By Bola A. Akinterinwa
Coronavirus, renamed COVID-19, is an issue that has been largely underestimated in virtually all the strategic calculations of most countries of the world, for many reasons. For instance, the genesis of the epidemic, now re-designated by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as a pandemic, can be traced to a book publication in 1981. In other words, the virus has been in existence before COVID-19. Thus, the renaming of the virus cannot but be partly to underscore the novel character of the virus, as distinct from the old ones.
In this regard, before 2019, there were two types of coronavirus. As explicated by Principi N., Bosis S., and Esposito S., in their article, entitled “Effects of Coronavirus Infections in Children,” and published in Emerging Infectious Diseases, Volume 16, No. 21, February 2010, pp. 183-188, “Human Coronaviruses (HCoVs) have been known since the late 1960s as a group of viruses capable of infecting human and animals; they cause respiratory, enteric, hepatic, and neurologic diseases that, in some cases (especially when they infect the young), can be severe. However, until the pathogen identified as the cause of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) was isolated, the previously known HCoVs HCoV-229E and HCoV-OC43) were considered to play a marginal role in pediatrics.’
This quotation is simply to underscore three main points: that COVID-19 should be differentiated from the already existing coronaviruses and that there are two main categories of the existing coronaviruses. And more importantly, the objective of the quotation is also to ask questions about the true origin of COVID-19, before situating COVID-19 as a critical challenge in Nigeria-China bilateral ties.
And true, discussions on COVID-19 have witnessed the emergence of three main schools of thought: the Divine School, which suggests the manifestation of the Word of God as contained in the Holy Bible (Isaiah 26: 21-22; Psalm 91, etc); the Science School, which posits that COVID-19 originated from wildlife, and therefore, rejects all the conspiracy theories; and the Political School, which sees COVID-19 as man-made and as an expression of weaponisation, particularly as a bio-chemical weapon of mass destruction which international law prohibits.
Without iota of doubt, the three schools have tenable arguments. However, the main controversy surrounding the origins of COVID-19 is what now has the potential to also seriously threaten international peace and security in an unprecedented manner, especially in light of the introduction of arguments of racism, ethnicism, and power superiority. Put differently, the competition has prompted one fundamental question: is COVID-19 man-made or wildlife in origin? This question is apt here because it is one of the bases of a new international political re-strategy that is in the making in the maintenance of global peace and security, and which also is a major dynamic of the controversy surrounding the visit of some Chinese medical personnel to Nigeria.
COVID-19 Origin: Scientific or Politico-military?
The proponents of the scientific arguments have it that the origin of COVID-19 is wildlife, that it is neither biblical nor political. According to a joint statement published in the Medical Journal Lancet of February 2020, a group of 27 scientists stated that they ‘stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.’
The statement notes further that ‘scientists from multiple countries have published and analysed genomes of the causative agent, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV 2), and they overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife.’ Consequently, they submitted that ‘conspiracy theories do nothing, but create fear, rumours, and prejudice that jeopardise our global collaboration in the fight against the virus.’
On the basis of these scientific arguments, three further postulations can be submitted. First is that the Wuhan-400 virus conceived in 1981 (vide infra) is yet to be manifested, or that it is still in the making. Secondly, the COVID-19 being investigated is completely different from the man-made coronavirus still in the making, the peculiarities of which are also given below. Thirdly, there might be an element of untruth in the presentation of the correct situation, either in the 1981 publication, or as told by the scientists who opt to be patriotic more politically than scientifically.
But, whatever is the case, at the level of the political school of thought, tracing the genesis of the virus to a book publication in 1981, necessarily gives the impression that the virus is man-made. The 1981 book, entitled, The Eye of Darkness, is authored by Dean Koontz as Leigh Nicholas. It is published by Pocket Books and paginated into 312 pages. It is generally considered to be the main genesis of COVID-19. In the book, a discussion amongst three interlocutors (Tina, Carl Dombey, and Elliot) took place. The discussion focused on the philosophy, and particularly, the morality of biological weapons.
Even though Tina gave the impression that she was not interested in the subject matter, Carl Dombey explained that, to understand the subject matter well, there was the need ‘to go back twenty months.’ This means that the author of the book was referring to around September 1979 since the book was published on May 10, 1981. Carl Dombey has it that ‘it was around that time that a Chinese scientist, named Li Chen, defected to the United States, carrying a diskette record of China’s most important and dangerous new biological weapon in a decade. They call the stuff ‘Wuhan-400, because it was developed at their RDNA labs outside of the city of Wuhan, and it was the four-hundredth viable strain of man-made microorganisms created at that research centre.’ Put differently, the man-made origin can deductively be established with Carl Dombey’s submission.
