COVID-19 has reiterated how lack of imagination is Nigeria’s nemesis

There is a sculpture in my hometown that I am not fond of. If you walk through Marina Road in Badagry, you might catch a glimpse of a green human-sized sculpture in the unmistakable form of a London Dry Gin bottle. There is the story behind this sculpture. According to the oral history, back when Badagry was one of the largest slave ports in Africa and the town’s economy was almost entirely built on exchanging humans for commodities like gin, guns, cannons and corrugated roofing sheets, a man once gave away his young wife and daughter in exchange for a single bottle of gin.

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After consuming the contents of the bottle and later returning to his senses, he regretted what he had done, but there were no return policies in those days – despite his anguish, the deed was done. The sculpture was later built as a memorial to the sort of extreme human short sightedness, greed and lack of imagination that saw Africa export over 12 million human beings in exchange for consumable items. If you draw the line forward, it was also what eventually led to Africa being apportioned across a conference table in Wilhelmstrasse, Berlin, leading to its current ahistorical and nonsensical border lines.

Whenever I am in Badagry and I drive past that sculpture, I always wonder whether the entire course of history could have been changed immeasurably if a few powerful people across those coastal West African civilisations had looked at the extortionate human cost of those cannons and corrugated roofing sheets one day, and thought to themselves, “You know what? I bet if we tried, we could make these things ourselves. What’s the worst that could happen?”

It would have only taken a bit of imagination.

There is an Established Narrative – So What?

It is only sensible to point out that a solution must be relevant to its environment for it to work, and that it must not end up being worse than the problem

Nigeria’s COVID-19 response strategy is a fantastic, detailed document that accounts for everything except the most important detail – where it will be executed. Heavy on terms like “total lockdown,” “aggressive measures,” “flatten the curve,” “widespread testing,” “contact tracing” and “self isolation,” it would work brilliantly in practise if it were written for Denmark or Estonia. For Nigeria? Not so much.

The best way to explain the disconnect is to liken it to the time when I was a 14 year-old preparing for my Key Stage 3 test and I came across a multiple choice question in my science textbook asking to identify which of the given temperature values was “a fairly warm day.” The highest given value was 19 degrees celsius so I was at a loss. Here in Lagos, 19 degrees celsius is a fairly cold AC setting. A fairly warm day would be at least 30 degrees celsius surely? Noticing my confusion, the teacher quickly pointed out that the textbook and syllabus were British, so 19 degrees celsius was the correct answer. 

In my Nigerian reality, the given answer was counterintuitive and clearly wrong, but for the purpose of passing the test, I had to suspend my reality and pretend to be a student in Warwickshire, as against Ikeja GRA. This little anecdote was the best way I could think of to describe how Nigeria’s handling of COVID-19 is both theoretically correct and disastrously wrong at the same time. Unfortunately it is no sterile academic exercise and the lockdown currently paralysing Nigeria’s economy is not a drill. What do we do now?

There are two schools of thought on this subject. The first is that we can make ourselves feel better about our situation by at least pretending to do something which generally comes down to restricting movement, halting trade and tracing exposed contacts. The second is that we can accept certain probable albeit unpopular positions about our situation and develop a strategy for dealing with COVID-19 without shuttering the country. 

Said positions are as follows: 

  • The fallout of a shuttered Nigerian economy will inflict a greater death toll than whatever COVID-19 can manage. 

  • In the event of a Nigerian recession, every GDP percentage point decline comes with a physical death toll.

  • Nigeria has already crossed the exposure and infection rubicon and the virus continues to spread exponentially – pretend-lockdown or not. 

  • The NCDC’s infection numbers are in the low hundreds because fewer than 5,000 people in total have been tested. The real number is definitely several multiples of the official number. 

  • Despite this, we are not seeing the death or sickness that was widely expected – and in the era of cheap internet access and $30 Android phones, we would be drowning in anecdotal evidence if it existed. 

  • This can only mean that the vast majority of infected people in Nigeria are asymptomatic. When juxtaposed with our population’s median age of 17.9 and the sad reality that most immunosuppressed Nigerians do not tend to last long because of our woeful healthcare infrastructure, there is the possibility that Nigeria (and indeed much of Africa) has unintentionally evolved a crude, Darwinian form of immunity.

Now the existence of mass Nigerian immunity is not an established scientific fact, nor would it be something to be particularly proud of if it were, but the point is that in order to respond effectively to this threat, we should be examining our own data and arriving at decisions exclusively geared toward our own unique reality. If we continue with our pretend-lockdowns that achieve nothing while destroying our economy and worsening the recession that is already waiting for us, nobody will give us a conformity medal afterward for adhering to the European strategy. 

As I have repeatedly pointed out, the deaths of COVID-19 victims are not more valid than the deaths of those who die of Nigeria’s wrong-headed response to COVID-19. They are just as dead as each other. At latest count, six people have died on COVID-19 in Nigeria, while police and military brutality stemming from the “lockdown has already killed no fewer than nine people so far. What manner of a solution is worse than the problem?

