If We Don’t, We Might Die…!

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ENGAGEMENTS: With Chidi Amuta
ENGAGEMENTS with Chidi Amuta, e-mail: chidi.amuta@gmail.com

ENGAGEMENTS with Chidi Amuta, e-mail: chidi.amuta@gmail.com

On the matter of re-opening the economy now, Nigeria is left at that dangerous road junction where native doctors place sacrificial offerings. It is a place of deathly choice: if we stay locked down, we will die in installments. If we reopen and face the hazards of Covid-19 with courage and creativity, we might live.

The decision by different countries to gradually reopen for life and business is a desperate act of defiance, courage and the stubborn will to survive. The underlying logic is a simple ancient one: What will kill you will find you wherever you go! If we stay home, we will die either of hunger, loneliness or, eventually, of natural causes. If we go out there to face the hazards of Covid-19, we might die of the disease or survive it to live life as it once was.

From this week onwards, the global wrestle with covid-19 will have entered a decisive last street corner. Even in the most afflicted places, nations and societies have decided to cautiously vote for some return to life as it once was. Gradually, a progressive reopening of activities is taking shape. The air of cautious optimism is palpable everywhere from New Zealand to Germany, Sweden to Italy and South Africa. Even parts of the United States are beginning to tread outside with measured steps. The traditional swagger and boisterousness of America has been mellowed by a lethal encounter with something strange that has frightened even Uncle Sam. The United Kingdom is being a bit more wary, choosing a more cautious and methodical approach to re-opening its economy than a stampede. Poor and less scientific countries like Nigeria have also decided to plough blindfolded into the chaotic herd.

President Buhari has understandably joined other national leaders to announce what amounts to a phased re-opening of the Nigerian society and economy. Lagos, Ogun and the Federal Capital Territory are to re-open with one eye from tomorrow. It does not matter that Kano is fast breezing past Lagos in daily infection rates to potentially become the new epicenter of the virus in Nigeria.

The latest presidential proclamation ought to indicate a carefully programmed return to normalcy. In addition, it ought to indicate that our government is in control of the major indices of Covid-19 infection, testing and therapy. This decision also ought to mean that we have a scientific model as the basis of the statistics being hurled at us daily by the Center for Disease Control.

Ordinarily also, a decision to reopen the economy ought to be predicated on some sensible projection of worst and best case scenarios. We should by now know, by some fairly sensible scientific modeling, how many Nigerians are likely to die or live by the time we get to the exit point of this virus. The reasonable presumption is that the president is ordinarily privy to superior intelligence on such matters than the rest of us who depend largely on hearsay and beer palour gossip. So, Mr. Buhari must have been fully briefed by his team of scientists and national security advisers before he came up with a decision to ease the lockdown, I have no reason to doubt the judgment of Mr. President or his retinue of experts. I can only hope to be careful when I go out there tomorrow to hug friends, face my staff and interface with relevant strangers.

I listened carefully to the President’s several national broadcasts on the Covid-19 challenge to date. Beyond ordering lockdown regimes and other routine administrative reflexes, there was nothing to indicate a creative approach to the Covid-19 emergency. Huge troves of cash have been doled out to Lagos state and the NCDC. Nigeria’s emblems of capitalist success hz e complemented government effort with a cascade of donations in billions of dollars.

In turn, the federal government has belatedly procured this and that health and medical supplies from China and everywhere else. Soon also, the government of Kano state is likely to be inundated with cash and supplies even if it has failed to handle the Covid-19 emergency with any seriousness. All this is in line with the Nigerian tradition of throwing money at problems in the hope that they will just vanish at the sight of bullion vans full of currency notes.

To the best of my knowledge, however, the president has never indicated any serious involvement of Nigeria’s rich scientific and technological ingenuity to complement external resources towards fighting Covid-19. The Presidential Task Force on the corona virus is full of politician ministers and government bureaucrats. It is even headed by the Secretary to the Government, Mr. Boss Mustafa, who is said to be a lawyer by training. I am yet to learn of any reasonable financial allocations to universities, laboratories or research institutes. This is a country that boasts some of the best medical experts, scientists and innovators in all the relevant fields. Yet, we were in a hurry to celebrate the arrival of a mere 15 medical personal (including glorified nurses!) from China to help 200 million of us with Covid-19. But I am yet to learn of any concerted effort to fly in the best Nigerian medical and scientific experts from around the world to do a patriotic duty of helping save us from the Covid-19 scourge.

In history, nations evolve the best solutions to their problems in times of dire emergency and desperate necessity. Such solutions usually come from challenging the ingenuity and training of their citizens (not outside contractors!) in diverse fields. Even as we speak, the most powerful nations have deployed their best brains and institutions in a feverish bid to find solutions to the three urgent challenges of Covid-19: testing, vaccine development and research on a therapy drug.
The major statistical modeling template by which the US government and, specifically the state of New York, is projecting its strategy on Covid-19 was developed by Johns Hopkins University. Researchers working at the laboratories of the firm Gilead have arrived tentatively at the drug Remdesivir as a possible therapy drug of choice for the corona virus. In the United Kingdom, Oxford University has pioneered a quick research leading to a tentative vaccine against the virus which the drug firm Astrazeneca is in a hurry to roll into production. These results have not come about through writing big cheques to thievish politicians parading varying degrees of ignorance on the matter on hand. The lesson from the developed world is simple: sometimes, there are serious matters that rise above political grand standing, noisemaking and empty drama. Covid-19 is one such grave matter.

