COVID-19: And Here We Go Again… ~ By Olusegun Adeniyi
“From 1 January through 9 February 2020, 472 laboratory confirmed cases including 70 deaths have been reported in 26 out of 36 Nigerian states and the Federal Capital Territory. Of the 472 confirmed cases, 75% have been reported from three states: Edo (167 cases), Ondo (156 cases) and Ebonyi (30 cases) …Fifteen confirmed cases have been reported among health care workers with one death among a confirmed case and one among a probable case. Lassa fever is endemic in Nigeria and the annual peak of human cases is usually observed during the dry season…”
The foregoing is a report card on Nigeria in last Friday’s (20 February 2020) ‘Disease outbreak news’ on the website of the World Health Organisation (WHO). But losing 70 lives to Lassa fever is no big deal in a nation where dozens have died from an unknown disease in Benue State in the past few weeks, men of a special branch of the Police called SARS casually take innocent lives on a daily basis, bandits are routinely terminating lives of villagers in the North-west (51 were brutally massacred last Sunday in Igabi local government of Kaduna State) while Boko Haram and the Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP) continue their bloody business in the North-east.
It is perhaps due to the foregoing that presidential spokesman, Mallam Garba Shehu tweeted on Sunday: “This morning’s newspapers, all of them have Coronavirus as the lead, cover story. When will they bring spotlight to bear on 822 who are killed every day in Nigeria?”
While I fail to understand the import of that question and what purpose it was meant to serve, it nonetheless speaks to the value we place on human lives in Nigeria. Which then explains why the hoopla about Coronavirus is hypocritical. But the main concern is that it is easier to deal with the epidemic of any disease in Nigeria than its ‘rumour-demic’. The danger is now compounded by the spread of ‘panic-virus’ which, when combined with fake news, has no cure. And there can be no greater way of sending panic in the system than the decision by the House of Representatives to suspend plenary at a period they ought to infuse hope in the people.
Meanwhile, I must commend both the Lagos and Federal authorities for the manner in which they have handled this health emergency thus far. With the current leadership at the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and Emmanuel Akin Abayomi—a globally respected emeritus professor of medicine who has always focused on emerging infectious diseases and developing laboratory and clinical capacity to tackle them—as Health Commissioner in Lagos, I have no doubt that Nigeria will defeat Coronavirus in the same manner we defeated Ebola. And that is something some more advanced countries may not even be able to accomplish. But the current public hysteria about Coronavirus reminds me of my column of six years ago about Ebola titled, “And Then, Finally, Death Spoke…”
Before I make my observations on the Coronavirus epidemic, let me take readers back to what I wrote on 31st July 2014…
Heralded in by drummers, it was clear to all those already seated, important dignitaries in their own rights, that the new entrant was a class above them. That was because for the first time, the master of the house, the great Death himself, stood up to receive a visitor whom he allowed to sit on the throne beside his.
Apparently worried that he might have lost his preeminent place in the Kingdom of Death, Terrorism stood up to speak: “Your Majesty, High Chief Priest Death, Grand Commander of the Earth and all things beneath, I salute you. As all my colleagues here are quite aware, since 2009 when I scaled up my operation in Nigeria, nobody has given you as much blood as I have done yet I have never received the kind of attention you gave this JJC. While I am not aware of the area of expertise of this agent who just came in, one thing I am sure of: In the territory called Nigeria, nobody has served your interest as diligently as I have done in the last couple of weeks…”
“Point of Information my Lord, Your Majesty”, someone interjected. It was Strike. With Death turning the spectre he was holding in his direction, Strike knew he had the permission to speak. “I have a word for Terrorism. Yes, he has killed many Nigerians in recent days; I concede that to him. I even understand that he is now gradually turning one section of the country against another such that at the end of the day the people themselves would begin to do his job for him on a massive scale. That is very clever. But if he is talking about the amount of blood made available to Your Majesty in the last two weeks, I deserve commendation. Now that I have medical doctors working in public hospitals on my side, I supply more blood to this kingdom. Terrorism may kill with guns, knives, cudgels etc. but the fact that he helps editors to sell their newspapers doesn’t mean he has done more harm in Nigeria than me. Unlike him, I do my work quietly and I do not inflict needless pains; I simply allow Nigerians to die on the hospital beds and they do so in droves without their people paying much attention. My formula in Nigeria today is simple: From the hospital ward to the mortuary—a seamless journey!”
