COVID-19 Pandemic and Global Counter-measures: Matters Arising and Foreign Policy Implications

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Geoffrey-Onyeama

By Bola A. Akinterinwa

COVID-19 is the new name given by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to Coronavirus, the newest threat to the maintenance of global peace and security. The manifestations of the threat have remained the same worldwide: sneezing, coughing, high temperature, and ultimately, death in many cases. However, in terms of strategies of containment of the threat, they have varied from one country to the other, but the strategic objective is common, which is to prevent the spread of the threat, and eventually nip it in the bud.

In Nigeria, for instance, the strategy of containment is at two levels: external and internal. At the external level, it seeks, on the one hand, to prevent new carriers of coronavirus arriving the country by banning some flights into Nigeria, as well as eventually closing all borders, on the other hand. The Government directed that all returnees from countries infected by the coronavirus should engage in self-isolation for two weeks. Also at the external level, the Government of Nigeria solicited international help, on the basis of which the Beijing authorities would assist by supplying vaccines, the controversial story is raised hereinafter.

At the domestic level, the containment strategy has been more interesting. Several official engagements have been suspended. The judiciary decided to go on break for two weeks and so have the members of the National Assembly. The meetings of the Federal Executive Council have been suspended. And perhaps more disturbingly, civil and public servants, below the grade level of 12, have been directed to work from home where it is possible.

As instructed by the Head of Service of the Federation, Dr. Fola Femi-Esan, ‘all non-essential public servants on grade level 12 and below are to stay and work from home with effect from Tuesday, March 24, until further notice.’ Additionally in this regard, ‘all other categories of officers who will be at work, are strongly advised to limit the number of visitors they receive to the barest minimum. This is to reduce physical contact as much as possible.

The private sector is not spared at all. Private businesses that are not considered essential, have voluntarily or otherwise been closed. Some banks have been closed, So have markets been selectively closed. Tertiary institutions, schools, either privately or publicly owned, are currently under closure. Some airlines (Arik, Air Peace, Azman, Dana, and Max Air), suspended their local flights on Friday, March 27, 2020. As noted earlier, the objective of all these measures is to assist in the prevention of the spread of the virus, to mitigate the effect, and make it easier for Government to ultimately control the deadly coronavirus.

What is useful to note is that the Government of Nigeria does not have the means of its own to combat the virus beyond efforts at preventing its spread. Even at the international level, only prescriptive measures have been suggested. For instance, the UNICEF and the WHO have adopted the strategy of general public enlightenment on the nature of coronavirus and on what is doable to mitigate its effect, if not completely nip it in the bud.

The UNICEF has it that, when COVID-12 falls on a metal surface, it can only survive for twelve hours, and therefore, it prescribes that washing hands with water and soap regularly can be a solution. When the virus falls on one’s hands, it cannot live for more than ten minutes, meaning that if one has an alcohol-based sanitiser in one’s pocket, the solution, again, may not be far-fetched. The UNICEF also has it that gargling with warm water and salt water kills the tonsits germs, as well as prevents them from leaking into the lungs.

And more interestingly, the UNICEF also says that if the coronavirus falls on fabrics, it can remain there for nine hours. It therefore requires the washing of cloths or self-exposure to the sun for two hours to have the virus killed. If the virus is also exposed to a temperature of 26-27 degrees centigrade, the virus would surely be killed. Drinking hot water and exposure to the sun is what is recommended.

In fact, many are the suggested solutions variously suggested by private individuals and medical professionals. It has also been suggested that boiling the cover of oranges, with onion and salt, etc, and then bowing down to inhale the steam there from, will also kill the virus. True, there are many trending solutions, but the threat is still seriously ravaging the whole world to the extent that thought-provoking questions and matters now have to be raised, not only in seeking to understand the nature of the virus, but also in understanding what the future holds for humanity, especially in terms of the global politics of its containment.

International Matters Arising
The first international issue to address is the stay-at-home order given by sovereign governments and the refusal of their people to comply with the order, thus raising a conflict between governmental authority and individual right of movement. It is a conflict between the need for collective security and survival, on the one hand, and assertion of individual’s security and survival, on the other. Government is trying to protect the collective interest, while those refusing to comply with the stay-at-home order are seeking to protect selfish, limited interests. Which should be given priority of choice?

Without doubt, in an attempt to contain the coronavirus pandemic, some countries came up with the policy of stay-at-home. In the United Kingdom, for instance, some people, numbering about 1.5 million, who have been identified by the National Health Service as most likely to have a higher risk of severe illness should they contract the coronavirus, are strongly advised to stay in door. In this category are people that had received organ transplants, those already living with severe respiratory conditions or specific cancers. They are advised to stay at home for, at least, twelve weeks.

The stay-at-home order in Italy and France are more interesting. Many people in the two countries hid under the umbrella of freedom of choice to stay at home. They believed in the freedom of movement. They did not comply with the stay-at-home order. The implication in Italy is that Italy is currently leading the world in terms of the number of casualties. The situation is so critical to the extent that the Italian Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, has to settle for divine intervention.

