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From Italy with love

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A friend-of-a-friend in the lockdown city of Milan, Italy, shared with us some perspectives on the coronavirus disease and why the European country has surpassed China in terms of pandemic ruins. Nigeria has an eerie place in his narrative – the reason we all should be wary right now.

“It was all a mistake,” he said, “a tragic one” as he narrated how the State, like it was in China and United States, initially palmed off the virus and denied its spread in neighbourhoods until rows of naked bodies hooked on tubes, in a hospital in Cremona, Milan, was shown on primetime television.

Until about a month ago, Italian cities of art, culture and tourism did boast of some of the best medical centres in Europe. It had everything until coronavirus crept in and shattered it all. Nothing prepares a system for an average of 3000 people in need of Intensive Care Units (ICUs). So, every day, in the last one week, the covid-19 induced daily death toll in Italy kept surpassing yesterday’s record. Last Thursday’s 427 deaths was a grim milestone. Italy of 60.5 million people, therefore, recorded 3,427 deaths to climb above China’s total of 3,250 from 1.3 billion population. It further got grimmer in Italy. Friday, 627 deaths. Saturday, 793. Sunday, 651.

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“We all didn’t see it coming, and the authorities did a good job at covering up the spread when it arrived,” the Italian said. “I learnt that some States, schools and religious centres have also closed in Nigeria. That is where Milan was on March 7, 2020, when we kept saying that it is not so bad. Four days later, the whole country was ordered to shutdown. You guys (in Nigeria) must hurry because it is not normal and very bad. Italy is in ruins; worst than war.”

The current pandemic reminiscences a familiar trend in existential plagues in history. It begins with a denial; it is just flu. Then, there is a partial acceptance, as something in the overseas. It was called Wuhan virus, shared by fake news agencies and our political opponents. When the damage comes closer – stage three – then it is real. The last stage is today’s Italy of our friend’s description.

Most countries, including Nigeria, actually delayed in accepting its realities and damaging effect. The so-called superpowers are battling to remain in stage three, where Nigeria currently thither. Unfortunately, Nigeria is nowhere close to these superpowers’ might and cannot compete for that space whatever it is worth. The Nigerian public that is currently at home cannot afford to live in denial either.

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There is no estimate on the number of standard ICU beds in Nigeria at the moment. But it is safe to assume that it is nowhere near 900 free slots that Northern Italy had at the beginning of March – the onset of Covid-19 spread. The 900 was much until the number of those infected climbed to 30,000 in three weeks, with about 10 per cent in need ICU slots. Additional 300 beds bolster the total to 1200 because non-virus-related cases were discharged, pending surgeries cancelled, and dozens of ICU occupants left for the morgue to give way to those with better chances of being saved! Coronavirus made a bad situation worse.

“If you are elderly, chances are that you can be removed from life support for the younger patient. (It is called triage.) So, when I say it is bad, I mean it.”

In case anyone is still in doubt, covid-19 is an unusual guest that must be treated accordingly. It is not just a medical disease gone awry. It is a collective socio-economic disaster that threatens and ravages everything on its path. Where it does not reach life, it cuts off means of sustenance – the economy. Lockdown means no movement, then no business, no trade, no profit, no money, supplies, starvation, more ill-health, and death.

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But it needs not get so bad before it gets better, if we the people would agree to face it head-on. The spread must be contained swiftly. Social distancing is as important as personal hygiene to slow down the speed of infection and flatten the curve. It is the time to show the sick some love and encourage them to get treated quickly.

What is clear is that the world is in this together. But unlike the popular notion of shared burden, every country has to carry the can and battle it alone, at least in the interim. There is literally no United Nations, International Monetary Fund (IMF), or big brother America to run to cap in hand. After all, President Trump shut his doors to Europe and Canada, and Schengen countries disowned one another. Everybody needs help, but self-help is the key to survival. So, this is the time for the State’s machinery to buckle up, reach deep down to rescue the people from ripple effects of pandemic. It is the time for real leadership; one that is enamored with truth, compassion, self-assurance, and can be trusted to deliver salvation.

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Like Albert Camus wrote in the novel La Peste or The Plague some 56 years ago, perilous times like this do come, with heavy losses too. But survivors would later realise that the saving grace was more of their sheer determination and courage to conquer. It is not the time to be cowed by fear of the virus. Indeed, today’s plague tells of the life and its absurdities, yet we are called to action amid powerlessness against a common enemy that has no ethnicity, party or ideology. But with patience, obedience to social distancing rules and determination of our minds, we shall conquer.

In Camus’s book, one encounters the courage, fear and calculation that we now hear or read of frontline medical workers battling coronavirus in many countries, including Nigeria. It is the way to go for us all. Even in Italy, our friend and others in completely lockdown cities are still self-motivated. They sing songs and anthem daily from their windows and balconies to uplift the spirit of nationhood. They often agreed to have a national round of applause at 6 p.m. in appreciation of all the medical and paramedics risking it all to cater for the sick without losing their smiles. It means that there is hope for humanity.

Dr. Oyebade is a member of The Guardian Editorial Board.

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