Christmas within Tier 4 areas, while the 5-day window has been reduced to Christmas Day outside Tier 4 areas and in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

The gamechanger has evidently been a new variant strain of the coronavirus that is up to 70% more transmissible and spreading rapidly, although it is not more virulent as such. Hospitals in Tier 4 areas are filling up fast again, with non-essential surgery being cancelled in some for the first time since the first wave. As of 21st December, many countries are imposing short travel bans on the UK, pending urgent assessments and a unified response with the WHO. Hence Christmas will be a serious non-event for many, while over 65,000 families across the UK will mourn relatives who have already succumbed to the virus.”

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Truly, with a puzzling spiral, the five-day window for family re-union, travel, and the promised of “Christmas Bubbles” irrespective of the tier prevalent in any location dovetailed into an anticlimax.
 
Claudia Lehmkhul, my long time friend and ‘twin’ sister said that “in Germany, it will be a different Christmas this year. Germany is in Lockdown so the government has ruled that during the Christmas days only the household plus 4 people (family or friends) shall come together. This is a measure to keep the ICUs in the country working as they are struggling with the numbers of patients. Many grandparents will not meet family to avoid infections. Lonely Xmas this year in Germany.” On further inquiry about Christmas day proper, her response was simply, “Quiet.”
 
Further north of Europe, especially Sweden, it was the same. Lucky Enakhimion, my relative in Sweden, filled the lines. The Swedes are wont to celebrate Christmas on December 24th, not the 25th. On this occasion they would sing “Nu är det Jul igen” meaning “now it’s Christmas again” and partake in the Julbord (literally Christmas table), a sort of buffet of peculiar and attractive seasonal Swedish delicacies: meatballs, jellied pigs’ feet, Vienna sausages known as prinskorv (Prince sausages) in Swedish, lax-raw salmon cured in dill and lemon and a traditional dish called Jansson’s Temptation, a creamy potato casserole with anchovies, liver, and seafood. There are other sundry funfairs during Christmas. “For the Swedes, this Christmas was different,” Enakhimion intoned with a melancholic strain, “the government banned gathering of more than 8 people and discouraged travelling and visiting aged parents and grandparents. But the norm is for people to travel extensively to be with families but not this Year! Most Swedes meet once in a Year their aged parents or grandparents but this they could not do this year because of Coronavirus.”
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In the United States, a feel of what transpired came in from Ann Arbor and Baltimore. Omolade Adunbi, an Associate Professor at the University of Michigan who does not celebrate Xmas as would Christians, did “put up a Xmas tree with presents for the kids under it. Typical Xmas in Ann Arbor is nothing unusual. People generally stay at home to have dinner with family and sometimes go shopping. For Nigerian families who go to church, they may congregate at a redeem church in a nearby city called Ypsilanti. For those Nigerians who are not members of redeem, they may go to other churches mostly orthodox churches in nearby towns. Because churches and places of worship are not allowed in residential areas, such churches may be found in areas where no one lives or in farm settlements in nearby rural towns. However, this year’s Xmas was mostly spent at home because of COVID-19. The state of Michigan is still under partial lockdown and gathering of more than 15 people isn’t allowed. However, one interesting thing about Xmas in America in the pre-covid era is that shops are usually closed on Xmas eve and open on Xmas day. Most people would throng to the malls and other shopping centers looking for deals. Basically, capitalism defines how Xmas is celebrated and not religion. It is always about how much is spent and how that differs from the previous era. Every holiday is marked by consumer capitalism.”
 
For Felix Iyoriobhe, a Baltimore resident, the traditional Xmas Eve for his family was different this year because of COVID-19. According to him, “Normally, every Christmas Eve, my wife and I and our two children will carol in my neighborhood but this year we were unable to do it because we know my neighbours may not open their doors for the fear of COVID-19. On Christmas Day, there was no Christmas dinner for friends and relatives in my house because the state had banned gatherings of more than ten people at a time. Most churches cancelled their service on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Altogether, this year’s Christmas was not joyous.”
 
In Nigeria, the most populous black nation, there is a government-hyped second wave that pales into insignificance compared to South Africa on a continental scale. Nevertheless, there was Christmas shopping, perhaps mediated only by a cash crunch, on the part of an impoverished people. The wave of insecurity in the country moderated travels. However, Churches held their services with downgraded observances of COVID-19 protocols. On December 18th, this writer partook in a carol at Agbara Residential Estate, in Ogun State, Nigeria. The prayer point at Christmas was that 2021 should be mankind’s annus mirabilis.   
Akhaine is a Professor of Political Science at the Lagos State University. 
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