The Year of the Face Mask

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SimonKolawolelive By Simon-Kolawole, Email: simon.kolawole@thisdaylive.com, sms: 0805 500 1961

SIMONKOLAWOLE! BY SIMON KOLAWOLE

What a year. WhatAyear. What. A. Year. Muddled and fragmented. Masked up and washed up. It was a tasteless year, the year we could barely smell the coffee, the year humanity was severely fatigued. It was the year that soaked our hands in an ocean of sanitizers and distanced us from each other. It was the year that mercilessly coughed up the sick and the elderly, raising their temperature and taking their breath away. We cannot even cough in peace; we will start suspecting we have caught the virus. Someone, or some people, ate bat in Wuhan, China, and the rest of us — who did not as much as have a bite of the weird mammal — started washing our hands all over the world.

How can humanity ever forget 2020 and the coronavirus devastation that shaped it? On January 18, 2020, around 1:30pm, I was catching up on latest developments across the world on the BBC website when I came across the headline: “New virus in China ‘will have infected hundreds’.” Virus? China? I panicked a bit. What came to my mind instantly was the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) pandemic of 2002-2004. And any infectious disease that breaks out in China will certainly affect more than China. The BBC story itself was not that alarming: there had been only 60 officially confirmed cases and two deaths — although China, being China, would always fiddle with figures.

After reading the story, I immediately sent the link to Mallam Abba Kyari, who was then chief of staff to President Muhammadu Buhari. I added a very short note: “Good afternoon Mallam. We need to watch it.” I usually alerted him to things I considered to be “matters of urgent national importance” and we would argue over the fine details thereafter. The biggest argument we had over the virus was whether or not the airports should be closed to international flights when the pandemic started biting harder in March. I argued in favour of closing the airports. While not opposed to it per se, Kyari said he was more worried about our capacity to manage cases if there was an outbreak.

Life! Kyari would later catch the virus. After nearly three weeks of treatment at the First Cardiologist Hospital in Lagos, he reportedly tested negative. He was preparing to be discharged when he came down again. The virus had aggravated his delicate health. He could not survive the complications. Between the time I shared the BBC story with him and the time he died from the virus, it was exactly one day short of three months. It was surreal. Anytime I go through our WhatsApp conversations on what was later named Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) by the World Health Organization (WHO), I always feel a chill in my soul. I had no inkling he was going to be a victim. Life!

The COVID-19 pandemic turned the world upside down in 2020, infecting 80 million people and killing 1.75 million so far — and these are just the officially captured figures. The nature of the disease means that many of those infected never knew they were, never had mild or severe symptoms, and were never captured in the reporting. A safer guess would be that over 200 million might have been infected. And given the global fatality rate and the fact that only deaths recorded in hospitals and care homes were captured in most countries, we can also safely assume that over two million souls have been lost to the pandemic. That is a lot to lose to a new disease in one year.

But things could have been worse. When the Spanish flu gripped the world from 1918 to 1920, between 17 million and 50 million deaths were reported from 500 million infections. There were other estimates putting the death toll at over 100 million since data from many countries were not captured. Although we are still in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic without any certainty on its end, we can presume that we would not record 17 million deaths, much less 50 million or over 100 million. Science is more advanced today; more so, there is an experience to learn from. Experimental drugs are also producing results and saving lives, and vaccines are being produced in record time.

Yet, what has apparently saved millions of lives is not medication or ventilator. It is not some sophisticated product. It is a piece of clothing. You can even make it at home. It is the face mask. You can improvise. Just cover your mouth and nose anyway you can. The coronavirus infects mainly through droplets from the mouth and nose. The fastest way to catch the virus is to inhale or ingest the infected droplets, sometimes with the aid of the air conditioning system. Keeping your distance is good but better with covering your mouth and nose. Washing your hands is good but better with covering your mouth and nose. So it is the face mask plus other things. It saves lives!

I would say 2020 was the Year of the Face Mask. It was the most adorned piece of clothing. It was one little piece of clothing that unified the human race. The divides created by race, gender, religion and ethnicity fizzled out under the mask. We realised that we are all humans, all said and done. Coronavirus was the leveller. It did not discriminate along the artificial lines that we have segregated humanity. We are all wearing the face mask, no matter the colour of our cassock, the hue of our hijab and the tint of our tassels. The face mask is the fabric that ties us together as humanity comes under severe attack. If face mask was to be a human being, it would be the Person of the Year.

Historians have traced the origins of “face covering” for hygienic purposes to several centuries ago, as far back as Before Christ, but it would appear the Black Death pandemic of the 14th century — in which at least 75 million deaths, possibly up to 200 million, were recorded in Eurasia and North Africa — played a major role in the development of the medical face mask. With subsequent outbreaks of epidemics and pandemics, the face mask evolved. It is not surprising that the Chinese, who often have to deal with epidemics and air pollution, are the custodians of the face mask, inventing models such as N95 and KN90. And they are the world’s biggest producers and exporters.

At no time in the history of humankind has the face mask been this widely used. It is no rocket science: COVID-19, unlike the previous plagues, has been confirmed to be in virtually every country. The rate of infection is facilitated by the shortened distances between countries, thanks to globalisation and air travels. Countries cannot agree on uniform measures, so travel bans, airport closures, compulsory quarantine, curfews and lockdowns are applied differently. But all nations seem to agree on one thing: wear the mask. It is the easiest thing to get most people to do — compared to hand-washing and physical distancing. Yes, 2020 is the Year of the Face Mask.

