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In stemming the spread of Covid-19, must we sacrifice the poor?

When the Coronavirus first emerged in the Wuhan region of Hubei province in December 2019, the Nigerian authorities could be forgiven for not knowing exactly how to respond. Perhaps, the banning of all travels to and from China would have stemmed the spread of the virus. But it wasn’t only Nigeria that dithered; the entire world was hesitant, maybe because of China’s preeminent position in global trade and commerce. Then it began to spread across the world. Rational voices urged the Nigerian government to ban travel to and from affected countries, especially China and Europe, but the Nigerian government would not budge. The reason is simple. Nigeria’s elite and middleclass are inextricably linked to Europe and the Western world, where their survival depends. A good example is Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari who depends on hospitals in London for managing his fragile health. His wife frequents the UK also for medicals and holidays and all his children went to school in the UK. The Nigerian government therefore continued to dither even when other countries were imposing travel bans and restrictions to stem the spread of the virus.

The virus eventually entered Nigeria through an Italian, who was successfully identified and isolated. Most of his contacts (179 in number) were also found and monitored. In the end, only one of his contacts tested positive after two weeks and both of them were well on the way to full recovery. While the government and the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) did a good job in quickly identifying, isolating and monitoring the contacts of the index case, it was very clear to everyone that Nigeria neither has the resources nor medical infrastructure to cope with a deluge of cases.  Nigeria was already notorious for its decrepit medical infrastructure that ensures that virtually all its elite and higher middle class outsource all of their medical needs to hospitals and doctors in Europe, America and Asia.  Nigeria clearly needed to stop new cases from arriving and spreading the virus. However, the Nigerian government continued to indulge its elite and middle class and refused to order travel and flight restrictions to stem the spread of the virus.

Predictably, the virus was imported into Nigeria by its peripatetic elite and middle class fleeing the pandemic in Europe and the US – countries also being overwhelmed by the virus. As the reality begins to dawn and cases in Nigeria and Sub-Saharan Africa – that many thought had been spared from pandemic – begins to rise, Nigeria’s terrified elite and middle class are now calling and insisting on a complete lockdown of the country, like China and Italy, to check the spread of the virus. They are quick to refer to European and Asian countries practically shutting down their countries to check the spread of the virus. But as always, they are only concerned about themselves and their survival and do not care a bit about the overwhelming poor population who live by the day and cannot afford nor survive a lockdown. Terms such as social-distancing, self-isolation and quarantining are been used liberally without any consideration for the millions of extremely poor Nigerians who live in shanties and squalid conditions or do not even have roofs over their heads.

For context, roughly half of Nigeria’s population of 200 million people live in extreme poverty, according to the poverty world clock – the highest of such poverty rate in the world. That earned Nigeria the epitaph of poverty capital of the world. Over 70 percent of the Nigerian population, according to Oxfam, live in poverty. At the root of extreme poverty and even poverty generally in Nigeria is the deprivation of access to basic necessities such as food and healthcare and sanitation.

Many of this overwhelmingly poor population live by the day, working each day to provide for their families. Take for instance, an example given by BusinessDay of Tuesday 24th March, of Tunde Akinloye, a 45-year-old vulcaniser in Apapa, Lagos, who lives with his family of eight and depend sorely of N5, 000 a day income for survival. What the news story didn’t say is that this family of eight for all purposes may be living in a one bedroom apartment, four to a room, with no access to running water and modern toilet facilities. To many in Lagos, the epicentre of the epidemic, that is even a luxury. Hundreds of thousands of others have no such luxury and practically live on the streets. How then can you shut down these people down or get them to practice social distancing, self-isolation and quarantining in such circumstances or even practice constant washing of hands?

By advocating for a complete shutdown, the less than 10 percent of the population that could afford to stock up on food and other essentials to last the proposed two weeks or more of total shutdown are not concerned about the plight of the majority 90 or more percent who live by the day and cannot afford such a shutdown and are ready to sacrifice them for their sustenance.

Earlier in the week, I was involved in a Whatsapp argument with a group of Nigerian academics, most of whom insist that I was exaggerating the poverty level in Nigeria. Some of them insist that many Nigerians can and will survive two weeks of shutdown. Some even argue that the majority of Nigerians who live in the rural areas are farmers and have food in abundant supply to last them for the duration of the shutdown.  This shows the unimaginative and narcissistic attitude of Nigeria’s elite and middle class. First, they refuse to pressure the government to do the right thing by stopping the importation of Covid-19 into Nigeria. Now that they have brought the virus into Nigeria, they are desperate to sacrifice the poor to stop its spread. It does not matter to them that the European and American countries ordering lockdowns have citizens with far higher standards of living, but even at that, their governments are still providing palliatives and even direct cash transfers to cushion the effect of the lockdown. Nigerian is currently broke and has no capacity to provide any palliative to its majority poor population in the event of a lockdown.

Clearly, a lockdown or shutdown is impossible in Nigeria. Poor Nigerians cannot and will not survive it, despite the ignorant postulations of Nigeria’s middle class. It will lead to a revolt or escalation of crimes and robberies at best. Nigeria’s overwhelming young population should provide a clue as to the strategy to adopt in limiting the spread of Covid-19 in Nigeria. The median age in Nigeria is currently 17.9 years. Compared to the median age in Italy of 45.4 years, of China – 37 years, of America – 38.2 years and of Spain – 44.9, this is an eye opener.

Finally, this pandemic has blown up the strategy and assumption of all of Nigeria’s elite and middle class population. These groups have superintended or at least watched the despoliation of Nigeria, its health and education facilities without a fight. They have always banked on or prioritised the getting of a second passport, the getting of comprehensive medical treatments and education for themselves and their children abroad. At no time did they ever factor into their equation the possibility of not being able to get out of the country or not being able to access healthcare and education abroad. Now that they are all stuck in Nigeria, hopefully, they will rethink their strategies and how they treat and relate to Nigeria.  `


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