As the Prime Minister put it, ‘it is the most difficult crisis in our post-war period.’ And true enough, as at March 21, 2020 Italy had recorded 793 more deaths to reach a death total of 4,825. According to the Johns Hopkins University, 13,000 people have died out of the 304,500 people diagnosed with the coronavirus infection. The way forward for Prime Minister Conte is now to plead with God to intervene, arguing that what is humanly possible had been done, but all to no avail. Everyone is therefore waiting for God’s intervention.

The case of France is equally noteworthy. France is on record to have registered 112 coronavirus deaths in one single day and thus taking its total number of death to 562. There are 14,459 coronavirus confirmed cases in France. 1,525 out of the 6,172 infected people in the hospital are in severe condition. It was in light of the gravity of this problem that the French president, Mr. Emmanuel Macron, had to give the stay-at-home order.

On March 12, 2020, he appealed to all the French people to have ‘individual and collective discipline,’ but the French did not heed his call. As noted by The Economist of March 19th, 2020, many French people ‘spent a rather sunny early spring weekend, wandering around parks with friends and shopping in crowded street markets.’

This factor of non-compliance compelled President Macron to direct on March 17, 2020 that whoever is leaving home should be in possession of an attestation, be it hand-written or type-written, or printed out from the Interior Ministry’s website, that they were on essential business, shopping for food or basic necessities. The point being underscored from the foregoing is that, grosso modo, there is always the tendency by a few individuals to impose their limited and selfish interests on collective interest. Some churches in Nigeria openly and consciously admitted that they did not comply with the government’s stay-at-home order because they are heavenly protected. We all know that it is not because they are heavenly protected that congregants are encouraged to defy the order, but essentially because of monies to be contributed to the church. This is the bitter truth. Italians who took such stay-at-home order for granted are already taking the bitter pills as a result. Government must therefore be more strict in enforcing compliance with the stay-at-home order until there is an enduring solution to the pandemic.

A second international matter is how presidential leadership should be manifested in the war against coronavirus. In general practice, presidents, especially of the leading and powerful countries, have always come out in person to give regular update on the various efforts of their governments in battling the disease. They always take advantage of the opportunity to also assure and reassure the people of their safety. They allay their fears.

In the context of Nigeria, for example, President Muhammadu Buhari has not for once come into the open to address the nation on the critical pandemic. As explained by the presidential spokesman, Mr. Femi Adesina, ‘the style our President has adopted is to set up a Presidential Task Force headed by the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF) which (sic) briefs regularly.’ More important, Mr. Adesina has it further that ‘you have the Minister of Health who briefs, you have the Minister of State for Health who briefs, you have the NCDC who briefs, so you have that chain and there is no lack of information.’

What should be asked here is why is Nigeria’s case always different from that of international practice? Mr. Adesina readily gives ‘idiosyncratic’, factor as an answer. True, there is no disputing the psychology of human differences in attitudinal disposition. However, what Mr. Adesina is not able to understand is probably why Nigerians are asking PMB to provide visible leadership by example as it is done in other more advanced countries. Many Nigerians raise issues of whether PMB still has the intellectual capacity and physical fitness to provide leadership of the country. In fact, many do not believe that PMB is truly in charge of political governance of the country, hence, they want to see him perform life. This is why the technical arguments of Mr. Adesina appears to be missing the expectation of the people.

And without any jot of doubt, the foreign policy implication cannot but be that a very wrong perception of PMB will be developed. Diplomatic agents are readily available to note the people’s observations in relation to whatever government spokesperson may want to give in response. What the general practice is internationally, is that leaders kick-start with messages of re-assurance of good hope and then allow the ministers to do the rest. PMB’s style of keeping quiet or simply delegating authority and not being able to speak publicly for once is nothing more than an infliction of self-injury and perception of incapability.

It is therefore partially gratifying that, on Friday, March 27, 2020, PMB made it clear that he had received extensive briefings on the state of the nation as it relates to COVID-19 pandemic from the relevant Federal Government Agencies and also from the Lagos State Government. He informed that he had approved the immediate release of N10 billion grant to Lagos State, being the epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak. He also informed that he had approved N5 billion special intervention fund for the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) to enable it equip, expand and provide personnel to its facilities and laboratories.

In addition, he reminded that he had authorised the closure of both the air and land borders for four weeks in the first instance, noting that only cargo vessels that have been at sea for more than 14 days would be allowed to dock after the crew might have been tested and confirmed disease-free by the Port Health Authorities. And more significantly, PMB said the Nigerian Air Force are conducting evacuation mission to bring back some of our specialists in Central Africa to enable them also impact on national response to the pandemic. He had not only directed the Minister of Industry, Trade and Investment to work with the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria to ensure unhindered production of essential items, such as food, medical and pharmaceutical products, but also pleaded with all Nigerians to strictly obey all public health guidelines as may be given by the federal or state government. This particular plea is the most significant of the whole briefing. This is where the manifestation of leadership of the country lies. A minister cannot be appealing on behalf of the president and expect the people to take the plea very seriously.

