By Ray Ekpu
The battle against the dreaded pandemic, COVID-19 is still raging four months after we started confronting the monster.
The number of the afflicted goes up everyday just as the number of the dead keeps rising despite the best efforts of the brave managers of the pandemic in our midst. There is no vaccine or cure for it now so what we are doing is the equivalent of flying blind. Anyone who is hit by it may survive miraculously or he may just die. But even with the deaths recorded worldwide some people in Nigeria still think it is a hoax, that it does not exist or if it exists it cannot kill Africans because the heat and the humidity in Africa can kill it dead. Some think that it is only a tad worse than malaria and any drug that can cure malaria, when taken in a bigger dose, can perform the magic on COVID-19. Many of these Doubting Thomases are literate, most of them are not. But literate or not it is important for us to accept that it is better to err on the side of caution than on the side of nonchalance. I think we should urge the doubters to look at it this way.
(1) If it exists and you take the necessary precautions you will be safe. You will lose nothing.
(2) If it does not exist and you take the necessary precautions you are safe. You will lose nothing. So either way taking appropriate precautions is a wise approach to the pandemic. It will enable you to have a victory walk at the end of the day. When our governments first learnt of the deadliness of the pandemic their attitude was to take the extreme step of imposing a full-scale lockdown of the most highly affected communities namely Lagos, Ogun and Abuja. But we all knew that this virus respects no borders or boundaries. It is peripatetic, it goes anywhere it wants and settles down there.
Besides, Nigerians are perpetual travellers. They are locusts and are found almost everywhere on planet earth. That fact points to the view that our lives may be in a dramatic free fall because we are all linked in several ways. The explosion in the numbers of the infected was bound to happen because in Nigeria we lack the discipline even in matters of life and death such as this.
Add to that the fact that those whose responsibility it is to police the restrictions were actually in need of being policed otherwise they would compromise their mandate. And did they compromise their mandate? Don’t ask me. Find out for yourself how people were able to travel through several states without being restrained, arrested or detained. For those whose duty it was to stop potential defaulters, this is Christmas time when people enjoy the benevolence of gift-givers, voluntary or involuntary. This loose policing must have added many points to the growing numbers of the infected. After a few weeks of a theoretically complete lockdown and a few cups of rice and garri as palliatives the “poorest of the poor” who eke out a living on a daily basis couldn’t be locked down anymore. They broke the barriers and spilled into the streets threatening to show the privileged what they are capable of doing when hunger knocks on the doors of their face-me-I-face-you huts.
Those whose businesses were grounded and whose wallets were getting empty knew that these wallets were in need of replenishment. They, too, joined the bandwagon of those who wanted the lockdown loosened. Include in this category the churches who must have lost millions in tithes and offerings because their members needed to keep their wallets in their pockets since no one knows how long this will last. So all of these groups – and more – started piling pressure on the Federal and State Governments to take them back to the happy shores of normalcy. That hasn’t happened because there is yet no solution to the pandemic. Scientists in various parts of the world are burning their midnight oil in the search for the solution. Pharmaceutical companies are standing by, competing with each other, as the search for the solution continues. Several people and groups both in Nigeria and elsewhere are claiming to have found the cure but the world’s prefect in medical science, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has not given its nod yet to any of the claimants. This is not entirely a medical adventure. It is also high-wire politics and any scientist or group of scientists to whom WHO gives its stamp of approval is made, and made for ever. In Nigeria, the policing is haphazard.
In Rivers and Kaduna States there is tough policing. In Kano and a few other states there is lackadaisical policing. In Lagos the relaxation is almost complete, everyone is on the road now and the traffic gridlock is back in full force. And that is a State where the numbers are going up daily. But it is also the State where the corporate world makes its money from judging by the numerous multinational and blue chip companies and the choked ports. You cannot lock it down for ever. But the key in all this is how to find what will work both for our health and our economy, the win-win formula, the workable rule of thumb. We all are on the horns of a dilemma. We need to curtail the spread of the virus and we need to invigorate our economy. And what is the perfect formula for achieving both without jeopardising either? No one is sure.