More interestingly, the characteristics of Wuhan-400, as reported, were as follows: it ‘is a perfect weapon. It afflicts only human beings. No other living creature can carry it. And like syphilis, Wuhan-400 can’t survive outside a living human body for longer than a minute, which means it can’t permanently contaminate objects or entire places the way anthrax and other virulent microorganisms can. And when the host expires, the Wuhan-400 within him perishes a short while later, as soon as the temperature of the corpse drops below eighty-six degrees Fahrenheit.’ But what do these features identified by the Chinese scientist mean to the third interlocutor, Elliot?
Elliot believed that ‘the Chinese could use Wuhan-400 to wipe out a city or a country, and there wouldn’t be any need for expensive decontamination before they moved in and took over the conquered territory.’ Many issues are raised in the foregoing quotations: first, which country is referred to as conquered territory? Second, in which way is Wuhan-400 different from today’s COVID-19? Third, is Wuhan-400 produced for purposes of acquiring a specific territory? Is it a bio-chemical weapon for national self-defence? Fourth, if the Chinese scientist, Li Chen, had not deflected to the United States with Chinese files, who would have easily known about the development of biological weapons in China? Fifth, which of the big powers can beat its chest in the open today that it is not similarly and currently developing biological and chemical weapons contrary to the provisions of international law?
It is against this background of controversy over the genesis of the virus and the new political controversy generated from it, that we will situate the analysis of COVID-19 in Nigeria-China relations and the issues generated from it: invitation of Chinese doctors to Nigeria; mistreatment of Nigerians in China; and China’s international responsibility.
COVID-19 in Nigeria-China Ties
As aforementioned, COVID-19 has raised three critical issues. The first is the controversy over the invitation extended to Chinese doctors to come to Nigeria to assist in the anti-COVID struggle. True, Nigeria has the highest number of COVID-19 casualties in Africa. The Government of Nigeria has asked the Beijing authorities to assist it in containing the pandemic in Nigeria. The Chinese responded favourably. Apart from the offer of medical supplies, they sent a medical team to Nigeria. However, informed medical public opinion in Nigeria opposed the idea of accepting the Chinese doctors, fearing that the Chinese doctors might be carriers of COVID-19 or that the Chinese doctors might have a devilish agenda for the people of Nigeria.
This fear is quite absurd and does not reflect the high level good relationship currently existing between Nigeria and China. The Chinese can be considered devilish, but why should their devilishness be detrimental to the protection of their national interest? In other words, we are saying that it cannot but be illogical for the Chinese to want to send doctors to come to Nigeria to harm Nigerians and at the same time to want the Nigerians to be killed to also protect the Chinese and their interests in Nigeria. The issue of the invited Chinese has generated serious controversies.
First, there were the allegations of lack of transparency on the part of the Federal Government on the visit of the Chinese medical team following its arrival in Nigeria, and sincerity of purpose of Government in the management of the entire pandemic. As regards lack of transparency, it was the leader of the caucus in the House of Representatives, Honourable Ndudi Elumelu, who warned on Monday, April 6, 2020 that ‘bringing in medical personnel from the hub of the hub of the pandemic will expose the nation to further danger.’ In the words of Honourable Elumelu and his group, President Muhammadu Buhari should ‘rescind the decision and jettison all plans to import doctors from the hotbed of the plague into our country at this critical time.’
Honourable Elumelu and his group argued that ‘Nigerian doctors and nurses are doing well so far in managing the scourge,’ and therefore, they expressed fears that ‘bringing in Chinese medical personnel, whose status, intentions and scope cannot be easily ascertained and controlled is totally against our national interest.’ Honourable Elumelu’s suggestion is unfortunate, because he failed to see China as a new development partner of Nigeria.
Additionally, the Trade Union Congress of Nigeria acknowledged the positive role of China in the war against COVID-19, but opposed the invitation to the Chinese doctors at this material time. The Trade Union ‘sincerely appreciate[s] the Chinese authorities for releasing their doctors and some of their best hands, despite the catastrophic effect the virus had on the country recently.’ However, the Trade Union noted, ‘it is important to state here that the minimal number of people infected and deaths is a proof that we are not doing badly in our effort to handle the situation.’
And more importantly, the Trade Union admits that ‘truly, the Chinese authorities have done well by not recording more cases in their country. It is novel and also shows their pro-activeness and commitment to crises.’ If the Union believes in the proactive character and commitment of the Chinese, why should it still ‘insist that we do not need them now; rather, we shall continue to adhere to the precautions reeled out by the health professionals to make the job easy.’ Is the Union’s show of patriotism appropriate in this case? (The Punch, Wednesday, April 8, 2020, p.29).