At this point Disease stood up and having been allowed to speak he said: “I think I am the most injured person here Your Majesty, because the nonentity you now honour so lavishly is my new creation called Ebola Virus. Yes, I designed him to kill fast but he has not even killed a single Nigerian before he is being celebrated here…”
The revelation that the agent being celebrated had not even brought in the blood of a Nigerian led to commotion in the Kingdom of Death. Cancer, Malaria, HIV/Aids, Ritualist, Kidnapper, Assassin and others stood up in protest. Knowing he had to restore a measure of order, Death commanded all his agents to sit down and keep quiet. They complied immediately. Turning to where Disease sat with all his principalities, Death paused and pointed to Strike, “Join them because I want to address all of you together.”
And then Death spoke: “Yes, you are all diligent in what you do in Nigeria and I can attest to the fact that you bring much blood every day. But ask yourselves, what has been the response to you by Nigerians? Do you command enough attention to cause tremor from Lagos to Abuja?” Turning to Cancer, he asked: “With all the people you have killed, has it compelled Nigerians to build specialist hospitals and diagnostic centres to fight you back? Even you, Mr Malaria, since you have been killing their children, was it not one busybody computer man from America who has more money than he can possibly spend in a thousand lifetimes that is fighting you back? Is that a sign that Nigerians take you very seriously? And you Strike that has been running your mouth, did you hear the sarcastic remark from the Nigerian government? They said the doctors hiding behind you are wasting their time: they will not print money because of them…”
At this point Terrorism interjected, “But I understand that this new agent also works for Disease. And if you say Disease is wrong, how many people has this agent killed?”
Waving his spectre, Death smiled and said: “But I never said Disease was wrong; his figure is quite accurate, Ebola has taken just one life in Nigeria.”
“One life?” many in the hall exclaimed in unison and Terrorism, who could not contain his anger said: “So all that he did was to take the life of one miserable Nigerian and you gave him this attention! By the way, who is this Nigerian whose life he took? A Governor, Minister or has he penetrated Aso Rock?”
Terrorism waited for an answer and Death smiled again before responding: “The victim of his operation is not even a Nigerian but a Liberian. He just took him on Nigerian soil”. Apparently sensing dissension, Death decided to cut to the chase: “Gentlemen, this guy that you see here is called Ebola Virus; he is not only deadly but more importantly very swift in his action, unlike some of you that spend years when I send you on errands”, pointing in the direction of Cancer, HIV and others. “Ebola delivers my message with immediate effect and you know in a society like Nigeria where carelessness is the order of the day, that is special.”
“But you said he has not taken any Nigeria life”, Terrorism interjected again.
“Yes”, Death responded, “But he has already created the kind of attention and drama that you no longer create…” He paused and invited Terrorism to come over. He whispered in his ears and Terrorism roared with laughter. He took a bow and said “Your Majesty, you are too much.”
Now turning to the full audience while Terrorism was still laughing hysterically, Death snapped his fingers and a big projector was turned on: “That is the victim of our friend here, the unfortunate Liberian. You can see the kind of attention he got. Did you see the elaborate preparation to dispose of the body after I took his blood? Is that not funny, especially in a country where I take life just like this?” (snapping his fingers). “However, Nigerians may be a funny lot but there is also a method to their madness. They know that with Ebola right now, there is no place to hide. Its initial symptoms can resemble those of other illnesses, especially Malaria, but by the time they know what it is, the damage would have been done. Ebola walks in a stealth manner. An odd kiss, a harmless handshake, an innocuous peck and before they know it, his victims have me to contend with. And the Nigerian big men know too well that with Ebola, they cannot run to America or Germany or United Kingdom with their Private Jets because once the authorities there hear the name of Ebola, they would not let them land.”
“What about India?” Cancer interjected.
“You know the real big people in Nigeria hardly go to India for their medicals and in any case, those who patronise Indian hospitals would not even be allowed to take off at Murtala Mohammed Airport. If they try, Ebola will simply finish the job before they complete their immigration formalities.”
Now that he has the attention of his audience, Death continued: “How many of you ever read James Hadley Chase?” With a few hands up, he further asked “do you know the character called Poke Tohola? Well, go and read the Chase novel, ‘Want to Stay Alive?’ There is a memorable line in that novel which says ‘fear is the key that unlocks the wallet and handbags of the rich…’ In Nigeria today, the fear of Ebola is the beginning of wisdom…”
At this point, an aide walked in to announce that it was time for Death to take blood. Death stood up, and as all his Agents prostrated in obeisance, he pointed his spectre in the direction of Terrorism who stood up and followed as they walked into the inner chamber. Ebola also stood up and wanted to follow but two guards prevented him. Shocked, he asked: “Don’t you know who I am?”
