Coronavirus and Common Humanity



The public health emergency posed by the scary spread of coronavirus is another chilling reminder of the often ignored primacy of our common humanity.
Only two days ago, the Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, was reported at the headquarters of the organisation in Geneva, Switzerland, to have put the picture of things this way:

“Now that the virus has a foothold in so many countries, the threat of a pandemic has become very real.”
Now, the WHO definition of a pandemic is “a worldwide spread of a new disease.”

Indeed, the projection from Geneva is grim. But, with the over 110,000 cases and the spread in more than 100 countries, Ghebreyesus, the Ethiopian scholar who is the first African to head WHO, can hardly be accused of sounding alarmist in the circumstance.
To be sure, Ghebreyesus is generally perceived to be doing a good job of coordinating the global efforts to control the coronavirus disease.

In any case, the good news, according to Ghebreyesus, is also this: “It would be the first pandemic in history that could be controlled. The bottom line is we are not at the mercy of the virus.”
The logic of a pandemic is that the disease is a threat to “all the people” as the Greek origin of the word suggests.

While the news from China, the epicentre of the coronavirus disaster, is that the virus seems to be slowing in the largest country, the spread of the disease is actually picking up elsewhere. The whole of Italy in on lockdown. Italy and Iran have each reported more than 7, 000 cases. China, South Korea, Italy and Iran account for 93% coronavirus cases so far reported globally.

The impact of the virus on the economies of these countries that are more developed than Nigeria is quite evident.
Critical observers have blamed some of them for the level of preparedness and the effectiveness of the response as the economy and society of each country get threatened by the spread of the virus.

The epidemic is also said to be causing the American economic system a stress for the first time since the 2008 financial crisis. Following reports of 29 deaths out of about 800 reported cases, an American observer has described this coronavirus moment in the U.S. as being akin to “ swimming naked’ while the “tide has just gone out.’’

The observer is, of course, referring to the enormous impact of the spread of the virus on supply chains, travels and tourism. It has been described as the severest stress on the financial system in 11 years. Conferences are being cancelled. Schools are shut. Productive activities are disrupted. With the restriction of movements in some states workers cannot report for duty.

Top hospitals in the U.S. are gearing up for the outbreak of the disease in different areas as difficult times are envisaged. The State of Massachusetts declared a state of emergency yesterday as the number of ”presumptive cases ‘” in the state rose to 92. Rhode Island had declared a state of emergency a day earlier with many events cancelled in the state. Added to the gloomy picture are the reported cases of “community transmission,” in parts of the U.S. These are cases not traceable to those who have travelled to countries where coronavirus disease has been reported.

As a result of the spread of the virus in the U.S. President Donald Trump may be facing one the worst crises since he got to White House. Vice President Mike has been put in charge of tackling the problem. The president is, however, optimistic that the virus “will go away.”
The American president is working on an economic stimulus package which he hopes to negotiate with the congress. Among the measures are payroll tax cut and a law to protect hourly wage workers and support to those in hospitality business.

Meanwhile, pundits are busy building scenarios – bankruptcies, job losses and a possible economic recession.
The logic of Trump’s response is that of state intervention in a moment of crisis. That is central to the business of governance. He is considering how the more vulnerable members of the society and the most adversely affected sectors of the economy could be assisted in recovering from the crisis. Coronavirus is proving to the chief priest of the “America First” religion that America, in fact, shares common humanity interests with other countries including China. In the eyes of T rump China is that economic rival that should be contained by all means. But it is the spread of a virus that should rather be contained at this time and not any country.

In fact, some media reports have suggested that even the American President himself might need to be tested for the virus having being in contact with some congressmen who are have isolated themselves as precautionary measures against the spread of the disease in the U.S.
The British health minister, Nadine Dorries, is in self-solation having tested positive to the virus.

The point at issue is this: the outbreak of a disease reported in China a few months ago is already triggering socio- economic crisis in America, Europe, Africa and Asia. There is indeed something common about humanity!
In rich and poor countries alike the public health crisis generated by the coronavirus is turning into economic crisis. Globally, this crisis should again temper the isolationist and separatist impulse to downplay the commonality of interests of mankind. The crisis also teaches a sobering lesson about the essence of cooperation.

In terms of the imperative of cooperation and human solidarity the coronavirus disease is like the previous Public Health Emergencies of International Concerns (PHEICs), environment, insecurity, disasters etc. These crises would not be solved by nations indulging in narrow economic calculus in order to “compete more effectively” and injure the interests of others. More often than not these crises constitute a proof that all nations are actually in the same boat. The fate of mankind as a whole would be determined by those forces which require more of international cooperation than isolated and antagonistic actions in different locales.