As the lockdowns gradually recede, we need to be clear on some issues. There is hardly room for groundless optimism. People will still get infected by Covid-19 by the day. Some more will die even as the rate of fatality in major countries has begun to decline somewhat in recent weeks. Hospitals and isolation places will still admit the infected and administer them uncertain therapies. Meanwhile economists and bankers will be busy crunching the numbers that matter on the plight of the world economy after the Covid-19 scourge.

There is a need to recall where we are all coming from in order to assess our preparedness for resumption of life. The covid-19 virus has been with us now for all of 2020. We know its capacity to infect, destabilize and kill people indiscriminately. In this encounter, humanity’s energy and will to survive has been tested to the limits. As a nation, our belief in the ability of government to protect us has equally been either repudiated or reaffirmed, depending on in which state you live in Nigeria. As with all human encounters with danger, our first set of responses were based on the classic human ‘flee’ or ‘fight’ reflex.
Without exception, we all fled. It did not matter your nationality, race, religion or bank balance. Governments and global health authorities urged us all to flee into the protective walls of wherever we call home to deny the virus more victims. The primordial compulsion to flee from danger especially an unknown one is the origin of the ‘social distance’, ‘shelter in place’, ‘stay at home’ or ‘lockdown’ responses that the world has come to experience these past couple of weeks.

In preparation for the ‘fight’ stage of our survivalist instinct, nations sent forth their armies of medical professionals, equipping them with all the personal protection armour of gear and kits. To have an idea of what we are up against, different scientists in different countries quickly scrambled up all manner of test procedures and kits. For the afflicted and infected, the battle raged in emergency hospital wards and isolation centres hurriedly put up in football fields, car parks, naval ships and exhibition centres. These became the theatres of a war that virtually declared itself in a hurry with casualties mounting by the hour.

Now, humanity is crossing the flee phase and is embroiled in the protracted logic of the fight phase. The former dictated the imperative of social distancing, quarantine, mass hospitalization and lockdowns. The latter dictates a different set of more lasting and creative responses and solutions. To be effective and durable, the return to normalcy has three major requirements which are urgent and compelling. It is a trinity of conditions.
First, there is an urgent need for reliable, quick and universally available testing to isolate the infected from the healthy. Equally urgently needed is a vaccine that is reliable, universally available and affordable so that immunity can be conferred on the majority of humanity. Most importantly, a definitive therapeutic drug is needed so that those who get infected can receive credible treatment in hospitals.

These are the long term defense mechanisms of humanity against a very deadly virus. All three need time and a quantum of money to achieve. Even with all the money in the world, all three requirements need scientific rigour and a global unity of purpose.
In a fight for the protection of their peoples, nations fight according to their means and abilities. The world as we know it is ruled by inequity of resources and capabilities. The scientifically and technologically advanced wealthy countries are fighting with enhanced science, technology, industrial might and huge troves of cash. They are using science and technology to short circuit the delivery of the three irreducible variables of testing, vaccine development and research for a drug of choice. They are deploying their financial muscle to protect their citizens and their economies against the adverse repercussions of this health emergency.

Except we reinvent our governance priorities and put on our creativity caps, we in poorer countries like Nigeria may lose a minimum of ten years of our progress to date to the aftermath of Covid-19. Major serious economists and thinkers have already sounded this alarm bell. We do not have the resources to effectively protect our citizens, most of whom are very poor, from the economic ravages of covid-19. We are heavily indebted, committed to wasteful and sometimes foolish capital projects and have had a tradition of governance that pays little attention to social investment and the real life needs of actual people.
Our responses to date seem stuck at the rudimentary level of fleeing from danger in imitation of others. It is easy to join he stampede of frightened humanity and just do what others are doing. Retract into your home shells, stay at home, go into quarantine, self- isolate, wash your hands many times a day etc. etc.

We may even add: work from home! But that is if you have work, possess a computer, have access to a functional WI FI. Work at home only means something if your daily bread can come without your physical presence at the wrestling arena of life. Every lazy Banana republic in the world is doing the same things. No need to be creative, original or innovative.

But the post-Covid-19 world will be ruled by nations that confront the virus with the power of scientific knowledge and innovative governance. Truly, a phased relaxation of the lockdown regime is an existential imperative in most places. Experts have determined that after a four-week lockdown, an average of 25% of small businesses will be unable to reopen, having used up their working capital for just existential contingencies. If the lockdown lasts another four weeks, the ‘death rate’ of small to medium enterprises will be up to 50%. The consequent exponential loss of jobs is better imagined. The economic virus will also eat away at the multinationals just as it has strangled the oil industry on which we largely depend.

Starved of rents and royalties, denied tax revenues and invaded from every direction by obligations and mounting costs because of inflation and foreign exchange starvation, a nation like ours will die incrementally. Government will try to bleed the people. In turn, the people will storm the barricades of a desperate authority to live. A people used to unwarranted feasting will eat each other in a time of desperate hunger and want. This is the moment for our governments to get creative and sensible.

Some governors have indicated a positive direction. My friend and brother, Nasir El-Rufai of Kaduna state and Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti state have both decided to slash the wages and allowances of key government political appointees by half. That is to be commended. More needs to happen in terms of reducing the cost of governance at every level. But we need to go beyond tokenism to the inherited colonial structures of privileges and unproductive traditions that have left us stranded on this parched shore.

Whether or not we planned it, Covid-19 has brought us to a place where our governments ought to have been in the first place. This is the abode of ordinary people and their basic needs. In this place, the things that matter most are not so complicated. They include access to food, public health, education, sanitation, basic social services and the economic survival of ordinary people.

As it is, Covid-19 has given our governments and people another chance by a ruse. If government embraces our pains, it will live. If it returns to business as usual, it will damage the people. And may kill the nation, too.
Pix: Ehanire, Minister of Health.jpg