ENGAGEMENTS with Chidi Amuta
The global hysteria around the corona virus emergency has birthed many untidy offspring. As the menace of the virus abates, its footprints are everywhere in evidence. Four things seem to be happening simultaneously. First, governments have appropriated and monopolized the fear factor and are perpetuating a permanent mindset of emergency around the virus. Second, majority of the world population have overcome the fear of the virus and broken loose from lockdowns to dare the outdoors, literally daring the virus. As lockdowns have begun to ease, the fear in peoples minds is being replaced by the boldness to live life as it once was. Third, the Covid-19 emergency is fast and increasingly being cornered and put to other uses by crafty politicians and other tribes of ingenious entrepreneurs. Fourth, whichever way it ends, Covid-19 has opened new frontiers and challenges in humanity’s quest to control its destiny and remake the fate of nations and the plight of peoples.
Let us make no mistake about it, the Covid-19 crisis will be confronted nationally but resolved internationally. Individual nation states will own and dispose of their versions of the virus but the solutions that will endure and save humanity will be global -universal testing, vaccination and drug therapy. For now, governments are having a field day in tinkering with measures and policies informed mostly by ignorance and political opportunism. Only researchers and scientists are questing for the enduring solutions.
Rightfully, governments have a right to be afraid of anything that threatens their peoples and their own political security. The corona virus has threatened the things that give meaning to the idea of government. The obligation to protect their peoples is a primary threat. Health systems have been stretched and stressed to their limits. The executive coherence and responsiveness of governmental systems has also been called to question. Long standing healthcare templates, public transportation and education systems and the very social essence of group life have all been severely dented and altered. Death in droves and the possibility of infection in the normal order of the business of life and of business itself are sufficient grounds for governments to fret and stutter as we have seen in recent months.
By their nature, governments feel like governments mostly only when they do dramatic things that affect many people for good or for ill. Governments sometimes feel more important when their leaders can make sudden pronouncements to shut down borders, close airports, curtail immigration, limit the movements of peoples within and across state boundaries and generally invade private living rooms to hector people or tell them how to live their lives on television. Although democratic governments are elected to safeguard the freedom of the majority, there is something of the autocrat in the psychology of people of power and government which enervates them when they have to act out of necessity to deny or limit the freedom of many people or even invade their privacy. Fear creates an atmosphere in which these things become imperative. Government is a machinery for loud noises and foolish spending. Governments spend big money, buy huge things that do not necessarily make sense to ordinary people and pose for photographs with plastic smiles.
As it turns out, the most effective way to devise long term solutions to these threats and problems posed by the corona virus is for governments to sustain the mindset of fear. Conjuring up the perennial state of fear enables governments to reach for emergency funds to pay for medical supplies, to build and equip more hospitals, re-think their response strategies and take another look at their priorities. The US government initially thought death rates by corona virus will be automatically reduced by buying more ventilators. So they went shopping for ventilators wherever they could be found. They even got General Motors and Ford to shut down auto manufacturing lines to mass produce ventilators. No one knows what will happen to those millions of these machines as infection, hospitalization and death rates go south.
The conversion of fear into an instrument of policy has led to a number of panic measures. In places like Singapore and parts of Asia, panic led to a reintroduction of lockdowns and quarantines after an initial relaxation following the re-emergence of infections. The re-imposition of lockdowns remains a permanent threat even in societies that have relaxed them. In the United States, open demonstrations against continuing lockdowns by large populations have pitted people against state governments.
In some places like Nigeria, there would seem to be no logical or scientific relationship between government pronouncements, actions and reflexes on the corona virus. The National Centre for Disease Control(NCDC) spews out figures for infection, hospital discharge and death on a daily basis. To date, Nigeria’s infected population remains at less than 5000. Total official death population is a little over 150. All these in a population of 200 million people. No one can swear by the scientific fidelity of the figures doled out daily by the NCDC. They fluctuate with a wildness that sometimes casts doubts on the laws of science. In the absence of any reasonable level of testing, it is hard to know exactly whether the virus is receding or increasing. With frequent reports of sporadic unaccounted group deaths in some states, no one can swear by Nigeria’s Covid statistics and status. But the NCDC numbers are what we have and they are the only ones we can rely on to make any informed assessments.
