The silent foe at the door
To many Nigerians, COVID-19 remains the invincible force. Like the Ozone Layer, you know it exists, but you don’t feel it. This weekend, starting from Thursday, millions of Nigerians would troop out to attend social events, weddings, funeral services, birthdays, and others totally ignoring all warnings that COVID-19 is creeping back.
On Monday, the government of Osun State issued another warning to its citizens that COVID-19 remains a danger to public health. Casualties are being recorded. People are being hospitalized. But death and life are normal and despite the worries of Governor Gboyega Oyetola, the people of Osun State and the rest of Nigeria seem to have found their solace with the seeming ordinariness of COVID-19.
We are lucky so far or so it seems. The disease has not announced itself with the wild drama of cholera or Ebola. It does not carry the fearsome reputation of HIV or even syphilis. It is a polite disease that creeps in like malaria and then with graduation among the vulnerable, it can morph up to become something like cough, then cold, then breathing problem, and then by the time death is coming with its icy hands, the family may have given up.
Few affected families would not agree that their loved one died of COVID-19. He only had a slight illness or severe cold and everything turned dramatic and the undertakers suddenly found himself in business. A few days ago, a popular actress died in her prime. She had a large following and her sudden passage drew public sympathy and interest. Then the rumour mills started circulating that she may have died of COVID-19. The family had to come out with a disclaimer stating that she did not die of COVID-19. The truth is that she died.
Nigeria is a difficult public. The government has announced that the only antidote against COVID-19 is vaccination. Our government is not rich enough to buy enough vaccines. We do not process enough expertise yet to produce our own local COVID-19 vaccine. We rely on donations from the West through the good offices of the African Union and other international bodies. Our President, Muhammadu Buhari, our governors, and our other big men and women, showed up on television taking their COVID-19 vaccine. Yet many of our citizens, including highly educated people, continue to doubt the efficacy of science. They would rather quote the holy books and go to vigils to ward off these evils. Therefore, despite the warnings issued by Governor Oyetola, I don’t how that would affect the attitude of the people of Osun State.
The truth is that Africa does not have the resources and the mindset to confront a global pandemic. Our land is still under the pall of ignorance and superstition. How can anyone explain the emergence of the Madagascar anti-COVID-19 portion in the early days of this pandemic against all evidence that it has not passed any scientific test? Yet many Africans, including top political figures, rushed to get the concoction, paid premium price for it, only to discover it was only passably good to treat malaria.
Now the new surge in COVID-19 mutations in India and South Africa is causing panic in the West but barely rustling feathers in Africa. Our governments have tried lockdown to tackle the pandemic and suddenly they discovered they did not have the social net nor the mechanism to take care of the most vulnerable. During the last lockdown in Nigeria, consumables worth possibly billions of naira were stored in warehouses for distribution to the people. However, even before these goods were distributed, the government was forced to end the lockdown when it was leading to a general breakdown of law and order. In the aftermath of it, those warehouses were looted across the country by folks who claimed that the government had no intention of distributing the palliatives in the first instance.
After that experience, no government is talking of any palliative. Therefore, whatever ace COVID-19 may throw at us, we are most likely not to have any more lockdown. We are simply not prepared for it. There are too many Nigerians who would prefer to embrace COVID-19 than to face the possibility of a lockdown. Too many of us are involved in the day-to-day struggle for survival to worry about the lottery of death that COVID-19 represents.
Yet our government cannot leave us to our own wiles. World Health Organisation (WHO), has said the only antidote against COVID-19 now is a vaccine. WHO said only that vaccines would give people a measure of immunity against the disease. However, it does not confer absolute immunity. Those who have taken the vaccine can still be infected, but they would not show the full symptoms of COVID-19. However, they would be able to pass on to those who have not or have refused to take the jab. In the United States, most of the new infections have been of those who have refused to take the jab. They also account for the rising number of deaths.
In Nigeria, the statistics are not so robust. We have been told that less than 3000 Nigerians have died so far from COVID-19. That is less than what the Boko Haram terrorists would harvest in a few months. Yet there is an aching suspicion that something is wrong with that statistics and that the COVID-19 pandemic may be more devastating than we thought. Indeed, it is almost certain that this disease is making a good harvest and it may get more devastating in the nearest future if care is not taken.
What is to be done?
Another lockdown is going to be difficult, if not impossible. The government and our society do not have the wherewithal to manage a nationwide lockdown. It would attract hostilities from fun-loving Nigerians and God-fearing religionists who are convinced that God is a Nigerian and He would somehow take care of COVID-19. The only option left is for the government to encourage and even enforce vaccination.
We need a more rigorous campaign about vaccination. In Lagos, vaccination is done through primary health centres. I got mine at the Rauf Aregbesola Health Centre in Alimosho. This is not enough. Trusted private institutions and facilities should also be involved. Teaching Hospitals of private universities and top-flight private hospitals should also be designated vaccination centres. In Ado, the capital of Ekiti State, I don’t know of any medical institution that is better trusted than the Afe Babalola University Teaching Hospital, ABUADTH which now has a catholic reputation for excellence. Such institution needs to be vaccination centres.
President Buhari should direct this new campaign to involve private institutions. First many of the private institutions are better trusted than the government-controlled ones. Second, these private medical institutions don’t go on strike. What Buhari and the governors should ensure is the source of the vaccine so that we don’t end up with killer vaccines. The COVID-19 pandemic is not a polite affliction. We have to confront it with diligent strategy and a persistent and unblinking war of attrition. This is a winnable war, but we have to understand it may be a long-drawn war.
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