It was now the turn of Terrorism to laugh, again hysterically, before he said: “You are new here so you don’t know the rule. That was just your initiation but you believed all that drama, thinking you are really important. Since you are a JJC from Liberia, let me give you a brief about Nigeria. Yes, you can kill many of their people in the villages and in some remote areas of their major cities where I have also operated but after a few weeks, Nigerians will move on. They always do; as nothing catches their attention for long. In any case, there will be other drama for them to follow and they will ignore you, no matter the number of lives you take. You will become just another story…”
“What if I kill a big man, a very big man; a political leader or top government official?” Ebola asked.
“That will never happen. You cannot kill a big man, not in Nigeria”, said Terrorism.
“But I can”, Ebola insisted and he was shocked as the guards handcuffed him and were leading him out of the door. Shortly before the door was closed on him, Death delivered the final message: “Ebola, you are still naive about Nigeria. You can kill as many of the poor people as you like because in that country, the citizens have left the solutions to practically all their problems (including those self-inflicted) to God, the One you and I know help only those who help themselves. But you can never kill a real Nigerian big man because even if you do, such feat would never be attributed to you. Such a person would be deemed to have either been poisoned by his political opponent or another story would be invented…”
“They would say he was hit by spiritual arrow sent by his enemies”, Ritual interjected to draw applause from the crowd.
Staring at Ebola, this time in a menacing manner, Death continued: “You see, nobody will ever credit you with killing a Nigerian big man so you need to wise up. Now, let me share a secret with you. I operate all over the world and to be honest, I probably kill less people in Nigeria than I do in several other countries but what I like about Nigeria is that as much as their people fear me, they do practically nothing to deter my operations. I have never seen a more suicidal society than Nigeria. That way, they make my job rather easy. You see Terrorism here. He has paid his dues and still paying it. He nearly took out two prominent Nigerians last week but have you been following their discussions? Nobody gives Terrorism the credit for what happened and for that reason, there is no unity of purpose and they are not looking for ways to fight him. In fact, many enjoy making unsolicited excuses on his behalf. As far as Nigerians are concerned, all that matters now is their so-called election coming up next year and while they are doing all their permutations either to capture power or retain it, Terrorism is also planning his next target…”
To that, Ebola interjected: “But I understand Nigeria will fight Terrorism when they finally secure some foreign loan…”
That elicited a roaring laughter and Ebola was pushed out of the Kingdom of Death.
The clear signal that has been delivered to Nigeria by Coronavirus, as with previous global epidemics, is that a nation of our demographic magnitude must remain on perennial alert for such public health emergencies in an interconnected world. Somehow, Nigeria has been relatively lucky by a curious irony. Our success in combatting Ebola and hopefully COVID-19 has been a triumph of Adhocism rather than the reward of careful advance planning. But the message must be clear: No nation survives by luck and untidy preparation.
While that is a lesson that will serve us in all areas of our national life, we should use the Coronavirus emergency as a further wake up call to put in place a robust infectious diseases emergency response capability. In this regard, we need to fund research and the production of various vaccines, especially for Lassa fever that has become a perennial scourge. Even more urgently, to support the efforts of Dr Chikwe Ihekweazu, we require a well-funded and better-equipped NCDC with trained emergency care personnel at a level commensurate with our large and highly mobile population and expansive geography.
As an aside, it is very instructive that the World Health organisation (WHO) Director General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Monday that “Stigma is more dangerous than the virus itself.” Against the background that Ebola got its name from a tributary of River Congo while Lassa fever was named after a Nigerian town, we can see how racism defines the world we live in by the fact that Coronovirus was not named after Wuhan, the Chinese city where the disease originated but rather after the month and year of its first index case.
At the end, the management of Nigeria’s encounter with yet another global epidemic may be salutary, but no serious nation can afford to protect its citizens with measures driven by panic and untidy haste. To change this narrative, we must begin to see every life – ours or anyone’s – as very important and for which those in authority must be held accountable. That we have consistently failed to do this explains why Nigeria is what it is. In any society where lives do not matter, it goes without saying that nothing else will matter!
• You can follow me on my Twitter handle, @Olusegunverdict and on www.olusegunadeniyi.com