BY ALEX OTTI
Where you gonna run to
You gonna run to the sea
But the sea will be boiling
You gonna run to the rocks
The rocks will be melting
You drink your big champagne
and laugh all along that day
You can run but you can’t hide
You can’t bribe no one
Them no want no money Them run’f money
That money gets funny
(Peter Tosh, 1977)
The advent of the Coronavirus seems to have forced those who would ordinarily travel out for flimsy or even no reason at all, to stay back home. Those who were abroad when the pandemic broke had to hurry home before the rest of the world shut down their borders and airspaces. The whole thing started like an innocuous affair late December 2019. Wuhan, a modern Chinese city with about 11 million inhabitants, had been hit by a strange form of pneumonia. The world started paying attention by middle of January when fatalities began increasing by the day. Initially, the Chinese were blamed for what was regarded as their local palaver through their lifestyle. Pictures of bat- and snake-eating Wuhanians, were freely and gleefully circulated all over the social media. The situation soon got out of hand as the disease spread to far flung destinations across the world. Before long, the World Health Organisation (WHO) would declare the Coronavirus outbreak, a pandemic. Today, it is the most significant phenomenon throughout the world. There have been all sorts of speculation including conspiracy theories about its true nature and source. Some people have branded it a biological or chemical warfare started by China against the whole world. Some others believe that it is an outcome of the implementation of extreme technology like the 5G or even the outcome of degradation of human immunity resulting from various hybrid experiments. An indigenous variant of these assumptions is that it is not an African disease. Several people, including some respected ‘men of God’, had at the beginning of the pandemic, boasted that it didn’t belong here. The general feeling was that the virus could not survive the heat in Africa and that our own genes were resistant to the virus.
China, on the other hand, faced the scourge with all seriousness it deserved and achieved commendable results. It implemented a strict lockdown policy and quickly contained the spread of the virus. Some other countries have followed the Chinese method with similar results. A few others, however, remained lax about it and the price has been a harvest of rampant infection and deaths. Here in Nigeria, the authorities started strict monitoring and precautionary measures after an index case was recorded in Lagos on February 27, 2020. There are a lot to learn from the outbreak of this virus and I pray that we shall take the lessons.
One of the first lessons is that the world has actually become a global village in a way different from how we understood it. For those who chose to erect physical or psychological walls, we are being taught that when disaster comes, those walls would not protect us. You may be fooled that you are protected from external attacks but the pandemic has shown that with globalization, some phenomena are no respecter of such walls. It is interesting that the US which imposed visa ban on some countries including Nigeria, a few weeks ago, is now calling for medical personnel from all countries, and I believe that includes countries affected by the ban, to come over to the US and help.
Related to this is the fact that in the final analysis, we are all human and therefore equal. The virus is simply a leveler and in a sense, the ultimate democrat and a global citizen. It is no respecter of persons. As it is ravaging the poor man, it not leaving out the rich. It is affecting the black and the white. It is affecting the republican and the democrat. It is affecting Prime Ministers, Princes, Governors, Presidents and their wives. It is affecting the driver, the cook, the house help and the security guard. The poor even seem more prepared since they had been used to dealing with challenges of diseases, hunger, poverty deprivation and even epidemics all through their lives.
This pandemic has shown that little things matter! It is so humbling that some unseen virus has the capacity to bring the entire world to its knees. While governments, particularly the Super powers, were spending heavily in defence budgets trying to outdo each other in research and development of the deadliest weapons and bombs; while they were investing in artificial intelligence, electric vehicles and automation, they spared no thought about the possibility of all those being rendered useless by one hitherto unknown virus that travels across borders without visas and passports. Since the virus struck, attention has shifted away from high tech developments and nations are fighting hard to contain the plague. Expenditure is focused on developing and manufacturing a vaccine and medication for this pandemic. It is at this point that humanity understands that in the final analysis, God remains greater than man, even for those who don’t believe in Him. It has become clearer to the nuclear powers of the world that those investments are really nothing but vanity. This Pandemic is capable of wiping out everyone without anyone shooting any bullet. It has exposed the world’s underbelly.
Somehow, everyone has now been forced to stay indoors. Those who never spent time at home; those who were hitherto seemingly too busy to be found at home; those who have many homes both on land, sea and air, are now all forced to hibernate in one of them, the land more like! Those who are infected are forced to remain in their countries. No matter how much money they have, despite their private jets and yatches, they must remain where they are diagnosed for treatment. Their influence is no longer of any consequence. Their private jets can no longer land in the healthcare capitals of the world. In fact, even those cities that made so much money from medical tourism are struggling to cope with their own nationals. They are practically overwhelmed and cannot welcome additional pressure on their overstretched capacity. Someone was lamenting the attitude of selfishness by the developed world which would make the pandemic last longer than necessary. While we have no reason to disagree, we must also refer to cabin attendants who advise aircraft passengers that in the event of loss of cabin pressure, one must fit one’s oxygen mask first before helping others. The truth is that no country, except maybe China, has been able to handle this pandemic effectively and therefore cannot be thinking of extending a hand to the challenged underdeveloped countries.