Before the discontents of globalisation became manifest, capitalists only talked about the movement of capital, commodities and expansion of markets. The movement of human beings across national borders was not considered a central part of globalisation. That’s why whole countries are merely referred to as “emerging markets.” But these are actually societies whose members have basic needs that should be met as a condition for human progress.

To prevent the movement of people like the movement of capital, walls are being erected by the right-wing populists. With Trump in America, Brexit in the UK and the populist surge in other parts the of Europe an anti-immigrant ferment is prevalent.
Despite this trend, human beings are bound to move across the borders with all the varied implications. The inevitable movement of human beings across borders is now spreading the virus. Yet, mankind will always have commonality of interests that should engender cooperation rather than adversarial tendencies.

Another thing that the coronavirus crisis has demonstrated is that every nation needs a government that has the capacity to govern. When the chips are down it’s to the government everybody turns for leadership. And it is the duty of the leadership to give a direction in moments of crisis. China is doing that with the efforts to slow down the spread of the coronavirus disease. A huge hospital with hundreds of beds was built in matters of days to manage things in the course of the emergency.

Public sector institutions should be made strong to respond to emergencies. The capacity to respond to this type of emergency is, of course, determined by the cumulative investments in the social sector. In this particular situation, the ability of a country to respond effectively would be partly determined by the capacity of the healthcare delivery system and the effectiveness of health policies.

After all, experts say that some medical conditions, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes and respiratory disease could put people at a higher risk for death. The existing healthcare for the elderly could aIso be a factor. For instance, in China the death rates among people over 80 is reported to be highest at over 20%.

There is the legitimate anxiety in many quarters that if richer and more developed countries appear ravaged by the disease , poorer countries such as Nigeria should take things more seriously as part of the common humanity. With only two reported cases Nigeria may still be considered lucky compared to countries with thousands of cases. However, luck alone may not be enough this time round.

In the global chain of the direly needed resistance to the looming pandemic , the poor countries could constitute the weakest links.
Nigeria must be prepared to improve on its widely acknowledged performance during the Ebola crisis. Those things that that were done right should be done better this time round especially the management of information and the sensitisation of the public to take precautionary steps against the disease. Lessons should also be learnt from the errors of the past.

For instance, in social and political terms, there must be unity of purpose is seeing the public health crisis as a common enemy. The commonality of purpose should always be in focus. The virus doesn’t distinguish between the supporter of the government and a member of the opposition. Take the example of Italy. In imposing a lockdown on the country, there is no distinction between the north and south of the country. The disease is no respecter of east-west boundaries.

The economic consequences of the public health challenge may even be more devastating for the poor countries. Worse still, the coronavirus crisis is happening amidst a plunge in oil prices.
In this respect, Nigeria should maintain the synergy of purpose with WHO and other countries as it girds its loins for the eventuality of the pandemic projected by Ghebreyesus.

Remembering an Optimist

By Issa Aremu

Tomorrow in Abuja a memorial will hold for the late Björn Beckman, (BB), the celebrated Swedish (sorry, African-Swedish!) radical political economist. He was laid to eternal rest on the December 6 last year exactly a month he passed away on November 6, 2019 in Stockholm, Sweden, his home country.

He died at 81 years.
Beckman was a member of the Political Science teaching staff at the Ahmadu Bello University, Samaru Zaria in the eighties.
I read Economics, having completed preliminary students at the School of Basic studies (SBS) in 1977/1978. The then Faculty of Arts and Social Science ( FASS) was a centre of radical political economy oriented scholarship.

All students of social sciences and arts were positively impacted upon by the critical thoughts of star Marxist scholars like BB, the late Dr Bala Usman, Professor A D Yahaya, Professor Yusuf Bangura, Dr Metuge, Professor Mike Kwaneshe, Professor Patrick Wilmot and Professor Akin Fadahunsi among others. Certainly tomorrow’s memorial would raise the nostalgia of the robust battle of ideological ideas in the 80s, the anti-climax being the 1983 Karl Marx Centenary Conférence. The late Professor Claude Ake of University of Port Harcourt was a great African scholar of Marxist persuasion. He died on November 7th, in the tragic ADC airline disaster in 1997. Ake just like BB nurtured our fertile intellectual minds in the late 70s as undergraduates of social science with indelible intellectual legacy on African development studies. The amazing intellectual outputs of BB with his numerous collaborative comrades, elevated and popularised political economy as tool for understanding Africa development process just as Ake did.

Africa is in profound despair caused by the entrenched pessimism (or is it cynicism?) that the continent cannot take-off not to talk of catching up. Nigeria and (indeed Africa) has almost been declared literarily a failed state/continent.

