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Strategising for the post covid 19 pandemic phase: the danger of the urge to return to normalcy

By Jaye Gaskia

Even as we, along with rest of the world are trying to contain the spread of the pandemic, and overcome its immediate destructive, debilitating and devastating impact on human health, and on the socioeconomic fabric and polity of the world and our country Nigeria; even as nations are struggling with all embracing and integrated responses to mitigate the impact with respect to economic stimulus and palliative packages; attention is already beginning to be focused on a so-called return to normalcy.

Governments are eager, with a lot of caution, to reopen their societies; and citizens who have borne the brunt of the lockdown, shutdown, self isolations and social distancing, are already on their part eager for things to return to normal.

But why is a return to normalcy such a dangerous thing, such a step in the wrong direction? Why is a return to normalcy potentially a step backwards rather than a step forwards?

The simple response is that a mere return to normalcy would be in reality, a failure to learn any lessons, let alone integrate and build on these lessons in the running of society.

Let’s face facts, it was the conditions existing under the normalcy at the time of the outbreak of the pandemic that has been responsible for everything that has been wrong with, and that has hindered and slowed down the responses from country to country, and in our country Nigeria, to the pandemic.

It was the conditions of normalcy that made the world so inadequately prepared to contain the pandemic in the first place.

It was in the pre-pandemic normalcy that all the infectious diseases scenario planning which had projected the potential for the current pandemic and similar, even more devastating ones, were simply discarded and not treated with the seriousness and urgency they deserved.

In Nigeria, six years ago, we had the Ebola outbreak of epidemic proportions. We established isolation and treatment centers, etc. But what did we do as soon as the outbreak was defeated? We went back to business as usual, we went back to normalcy. What happened to the isolation centers and treatment facilities of that time and their equipment? What happened to our public health planning and investment after that? Absolutely nothing.

One would have thought that with that experience, and given the changes happening globally, and in particular environmental changes, which could impact decisively on the development and evolution of various disease pathogens, including the transformation of hitherto harmless (to humans) pathogens into deadly human pathogens, due to changing environmental conditions; one would think that with this emerging scenario, that we would have developed and implemented a public health policy of revamping primary, secondary and tertiary healthcare facilities; and at the very least, establishing centers of excellence for infectious diseases and other diseases across the country – at least one each geopolitical zone. One would further think that these centers of excellence would be equipped with state of the art expandable research, treatment and isolation facilities and capacities.

Let’s take another instance of the ongoing response – the dimension of developing and deploying an effective socioeconomic stimulus package, that will be equitable, socially inclusive and socially just.

Such an effective stimulus would have to be such that economic subsidies and financial support are able to be effectively targeted and appropriate for each category of beneficiary and from the different sectors of the economy.

How do appropriately target and effectively distribute such stimulus to reach MSMEs as well as big businesses? How do you ensure that palliatives reach the poor, the precarious middle class, salary earners, as well as daily income earners?

The only way you can have a basis for achieving these is if as a state, you have a system of registration, keeping and updating of records and documentation of all citizens and residents of the territory of the state.

When you have such a records registry and database, you’d not only be able to reach and appropriately target individual citizens and residents (say for instance tenants and landlords; artisans and market traders; farmers and transporters; etc); but you’d also have been able to better track and reach contacts of index and confirmed cases.

Investing in public health would also have required public investment in education, in research, as well as in industrial production. Investment in education because you require to train healthcare workers, researchers, and industrial and other workers engaged in production and distribution of healthcare equipment for instance.

Ensuring, quick, rapid, and adequate response requires a high level of preparedness capacity, such that we’d have been able to deal very quickly with production and supply of ventilators, respirators, oxygen masks and tents, face masks, hand gloves and other personal protective equipment for health workers, hand sanitisers, pharmaceutical products that are required, etc.

Normalcy, the pre pandemic normalcy, was defined by all of these inadequacies, a dysfunctional state, non inclusive governance, and a state system with inadequate public investment in human capital development, and that is based on an economy that is not only monoculture, but also dependent on export of raw crude and other raw materials; an economy that lacks a national industrial production capacity and base.

So, let us be clear, as we look towards the end of the pandemic and beyond, a focus on a return to normalcy is a recipe for disaster.

We cannot return to normalcy with respect to our dysfunctional state and governance system. We cannot be working towards a return to the normalcy of a corrupt system with a failed leadership. We cannot be hungering for a return to the normalcy of a leadership and follwership crises.

Normalcy is what got us into this mess. If we are to move forward and lay the foundations for a new human civilisation based on social justice, equity and social inclusion, then we must cease the opportunity presented by this current crisis to break with normalcy, to transcend this normalcy, and to take a radical leap forward.

As a people we must emerge from this crisis with a renewed determination to build a new mass popular political movement for radical social transformation; the type of movement driven and built by selflessness acts of sacrifice of organised and mobilised citizens and residents; and that can make the case for, and ensure the radical rethinking of governance and reinvention of the state.

The state type that we need is a biometric and developmental state, that will play a leading role in national and human development, that will direct and target public investment towards delivering effective, accessible, affordable, and quality public services in education, health, housing, energy and power, transport, water and hygiene, as well as basic social infrastructure.

A state type that will deliver socially inclusive and equitable governance on the basis of social justice.

Jaye Gaskia is convener, Take Back Nigeria Movement (TBN); and director, Praxis Center.

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