One major lesson to learn from this Pandemic is that even if out of self-interest, our leaders should fix our healthcare delivery system. This column had in the past screamed itself hoarse on the poor local healthcare delivery system, all to no avail. Available data shows that we spend over a billion dollars annually on medical tourism. We had recommended, and still do now, that investing this same amount locally in the sector, could give us some state of the art medical facility, in preparation for a day like this. No one seemed to have listened. So, the question is why are we doing this to ourselves? Studies have shown that a brand new sophisticated 500 bed hospital on a land size of 40,000 square meters that will employ between 3,000 and 5000 people will cost no more than $750m, even on a very generous budget. With free land and cheap labour, it will cost much less. So, why can’t we decide to have, at the minimum 6 medical villages deployed to the 6 geopolitical zones of the country at the cost of what we spend in three years on medical tourism? This would have the added advantage of creating up to 30,000 direct jobs, and multiples of that in indirect jobs. Besides, there is the benefit of improving our life expectancy and boosting our GDP. Had we done this years ago, we would not be in the kind of mess we find ourselves today. We are like the proverbial local bird that only begins to build its nest when it goes into labour.
We need not deceive ourselves and believe that all is going well with us in the wake of this pandemic. The truth is that we are facing a major problem and there is a reality check loading. We may be reporting low numbers of Covid 19 cases relative to other countries, but the truth is that we are not in a position to confirm our situation with any certainty, because we are unable test a significant number of our people. As at March 25, we were only able to conduct 262 tests nationwide for a population of 200m people. The reason the tests are not happening is lack of equipment to do them. Reports have it that there are only 5 molecular laboratories in the whole country. They are located as follows: 2 in Lagos and 1 each in Abuja, Osun and Edo. Two more in Ibadan and Ebonyi are being expected. Compare this to South Africa with a population of 60million people who have tested over 20,000 people with less than 1000 reporting positive and 2 deaths. We are aware that with the receipt of Jack Ma Foundation support of 20,000 test kits, 100,000 masks and 1,000 protective suites, the situation would change, but not radically. The issue of ventilators is even more worrisome. We have reports that the total number of ventilators in the country is less than 500. This is a necessary piece of medical equipment for the treatment of Covid 19. An attempt made over a week ago by the Alex Otti Foundation to buy a few units from Europe to support hospitals in Abia State, failed woefully. After paying for the ventilators, when our representative went to pick them up, the sellers offered to refund the money because their home government had asked them not sell any ventilators any longer as their own country needed them and had actually bought up all they had at obviously higher prices. This is a major challenge as countries are holding back what is in their countries. This now brings us to the issue of local production. We must find a way to encourage local capacity for a day like this. A few days ago, I engaged Chief Innocent Chukwuma of Innoson Motors who confirmed that his company has the capacity to fabricate ventilators locally. It would require modifying one of their production lines. His problem is that he is not sure of demand and would not be willing to take the risk and incur the huge expense if he does not have enough confirmed orders. Elsewhere in the United Kingdom, a company called Dyson which specialises in the manufacture of hand driers, has just been commissioned by the government to rush manufacture 10,000 units of ventilators for use in UK hospitals.
The economic cost of this virus is better imagined than experienced. We can only speculate but one thing that is certain is that it will take several years to wear off. Many countries are rolling out stimulus packages to cushion the effect of the disruption. The US Congress has just passed a $2trillion dollar package for the economy. Our own situation is even worse and indeed could further worsen unless we act fast. It must be stated that the Central Bank of Nigeria has done something that is commendable. It recently announced a stimulus package of N1trillion to support the economy. However, assuming that we share out the said sum equally, every Nigerian would get N5.00. Yes, Five Naira per person. I’m still trying to settle what N10 would do for my wife and I before the money arrives. But what can we do? Oil prices are now below $30 per barrel and there are stories of ships laden with our crude oil floating on the high seas without any buyer in sight. Even at the low price, people are not buying. Our national budget has had to be scaled down in view of the present realities. Our reserves are going down. There are scarcely new foreign investors waiting to come into the country. Exchange rates are shooting through the roof. With close to 100m of our people living by the day and below poverty line, it is doubtful that we can afford a sustained lockdown to contain the virus. Our GDP has been growing so slowly and limping behind our population growth rate. A sustained lockdown will easily fling us back into a recession. We therefore must realise that we have a very difficult situation in our hands.
This may therefore be a good time to look at our economy again. We must open up the economy to private sector initiatives. There is too much public sector presence that suffocates the private sector. This is the time to give them all the incentives to help reflate the economy. We need to immediately put more money in the hands of the people. Where is the money going to come from? Low interest rates which the CBN governor has been pushing is a good policy. That policy alone cannot cut it. Reduction in the cost of governance has become imperative. We cannot continue to ignore it. We must also deliberately identify areas of the economy that we want to promote. If we get it right, we stand the chance of turning this “apocalypse” into a blessing in disguise. If we don’t, we are sure going to end up in a crisis far worse than any economic crisis that we had witnessed in the past. Against our best wishes, we do not see that this pandemic is going to abate anytime soon. We must brace up for a crisis that will last months, if not years. If luck smiles at us and it is contained in the short term, then we must thank God.