Coronavirus diary – Part 9
The COVID-19 has continued its contagious stride across the world. Statistics of the dead and of the incapacitated are not declining. So far, about 374,000 people have died from the ubiquitous pestilence while 6.3 million have been infected globally. In Nigeria, the figure has been rising at an alarming rate among a complacent people who are overly suspicious of its government at both national and sub-national levels. The tally stands at about 287 deaths and 10,162 infected. However, an impatient world is bent on moving on with its life. No wonder that Brooklyn College Professor Gregory Smithsimon notes that “People cannot live isolated from others, and avoid doing so even for short periods. Even partial isolation is dangerous, and sometimes permanently damaging, to a substantial proportion of people.” Its seems for a moment there is a convergence between the natural instinct of man to be free from all encumbrances, a Kantian self-determinism of sorts, and the rapacious interest of capital whose realisation has been curbed by COVID-19.
For those in advanced countries and elsewhere with responsible and accountable government, they are not just throwing caution to the wind; they are rolling out preconditions for opening up. Public places are being disinfected; public facilities are being redesigned for physical distancing. For example, German schools have rearranged classrooms and conduct test twice weekly for students while the Chinese have provided protective gears for their students to suit the abnormality some have chosen to call the “new normal”. Antibody tests are being done to measure the risk of re-infection. On May 12, Health Canada approved “the first COVID-19 serological test for use in the country to detect antibodies specific to the virus”. In the offing is the tweaking of aircraft seats in the meantime so that humans can travel by air again. As John Walton notes in BBC’s Worklife “Several airlines are exploring the idea of keeping middle seats empty, to avoid passengers sitting directly beside each other…Removing the unloved middle seat option would lead to a hearty hooray from the travelling public. Sit by the window and you get a view, plus a bulkhead to snooze against. In an aisle seat, you can pop to the toilet or stretch whenever you like.
The middle seat has no such benefits, unless you’re one of those people who strikes (sic) up conversations with their seatmates…” Airlines, such as EasyJet, Wizz Air and Alaska Airlines are all inclined in this direction. In South Korea, massive testing is going on. This lesson from this Asian country most hard-hit apart from China is exemplary. As acknowledged by The Guardian of London, “The country is conducting about 15,000 tests a day, free of charge, and has carried out almost 200,000 screenings so far. It has also set up about 50 drive-through testing centres and distributed smartphone alerts about the movements of people who have tested positive”. Above all, the race for a vaccine and other curative measures are in top gear. We have also seen the clasping of test tubes in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Russian, China and Indian in the mission to produce a vaccine.
In Nigeria, our approach all the way has been one of copycat with a huge opaqueness accompanying every action of government. Today, the so-called index case, an Italian, remains anonymous, and some Nigerians wondered why this is the case. Daily, we learn about figures of the infected, but there are no audio-visuals to back up claims. This has consequently fuelled the rumour mills of alleged instances of care centre visiting patients for other ailments being issued receipts for COVID-19 or rewards for discovered COVID-19 cases. This has induced in the citizens a fatalistic complacency about COVID-19 regarded by them as “Oyinbo” disease, if not outright scam. Lack of faith in government is not helped by transparency issues. Donations to COVID-19 are not being accounted for; and we are told are lodged in commercial banks. While government is mired in a controversy over payment of foreign currency for imports of COVID-Organic (CVO) from Madagascar, the same government has been indifferent to claims of cures, in the genre of immune boosters, by Nigerian pharmacognosy and other nature health practitioners.
Thanks to the Catholic seminary in Ewu, its formula, COVID-Plus is out there. Yet we see helplessness in the public performances of government institutions that ought to be in the forefront of fighting COVID-19 through innovations. Dr Chikwe Ihekweazu of the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) carries a burden, so is Professor Babatunde Salako of the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research (NIMR). Clearly, you see a picture of public officials who seem to know what to do but unable to transform the red-tape and incapacity of government distant from the wellbeing of the governed. Paulo Freire, in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed, calls this situation, subjectivist immobility in a related sense. It is a situation in which victims of oppression are aware of the cause of their oppression but unable to act to negate the condition of oppression.
The contradictions integral to the Nigerian war on COVID-19 are too many to be ignored. There are reports of indiscriminate arrest of essential service workers culminating in a strike action of doctors in Lagos state who are fed up with the constant harassment of healthcare workers by security agents enforcing the lockdown. As they have noted in a sit-at-home strike, the situation is “unsafe for its members to continue to provide healthcare services under the present confused arrangement… Until such time when the state government and the Commissioner of Police are clear on how they wish to operationalise the lockdown/restriction of movement directive as it relates to essential service and service providers, including healthcare services and doctors.” This occurred against the backdrop of an extant presidential order to the effect that health workers, journalists and other essential workers are exempted from the lockdown. It was so bad that an ambulance conveying an emergency patient was reportedly turned back.
In ways contrary to the restrictions on movement, the country woke up to the problem of repatriation of Almajirai by governors of northern states of the country resulting in swamping of the South and Middle Belt areas. The development touched the fragile nerve of ethnic fault-lines and has further accentuated the national question. The much heralded arrival of the Chinese doctors added a preposterous nuance to a badly governed country. On April 8, the “doctors” arrived in defiance of the Nigerian Medical Association’s (NMA) warning to the government not to allow them into the country.
The head of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19, Boss Mustapha, affirmed their status as “The professionals that have been invited from China are public health specialists and medical engineers that will support Nigeria’s capacity in managing the pandemic on advisory basis when necessary while drawing from the experience of the Chinese.” Nevertheless, they soon wandered off like ownerless dogs roaming the streets, afterwards morphed into technicians of China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC), working in Nigeria under obviously inflated contracts. The Guardian speaks to our national infamy in its editorial of June 1, 2020: “If there has been any incident during this COVID-19 pandemic that illustrates the shifty nature of this government, it is the saga of the so-called ‘Chinese doctors’. So sadly episodic has the event been that the term ‘Chinese doctors’ may well be a metaphor for the nonchalance and utter disregard for sincerity, which this administration has had for the people.
The tale around the ‘Chinese doctors’ succinctly telegraphs the predicament of a nation so weakened by its servants’ lack of integrity. It is so unconscionable.” The Chinese saga is complimented by an inane assertion of sharing palliatives to school children at home during lockdown by the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development. There is no end to the Nigerian magic.
In a reverse logic, government along the beaten track of copycatism is lifting the lockdown and state governments are following suit without the preconditions aforementioned. Though numbers are hardly reliable here, the number of the infected is rising. Reportedly, Bonny Local Government Area of Rivers State is in the throes of an “unknown ailment” with symptoms like COVID-19. Pray that the Nigerian faux pas does not become the undoing of a beleaguered continent.
Akhaine is a professor of Political Science at the Lagos State University.