When 34-year old ophthalmologist, Li Wenliang blew the whistle about a cluster of cases of a flu-like disease that had been treated at his Wuhan hospital in Hubei province in December, he was accused by the Chinese authorities of making false comments and disturbing the social order. It was not until January after Wuhan had been red-faced as the epicentre of the novel coronavirus epidemic that the Chinese government took the outbreak serious.
As coronavirus traversed borders, the World Health Organization began intimating the world on the virus and how we should react. At the initial stage, besides coding it COVID-19, WHO calmed global citizens and advised governments not to close borders or impose travel bans. When it crossed continents and arrived in the United States, despite just having just about a hundred cases, President Donald Trump kept on downplaying the plague, reassuring investors, businesses and workers that the Chinese virus would disappear in no time.
Was it for economic reasons or its usual dissent on contrary voices that China hushed late Dr Li and his colleagues when coronavirus just budded? Was WHO’s delay in terming it a pandemic the doctor’s way of easing the nerves of his hemorrhaging patient? Did Trump think it was fake news or was it his usual silencing of scientific research as he does with climate change? Did world leaders place the economy ahead of the health of the inhabitants? Or was there indeed no cause for alarm?
I went through this route to wedge the response of the Nigerian government (federal and state), to the pandemic. Was Nigeria prepared? Did our leaders ignore warnings? Or is it just the phony positivity leaders stage when faced with strange situations like this yet-to-be-contained COVID-19? Whatever the style of each country’s leadership, this pandemic, like other embarrassments that remain aches that won’t go away, exposed the decrepitation of the Nigerian society. After luckily escaping the Ebola scourge six years ago, a wise nation should have made structural changes to its health facilities, environment and public utilities but we have chosen to remain reprobate. It is not as if the developed nations we benchmark don’t have their issues, but they use such misfortunes, tragedies and disasters to redefine their civilizations. From the Bubonic plague to World Wars to Communism to terrorism to sporting or natural disasters, these nations do not only triumph but they continually make futuristic and sustainable changes to their societies to either forestall impending occurrences or better manage them.
Ebola, Lassa fever and other zoonotic hemorrhagic fevers that perennially beset us should have been opportunities for us fix the environment and water system. Instead, we encourage people to wash their hands with water from improvised mobile vessels that have today developed legs. How do you tell Nigerians to frequently wash their hands with running water when even government offices don’t have water and highbrow areas still purchase water from water vendors?
We know Corona, like indigenous Lassa, originates from animals nonetheless, government after government use only the ineffective moral suasion on citizens to fight it. Today they are making a show of disinfecting our townships when the cheaper and more sustainable option would have been to regularly come to collect people’s waste. Instead, the ordinary citizen is left to dispose his waste indiscriminately which in turn breeds these virus carrying rodents. So, after the world has conquered Corona, we will be left with Lassa, monkey pox and that bizarre Benue illness that is no more talked about. There is yet another pipeline explosion. Unsuspecting citizens that bought land from presumed official sources, paid regular tenement rates with official receipts to show for it and developed the community with their resources in the absence of government, will now be told by public officials they last saw during elections that their dwellings were illegal. Were these reoccurring disasters not occasions for urban planning where settlements are paved with standardized addresses attached to each apartment? Contact tracing of the over 4000 people that might have had interaction with corona positive patients would be easier had we standardized addresses.
That is why the lock down is difficult to enforce. Besides the dire economic conditions that has made subsistent Nigerians unable to live beyond a daily income, there is fear thatHunger-20 may kill more than COVID-19. Also, “essential services” can’t be formally defined. One can’t stay home when he has to fetch drinking water from commercial distributors because clean water doesn’t flow from his tap nor the borehole he drilled bring clean water from the polluted ground. The Nigerian is compelled to leave home to buy petrol to power his generator because there is no light. Meanwhile, the overstretched law enforcers need more training in handling civilians as it seems they are more interested in obeying their bosses than in protecting the society from Corona.
And talking about tracing the COVID-19 contacts, practically all of them came through the airports. If international travelers that came through highly regulated settings can’t be traced through their phone numbers, so how have we been fighting kidnapping and other security challenges? People still hawk unregistered SIM cards unchallenged in the open and you expect to trace COVID-19 contacts? By the way, what was all that 600 and something million naira spent on in preparing for Coronavirus if international passengers still walked through our sanitizer-absent airports and get missing in the labyrinth of the larger society? A serious nation should have welcomed them and isolated them straight into hotels or designated accommodations for monitoring instead of putting the self-isolation burden on the returnee.
Saddening is the fact that it appears it is the political elite that are the celebrated victims of this disease. This only unmasks the real dichotomy of the Nigerian society. Not the phantom North-South, Christian-Muslim, PDP-APC divides, but the gulf that sees some people subject to traffic laws while they siren their way through. The gulf that sees some subject to airport COVID-19 protocols while they pass through without check. The gulf that sees some not having the access to tests while they are given priority tests for the virus with the few kits available. The gulf that sees patients quarantined in government provided facilities while they either choose where they would receive preferential treatment or remain in state house to be treated but snub the self-acclaimed world class hospitals, they budgeted billions for. The gulf that sees borders closed but open for their cars to come in. It is their irresponsibility and indiscipline that has made things worse. They are now forced to by treated by doctors they don’t pay in health facilities they don’t fund.
Okunfolami writes from Lagos via