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Life or economy, the choice is ours

After five weeks of a half-hearted lockdown, Nigerians looked forward to this week of relaxed restriction with great expectations. People were crying of hunger, deprivation, inactivity, and in the absence of a social security system to guarantee at least two-square meals to 200 million people, the government capitulated. Apart from ordinary Nigerians, those who control the economy — corporate Nigeria, the banking sector inclusive, was losing money — and so cried to government for help. Even the public sector was not left out. Many a contractor, bureaucrat, technocrat, who live off government, and depend heavily on government patronage, asked for the reopening of the economy.

And for governments (federal and states) with insufficient investment in healthcare, inept, and led by the nose by a few powerful elites, it is not a surprise the way we fumble and exhibit tactlessness in our knee-jerk responses to the global pandemic.

So it was that Monday, May 4, which was anticipated like Christmas or Sallah, eventually came. Never in recent time had expectation been this high, because the world had never endured such a long forced holiday.

The feeling was both exhilarating and liberating, the way prisoners feel before taking the long walk to freedom. As excited as the populace was about the partial opening up of the country, have we paused to think or reflect on the exponential rise in coronavirus cases that may arise?

Already more cases are unravelling. On April 30, the director-general of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu, during the presidential task force briefing, said they were considering managing COVID-19 patients in their homes, indicating that the country’s isolation centres are already over-stretched.

“Ultimately, we might have to change our strategy a little bit, start considering home care in certain circumstances, where first we are able to provide a room where a patient can be managed sufficiently, and secondly we are able to support the care by enabling healthcare workers to come in”, emphasising further thus: “we are struggling at the moment”, and the “pressure is there”.

Over-spewing isolation centres are an indication of inadequate preparation for the tragedy of the century. And it is not just about isolation centres. Do we have enough health personnel to manage cases in hospitals, and now homes? What kind of houses are we talking about? How do you isolate an infected case in a room and a parlour apartment, where at least four family members/occupants live? As unrealistic as the idea is, it shows desperation on the part of NCDC to have thought of it in the first instance.

While Nigerians are now being told to “donate” their homes as isolation centres, the question again is whether ordinary Nigerians can afford to vacate their homes or is it only those who have enjoyed government patronage that would move out of one of the many homes they might have acquired?

That same evening of April 30 (at 11:50 pm), when the COVID-19 statistics came out, 204 had been infected across the country in 24 hours — the highest single day infection for the first time. The next few days witnessed an upsurge in cases all over the country.

Yesterday was unprecedented: 245 new cases were recorded within 24 hours, and we do not know what is ahead of us.

The scary implication of the flurry of activities after a relaxed lockdown, at a time that community transmission is beginning to spike and more infected but asymptomatic people are being discovered, can be likened to suicide.

It will be a calamity to choose bread and butter over life, but even more worrisome for government to kowtow to corporate Nigeria and technocrats than save Nigerians from themselves.

History is replete with this line of argument. The story is told of how a part of France, Marseille’s indiscretion over an epidemic turned tragic.

“In 1720, a ship was quarantined at the port of Marseille because a strange infection was killing people on the ship. Deputy Mayor of Marseille lifted the quarantine to “help the economy”. 100,000 people died. More than half of Marseille died.” That was the Great Plague of Marseille. The government of Marseille felt they could not afford to lose all the valuable goods on the ship as it would destroy the economy. As they lifted the quarantine and moved the goods into the city of Marseille, they moved in the infection. More than half of Marseille citizens died. Marseille is a major port city in the south of France. Just as Lagos is in the south of Nigeria.

The Great Plague of Marseille is a huge warning to governments never to prioritise the “economy” ahead of human lives and public health. It can be a very costly mistake. “We can always rebuild the economy, but we can never revive the dead” (author unknown).

We should recall that the end of March, when the first two-week lockdown was announced, was when news first broke of high profile cases of coronavirus infection, including Governors Nasir El-Rufai and Bala Muhammed of Kaduna and Bauchi States respectively, the late chief of staff to the president, Abba Kyari, and the former managing director of the Petroleum Products Marketing Company (PPMC), Suleiman Achimugu, who also died.

So, everybody saw the need for the lockdown, except Kano State, which displayed ignorance, recklessness and was in denial of the propensity of coronavirus to infect and kill in large numbers.

In the month of April, a lot of water went under the bridge. The issue of palliatives and an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan to jumpstart the economy dominated discourses. As a country, we failed woefully to provide enough palliatives to people in the informal sector, and because our Sovereign Wealth Fund had recklessly been depleted, we had to run to that notorious Bretton Wood institution, IMF. Unfortunately, chances are that the funds gotten from IMF might not serve the basic needs of the people, yet it is a debt for generations to come to pay.

Within these past months, job losses have been tremendous. Though we have no reliable statistics on this, almost every household has been affected. According to the latest information from the National Bureau of Statistics, more than 82.2 million Nigerians are poor, by which they mean those who live on less than one dollar per day. This also constitutes about 40.1 per cent of the population, meaning four out of 10 Nigerians live on N137,450 per annum. And now COVID-19.

Despite the existential challenges associated with the lockdown, the alternative is the risk of unmitigated community transmission if we fail to adhere to laid down protocols. Government might have capitulated to pressures from all angles, because it has no answers to the possible unrest that would follow the lockdown.

Therefore, as we risk exposure to COVID-19, through the relaxation of restriction, bear in mind that you are on your own. My appeal to all — parents who have young children to look after, the youth who have big dreams ahead of them, all of us already weighed down by the heavy burden of responsibility, is to choose life by remaining at home and staying safe. Manage the little you have; coronavirus kills faster than hunger.

Let me also share with you useful tips and lessons I came across on WhatsApp as we go into the uncertain world of the next few weeks.

“Lockdown is being relaxed, not because we are winning the battle against the virus but because government cannot afford to meet our needs at home for a long period. They know that continuously asking hungry people to stay at home may have unpleasant consequences like revolts.

“Don’t lose yourselves as you go out and don’t subject your immunity to trial. The unknown underlying ailments in people’s bodies could be the fertilisers for COVID-19 to thrive in infected persons. The risk is still there.

“As we are told, regularly wash hands with soap and water; use hand sanitisers; keep physical distance and leave home for essential reasons only. You are on your own.

“Relaxation of lockdown is just to take you off social media so that your daily attack on the government can be reduced. You are on your own. Relaxation of lockdown is to silence the opposition party who is already blaming the ruling party for insensitivity. You are on your own. Use your brain, you are on your own”. (Author unknown).Attachments area

About the author

Zainab Suleiman Okino

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