It is a hit or miss, a trial and error affair. In some countries that decision is affected by the hurly burly of politics. In America, President Donald Trump who is facing a re-election battle in November is very conscious of the adverse consequences of a prolonged lockdown for his re-election bid. He is directing the States to reopen now and this includes synagogues and churches which he now classifies as “essential services.” He says we need to pray more, not less as if we cannot pray in our houses. Of course, he also wants the manufacturing and other businesses to open now. That will reduce the number of people filing for unemployment benefits. The unemployment figures will probably go down by election time in November. If not the opposition Democratic Party, will pounce on that and tell the voters that he has not been able to make America great again as he promised in 2016. That is part of the battle that Trump is having with New York, the Big Apple, which is a significant Democratic Party State. America’s exceptionalism will be questioned during the elections.
In Nigeria, there are no elections on the horizon except the Governorship elections in Edo State on September 19 and Ondo State on October 10. It is uncertain what impact the COVID-19 pandemic will play as a voting factor in the two elections but I think there are enough issues in each of the two states to grab the attention of the voters without the pandemic becoming a hot-button issue. However, considering current rumblings in the two states the elections are unlikely to be a cake walk for the incumbent Governors. Still, they should be able to get their people to give them a nod for the second time to ensure stability and continuity in project development.
There is growing pressure in Nigeria for the government to open schools and worship centres. It is probably easier to relax the restrictions on worship centres if those who run those facilities are going to be reasonable about it by keeping to approved guidelines. The Vatican had banned congregational services for several weeks until recently when it was lifted with some guidelines. Saudi Arabia had announced since March, that mosques would no longer be open for the customary five daily prayer sessions or Friday congregation service. The followers of these religions are supposed to borrow a leaf from their leaders by submitting themselves to appropriate directives given by municipal authorities.
Afterall the Good Lord had said that where two or three are gathered in his name He would be there. This should encourage religious leaders to accept that these times are abnormal times which demand a quiet acceptance of abnormal directives. It is possible for churches and mosques to hold their services in batches so that there will be no congestion but the unruly way we manage things in Nigeria keeping to the rules may become a problem. But since the Federal Government has asked the religious bodies to provide a template that will facilitate the reopening it is better to wait for their submission. Opening schools may be a little tricky in terms of social distancing except there are enough desks and enough classroom spaces. Some schools, including universities are overcrowded. While some of the students have chairs to sit on some of them just squat or perch on the windows to receive lectures. In such schools, there will be problems except they have big, multipurpose halls that can be converted to classrooms that permit social distancing. This calls for more investment in our schools because this pandemic has exposed the poor learning and teaching environment of our educational institutions. Germany and Denmark have decided to open their schools on a limited basis. The United Kingdom plans to reopen its schools in the first week of next month.
No one knows specifically how these will work but it is certain that with their highly developed technological devices in schools they will cope better than Nigerian institutions. As we battle to find the right balance between closing and opening our space between life and lucre, we find that there are not too many choices and even the available choices lack precision. We are therefore between the rock and the hard place, between the devil and deep blue sea. This is because the COVID-19 numbers are snowballing due to a number of factors. Contact tracing is made difficult by the fact that a lot of people choose to provide false and misleading phone numbers and addresses and travel information.
We also do not have a large capacity for isolation centres even though some public spirited people have donated spaces for this purpose. Besides, many people who should be isolated make themselves unavailable for that purpose because of the stories of poor facilities and poor treatment of the isolated persons and the possibility of stigmatisation. It is obvious that the country’s testing capacity is low as many states have to send their samples to places far away from them and it takes several days to get the results. So the numbers that the COVID-19 management authorities are dishing out to the public daily are probably very conservative. This is because many people are not being tested. In the rural areas people may die from the pandemic and it may be attributed to something else possibly witchcraft. Such deaths may never be captured in the official figures of the pandemic given by the PTF. Eventhough there is a daily uptick in the numbers we must be conscious of the fact that it is very unlikely that we have covered the field fully. We must make an allowance for that so that we do not make the mistake of thinking that the curve is being flattened when it is not.