The Verdict By Olusegun Adeniyi, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
“Social distancing is a privilege. It means you live in a house large enough to practise it. Hand washing is a privilege too. It means you have access to running water. Hand sanitisers are a privilege. It means you have money to buy them. Lockdowns are a privilege. It means you can afford to be at home. Most of the ways to ward the Corona off are accessible only to the affluent. In essence, a disease that was spread by the rich as they flew around the globe will now kill millions of the poor”—Jayshre Shukal, India
The spiritual leader of Jamma’atu Izalatil Bid’a Waikamatis Sunnah (JIBWIS), Sheik Sani Yahaya Jingir is not new to confronting authorities. But he upped his game last Friday when he told the mammoth crowd that gathered at his mosque for Jumma’at prayers that the coronavirus pandemic is a hoax. Immediately he finished his sermon, members of the congregation, primarily comprised of young men, trooped out chanting in Hausa, “Mallam ya ce babu korona” (Mallam has said there’s no corona). At least they were civil. Elsewhere in Kusada, Katsina State, angry youths prevented from observing prayers in compliance with the government directive, descended on a police station which they burnt down along with seven cars, two motorcycles and a generator.
As it is has now become obvious, one of the greatest impediments to measures being put in place to deal with the spread of coronavirus in Nigeria is the disposition of religious clerics. In a bid to keep their flocks, many now peddle dubious messages. You hear Pastors telling their congregations about some ‘corrosive anointing’ that will prevent coronavirus as long as their tithes and offerings keep coming. In defiance of authorities, these pastors gathered large crowds in their churches last Sunday. But they are not alone. Even governors are playing the religious card to hoodwink their constituents. “Abia is the only state that is mentioned in the Bible. We have a promise from God that none of these diseases will touch God’s people. And I hold on to God’s promise. We saw Ebola, it did not get to us. We saw monkey pox, it didn’t get to us. Even this one (coronavirus) will also pass us by,” Governor Okezie Ikpeazu said last week in what amounts to a perfect alibi to shirk his responsibility.
In the world we live in, religion is a powerful weapon. And the preponderance of charlatans we have in the business in our country portends a significant problem. This is not peculiar to Nigeria, though. In the United States, Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne held two large services last Sunday in Florida. He was charged Tuesday for violating a county order that residents stay at home to limit the spread of coronavirus. Howard-Browne, who once proclaimed himself as the ‘Holy Ghost bartender’, has not only dismissed coronavirus as a ‘phantom plague’, he has also woven a conspiracy theory around how China, the Rockefeller Foundation, Mr Bill Gates and other actors invented the pandemic.
Meanwhile, it is comforting that President Muhammadu Buhari finally addressed the nation last Sunday. However, questions remain about the impact of a lockdown restricted only to Lagos and Abuja in a nation where mobility is high. We pray that the current measures work, but let us deal with a few of the lessons we can already discern from the pandemic. The first comes from a pithy message on social media: ‘Discipline helped China. Indiscipline drowned Europe. Arrogance is killing America. Let us hope ignorance will not bury Africa.’ I like the bit about American arrogance. If there is anything coronavirus has taught us, it is to disprove the superiority of any race over another. This is significant.
During the Ebola crisis of 2014, the world was made to believe that such a calamity could only happen in Africa and that if it had occurred in the West, there was sufficient medical capacity to quickly handle it. In a story titled ‘Why is Ebola less deadly in America than in Africa?’ published on 28th August 2014, Julia Belluz was almost gloating: “So far, every story of an American infected with Ebola has ended happily…Beating the virus has become a familiar, almost expected, narrative here: eight out of the nine Ebola patients treated in the United States have so far survived. (Only Craig Spencer — the New York doctor who contracted Ebola in Guinea — remains in hospital, in serious but stable condition.)”
The view expressed by Belluz tallied with that of other American commentators who were certain that no virus could enter their country and claim as many as 12,000 victims as Ebola did within two years in Africa. “This virus didn’t change when it arrived in the US. But its medical setting did. It is true that the average West African has a lower life expectancy than the average American. Until this year, Ebola was treated in rural and remote areas of some of the poorest countries on earth. Through this epidemic, doctors are learning just how much quick diagnoses, ready access to life-sustaining tools and drugs, and good infection-control practices seem to matter when it comes to a disease that was once believed to be a death sentence,” Belluz wrote. From what has become evident, that much-touted advancement in medical science has not helped America. On Tuesday, the White House coronavirus task force projected that between 100,000 to 240,000 Americans could die from the virus, with almost a thousand victims recorded within the preceding 24 hours.
