TUESDAY WITH REUBEN ABATI BY REUBEN ABATI
Nigerians are playing with COVID-19, and in so doing, they are playing with fire and death. Why are we so blest and yet so suicidal? When the index case of the virus was announced on February 27, 2020, and the government proceeded to adopt lockdown measures at both national and sub-national levels, the people were gripped by fear and anxiety. COVID-19 was something strange that they could not deal with. The fact that it turned out to be a global pandemic, spreading like wildfire, burning down lives and hopes, made the situation more frightening. When government following the pattern observed elsewhere decided to ease the lockdown, and businesses were allowed to re-open in order to save the economy from total collapse, Nigerians heaved a sigh of relief and began to run their lives in spite of the virus. They respected the non-pharmaceutical interventions that government prescribed for a while, but in due course all the masks disappeared. Even the isolation centres that were set up in different parts of the country became inactive. Many of those isolation centres were shut down and the healthcare workers were re-assigned.
We began to hear less and less of those phrases that defined the pandemic at its peak: contact tracing, physical distancing, social distancing, use of sanitizer. When the lockdown was eased, the Presidential Task Force and the state governments rolled out a number of prescriptions. Religious bodies were required to reduce their gatherings to half the capacity of the hall in which their events took place. The register of those who attended such gatherings was expected to be kept so that in the event of an outbreak of infections, it would be possible to trace contacts and contain any form of community spread. I love going to the market to buy vegetables, sea food and other items. Over the years, this has provided me the opportunity to mix and mingle with the real people of Nigeria. A typical Nigerian market has a life of its own.
As the pandemic raged, there were local government officials manning the entry points to the markets. I recall being sent back to the car more than twice, with a very polite reminder that without a mask, I could not be allowed entry. I dutifully obeyed with apologies, or I promptly fished out my mask and wore it, following which I would stretch out my hand for a shower of sanitizer. Supermarkets insisted on the same protocol, but that didn’t impress me, because once you got into the store, you could see all manner of reckless persons yanking off their masks. Because there were no sanctions and Nigerian leaders who made the rules did not show the example, the people themselves gradually began to conclude that COVID-19 is a scam, some form of “play-play” (that is a Nigerian term) with which Nigerian politicians siphon money from the state treasury. They could see politicians organizing rallies at which they disregarded COVID-19 protocols. They could see government officials walking about as if they had a form of divine immunity. The religious leaders did not help matters. Some of them pointedly told the people that there is nothing called Corona virus, and that a Christian is covered by the blood of Jesus. For some reason, the prevalence rates in Africa was quite low, except perhaps in the colder parts of the continent (the Cape Province and Gauteng in South Africa and in the countries of North Africa). Every one relaxed. Corona Virus became classified as a rich man’s affliction, from which the poor were allegedly protected.
I recall attending a small family get-together at the time when everyone was almost forgetting about the virus. I arrived at the event wearing a mask. Really modest gathering, to honour a friend who had recorded yet another significant milestone in his life. The moment my friend welcomed me into his compound, he kept telling me to remove my mask. I refused. I wasn’t prepared to take any risks. He then asked me to look around if I could see anyone wearing a mask. Indeed, nobody else wore a mask. The jollification was in full swing. I looked around. There was this woman gyrating like a cone on the dancing floor, thrusting her chest and derriere in a tantalizing, mermaid-like, manner, enough to distract a man of gentlemanly manners. I got carried away for a moment as I fixed my gaze on her wondrous assets.
“Dr, I say remove this mask. You can’t be the only one wearing a mask at this gathering. People will laugh at you.”
“No. I will keep it on. Corona Virus is real. It has not gone yet. Have you not been following what is going in the United States and Europe? We even hear that the situation could get worse before the end of the year.”
“That is in those places. They are the ones who know what sin they have committed that God is punishing them for. In this our own town, there is no Corona here. Evil is not our portion in the name of Jesus!”
“There is Corona in this your town my brother. Every day on Arise TV, we track the Corona virus trend, and offer analysis. I know what I am talking about.”
“That is television. You people must have something to say every morning. Even if nothing exists, you will create it and use sweet mouth to convince people. I beg, come and sit down and eat and drink. Let me see whether you will drink through the face mask. Mr. Co-ro-na!”
When it was time to take pictures with my friend and his family, and I showed up in front of the camera, still with a face mask, he was the one who personally removed my mask with his hands. “My friend, respect yourself, you want to take pictures with me, you are wearing a mask. How would I convince anybody that you travelled all the way from Lagos to honour me?” It was the last community, family-oriented event that I attended in the year 2020. As if I knew…!
As the year drew to a close, we began to hear reports of a second variant of the virus, that is deadlier, more dangerous and 70% more transmissible than the original virus named COVID-19. The mutant variant was reportedly sighted in the United Kingdom where a Third Wave had already forced the authorities to impose a tiered system of lockdown on the entire country. The same variant was also sighted in South Africa and in due course in other countries of the world: 33 as at the last count. Many countries began to shut their borders again as the virus remained capricious. Meanwhile, the emergence of a new variant of it, abbreviated the joy that the world had experienced with the emergence of vaccine candidates with impressive safety, efficacy and immunogeneticity profiles which had already been granted emergency authorization and deployed across the world. Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, Astra-Zeneca-Oxford and the vaccines they came up with raised hopes that humanity would at last beat the virus. In the US, UK, Canada, UAE, Russia, China and across Europe, clinical trials ad vaccinations were in progress. Scientists worked round the clock to reduce and checkmate the terror of the virus. There were hiccups and concerns, but it was instructive to see the amount of devotion that the war against corona virus generated across boundaries.
