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Named for the great influenza

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Pa Timothy Akabogu, died at a ripe old 101 years old and was buried on Friday in his home town, Obosi in Anambra State. He was survived by five children and several grandchildren. His life, long, difficult and uneventful, was remarkable in one respect – Pa Akabogu was one of the last surviving members of Obosi’s Umuoyibo Age Grade a.k.a Influenza Age grade (1918-1920), named after the devastating pandemic of 1918.

The pandemic, also known as the Spanish Flu or La Grippe came on the heels of World War 1 and was largely remembered for its spread, reach and devastation. More people died in 1918 from influenza than in the four years the World War 1 lasted. It was spread around the globe by soldiers who took part in that unfortunate war.

Those who didn’t sleep through their history lessons will remember that World War 1 was fought in two theatres — Europe and Africa. In Europe, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire fought against Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Romania, Japan and the United States.

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In Africa, it was fought mainly to deny Germany of its territories, exclude them from world trade and institutionalize the gains of the Berlin Conference of 1884. Ensuring British control of African seas with native African soldiers was the driving objective of the Allied Forces campaign as enunciated by the British Committee of Imperial Defence. It began with attacks on German coaling stations and wireless stations at Luderitz Bay, Windhoek, Duala and Dar-es-Salaam in Africa and a German wireless station in Togoland.

Over two million men, women and children recruited, often forcibly, as soldiers and carriers to support armies lost their lives in the war. By the time the war ended, every country in Africa not only lost men and women but also had returnees who brought home a strange virulent virus which infected over 500 million people worldwide. The influenza pandemic also left the world with a mortal fear of its symptoms – sneezing, coughing, aching, and overall physical weakness.

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As the last of the Ogbo influenza children exit, another pandemic threatens the world in the form of coronavirus. From the moment news of the coronavirus pandemic broke, analysts have been busy trying to calculate its economic costs – the loss of travels and tourism, of trade and commerce, steep fall on price of petroleum, devastating impact on stocks and shares, disruption of industrial production and foreign trade and its potential to hobble the world economy.

It’s all well and good for the government to join the bandwagon. To reassure compatriots that the government cares and is doing its best, even when it is clueless and merely twiddling its kleptomaniac's fingers. The danger of coronavirus to Nigerians may be minimal going by the rate of infection. Truth told, Nigeria’s low casualty figure, so far, is not due to mother luck. It is due to the fact that Nigeria has become isolated from the world economy. The worst-hit countries are economic powerhouses. Those spared, so far, are those who hardly register a blip on the world’s economic map. The more relevant to the world economy, the bigger your headache.

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Containment of coronavirus in Nigeria can be achieved through non-pharmaceutical interventions – the things you do when you don’t have drugs. It involves social distancing, washing hands, coughing into elbows, staying home when sick. The hope is that if followed these could significantly reduce the spread of the disease. Non-pharmaceutical interventions should also be strengthened by “suppression”, a term invented by an infectious-disease expert Michael Osterholm, which entails identifying infected people, isolating them, tracing contacts and asking contacts to self-quarantine.

Assuming suppression fails, we must be ready to initiate aggressive mitigation – closure of schools, churches, cinemas, markets, ban of parties and funerals, and all forms of public events flattened the infection curve during the 1918 pandemic and have been effectively applied in different parts of the world. This is why cities in China, Canada, the United States, and Britain have closed schools and public places and suspended public transportation. It is the reason countries have cancelled flight and banned foreign travels. Major universities like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Howard, etc. now conduct only online classes.

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Nonetheless, government economic managers still have areas of immediate attention. These are crude oil supplies, stock, sporting events, financial markets, entertainment and hospitality industries. Ongoing relationship with China should also be of interest. China accounts for 85 percent of Nigerian imports, meaning that a prolonged crisis will have a devastating impact on our trade and commerce. Chinese credit accounts for 80% of all bilateral lending to Nigeria, according to the debt management office. China provides loans to build railways, power plants and airports, helping to bridge a huge infrastructure gap in Nigeria. This suggests that investment in infrastructure might cease if the pandemic prolongs. With borders to the economic powerhouses of the world shut via travels and flight restrictions, Nigeria’s import-dependent economy might be heading for a recession.

However, there is also an expensive, albeit corrupt way of battling the coronavirus pandemic – money for the boys. Take a few examples: The Federal Government has released N620 million to the Federal Ministry of Health to “monitor and possibly detect coronavirus” said the Health Minister, Osagie Ehanire. Prince Clem Ikanade signed $18.2m grant agreement with Japan to strengthen the capacity of network laboratories of the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control. The CBN is providing a credit relief of $136.6M to businesses affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Original Gobe!

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While a raging pandemic attracts outsized media attention because of its dark glamour, it provides the impetus to steal, mismanage, and misappropriate. We should recognise that routine, endemic scourges such as corruption cause worse damages than pandemics. In economic terms, the coronavirus is much less destructive than corruption. Unlike coronavirus, corruption is more or less permanently established in Nigeria and eats away, day after day, the economy’s foundations. Countries, where corruption is endemic, have a harder time attracting foreign investment, not only because their workers are less productive but also because foreign companies are less inclined to do business in places that might prove fatal to foreigners.

If we are able to look past corruption, we might see enormous economic possibilities. Consider a product like bridal gowns, many of which are produced in China and sold all over the world. Indications are that with the current shutdown of Chinese manufacturing facilities specializing in these products will lead to a significant supply shortage for the upcoming summer wedding season. Does anyone see an opportunity for the expert tailors in Aba? With regular waves of epidemics in China and frequent disruption of supply chains, it might be easy to convince the world that with our population we can become an alternate shop floor of the world, not only for wedding gowns but for other products as well.

Since discovering the drug to cure coronavirus is beyond Nigeria, can the government just pay attention to instituting non-pharmaceutical remedies and fighting corruption, whilst waiting for saner countries to find a cure to coronavirus!

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