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COVID: Between a pandemic-sized rock and an impoverished hard place

COVID-19 has thundered through the world. We will speak of the pandemic for centuries to come. When children have their devices floating in the air as they waddle to school, and robots have replaced humans in many positions at the workplace, the virus that pushed the world to its knees will be one of the highlights of the history books. Tales would be told, hundreds of pieces of information would have gotten lost in translation, movies and songs would try to replicate its effect.

Less than six months ago, when Nigerians anticipated the cross-over religious services, end-of-the-year carnivals and the end of the #dettydecember (a hashtag made popular on social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, etc., to celebrate the last month of the year), it didn’t cross any minds that the year 2020 would bring with it so much pain and anguish. Well, if anybody knew, Nigerians were not listening to whisperings of doom. We went about with our celebrations and waited for the year that would signify the boost in billions of lives. Poor, delusional us.

The world is approaching the end of the first half of the year 2020 and there have been stories, articles, posts, tweets, memes clamouring for the return of the year 2019. Until the powers that be figure out a way in the time-space continuum that will afford us to travel in time, the 2019 shuttle is gone forever. The world has looked to leaders across the nations. America’s Trump has turned into a twitter joke (or not); Nigeria is playing the lockdown yo-yo with lives; China is showing the world that its mass-producer status stands even during a pandemic that slipped through its cracks; Germany’s swift moves are allowing a gradual and tentative step to normalcy; Great Britain is hobbling as it sorts through its post-Brexit situation, etc. The world is at varying levels of comatose.

As at 11:50 pm (WAT), Saturday May 16, 2020, there were 4,635,830 confirmed cases and 311,821 deaths. The world is in mourning for the lives that have been lost to the talons of a virus that in most people’s opinion should have been curtailed if the world was informed on time.

Trillion-dollar civil cases against China aside, the apparent question is – what is the solution? A solution that we can use, right now. After some chugged chloroquine to prevent being infected, there have been other promising news. Despite scepticism, approval was granted to the first antibody test for the virus by Public Health England. Other countries have hunkered down in the race to find a suitable vaccine that may take at least one year to filter down to the rest of the world. Madagascar swears by a highly disputed herbal concoction, COVID-Organics.

In Nigeria, there have been over 5,600 cases and more than 170 deaths. It takes two to 14 days for persons exposed to the virus to possibly become symptomatic. The 14-day mark since the laxing of the lockdown procedures by President Muhammadu Buhari has come and gone. And understandably, fears are rising that there might be an exponential spike in confirmed cases. Virtual religious gatherings across the country have rallied to stop this with prayers and fasting. Whether or not God is listening to a country so warped in its own special breed of corruption will be the talk of another day. Sadly, it stands to reason that with eager Nigerians searching for the elusive “daily bread” on crowded streets – with little to no regard for the fundamentals of social distancing – indeed a jump in numbers is imminent. Pray, we can; act, we didn’t; so, pay, we must!

There are debates, polls and discussions on whether another lockdown should be imposed. A lockdown would be the opportune time to ramp up testing in order to ascertain the number of the affected; isolate these from those that aren’t; and find ways to flatten the curve. However, at the rate Nigeria is testing its people, we would leave our houses on a sunny day, sometime in 2040! The country barely had the infrastructure to sustain its residents when the going was bearable, and is buckling easily in the reverse case.

Millions of Nigerians live below the minimum standard, and can barely afford to feed each day. The meagre “income” that many receive from menial jobs can scarcely sustain a family. Which means that rushing headlong into another lockdown without catering to those who cannot afford to stay indoors would be insensitive. Yet, can we also afford not to be on lockdown? We have been caught between a pandemic-sized rock and an impoverished hard place! Who will save us?

The Nigerian government is tottering under the weight of inadequate materials, infrastructure and personnel. Private sector big players such as Coca Cola, Guaranty Trust Bank, Zenith Bank, MTN Nigeria, Nigerian Breweries are searching for spades to help pull us from the chasm we are about to freefall into. Nigerian families have turned herbalists and physicians, mixing various concoctions – garlic, ginger, onions, honey – downing anti-malaria drugs to prevent the whispers of fever symptoms or any sickness at all.

And Nigeria’s healthcare system may just be upending the Hippocratic oath while they are at it. Reports surfaced on social media in April, where an angry mother of a young boy who had taken her injured son (like exuberant boys, he had played the game of football with a little more zest than needed) to a Lagos hospital, was left speechless. By the time the mother left the hospital, the boy was back to his excitable state. Why was the mother of a perfectly healthy boy angry? The receipt she was given was allegedly labelled “COVID-19 353”, which would suggest that the case was COVID-related. When she tried to clarify the reason behind the labelling, she was allegedly given a placating smile with a flimsy explanation that the nurse had been instructed to label cases as such. As if it was the norm! If this happened once, who knows how many more times this has happened since the pandemic reached our shores?

I listened gobsmacked as a colleague shared a family’s descent into mourning at the hands of the same people that have sworn to remain “free of all intentional injustice, of all mischief” (of course, that’s part of the Hippocratic Oath). The family lost its patriarch two days earlier. Their father had been ill for a few months, and was rushed to a nearby hospital when his breathing became laboured. He died a few hours later. Then, the hospital decided that mourning would be insufficient. He was signed off as a COVID patient, to be deprived of the burial rites that would help give his family some of the closure they deserved. This is the same country where we watched Nigeria’s dignitaries flood the burial of a confirmed COVID casualty! This is in no way a disrespect to the dead. It makes one wonder; how many more similar scenarios abound?

As a country, the next question may not just be “what is the solution”, but are we going about this the right way? Are we creating more obstacles for ourselves? If this is the case, who will then save us from ourselves?

As we attempt to find the impossible balance amidst poverty, a pandemic and a failing health care system, the necessity of practising social distancing is at an all-time high. For those capable of working from home, please do. For the companies that can afford work-from-home procedures, and are dragging their feet, now would be the time to recognise that people and profit can matter simultaneously (even if a modicum of empathy advises that people should prevail). For the hospitals and clinics that have resorted to creating more problems than they can solve, horrible situations as these tend to devour its orchestrators.

With all hope and optimism that a young Nigerian woman can muster, may our help come soon enough, wherever it may be – the obstacles of our creation, the rock and the hard place are closing in.

 

Iretomiwa Akintunde-Johnson

Akintunde-Johnson is a Lawyer and Public Relations Consultant living in Lagos.

 

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