THE YEAR OF COVIDIOTS
Hell, 2020 was also the year of the idiots. The Covidiots. They came in different shapes and sizes with different theories and idiosyncrasies. Some insist there is no COVID pandemic at all, that it is all a plan — a “plan-demic” — to make Bill Gates take control of humankind through microchips and vaccines. The ultimate champion is Pastor Jonathon James of The Light City Christian Ministries, UK, who did a viral video of dead birds under a tree. He ran a commentary on the 38-minute video alleging, among other things, that the lockdown was a plot to hide the installation of 5G mobile network and monitor the world through computer chips inserted into human body as vaccines.

To give his baseless claims some divine touch, James added: “God has blessed me with the ability to bring disparate pieces of information together that puts the puzzle together and makes sense of it.” God has seen an awful lot in the hands of these end-time pastors. The video was circulated to millions globally. Soon enough, arsonists attacked 53 network towers in the UK, including the one serving a major hospital. In Nigeria, some pastors started spewing the idiosyncrasy from their pulpits without verification. Their ever-gullible devotees swallowed it hook, line and sinker — like a sheep being led to the slaughter or a lamb that is silent before her shearers. My WhatsApp saw hell!

The only snag, though, is that the private jet-loving pastor recanted when he was contacted to substantiate his claims. Pastor James said he was “absolutely shocked” that the “private message” he sent to a dedicated “small” community went viral. “Had I known my voice note would have gone to a wider audience I certainly would have contextualised my thoughts, been more specific on what I was sharing citing references, and far less explicit,” he said. Unfortunately, he had done enough damage to last a lifetime — in the name of the Lord. Many people are still resisting 5G technology and COVID vaccine based on James’s “divine” revelation which he has regretted and recanted.

In Nigeria, we have produced our own Covidots who are coming up with their own theories — although some gracefully leave God out of the picture. I was arguing with someone recently who said the COVID in Nigeria “is ordinary malaria”. Really? The ordinary malaria that killed Kyari, Abiola Ajimobi, Buruji Kashamu, Lanre Razaq and a thousand others? This is most unfair to their grieving relatives and friends. They had underlying conditions, someone else argued. But how many people really know the state of their health? Is that not why we all have to be careful? As Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, once said: “Your mild cough can be someone else’s death knell.”

Some say the Nigerian government merely wants to “chop” money by “exaggerating” the prevalence of COVID. I will not argue against that. However, since when did government need to persuade us before “chopping” money? They do that every day, with or without COVID. One Nigerian nurse in the US did a video saying there was no COVID in Nigeria based on her experience with cases in America which she said were severe. Those not familiar with COVID would swallow this half-truth, but those with little knowledge know that the disease can also present zero symptoms. Not every COVID case is severe or ends up on the ventilator. Unfortunately, many Nigerians believed her.

No matter the conspiracy theory you believe — whether it is 5G or Bill Gates or microchips or whatever — please be kind enough to humankind by washing your hands frequently, keeping a safe distance from those who are not in your household and wearing your face mask. You see, it is not about what you believe or about your life alone. You can actually die if you want to. It is your choice. But it is the vulnerable people who are likely to be infected by your beliefs and disbeliefs that you should have mercy upon. You may have the virus and not display any symptoms at all but transmit it to someone who may end up on the ventilator or in the grave. Kindly keep this in mind.

THE YEAR OF #ENDSARS
In October, thousands of Nigerians, mostly youths, trooped to the streets in several parts of the country to protest police brutality. The special anti-armed robbery squad (SARS) — not to be confused with the SARS-Cov-2 virus that causes COVID — had been notorious for years for fighting cybercrimes with AK rifles. Some of the cybercrimes included wearing dreadlocks and having tattooed torsos. These were usually punishable with extortion. The punishment could also be maiming or extrajudicial murder. In short, the police officers had become armed robbers and murderers under the guise of fighting internet-based crimes. Their victims were mostly youths.
The #EndSARS street protests started after a very successful mobilisation on Twitter.

The protesters made a series of demands, including the disbandment of SARS and the setting-up of probe panels. President Muhammadu Buhari agreed to all the demands. I thought this was an opportunity for the protest leaders to engage with the authorities, take their little wins, monitor the implementation of their demands as approved by the president and prepare for follow-up action. But the protesters said they would neither retreat nor surrender, and that it was time to #EndBuhari and #EndNigeria. The rest, as they say, is history. I’ll just say I have never seen that kind of destruction in peace times.

The good part is that the youth have proved that they can mobilise and organise — contrary to the general view that they are only interested in smart phones and Afrobeats. The downside is that, without a clear overarching strategy, their victory was turned into defeat as the protests were hijacked by different forces — street urchins, armed robbers, yahoo boys, state agents and politicians. I was told that some people gathered on Twitter and started abusing me because I argued that the protests should have been called off before they ended in destruction and death. I will gladly take the abuse so long the trolls will one day find time to read what I wrote.

Above all, the protests and the mayhem would only be worth the while if we can see visible changes in the operations of the police force and other security agencies from now on. It would amount to a massive waste of lives and properties if we are still being extorted and brutalised by the law enforcement agents after the agitations. Those who abused their positions must be called to order and brought to face the full weight of the law. The police force must be comprehensively reformed to become proficient and professional. The victims must get justice. Anything less and we will be back to square one. These are the things that make the people lose faith in their leaders.