On closer look, over an 80 day period of open encounter with Covid-19, it means that an average of 2.5 Nigerians have died daily from Covid-19. Similarly, an average of 62.8 Nigerians have been infected on a daily basis. If we were to spread the total infected population across the states equally, it means that only 138 persons in each state have been infected by the virus. The daily infection rate in 80 days per state is 1.78 persons.
Therefore, compared to figures for ailments like malaria, typhoid, road traffic accidents, hunger, malnutrition and violent encounters, Covid-19 is almost a joke. Yet, these other sources of death and affliction have never attracted nearly as much orchestrated government attention and fear mongering let alone the attention and gaze of the media. Not even our audio philanthropists have devoted as much attention to these other equally good causes as they have dramatized for Covid-19. Nor has our governments, federal and state alike, done as much grand standing and showmanship as we are witnessing over this Covid-19 matter. In all of it, there would seem to be a disconnect between scientific fact (which no one around here cares about or has) and the drama of government action.
In all of this, the media all over the world has been a faithful ally of governments in the propagation of the theology of fear and the popularization of anxiety. All major news networks of the world remain fixated on the regime of corona virus fear. Covid-19 infection rates, deaths, outbreaks and related stories have dominated the airwaves since the beginning of the year. Suddenly, a new tribe of heroes, namely health workers, have been enthroned. This is perhaps justifiable given the global nature of the pandemic and the veritable threat to health and life. Healthcare workers in a pandemic, like soldiers in war, have become humanity’s avatars in urgent life and death situations. Even then, it all seems as though the other things on which news breeds- wars, refugees, wild fires, earth quakes, hurricanes, terrorism, police brutality etc. – took a vacation while Covid-19 reigns supreme.
The virus has hit countries in unequal proportions. While some like Italy, the United states and the United Kingdom have been devastated, others like New Zealand, Iceland and Denmark would seem to have used smart governance to escape lightly. Inexplicably many African countries are yet to see death and disease in anticipated massive proportions. In fact, the infection and death rates predicted for African slum cities like Lagos, Johannesburg, Cairo and Nairobi have so far turned out differently even though social distancing has been obeyed more in defiance in these crowded places. And yet, even in the less affected countries, governments and the media have behaved in the same frightened way as in the West.
The recent relaxation of the lockdown regime has freed the people from the vice grip of fear. In the first one week of freedom, people have trooped out in mass to embrace life, return to scaled down economic activities and generally defy even the much needed social distancing. In Lagos, the traffic is back, the crowds in markets and bus stops have returned. Gradually, some junior staff and domestic workers have resumed work in stages. I have asked my workers for first hand reports since most of them live in more people-friendly parts of town: ‘Did any one you take ill with Covid-19?’ None! ‘Did anyone you know die or get infected with Covid-19?’ No! ‘Did anyone you know know someone who knows someone who got infected or hospitalized or die of Covid?’ No! ‘So , what happened to you during the lockdown?’ The predictable answer: ‘ We got broke and were harassed by petty criminals and bad boys in our neighbourhoods’.
In the United States, although people are cautious, they have not allowed their love for life to be badly dented by the regime of fear. If anything, the theology of fear and the shut down of economic activities has engineered additional loss of jobs which has dampened the embrace of normalcy. In London earlier this week, people vastly ignored Boris Johnson’s sermon of fear to crowd public transportation to get to their destinations. Everywhere, people a bit more cautious but have voted for normalcy. In Lagos, they wear their masks when they are in the open, want to go into the banks or are about to encounter angry policemen and soldiers on the roads and streets.
On a different front, the virus and the battle against it have opened unexpected political theatres. In different countries, politicians of different hues have capitalized on the regimes of lockdowns and restrictions compelled by the corona emergency to deepen their hold on power while advancing their political fortunes. Donald Trump, the perennial campaigner for re-election has had a field day bungling America’s response to the Covid-19 emergency. While he fiddles and bumbles, the virus has decimated over 85,000 Americans and infected over 1.5 million. As American jobs haemorhage and businesses are threatened, doubts have increased about his electability in November.