A third issue is the consideration of coronavirus as a possible bio-attack and a transnational test of a biological weapon. Besides, the whole story of coronavirus is seen as nothing more than an anti-American strategy to undermine the survival of the United States. Coronavirus is seen as a war strategy and an anti-America in design.
In this context, a pastor of the SC4 Family, a church in the United States, told his congregants, last week, never to take any anti-coronavirus vaccine, because the vaccine itself contains coronavirus. Rather than taking any vaccine to be offered, they should simply take other remedies for flu, or try to rest. He gave the warning on the basis of an alleged forty years of experience in intelligence gathering made available to him by some of his informants, who are people with relevant knowledge of the pandemic.

According to the pastor, the Americans are in the middle of a revolution, started by 200 army generals. The intention is to defend America and say enough is enough to the terrorisation of America. This decision was prompted by the September 9, 2001 incident. In the thinking of the pastor, the Chinese came up with 5G technology and want to make people have flu-like symptoms. They wanted President Donald Trump to engage everyone in going for test but Donald Trump has refused, accepting only to monitor the developments for the time being.

There is also the recent reported three separate cases by the US Department of Justice of economic espionage by China and theft of US technological knowledge. The first is the arrest of a leading American scientist and professor, Dr. Charles M. Lieberman, who was born on April 9, 1959 and is, until his arrest, the chairman of the chemistry and chemical biology department at the Harvard University. He has been charged for trading knowledge for money and lying about it. He allegedly set up laboratories in China ‘in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments from the Chinese government and then denied knowledge of those payments.’

The second case is that of a Chinese-American, Hongjie Dai, born on May 2, 1966, a Professor of Chemistry at the Stanford University, who also has Professor Charles Lieber as his academic advisor. He has been accused of not informing the US authorities of belonging to the People’s Liberation Army. He is therefore believed to be leaking information to China. The third case is that of another Chinese-American scientific researcher, Yanqing Ye, working on cancer and who reportedly has tried to smuggle files on biological materials to China. Ye reportedly ‘falsely identified herself as a student and lied about her ongoing military service at the National University of Defense Technology.’ The three of them have been charged to court.

According to the US government, the Chinese are trying to take advantage of US technological findings for their own use, and therefore, the Chinese constitute the first and greatest counter-intelligence threat to the United States. In the viewpoint of experts, the evaluation is different. Pierre Azoulay, an MIT economist working on scientific productivity, has it that ‘PhD students in chemistry from China produce a significantly higher volume of scientific output, while doing their doctorates in the United States than chemistry students from elsewhere, according to a study of some 16,000 PhDs at 161 American universities published in the Review of Economics and Statistics in 2013. As Azoulay further put it, ‘if more-mediocre American graduates get to PhDs at Harvard, instead of the brightest Chinese students, that’s a gigantic act of self-harm.’ This observation simply suggests that the Chinese are doing well in the United States. And if we admit of the observation and its interpretation, some questions can then be asked: have the three foregoing accused scholars contributed to the making of the coronavirus saga? How will the issue of coronavirus shape the deepening ties between Washington and Beijing? Will there not be in the near future coronavirus-based biological weapons? We ask these questions because, as it is today, coronavirus might have been a resultant of a conscious or inadvertent error of procedure in the biological weapon research efforts.

The fourth issue is the security surveillance of the individual in the foreseeable future, thanks to the use of mobile telephones. Currently, a holder of any mobile telephone can be easily monitored and located. Satellite monitoring or surveillance is the current practice. With the possible development of coronavirus as a potential weapon of mass destruction, though internationally prohibited, any person can be targeted and recklessly killed. The case of COVID-19 is a pointer to a more dangerous world in the making, caution must be taken.

The Foreign Policy Implications
COVID-19 is more than a pandemic as it has many foreign policy tentacles. It has become the object and subject of special research, development aid, and an instrument of foreign policy. For instance, an Air France/KLM aircraft arrived Lagos Nigeria on Thursday, March 26 to evacuate Europeans in Nigeria. According to Air France, ‘due to COVID-19, Air France is doing all it can to ensure French and European nationals currently abroad can return home.’ It is also on the basis of COVID-19 that the Chinese Jack Ma Foundation donated 107 boxes of surgical masks, medical disposable protective clothing, face shield and detection kits to the Government of Nigeria. COVID-19 compelled Government to find money that was not available to treat COVID-19 victims at home. At least, not less than N15 billion has been disbursed. COVID-19 does not allow for self-treatment abroad. Whether lessons would be learnt from this, by beginning to think of a world class general and specialist hospitals in Nigeria, is a mute question. But for sure, Nigeria is a country where honesty of purpose is always frustrated, dint of hard work is combated, and patriotism is vehemently fought on the altar of ethnic chauvinism and political chicanery.

Without any shadow of doubt, COVID-19 has a transnational character, and therefore, it cannot be contained on the basis of unilateral fiat. Multilateral cooperation is always required in the containment and management of epidemics and pandemics. COVID-19 is also an instrument of international power rivalry that Nigeria’s policy makers must also address in their own strategic calculations. In the thinking of the Americans, Russians want to have the power of control but the Chinese want to own the power. What is the portion of the Americans in this case? The politics of COVID-19 is left to decide.