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The pandemic and our growing vocabulary

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Chikwe Ihekweazu


Like a bolt out of the blue, it came visiting and mankind was clearly not prepared for it and was brought to its knees. For eight weeks the world was literally brought to a standstill. Nothing has been more humbling. This unseen enemy, that last October did not exist anywhere, has done more damage to life and living than anything has done in a century. In March, The World Health Organisation (W.H.O.) labelled it a “pandemic” – an epidemic that has reached more than 210 countries around the world and has killed more than 371,000 globally including more than 270 in Nigeria. Named coronavirus disease 2019 (alias COVID-19) is also known by scientists asSARS-CoV2.

They still are unravelling the mystery of the novel virus.
With billions around the world on lockdown for unending weeks and some 16,000 planes grounded, many writers have written about the impact and various aspects of the troublesome microorganism that has disrupted global supply chains and changed how we work, learn and play. Yet, one area worth considering, in a lighter but reflective mood, is how our collective vocabulary have grown in the last three months. How often do you ordinarily hear the word, epidemiologist or the expression, verbal autopsy – if you are not a doctor? Thanks to the pandemic, they have been made famous. This article will run through a few words and expressions that have suddenly become commonplace in so short a time.

Nigeria recorded its (first) index case of coronavirus on February 27, 2020. According to the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), confirmed cases– that is, those who test COVID-19 positive – in the country on May 30, 2020 had since risen to nearly 10,000 – to be precise, 9,855– based on 60,825 tests with 2,856 discharged. There is widespread evidence of community transmission. Lagos State, with 48 per cent of the cases remains the epicentre (an expression first used for Wuhan, China where it originated from). The NCDC numbers imply that about 84 per cent of those tested turned out COVID-19 negative. Do they have the antibodies? That might require antibody testing. “Do you have pre-existing health conditions?” You may statistically, have a higher mortality risk? However, patients with low enough viral load are discharged. The good news for now, is that at about three per cent, Nigeria’s mortality rate is about half the global average of about six per cent.

How do you know that you have caught the virus? “If you have the symptoms: a fever, a dry cough, sneezing, difficulty breathing etc; “call the NCDC number” or see your doctor. Yet, if you are asymptomatic – that is, you have it without symptoms and therefore you do not know – you still can infect others!” Hence, you need to wear a nose mask to protect others, just in case you have it, whether you know or not.

Also, observe social distancing now for clarity relabelled: physical distancing. That has been defined as two metres. How can a virus be so powerful as to severely upset our social lives? That explains the widespread defiance and Nigerian psychological resistance well summed as: “Ba korona.” (There is no Corona). After two states suffered explosion of outbreak, nobody seriously needs convincing: “Zouna a gida. Korona ba wasa ba!” (Stay home. Corona is real).

The refrains will keep resonating in our heads long after: “Stay home! Stay safe! Work from home (WFH)”Digital technology to the rescue: Webinars have replaced physical meetings. It was tough getting 20 million Lagosians to stay at home, particularly those who neither can work from home nor are let out to daily fend for themselves. A wealth-health dichotomy arose. Governments and philanthropists provided palliatives for the vulnerable but not without the usual controversies. In a country with 25 per cent unemployed, mandatory staying at home stoked up vice. Thanks to community self-defence that proved a helpful deterrent. Those five weeks of lockdown proved a tough, memorable period.

Afterwards, what do you do with a lockdown? Ease it or relax it? Better, lift it! As New York Governor Andrew Cuomo puts it: “reopen the city.” While other countries progressively reopened their cities after “flattening the curve,” Nigeria eased its lockdown while ascending the cliff. Yet, the plateau is still a long way.

For a virus without an immediate cure, what can you do? The idea is to slow down the speed of the infection arising from social interaction: self-isolate, quarantine, send severe cases to an isolation centre. Nigeria in a few months ensured more than 5,300 beds in some 110 new and refurbished isolation and treatment centres dotting the country. Billions of dollars were raised in medical goods and services in a few weeks. Ventilators came from many sources. Local inventors fabricated them too. Years after, we would celebrate 2020 as the year Nigeria rose to upgrade its medical facilities like no time in many decades. Do we need to wait for an emergency?

The authorities have admitted that the state of health facilities could be much better. The amiable NCDC Director General, Dr Chikwe Ihekweazu has set a lofty target of two million tests, one per cent of the Nigerian population but has in desperation cried out: “We are desperately looking for RNA extraction kits as we expand COVID-19 testing.”

In common with epidemics such as Ebola, enhanced personal hygiene is a major weapon in the war against this deadly virus. Hence, wash your hands often, apply a sanitizer, avoid handshakes, avoid hugs and physical contacts. Speaking at close range to others or sharing breathing space is enough to transfer the virus. Hence, avoid crowds.

What has immunity got to do with COVID-19 recovery? It is widely believed that those “who have recovered from COVID-19 and have antibodies are protected from a second infection.” W.H.O. in a statement warned that “there is no such evidence” of antibodies providing an “immunity passport.” Nevertheless, those who recovered have done so courtesy of the fighting power of their immune system. Waiting for herd immunity is suicidal. The world is looking to the day a vaccine will do the job and researchers are working round the clock to record a breakthrough. Despite all the fast-tracking, it would not be later than 2021 for the most prospective. Meanwhile, W.H.O. looks to setting up a COVID-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP). The world waits patiently.

In the interim, there is no shortage of home grown solutions. The pandemic has thrown the limelight on the huge island east of Africa, Madagascar. The president has garnered goodwill and continental political mileage from its home-grown herbal remedy. COVID Organics (CVO). After many weeks of zero deaths, the country has now recorded six deaths and confirmed cases have exceeded 750. That of course, begins to raise questions on the efficacy of CVO.

It is amazing how large our vocabulary has grown in just three months. We cannot but wish away the pandemic with a few more words and expressions:
Vicious virus, invisible yet invincible:
Purveyor of disease, death, and destruction.
Enough COVID-19! Set the world free!
Eromosele wrote from Lagos.


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