Now that we know the United States is not immune from a virus attack, we can move to the second lesson which is for us on the continent. I have noticed in recent days that vendors on Abuja streets have diversified their businesses, selling facemasks and hand gloves of all hues. With the disclosure on Tuesday by the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) Director General, Dr Chikwe Ihekweazu that Nigerians may be compelled to wear facemasks, there are testy days ahead. Just 24 hours before Ihekweazu spoke, the World Health Organization (WHO) reiterated its earlier position that except for health workers or those down with Covid-19, wearing a face mask does more harm than good. “There is no specific evidence to suggest that the wearing of masks by the mass population has any potential benefit. In fact, there’s some evidence to suggest the opposite in the misuse of wearing a mask properly or fitting it properly,” according to Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO health emergencies programme. If Nigerians are now compelled to wear facemasks that are not readily available, businesses will boom for some smart people but who is to guarantee the safety of such products?
There are other challenges that need to be dealt with. A WhatsApp message regarding what is happening in Imo State is instructive because it is a national problem. “… Mean looking, gun-wielding officials, harassing and arresting motorists, even those conveying health workers to their places of work. I asked one of the NSCDC officers who jumped into the vehicle of a motorist if he was sure the driver he was arresting didn’t have the virus, and his helplessness was obvious. Barricading roads, harassing citizens like they are common criminals are about the most idiotic and least effective ways to stop the spread of the virus” part of the message reads.
If we are to succeed in beating coronavirus, the message must be made clear to security and law enforcement agencies: The restrictions that are placed on movement and large gatherings are not done to punish Nigerians. They are to ensure our collective good. But rogue security agents have turned the restrictions into a weapon to shake down and brutalise poor people. In the quote with which I opened the page, we know the class of people to hold responsible for spreading this plague and the class that will most suffer the consequences. How do you do social distancing in Nyanyan, Mararaba and other suburbs of Abuja or densely populated areas of Lagos like Ajegunle, Ipaja, Ijegun etc.? What about the hunger and deprivation that many will face for this lockdown they neither anticipated nor prepared for in advance? When life is a struggle, according to The Economist in last Friday’s edition on the likely impact of people being compelled to stay home on the continent due to Codiv-19 pandemic, “it is hard to worry about a threat you cannot see.”
In a trending video, two market women in Abuja who spoke to Premium Times explained why the lockdown and the sudden manner it was being implemented “will likely expose the people to untold hardship and difficulties.” We have seen evidence of that in recent days. Those who sell bread and eggs by the roadside, those who fry ‘akara’ or roast yam and plantain beside their houses, those who sell ‘pure water’ and those who provide other basic human needs do not commit any offence by being in business. In fact, they are very much needed in times like this. But many of them are daily harassed and their means of livelihood is being brutally destroyed by security men. I have also seen video clips of dozens of arrested men lumped together in a manner that makes nonsense of the scourge we are supposed to be fighting. In trying to resolve one problem, we are unwittingly creating bigger ones.
Now that significant funds are being put together by stakeholders in both the private and public sectors to fight coronavirus, I implore them to earmark a substantial sum for the medical personnel who treat victims. Even in advanced countries with access to protective gear, caregivers are endangered. So the welfare of Nigerian caregivers and that of their families is really important. On Tuesday in the United Kingdom, former medical director of the Princess Alexandra Hospital NHS Trust, Dr Alfa Saadu, who returned from retirement to help fight Codiv-19, died after becoming infected with the disease. Dr. Saadu is of Nigerian descent and hails from Pategi in Kwara State where he holds the traditional title of Galadima. His death has brought into sharp focus the danger the virus poses to medical practitioners so we must factor them into all our plans.
Another important point raised on Tuesday by 12 former African leaders, including President Olusegun Obasanjo—who signed on behalf of his colleagues—is the porousity of borders within the continent which implies that “national efforts will not be enough” to combat the pandemic. Their view should also not be discounted in the efforts to find a solution to this challenge. “Taking into account the weak healthcare bases in Africa, the conurbation, and the communal living of our people particularly in ghettos and poverty-stricken areas of our cities, the outbreak of Covid-19 in these areas of African communities and cities will be a monumental disaster. Serious measures have to be taken for containment and for addressing any national epidemic,” they admonished.
