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What a year!

By Ray Ekpu
29 December 2020   |   3:09 am
There is a yearly ritual that precedes the death of an old year and the birth of a new one. We gather at homes, offices, and faith-based places and pray for the New Year to be a better one for us than the year

There is a yearly ritual that precedes the death of an old year and the birth of a new one. We gather at homes, offices and faith-based places and pray for the New Year to be a better one for us than the year that is about to fade away. But no year is ever a totally bad or a totally good year for anybody. Some people experience tons of goodness and therefore wish that the year should not come to a close. That is like having a good dream and not wanting it to end so that the good dream does not vaporise into just that: a dream.

Others have an awfully bad year and they feel obliged to gather around with friends and family and pronounce curses on that year in addition to asking the New Year to favour them with abundant blessings. As the year 2019 was coming to an end many of us must have wished that the New Year 2020 should treat us with even-handedness because it was going to be an even year. We did not ask for oddity. We asked that we would grow in leaps and bounds; we asked the New Year to put on its charm offensive and make us happy as individuals and as a country. That must have been the theme of crossover gatherings on December 31, 2019.

It is evident by the gift of hindsight that we were labouring under the delusion that the year 2020 would be good to us and would treat us kindly. Little did we know that something strange was cooking in a far-flung place called Wuhan in China, a country with which we had just started an economic romance. Before then we were basically happy to take some loved ones or someone special to one of the Chinese restaurants that dot our urban space. Whether or not we knew how to use the chopstick it didn’t matter. To dine in a Chinese restaurant in Nigeria has always been something special for Nigeria’s urban elite. Then wham, what came out of China took our confidence, our global confidence, away.

First we knew its name to be coronavirus. As we were about getting used to that name the World Health Organisation (WHO) gave it a technical name, COVID-19. The change of name meant no difference. The pandemic by whatever name it was called was vicious enough to make us forget even our own names. It looked like we were all shipwrecked in the middle of an ocean. We didn’t sink but there was the grim possibility that we could sink. We didn’t swim because we didn’t know how to swim. Even if we knew what would we do about the sharks in the water? We didn’t know what to do to help ourselves. We were looking for help from science; whether it would come to our help quickly or at all we didn’t know. The scientists only told us something that didn’t look like science at all: wear a face mask; we said, isn’t that what robbers used to wear in the past and the Department of State Servicemen on illegal duty also did so at the National Assembly and got their fingers burnt?

Next, they told us to wash one hand and we said, isn’t that what we have been doing all our lives. Then they told us, to keep our distance. We asked ourselves, how we could do that in crowded buses with 30 people sitting and 60 standing or in schools and markets and churches and mosques and football stadia. And then they told us not to shake hands with or hug anyone; we knew that conviviality and romance were about to take a beating. They had come to grief. And Nigerians love back-slapping, flesh-pumping and hugging and touching and this directive was likely to drain the life out of their passion.

All of these directives seemed to be the only option available to the world. The world imposed a new and demanding lifestyle that restricted and stifled our moods and manners, hampered our means of livelihood and imposed an artificial culture for the living and the dead. Offices, schools, churches, mosques, bars, restaurants, night clubs and stadia were all to be shut. Everywhere was empty, emptied. So were our lives. We lived like zombies; like people without a purpose; our plans were put on hold; no new plans could be made except plans on how to live from hour to hour, from day to day, how to help our loved ones to stay safe and to survive the slings and arrows of an undecipherable pandemic. All sorts of businesses were put in the cooler. The only business that bothered mankind was the business of survival. The economy was grounded. All projections turned into sterile speculations. Only food vendors, medicine sellers, banks and telecommunications companies were doing brisk business, cheating and extorting money from their unhappy patrons. Orders were being issued from the centre and the states, some of which ended in conflicts, which underlined the dysfunctionality of our type of federalism.

Both the rich and the poor fell daily to the heavy artillery of the pandemic, dying like chicken, buried like paupers and leaving their relations with the company of uncertainty. We lost, in particular, some rich and influential Nigerians. If money was the issue they would have survived. If influence was the solution they would have peddled it and survived. But COVID-19 is a leveller. That is why they died. People had dead bodies they could not bury not because they did not want to bury them but because they were not allowed to bury them for reasons of contagion. And when they had the opportunity to bury them they were given a long list of commandments on the rites of passage. The list would specify how to do it, where to do it, how many mourners would mourn the dead. And in all of these the oldies were told to keep their distance because as stated by the WHO the pandemic affects older people more. The younger people mistook this advisory for a licence to violate the rules and WHO promptly told them “don’t rejoice, you are not invincible.” And then a huge protest that ended in massive destruction of lives and property brought us face to face with hell.

All was not grim. There was some advantage to this adversity. You may call it cold comfort but it was there. Philanthropy was given a shot in the arm. It was an inoculation of Good Samaritanism, the vaccine of hope at a period of hopelessness. Old and young, men and women and corporate organisations revived the ennobling spirit of old-fashioned philanthropy and gave and gave to the needy. Our education at some levels benefitted from the gift of e-learning, which is already part of the appurtenances of education abroad. The hope is that this gain will be a permanent part of our teaching and learning procedure, going forward. Of course, there were unanticipated consequences of the lockdown in our communities: an increase in crime, rise in rape and domestic violence. And this is no doomsaying: there will be a baby boom next year because a lot must have happened this year behind locked doors during the lockdown.

As the year is running to the cross-over line we have had the happy news of the long-awaited vaccine being dispensed to people in various parts of the world. Half a dozen companies are marketing theirs and we are told that by the end of January 2021 the vaccines will get to Nigeria. Our government plans to spend N400 billion for the purchase of the vaccines. That may not be adequate for our population that is estimated to be about 211 million now. But it is a good starting point. The other point to worry about is storage. The vaccines must be stored at a temperature of -70 centigrade. Do we have the facilities for keeping the vaccines at that level in the four designated centres in the country? The centres are Abuja, Lagos, Enugu and Kaduna. How will the rest of the country be covered? For the medical community, the real work to save more lives is about to begin.

We may draw an artificial line in our heads that the year 2020 will be over in a couple of days and that very soon we will be saying to each other “Happy New Year” in the hope that the New Year will be a truly happy one for us. But in truth, this year will not be over soon because the troubles it brought for mankind will remain with us for a while more. So the New Year is not going to be really new. We may write a new date on our cheque books, our letters and memos but the old year will still wear its old clothes and carry its spear into the New Year while we wait for science to get to our door. To reduce our dissonance we can tell ourselves that with the availability of the vaccine now there is light at the end of the tunnel. Still, we don’t have to drop our guards because, who knows, the light at the end of the tunnel may be an oncoming train.

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