And most importantly, there is also the opposition of the Nigeria Medical Association (NMA) to the invitation of Chinese doctors to come to Nigeria. The opposition, without scintilla of doubt, has some valid logic. As explained by the President of the NMA, Dr. Francis Faduyile, Nigerian doctors are highly motivated and are already doing well in the management of COVID-19 in Nigeria. There is no need for the Chinese to come to Nigeria, and really if there is the need, experiences can be shared through modern technology like Skype.
This argument unnecessarily ignores the fact that, on the basis of China’s policy of ‘all-of-government’ and ‘all-of-society’ approach in the fight against the coronavirus, the China Daily Editorial of April 6, 2020 has it that ‘as of last weekend (first weekend of April 2020), China had donated medical supplies to more than 80 countries and exported more than 4 billion surgical masks and 16,000 ventilators, and shared its experience of fighting the outbreak with the world.’ Recipients of the Chinese aid cannot all be wrong for accepting Chinese help.
Perhaps more significantly, Dr. Faduyile has it that there is nothing the Chinese doctors are coming to add as value in Nigeria, that there are countries to which the Chinese have been invited to assist them and where the problem of COVID-19 has not abated, and that, essentially, the problem is that the coming of Chinese doctors to Nigeria has the potential to breach the medical regulations in the country. For instance, will the Chinese doctors not go through the 14-day quarantine procedure? How would the doctors with Chinese peculiarities arrive Nigeria and just begin to work in an environment of Nigerian peculiarities? What about the regulations prescribed for qualification to work as medical practitioners in Nigeria? And above all, Dr. Faduyile argued that whatever value or funding and infrastructural assistance that may be gotten from China could, as well, be sought for elsewhere (vide his interview with the Channels Television, three weeks ago).
NMA’s arguments are most unfortunate, because its arguments are restricted to medical concerns. COVID-19 goes beyond epidemiological scope. It has socio-cultural, strategico-military, and politico-economic dimensions in global politics. Nigerian doctors can only perform well if the environmental conditionings in the country are conducive. In fact, no country, including the United States currently considered as the most powerful, has been able to nip the nip in the bud COVID-19 alone. The WHO is preaching the gospel of international cooperation, even though Nigerian doctors, at home and abroad, are well known for their professionalism and sagacious minds, integrity and tenacity of purpose that has come to distinguish them amongst their peers worldwide. We therefore strongly believe that the invitation extended purportedly by the Government of Nigeria to the Chinese doctors is perfectly in order in light of the fact that Nigeria is yet to have the necessary wherewithal to comprehensively deal with the pandemic: adequate funding, standard infrastructure, etc. Even Dr. Francis Faduyile has complained about lack of comprehensive insurance for doctors in the frontline of the anti-COVID-19 battle, poor motivation for them, and lack of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE).
These are the more legitimate concerns the NMA should be asking the general public to support, so as to make life easier for the doctors. In fact, the Government of Nigeria is on record to have failed to pay the allowances of some doctors and nurses contracted to work in the University of Abuja Teaching Hospital, Gwagwalada (please vide Eniola Akinkuotu’s report in The Punch, Wednesday, April 8, 2020, p.29).
According to the report, a nurse complained that it is because they were ‘not well taken care of that health workers don’t want to join in this COVID-19 fight. We have been working since February 9. They are thinking of bringing volunteers and retired doctors while we that have been in the trenches have been abandoned.’ The doctors and nurses are working 24 hours. Affected doctors are to be paid N50,000 per day of work, while nurses are to be paid N40,000 per day. Cleaners are paid N20,000 per day, because of the great risks involved. The issue is that Dr. Adebimpe Adebiyi, the Director of Hospital Services in the university was reported as saying the doctors and nurses would soon be paid. But the issue is why have they not been paid?
On the second issue of allegation of non-transparency and government’s sincerity of purpose in the handling of the whole exercise of COVID-19, the NMA has accused the Federal Government of non-transparency and has urged all its members to be wary of using uncertified Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) from China. The allegation of non-transparency appears to have been informed by three considerations: a) general belief that the Chinese medical team had actually been invited by the Federal Government of Nigeria, which is not true. Various reports have it that the Chinese medics came to Nigeria at the instance of a Chinese company, China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC); b) the medics were isolated in the premises of the CCECC and not within Government’s own isolation centres or open reach and control; c) the Chinese medics are to specifically look after the Chinese working in Nigeria. The foregoing three concerns cannot but raise legitimate suspicions on Government’s intentions.
In the words of the NMA, ‘we are not against the receipt of donor support and equipment. We rather are against pulling the wool over our eyes going by the recent statement issued by the Managing Director of the Chinese donor firm operating in Nigeria that the medical personnel will be treating Chinese workers in their facilities. We are taken aback at this statement as this is at variance with the information supplied by the Honourable Minister of Health.’