On a positive note, it is in moments of crisis like this that leaders are made and we are seeing quite a few in our country. From the Lagos State Health Commissioner, Prof Akin Abayomi to Ihekweazu at NCDC to young professionals like Tokini Peterside who is exploiting both her ART X network and her father’s ANAP Foundation, there are many Nigerians at the frontline of the campaign to help rid our country of coronavirus as quickly as possible. Even the two market women who spoke passionately to Premium Times in the trending video about ‘the disease of the Egyptians’ brought by rich Nigerians to disturb the poor should be commended for their insight. But for me, the real revelation of this season is Ikharo Attah, chairman of the FCT ministerial task team. From churches to mosques, the fear of Attah is now the beginning of wisdom in Abuja for those who refuse to do the right thing. Yet he is performing his task with courtesy and without the usual Nigeria gra gra. He is passing a strong message about the efficacy of civility in the conduct of public affairs.
I am particularly delighted because I know Attah very well as he was a State House Correspondent when I was at the Villa in another life. He is still on the beat for ITV Television. The story of how he got the assignment is rather interesting but it is about preparation meeting opportunity. “On 18th September last year, I complained to the FCT minister about the traffic gridlock at Nyanya. He invited me to see him the next day. I arrived at his office expecting an exclusive interview. I was shocked when, in the presence of his top personnel, he announced me as the chairman of the FCT Traffic management task force. After a while I saw the assignment as a challenge to journalism and that has been my part-time job until this Covid-19 enforcement operation came and some FCT officials insisted I play a lead role,” Attah told me yesterday.
From the foregoing, there are two issues we must address to effectively tackle this pandemic which threatens our nation in so many ways. The first is to ensure a coordinated response to the health emergency. Information management is key and we are, to put it mildly, not doing well in that area. With Covid-19 creeping into major cities, deliberate steps must be taken to ensure that we don’t end up with the Ebola crisis that lasted two years in some African countries, leaving in its wake death and destruction. But the greater challenge confronting us is managing the economic fall-out of the crisis. Vice President Yemi Osinbajo was on Monday appointed to chair an economic sustainability committee. Although we do not yet know what exactly that means, including the composition of its membership and the terms of reference, the committee has its job already cut out for it.
Saudi Arabia and other low-cost producers continue to flood the market with crude oil at discounted prices of between $18 and $22 per barrel, at the expense of Nigeria’s average crude oil production cost of about $30 per barrel. Economic projections for this year are already out the window. Apart from the risks of oil price volatility and the associated decline in foreign exchange flow, we have to contend with production uncertainties arising from frequent disruptions due to insecurity and community issues. Operators in the industry have to therefore endure extended budgetary provision for securing and maintaining oil gas infrastructures. This makes it more expensive to produce a barrel of oil in Nigeria compared to other competing climes, especially in the Middle East.
Looking at the 2020 budget deficit reaching as much as $35 per barrel and the out-of-plan expenditure mode switched on by federal government to halt Covid-19 spread, it is obvious that our people must brace up for an impending harsh economic winter. When I spoke to the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) Group Managing Director, Mr Mele Kyari on the way forward yesterday, he shared with me their short and medium term plans with the ultimate goal being “a diversification drive to expand midstream gas infrastructure and improve power generation and the growth of gas-based industries.” But such fortunes ‘in the pipeline’ will be no music to the ears of the Federation Account Allocation Committee (FAAC) when commissioners of finance from the 36 states gather at the end of the month for their share of oil proceeds.
In the end, it is obvious that Nigerians will need to prepare and brace ourselves up for the immediate, short, medium and long term implications of this global pandemic. And this will necessarily have health, social, political and economic ramifications. But as bad as the situation may seem, coronavirus is not a death sentence and we must continue to stress that. In fact, many of those infected by the virus have already begun telling their stories of how they beat it. For those who may want more details from a survivor, I recommend the account of Dana Goldstein, a reporter with New York Times. https://twitter.com/DanaGoldstein/status/1245019559855378438.
To all my readers who are on lockdown, please stay safe. And stay well!
Naked Abuse: A Statement
As at the time I announced the cancellation of the public presentation of my book, ‘NAKED ABUSE: Sex for Grades in African Universities’ two weeks ago, Nigeria was yet to come to terms with how devastating the coronavirus pandemic could be. But I knew back then that we would eventually have to face reality. Following a discussion with the Chief Growth Officer of Metro Africa Express (MAX), Chinedu Azodoh, it was agreed that the bike-hailing delivery company would push out the book, given that the gospel of ‘social distancing’ was already gaining traction at the time.
Working with Chinedu and the MAX team, we built an online store to enable anyone purchase the book and get it delivered to their door, in Lagos and Abuja. We were set to go live until the presidential proclamation last Sunday. With that, we had to suspend the plan for selling the book which officially is out since I have signed complimentary copies for a few people. This is therefore to assure those who have been asking me about where to get the book that it will be available for sale once this crisis is over.
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