We must also not be afraid to discuss and interrogate ideas that challenge the accepted wisdom surrounding this topic. Currently, there is a chilling effect around Nigeria’s COVID-19 discourse. Any suggestion that “Lockdown-and-Inshallah” is ultimately meaningless and unsustainable, is immediately shouted down in a hail of outrage and condescension from a group of loud overnight virology PhDs. This shrill, self-righteous screeching which is really nothing more than some more Nigerian faux-elite social signaling (“Look at me! I watch CNN! That makes me an expert!) must be faced down.

It is only sensible to point out that a solution must be relevant to its environment for it to work, and that it must not end up being worse than the problem. “Lockdown-and-Inshallah” might work brilliantly for the white people who created that strategy, but that is because they come from countries whose governments can print everlasting amounts of money to keep their economies going even with their populations indoors, while avoiding the inflation risk as global reserve currencies. Nigeria does not have that luxury. 

The last time a heavily populated country found itself in the economic neighbourhood Nigeria is lurching into, it led to the rise of a certain mustachioed Fuhrer and eventually World War II, which took 85 million lives on its own, and later morphed into the equally bloody wars of the latter 20th century. The story started with Germans eating out of refuse bins as their economy crashed in the early 1930s. It ended with two nuclear bomb craters in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Sure, there are no nuclear bombs in Nigeria, but there is an alarming proliferation of cheaply available illegal small arms. 

As any historian will tell you, nothing is deadlier than a broken economy.

Pandemic Response Without Social Sciences is Headless Dancing Chicken Voodoo

…people wearing white lab coats at the Federal and State Health Ministries and the NCDC held serious-faced meetings with important government officials where they read out printed copies of other people’s ideas and adopted them wholesale.

The most telling evidence of the complete lack of original thinking or creativity characterising Nigeria’s COVID-19 response is the idea that defeating a viral pandemic is a problem that only concerns scientists wearing white lab coats and the governments that apparently must listen exclusively to them. Social scientists who predict, explain and modify human behaviour are seen as secondary to the “hard” science types. This is an idea imported wholesale from the developed world, where there is a high level of relative economic and behavioural uniformity, that makes predicting and planning for human behaviour less difficult and comparatively less important.

In a place like Nigeria, where more than 100 million people live in extreme poverty and six more join that number every minute, this is a ludicrous strategy. Here,the principal issues in tackling the pandemic are not in fact medical, but economic and social. Developed countries like the UK can deploy uniform lockdowns as a strategy because they are reasonably sure that most if not all of their population will be able to understand what a lockdown is, and will have the circumstances that permit them to stay indoors. Nigeria on the other hand, has one of the world’s highest rates of urban homelessness for example, so deploying a lockdown order and telling such people to “stay at home” achieves what exactly? 

In the UK, a person is considered to be living in poverty if their monthly income falls below £608 (N278,000), which works out at about £7,296 (N3,336,800) per annum. In Nigeria, only eight percent of the population earns N60,000 and above monthly, which is less than a quarter of what the UK considers to be its poverty line. People living in the developed world almost unanimously also have access to high quality accommodation, healthcare, 24-hour power supply, pipe-borne water and gas, and cheap high speed internet connections.

It does not take a PwC consultant or a BusinessDay columnist to tell you that any attempt to copy and paste what works in that society into one where most people fight off literal starvation through daily income from informal employment, is the 21st century equivalent of rival African settlements desperately fighting each other for the pyrrhic victory of obtaining corrugated roofing sheets. When dealing with a pandemic in a country with a doctor to patient ratio of 1:3500, where most urban residents live in chaotic, unplanned, high density structures with up to 20 families sharing communal kitchen and bathroom facilities, the guy wearing a white lab coat is actually the least important of the scientists concerned.

More important in our context are the economist, the historian, the geographer, the anthropologist and the behavioural psychologist. These are the scientists who can provide reliable predictions and explanations of human behaviour in our peculiar context of extreme social dislocation, widespread poverty and negligible public infrastructure, enabling us to plan for it and create a strategy around it, instead of fighting a futile war of attrition against it. These professionals by the way, were consulted when developed countries came up with their COVID-19 response strategies. They were the ones who gave the verdict that “Stay at home” was a viable plan and a viable message to those populations by virtue of the high level of internal cohesion those countries enjoy.

They were not consulted here. Instead, people wearing white lab coats at the Federal and State Health Ministries and the NCDC held serious-faced meetings with important government officials where they read out printed copies of other people’s ideas and adopted them wholesale. There was zero strategic thinking or multilateral consulting that went into the so-called Nigerian response plan, which is why despite being proportionally the world’s most underpoliced country with no reliable knowledge of how many people live within its borders and where they are, “contact tracing” is supposedly a key pillar of the pandemic response plan. Unsurprisingly, more than 6,000 of said COVID-19 contacts are currently at large, with their chance of being identified and brought in for testing and isolation only marginally greater than zero.

At the rate we are going, someday when the story of the Great Nigerian Depression that started in 2020 is being told, our descendants will shake their heads in amazement the way we do when we walk through Marina Road and hear the tales of incredible human foolishness that once took place there.“Why didn’t they have the imagination to attempt to make their own gin?” will morph into “Why didn’t they have the imagination to come up with their own original plan to suit their own reality?”

I hope the answer won’t be “Because we wanted validation from CNN.”

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