John Campbell was a former US ambassador to Nigeria between 2004 and 2007. He wrote a book entitled Nigeria: Dancing On the Brink in 2010. He almost predicted that Nigeria would not survive 2011 elections in Nigeria. BB’s works radically are upbeat and optimistic about prospects of Africa’s development either through the capitalist way or his favored and preferred socialist development. In BB, Africa lost an enthusiastic and passionate scholar about the prospects of development and transformation, unionization and workers’ rights, industrialization, decent jobs creation, poverty eradication and popular democracy. The amazing intellectual outputs of BB and his numerous collaborative comrades, elevated and popularised political economy of Marxist bent as a tool for understanding Africa development process.

Goal 17 of the new United Nations Sustainable Development Goals ( SDGs) 2030 emphasizes partnership as a critical success factor to promote development and eradicate poverty. Very few global scholars had actually practised remarkable partnership in scholarship in understanding Africa’s development as Björn Beckman did. He was at home in selfless collaborative intellectual work with others in understanding our world.

Two of Beckman’s works always capture my imagination: Wheat Trap: Bread and Underdevelopment in Nigeria, originally published in 1985 and reprinted in 1989, Union Power in the Nigerian Textile Industry: Labour Regime and Adjustment (1998). The two works were in collaboration with his comrade wife, Gunilla Andre.

The textile union is indebted to the authors for the couple’s critical studies of the first generation import substitution industry, although in their humility and modesty they extended same appreciation for the union’s cooperation for the seminal studies. The 300- page book of 14 chapters documents the growth and development of textile industry as well as textile union, an affiliate of Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC.
Beckman and Andrea brought out refreshing original findings and conclusions about “NUTGTWN: it’s experiences, problems and achievements”. The two-decade long (70s and 90s) covers the period of “Dramatic change” in Nigeria involving boom, burst and IMF/World Bank inspired adjustment programmes From the rather “small picture of union power in textile industry, the author presents us with the biggest pictures of issues industrialization, production processes, conflict resolution and mediation, power relations between the state and civil society etc. The finding is that in the textile industry, a “union based labour regime” characterised by domination and contestation is entrenched.

The submission is that even in the condition of economic crisis, there has been “expansion” rather than “contraction” of union power in the textile industry: work place, constitutional regulation of conflict and legality had replaced hitherto arbitrariness of employers.
The key player in this documented story is Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, who in their words as a “ resourceful General Secretary” reinforced the “unmistakable organisational self- confidence” of the union “with his dynamic leadership”.

Drawing a bigger picture from this, the authors observed that the emergence of union power reflects the capability of Nigeria’s society to manage conflicts through contestation and consensus building, representation and mediation as well as contribution to the ‘democratic reconstitution of the state’.

Judging by the ways NUTGTWN had inadvertently compelled recalcitrant companies to adjust, the authors argue and convincingly too that “union-based regime is consistent with modernisation of Nigeria’s substantial textile industry, making it more productive and competitive.”
Blessed are the dead for they shall no more be suspected of our current failings.

Gunilla and BB took case studies of six textile mills in Kano and Kaduna. The oldest mill, Kaduna Textile industry limited, where the story of “how it all began in 1984 shut down in May 2002! What the late Premier Ahmadu Bello nurtured and expanded out of nothing is yet to be revived by 19 Northern states governors. Only United Nigeria Textile Limited (UNTL ) and Chellco in Kaduna are operating today in Kaduna. In 2007, UNTL in Kaduna with direct 5000 jobs actually shut down. It only reopened in 2010 but far from its capacity utilization of the 80s and 90s when BB and Gunilla did their studies. It employs less than 2000 today.

The three Kano factories, Bagauda, Gaskiya and NTM are shut down. In 1986, when the union power study commenced, Textile union lost 20000 members from 70,000 to 50,000. Today paid up union membership is just 10,000. BB’s analysis of union power could only have taken place when Textile industry was thriving. Of course there had always been “crisis before the crisis”:, smuggling and foreign exchange crisis which undermined industry’s competitiveness in the 80s. But the whole sale massive closures of textile mills have greatly weakened union power. No thanks to persistent power failure, massive dumping of Textile materials from China, product counterfeiting, inconsistent industrial policies and shortage of basic raw materials like cotton.

The renewed interest of President Buhari in reviving Textile Industry further points to union power in advocacy. The industry ( whether it is 1.0 or 4.0) industry-remains the key driver of sustainable jobs and development for most national economies of developing nations.
Indeed for Nigeria and Africa to meet the Sustainable Development Goal 2030, especially SDG 9 dealing with industry and innovation.
Africa must copy China’s industrialization drive which has within 20 years moved over 250 million people out of poverty through manufacturing, beneficiation and industrialization.
The best tribute to BB will be to revive the industry which once served as a case study that African industrialization was possible.

*Issa Aremu, Member, National Institute and General Secretary, National Union of Textile and Garment Workers of Nigeria Kaduna.