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Coronavirus diary – Part 5

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When facing a dilemma, choose the more morally demanding alternative — Harold S. Kushner

We are still in the middle of the COVID-19 nightmare. Experts say it might be around for a long time. While longing for an end to it and consoling ourselves that it is perhaps a dream that will soon go away, we are simultaneously locked in a debate about whether to lift the lockdown imposed on the population by the government at both national and sub-national levels.

Lockdown was the first commonsensical global response to an invisible microparasite based on the fact one of the modes of transmission is human contact. This reality speaks to the questions that Professor Kole Omotoso raises in his piece, “Where is COVID-19 taking us?".

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Omotoso poses two questions as follows: “Where is COVID-19 taking us?” And “where are we taking COVID-19?” He provides an answer to the first question thus: “The fact everybody knows is that this virus is not mobile. It can go nowhere unless carried along. Which is why governments around the world asked people to stay put, don’t move, stay at home. Because why? Because if you don’t move it doesn’t move either. Can’t go anywhere without you. So, COVID-19 can take us nowhere we do not wish to go.” He has no answer for the latter; it is left to our imagination.

At this point, a few indices of Nigeria’s socio-economic status are useful. Nigeria became the world headquarters of poverty in 2018. Currently, it occupies 152 positions of the 157 countries on the World Human Capital Index (HCI). Besides, over 152 million of its people live on less than $2 per day while the current GDP per capita is about $2222. Over 80 percent of the population are hemmed in the drudgeries of the informal sector and shadow markets. Indeed, poverty walks on all legs; without daily toil, many will go to bed on empty stomachs. No wonder, the birthing of “One-million Boys” dispossessing people of money and food to keep afloat. So, even while the lockdown is on in some states of the federation, the hapless citizens are still seen evading lockdown and clustering in search of what to eat. It raises the question of how effective can lockdown be. Can it be prolonged without viable alternatives and at the expense of productivity?

Indeed, the global debate is on the economic cost of lockdown; this comes from centres of capitalist production, more concerned about profit than the lives of human beings, it does not necessarily address the poverty question and pre-existing inequality before COVID-19. The President of the United States (US) wants the economic engines to start running again so that the US can be on top of the game as its global rival China is producing and supplying the rest of the embattled global community with required commodities. According to President Trump, “The next front in our war - opening up America again…America wants to be open and Americans want to be open… A national shutdown is not a sustainable long-term solution.” The economy needs re-opening and the governors of Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky have collectively affirmed the economic imperative. Their statement read, “We recognise that our economies are all reliant on each other, and we must work together to safely reopen them so hardworking people can get back to work and businesses can get back on their feet,”.

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Professor Chukwuma Charles Soludo provides what might be regarded as an African perspective to the debate in his “COVID-19: Can Africa Afford Lockdown”. The long and short of his argument is that we must lift the lockdown and allow the economy to flourish. The reasons adduced are compelling but commonplace. The absence of strong multilateral and global approaches and the preponderance of national initiatives urge a reflection on alternatives. A lockdown premised on the end of infections is counterproductive to what he calls “a suicidal indefinite waiting game” without an exit strategy. It will consequently exacerbate “the twin pandemic—health and economic” and recommends mainstreaming the continent’s “collective, simple, smart learning-by-doing solutions that could, in the end, be the African solutions for export to the world”.

Lockdowns and without are both fraught with risks of mortality. We contend with the impossibility of social distancing given the numerous shanty settlements and our communal living underpinned by both culture and economic logic. With a lockdown, the large peasantry that feeds the population will be hard hit with prospects of famine while state intervention suffers lack of credible demographic data for effective distribution of palliatives to the vulnerable. Fallen commodity prices, plummeting oil prices and the risk of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMES) dying without the US-type stimulus packages make a shutdown unattractive. It is argued that Africa needs to fully engage its population, its main asset, to evade economic disaster given its financial and structural limitations. Thus, he recommends a “learning-by-doing” model while domesticating the engendered social habits and the inherent economic opportunities. Beyond the seeming job opportunities, Governor of New York State, Andrew Cuomo has noted that the social practices of COVID-19 are complex and would require time to adapt.

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The Nigerian president in his broadcast of April 28th celebrates “positive outcomes” of having brought COVID-19 under control. But this is false, with a handicapped Centre for Disease Control with limited testing capacity; the figure of the infected is underrepresented. A heterodox approach is espoused that underlined the economic imperative of gradual lifting of the lockdown to achieve equilibrium between COVID-19 control measures and the smooth running of the economy. There is nothing African in both Soludo’s and President Buhari’s guidelines for re-opening the economy. The same dynamics drive both the advanced economies and the peripheral enclaves except that in the centre there is genuine production going on and here no productivity but the collection of rents, a prospect now dampened by the sliding oil prices in the international market.

Now that we have adopted the general practice of measured easing of lockdown without effective national coordination, the question is whether we are being guided by history or lessons of the past weeks?

Two historical accounts, specifically the Plague of Marseille (1720-1721) and Spanish Flu in Pennsylvania (1918) point to the backlash of violations of lockdowns.

History is a great teacher, the tragic aspect is that earthmen hardly learn from their past. In these parts, the people are infected by “partial amnesia”; made worse by greed and selfishness. For a virus without a cure yet, many are of the view that the foolproof approach is quarantine or lockdown. As already discussed above, economic reason as well as hunger, derisively called “hunger virus”, are the imperatives for lifting the lockdown, either partially or fully. Reminiscent of the past, there is already a backlash. Ghana which lifted the lockdown to the applause of a section of the population and had tested over 100,000 thousand by deploying drones for sample delivery is in the middle of a spike with about 1000 new cases within ten days.

In Germany with its gradual easing of the lockdown, a spike has also been reported. Sweden, without lockdown, has been an open field for COVID-19. Some States in the United States, such as Georgia and Florida that have ventured to open despite warning has also witnessed an increase in fatalities. Others like Michigan and California have not relaxed their lockdowns in spite of armed protest and law suits. What is emerging from the global panorama is that opinion is divided on which way to go: lockdown or opening up. It is a case of human impulse versus rationality.

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In Nigeria, the critique ought to focus on how we have managed palliatives so far. From a cross-section of opinions, people do not mind about lockdown to stay alive in so far there is food to eat. Of course, there are some Nigerians that can cope without the palliatives from the government. As always, planning without facts, the government embarked on distribution of palliatives without concrete data and effective coordination with state governments. This is occurring in a context that is ridden with corruption. Palliatives have given room to profiteering on the misfortune of a people.

Managed opening presupposes meeting basic requirements that include procurement of testing kits, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), and ramping up of testing across the country, strict observance of physical distancing, contact-tracing through the constitution of what Cuomo has called “contract-tracing army” and massive distribution of face-masks and a hegemonic awareness campaign on the infectivity and lethality of COVID-19. In the Nigerian instance, the Nigeria Medical Association (NMA) has noted that opening is premature without the above predicates.

Historically, quarantine has helped humanity deal with the most deadly of infections. Hunger matters but can be handled by some creative redistribution of national resources. The COVID-19 is death and to take it into the realm of politics and profit would mean sentencing millions to death. This is avoidable.

Akhaine is a professor of Political Science at the Lagos State University.

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