And perhaps most annoyingly for the NMA, ‘the Government has continued to shift the post in explanation regarding this Chinese invitation. First, it was that these were mere donations, then to experts rendering assistance to set up test laboratories, and now to the experts treating patients. No country allows foreigners to jump on their patients and manage without regulation’ (The Nation, April 10, 2020, pp. 1, 8, and 28).
One critical issue cannot but be raised following the concerns of the NMA: could the medical team have come to treat the Chinese in Nigeria without any prior understanding with the Government of Nigeria? If there was no understanding, why did the government officials receive the Chinese doctors at the airport? Put differently, how would it have been possible for the CCECC to have easily breached all immigration rules and bring the Chinese doctors? And if there was an understanding, why was the NMA not carried along? If the Chinese in Nigeria prefer to be treated by Chinese doctors, could there not be the consideration that the Chinese have their own peculiar medicine also considered better than that of Nigeria? And for reasons of patriotism, would it not have been better for the NMA to seek to know what makes the Chinese medics preferable?
In this case, in which way will the NMA leader, Dr. Faduyile, not be right in quarrelling with the mania of handling the COVID-19 by the Presidential Task Force? Nigerians have complained about the mania of distribution of the palliatives to people. Questions are also raised about the qualifications to be met by recipients of the palliatives.
In spite of all these challenges, we contend here that there is no need for Nigeria to claim to be holier than the Pope who the Chinese really are in this matter of COVID-19.
The problem to deal with is how to ensure that the Chinese doctors who came to Nigeria on Wednesday, April 8, 2020 were not already infected and that the people they are going to have contact will not be infected by them since they were after arrival sent to an isolation centre in the premises of the CCECC. Since arrival, little information has been given on the Chinese medical team, which includes 8 nurses dressed in the same uniform and six doctors, also in a common attire in a published photograph.
What appears to be the truth in this matter is that the Chinese appear to currently have the technology of COVID-19 more than any country of the world, being the alleged originator of the virus. In fact, Dr. Li Wenliang who was reportedly punished for uncovering information on the virus before he died, left behind the prescriptive solutions to the virus, especially in terms of the use of chemical methylxantine, theobromine, and theophilline, all of which are capable of stimulating compounds that can kill the virus in a human. These chemicals are referred to in Nigeria as the ‘Fever Grass Tea’ or the ‘African Lemon Grass Tea.’
If these chemicals are what COVID-19 patients are also treated with in China and that COVID-19 is now gradually being thrown into garbage of history, shouldn’t Nigeria not re-strategise in order to gain from the Chinese medics in addition to whatever curative knowledge may already exist in Nigeria?
Finally, as explained by Professor Akin Abayomi, the Lagos State Commissioner for Health, he told the world on Wednesday, April 8, 2020 that the transmission of the COVID-19 is on the increase in the country. As he put it, ‘at the end of week four, 82 per cent of the patients imported the disease from abroad, while 18 per cent had no travel history; but by the end of week five, 45 per cent of the patients have no travel history. This shows that the importation of COVID-19 is decreasing and local transmission is increasing’ (Daily Sun, Wednesday, April 8, 2020, p.6). The implication of this observation is noteworthy.
Probably as a result of border closure, the importation of COVID-19 into Nigeria has been effectively contained. But those already infected by the virus had undoubtedly had contact with people who had never had any outside travel history. This is not only where sit-at-home policy of government is quite apt, but also where the experiences of the Chinese doctors cannot be underestimated.
In fact, while the COVID-19 saga is still rearing its ugly head, the China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC), one of the shareholders of the Lekki Deep Sea Port Projects under the construction at the Lagos Free Trade Zone injected the sum of $221.05 million equity fund as an expression of commitment. And also true enough, the Chinese Ma Foundation has donated medical supplies to Nigeria and for which great appreciation has been expressed by the Government of Nigeria.
In the battle against COVID-19 and quest for improved foreign relations, Government should maximise efforts at acquiring foreign assistance, on the basis of the principle of non-alignment, non-discrimination against any source, and taking advantage of the pandemic as a challenge and opportunity of building a greater Nigeria. Put differently, the ultimate objective of the ongoing COVID-19 efforts should not be limited to COVID-19 eradication only, but also to making Nigeria greater in knowledge and understanding, wealthier in per capita income, and better in national outlook in the post-COVID-19 era. COVID-19 should be taken as a catalytic agent for national mobilisation and unity, national development and leadership of Africa. The death of our compatriots, at this perilous time, should not be allowed to be in vain. Consequently, lessons from COVID-19 should be learnt and translated into a concrete national movement against the pandemic. It is within this context that the challenges, mistreatment of Nigerians in China and China’s international responsibility will be explicated next in this column.