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COVID-19 and a failure of leadership

It appears that Nigeria’s reprieve from the scourge of the raging novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic might be coming to an end. As at the start of the current week, 36 cases have been confirmed across five states and the Federal Capital Territory, with many more cases likely to be confirmed in the coming days and weeks.

Unfortunately, despite having a three-month head start, and with the awareness that the nation’s weak health infrastructure would crumble under the strain of a full-blown outbreak of the pandemic, Nigeria failed to prepare adequately. Now, the nation is seemingly speeding toward a health and economic catastrophe. A sadly unfortunate situation which lays bare the leadership failure in Nigeria.

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It would be wishful thinking to expect that the Nigerian healthcare system would be capable of dealing with a pandemic which has crippled the systems of developed nations such as Italy and Spain, and almost overwhelmed China. Decades of underinvestment and misappropriation of funds have ensured that Nigeria’s healthcare system has deteriorated into one of the worst in the world. A 2018 study in the Lancet of global health care access and quality ranked Nigeria 142nd out of 195 countries.

Given an understanding of the nation’s precarious healthcare system, one would have expected that the nation’s leaders would have been more proactive in implementing measures aimed at preventing the spread of the virus to the nation, such as the restriction of flights from countries with high infection rates, restriction of citizens’ movement, adequate sensitisation of the citizenry etc., however this has hardly been the case.

Instead, what has perhaps been laid bare is the abysmal state of the nation’s leadership. In almost every other nation affected by the pandemic, including US, Canada, the UK, Germany and Ghana, these nations’ leaders have displayed varying degrees of leadership, consistently reaching out to citizens and residents with messages of reassurance and resilience. However, this has not been the case in Nigeria. Rather than lead from the front, President Muhammadu Buhari has chosen to not lead at all, only addressing the nation on Sunday evening.

In a delicate period characterized by uncertainty, fear and doubt, the nation’s leaders across various levels of government have done little to assuage these fears and doubts. This is symbolic of the void which has characterized the nation’s political leadership over several decades. The nation’s leaders across various levels of government continually fail to be proactive or act in the best interest of the electorate. At a time when the mantra world over is social distancing, the nation’s leaders have continued to attend social and religious events, not only endangering their own lives and those of their citizens, but also tacitly sending a message of nonchalance and disregard for public health and safety to the citizenry.

In the face of a crisis which perhaps threatens the existence of the nation, our leaders have chosen to display their brazen selfishness, crass disregard for public safety and general unfitness for office

In the face of a crisis which perhaps threatens the existence of the nation, our leaders have chosen to display their brazen selfishness, crass disregard for public safety and general unfitness for office.

Perhaps, the nation’s relative success with Ebola has created a false sense of security and invincibility. However, it should be noted that Nigeria’s success with the containment of Ebola was only made possible by the courageous sacrifices of numerous Nigerian healthcare workers, some of whom paid the ultimate price. Hoping for a similar miracle in the face of COVID-19 would be bordering on self-deceit, considering the peculiarities of this novel virus vis a vis the realities of Nigeria. For instance, how can social distancing and self-isolation be enforced in a country where tens of people live together in dingy single-room apartments with shared sanitation facilities?

If the nation’s first line of defence of early identification of infected individuals and tracing of their close contacts fails, Nigeria could be in for a devastating couple of months.

As for economic consequences, the outbreak has already caused severe economic and market dislocation across the globe and it is estimated that the damage caused by the pandemic to the global economy will surpass $2.7 trillion. The Nigerian economy has not remained immune to these global shocks. Last week, the Central Bank of Nigeria announced that the nation will migrate to a single exchange rate for the naira by collapsing the multiple exchange rate policy after several years of resistance.

In addition to the exchange rate adjustment, there exists the likelihood that the nation’s already high inflation rate could rise even further. Given that China accounts for about a quarter of Nigerian imports, greasing much of the country’s supply chain; and that the nation is reliant on China for raw materials, inputs and machinery utilized in local production, there is a significant possibility that the pandemic could induce an increase in the cost of local production or at least a significant reduction in the already limited local production capacity. The economic effect of this will also be an increase in the prices of goods and services, thus resulting in a rise in the inflation rate.

Furthermore, in order to curtail the spread of the virus, there might be a need to enforce a shutdown or restriction of movement. This inevitability will also have severe consequences for the economy. Overall, there is a significant possibility that another downturn in the nation’s economy induced by the COVID-19 pandemic could be imminent.

We are perhaps witnessing a pivotal moment in history which will upend social and economic status quos across the world while laying bare Nigeria’s dysfunctional leadership. Given that countries with poor leadership are even more vulnerable to the pandemic, these are worrying times to be a Nigerian. How the government responds to this impending disaster will determine if the nation will survive this existential crisis. A failure of leadership will be disastrous, with epic consequences.

There is no doubt that the world as we know it will not remain the same after this pandemic. Neither will Nigeria.

 

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