In Hungary, Viktor Orban , an avowed populist autocrat, has gone to parliament with a legislation that empowers him to lock down sections of the country at will with implicit restrictions on the movements of his opponents under guise of curtailing the spread of the virus. In China itself, the adoption of intense electronic data gathering on the movements of citizens has enabled the communist party to expand its infringement of peoples privacy. This has been deepened by the deployment of cell phone apps that track the movements of people as part of anti-Covid contact tracing strategy. In Israel, opposition parties have raised eye brows over prime Minister Netanyahu’s adoption of aggressive monitoring of citizens movements and private cell phone data under guise of corona virus spread prevention.
Nearer home, the Covid-19 emergency has bred some illegitimate political offspring. Impunity and willful transgressions against the constitution are rife. For instance, no one is sure that in declaring lockdowns on Lagos, Federal Capital Territory and Ogun state the President did not violate the constitution which ordinarily gives those powers to the states and territories except in a formally declared national emergency. In turn, the state governors have had a field day in violating the rights of citizens as armed policemen have hidden under state authority to extort innocent citizens.
Our nasty political culture has naturally crept in. In one state, a governor has gone on rampage against his political opponents, demolishing their business premises, hounding them and even placing a ransom on their personal liberty all in the name of Covid-19. In a number of states, the restriction on inter state travel has led governors to flagrantly abuse and violate federal laws. They are erecting illegal border fences and barriers across federal highways. In one instance, a governor has denied a strategic federal agency access to his state to carry out a mandatory Covid-19 related operation. Another has redesigned the order on social distancing while making masks mandatory as people assemble in throngs to attend burials, weddings and lavish crowded reception ceremonies in honour of the governor himself.
There is an even more outrageous consequence of the Covid-19 frenzy in Nigeria. The governors of the 19 Northern states met on strategies to limit the spread of the virus in the region. They decided to solve the ancient socio-cultural problem of the menace of Almajairin children in the region. These are children of undefined parentage who roam the streets of northern cities as beggars and petty criminals in training. The governors in their wisdom decided that the best solution is to ‘deport’ these children to their respective states of origin.
In a country without a clear identity platform, no biometrics, no data on birth, parentage or pattern of migrations, how would anyone determine the precise states of origin of these kids? The decision has led to a glorified internal child trafficking trend. Truck loads of Almaijirin children are ferried across state boundaries all over the country by nefarious agents hoping to dump them in some cities where they can settle in as beggars, miscreant and dangerous street urchins. Fellow northern states have routinely returned consignments of the children sent to them from neighbouring states. In the process, we have amplified an old social problem which only required concerted policy solution by the affected states.
The declarations of lockdowns have become a casual pastime of uncreative governors who behave as though they have an understanding with the virus as to when to infect citizens. They lockdown their states for one or two weeks and then relax the lockdown for a day or two, ostensibly to allow their citizens time to shop for essential supplies. In all these cases, the governors have no scientific information, no statistical analysis as to whether infection rates are increasing, decreasing or if there is any curve at all let alone one that is flattening or bulging. Just plain executive rascality gone awry.
Predictably, Nigeria’s bad reputation for unhealthy accounting and untidy book keeping has been reported in some places. Covid-19 palliative has become another name for massive extortion, while professional begging and official solicitation of funds that no one is likely to account for is rife in some states.
The Covid-19 emergency will end soon. But it will leave a global trail of sadness in the minds of those who have lost loved ones. Those who have lost their jobs and businesses will live to lament their loss while striving to piece together their tattered lives and fortunes. The back water nations of the emerging markets are more likely to be submerged in a sunami of unpayable debts, more desperate poverty and deeper inequality. The wiser nations who approached Covid-19 with calm measured steps are likely to become the success show pieces of a new world in which the welfare of the majority will be a measure of the wealth of nations and the relevance of governments. Where will Nigeria be in the imminent post-Corona virus world?