Nigerian authorities would eventually wake up. They began to warn afresh about the need to #take-responsibility. The Presidential Task Force and the National Centre for Disease Control announced that the infection rate in Nigeria was going up. They further disclosed that the new variant that was reported in the UK in September had actually been identified at a Genomics Laboratory at Redeemer’s University, Ede, Osun State, Nigeria, in a research led by Professor Christian Happi and his team. If the UK had probably not raised the alarm, Nigeria would not have drawn attention to this fact. By the last week of the year 2020, the country was already recording over 1, 031 infections per day, and that grew steadily to 1, 074 cases per day. Still, the people couldn’t be bothered. They defied government counsel and continued to hold all kinds of parties: weddings, funerals, house-warmings, naming ceremonies. The counsel that people should stay away from large gatherings during the Yuletide and New Year season was ignored. Lagos and other state governments re-imposed curfews and threatened that there would be sanctions. Lagos declared what it called “Operation No Tolerance”. Government could well have been talking to the deaf.
The people rang in the New Year on their own terms. They trooped to the beaches in large numbers. One video showed a sea of heads at a beach in Lagos! Entertainment spots were filled up. End of the year parties were held. On cross-over night, the churches welcomed end-of-year revelers who brazenly advertised their violation of the law. We stepped into the year 2021, against the background of fears that the numbers will rise and there may be chaos lurking around the corner. When reminded of their own folly, the average Nigerian would tell you that COVID-19 had disappeared with the year 2020! When told that in one week alone, 20 doctors died and that more celebrity deaths were recorded, the people ignored the message. To have a community where the people do not care whether they die or not is a classic representation of Nigeria’s descent into anomie.
In one word, Nigerians refused to take responsibility. The government failed to enforce its own rules. I used to urge the Nigerian government to pay more attention to public communication and adjust its strategies. At this point, I am beginning to doubt my own prescription. It may now be difficult to convince anyone that strategic communication is the problem. One year after the virus, I do not think that there is anyone in the world who has not heard of COVID-19. People in the rural areas have relatives and friends living in the cities. Both rural and urban residents know at least one person living in Europe or North America and Asia. The No. 1 topic in the media has remained the scourge of COVID-19. We are paying the price for the lack of trust between government and the people. Why should Nigerians trust the same political leaders who kept COVID-19 palliatives for themselves and used them as birthday gifts? One of the most enduring images of 2020 was that of poor Nigerians forcing warehouses and the homes of politicians open to liberate COVID-19 palliative materials. Thus, when government officials talk about saving the people, nobody takes them seriously. The people would rather resort to self-help.
In Nigeria, this has proven to be costly. The vacuum created by the government has been filled by merchants of faith, spell-binders and mercenaries engaged in a “Plandemic war” – a war of misinformation by anti-vaxxers. Their main arena is the social media and the pulpit where they spew conspiracy theories about how COVID-19 is an artificial creation by Big Pharma and a greedy, cross-border capitalist elite, or as they argue, unconscionably, a ploy to create a World Government under the control of the Illuminati. There are now about 31 million people following anti-Vaccine groups on Face Book and You Tube. The church is part of this anti-Corona movement. Pentecostal Pastors are particularly notorious. They hide under divine immunity to mislead their congregation and impose their own alternative facts. There is a video in circulation for example of Pastor Chris Oyakhilome where he tells his captive audience: “Let me show you something. A calendar.” And then he goes on to indoctrinate the people relying on a calendar nobody else has seen.
It must be possible for the Congregation to interrogate pastors and ask cogent questions. No Pastor should be allowed the affectation of Solomonic imperialism that we now see in Nigerian churches. It is even more disturbing that some politicians have joined the trend. There is this other video showing Senator Dino Melaye speaking evangelically about COVID-19 and the vaccine. He asked people pointedly not to take any vaccine. I thought the man in the video was a body double. But he looked like Melaye quite alright. I was alarmed. Melaye was not dancing, singing, or making comedy, for which he is well known. He was dead serious. That is the reality of our situation. I won’t be shocked if my carpenter suddenly shows up tomorrow as the Anthony Fauci of Nigeria and he gets a sizeable followership!
It is the failure of government and the crisis of leadership that is at play. Towards the end of 2020, we had the untidy situation whereby the Presidential Task Force openly blamed state governments for failing to sustain the interventionist pathways funded by the Federal Government and the Organised Private Sector under the auspices of CA-COVID and the Central Bank of Nigeria. The states were asked to reopen the isolation centres. But how many of those isolation centres and laboratories are still functioning or in good shape? They have probably been looted. The Federal Government also asked the states to suspend the re-opening of schools till January 18, 2021. Some of the states are insisting they would re-open schools anyway. One state government’s spokesperson reportedly said they would listen only to the Governor of their State. So is this about ego then? What does this tell us? Lack of synergy. The Federal Government says we should expect vaccines by end of January. How? Which vaccines? Are we on any waiting list? Have we made orders? Is there an operational plan in place? We are in January already. Nigeria needs to learn how other countries like Greece, for example, manage these things. And then the other day, the Federal Government published a list of 100 passport numbers, travellers who failed to observe the 7-day post arrival, mandatory PCR test. Of what use are those passport numbers? Is it not better to name the owners of the passports? Nigeria needs to get its acts together. We are far behind. We need new thinking.