Conversation with Azu
It’s true that Coronavirus is not among the top five most deadly diseases in Africa today. But it’s also correct that at this time, we know far less about the COVID-19 pandemic than we know about malaria, diarrhoeal diseases, Ischaemic heart diseases, meningitis, tuberculosis, or HIV/AIDS.
Yet, we’re fooling around with COVID-19 and making convenient excuses as if ignorance or malicious defiance is a remedy.
I’ve been a fool, too. When the virus was first announced in 2020, I thumped my nose at it. I argued that anyone who can survive the multitude of diseases in this country – from malaria to Lassa fever and typhoid and from meningitis to all the debilitating effects of an absent government in between – can survive anything.
Of course, I heard what I thought were rumours of COVID-19-related deaths and watched TV footages in Italy, Chile and elsewhere of health workers collecting dead bodies in churches because hospital morgues could no longer contain them. But these were distant images.
As long as it wasn’t happening to people near me, all I did was send my sympathy on an errand to those faraway places, hoping and praying that it would never happen near me.
A few persons close to me have since caught it, but never has the rate of infection among close friends and associates been so rampant and the consequences so dire as they have been in the last four to five weeks.
With four close friends and associates dead from COVID-19-related deaths recently, one recovering with his family, three currently in isolation, and a scare that left my son quarantined in the house for seven days over the same period, I don’t need a sermon to know that COVID-19 is not here to play.
Unfortunately, it has chosen our weakest moment to surge. It’s not just the time of the year when things are winding down, it’s also the period when underlying official incompetence is most visible and rampant.
Even if you make allowance for government’s sterling reputation for dodgy data at the best of times, the daily infection rate reported from Lagos and Abuja – two of the epicentres – in the last few weeks, has more than doubled, with the highest daily infection rate of 1,145 reported on December 17 and the next highest rate of 1,133 reported six days later.
Lagos is struggling with a defiant public, overpopulation and overstretched infrastructure. A source in the state public health department shared this message with me on Wednesday, “The bed occupancy rate in the Infectious Diseases Hospital (IDH), Yaba, is almost 100 per cent. Worse still, almost all patients there is oxygen-dependent.”
The previous day, Dr Ngozi Onyia, the Medical Director and Founder of Paelon Memorial Hospital, a five-star safe-care health facility in the leafy Victoria Island, wrote on the hospital’s Facebook wall, “My phones are ringing off the hook. Patients are crowding in and around the tent (our holding bay for COVID-19 positive patients). We’re making tough calls; who to take into the treatment centre and who to put on one of our four vents – ethical decisions I’ve never had to make in 38+ years…”
The situation in Abuja is worse for a number of reasons. I’m not even going to talk about Kano where Governor Abdullahi Ganduje still managed to find time for a holiday in Dubai in a week when at least three COVID-19 related high profile deaths, including his highest-ranking permanent secretary, were reported in his state.
Ganduje can at least claim brownie points over Kogi Governor, Yahaya Bello; and Cross River Governor, Ben Ayade, both undisputed clowns and renowned super-deniers.
In Abuja, a source told me on Wednesday that the Public Health Department under the Health and Human Services Secretariat of the Federal Capital Territory, which is responsible for collecting the results from laboratories and notifying patients of their status, doesn’t bother sending out results anymore.
“The department has virtually shut down”, my source said.
“Anyone concerned about their COVID-19 status has to get tested a second time at a private lab, only this time at a cost of N50,000.” That’s nearly double the official monthly minimum wage.
Meanwhile, the Surveillance Outbreak Response Management and Analysis System (SORMAS), an open-source mobile e-Health system created by the NCDC, has been overwhelmed by insufficient staff to upload test results pouring in from across the country.
The response management system set up by the Federal Government and managed by the Presidential Task Force has either collapsed or morphed into the nether land of unregulated private enterprise where the rich who can afford it buy first place even though the quality is not guaranteed, and the poor who cannot afford it use faith as medicine. If you doubt it, drive around Abuja’s main hospitals.
President Muhammadu Buhari’s government that promised to test two million people by the end of the year, has not tested half that number as of today. That pledge has entered the government’s legend of “once upon a promise”.
The deficit between promise and performance has been covered by swaths of potentially disastrous indecision about what to do with incoming flights from second-wave hit countries like the UK and South Africa; half-hearted measures about enforcing tougher public safety measures, with no follow-ups; and plain incompetence about how to secure existing public health and safety in the face of clear and present danger.
In this context, any talk about the vaccine for Nigeria is like discussing rocket science or a mission to the moon. How can we even think about that, when we’re still struggling with the basics?
Let’s get this straight. I’m not an alarmist, looking for COVID-19 in every morsel or smelling it in every droplet. Panic has never helped anyone. But the road to regret is paved by denial. Instead of blaming Bill Gates for what he said or did not say or for his real or imaginary plot to drink our blood, can we, for once, take responsibility for our own lives?
Instead of pretending that COVID-19 pandemic kills only those who are 70-plus (when research shows that a growing number of persons in their 50s have underlying conditions and are therefore potentially just as vulnerable), or believing that we can live dangerously and attend party after party because we’re Africans and somehow immortal, can we, for once, take responsibility for our lives?
And do we still remember that after governments across the country scandalously mismanaged COVID-19 supplies, help from private organisations won’t be coming anytime soon? It’s every man for himself.
When the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) released mortality modelling early on that claimed that up to 3 million Africans could die from the COVID-19 pandemic, I challenged the forecast on the grounds that in its generalisations, ECA treated Africa as a country, making almost no distinctions about the local conditions from country to country. But we must be careful not to inflict needless casualties on ourselves through careless choices.
Scientists and researchers have gone to extraordinary lengths to understand the disease, find a cure, or, at worst, provide relief. The sheer scale of damage the disease is causing all around the world – the daily loss of lives in thousands, the scar on survivors and the wrecking of livelihoods and economies – is forcing sworn enemies to find common grounds.
While the result and speed have been exceptional compared with any other previous effort for a pandemic of this scale in history, the most optimistic outcomes admit that there’s still a long way to go. Even where they are available, not one of the four vaccines so far approved for use carries a guarantee of how long they can be effective before potential re-infection.
This is not the time to look to Abuja for help when we know that the government can’t even save itself and has since stopped pretending it can.
It’s not the time to argue about what form of immunity works best – herd, lone-wolf or African talisman – when we have seen friends and family die or taken very ill from exposure to the pathogen.
It’s not the time to talk about the sociology of the vaccine whether it bears the mark of the Devil or whether it’s Malthusian’s posthumous answer to population control. It’s not even the time to talk about the politics of the vaccine when the most generous readiness test scores show that Africa is either unprepared or unwilling to receive it.
And most of all, it’s not the time to argue with anyone about whether or not COVID-19 exists and is deadly. Why argue when 1) you’re not responsible for the choices they make and 2) you have no idea of what they do behind close-doors when the argument is over?
I was a fool for months making all sorts of patriotic/nationalistic arguments that led nowhere. Until the shocking and devastating deaths of a few close friends and my son’s close shave reminded me that in a dangerous and uncertain world, self-care is the highest expression of love for others: use your face mask, avoid crowds, wash your hands with soap and running water, use multivitamins as prescribed, and observe social distancing. Be safe.
It doesn’t matter how quickly we wish the annus horribilis 2020 to go away – and God knows I can’t wait to see the back of it. There’s no guarantee of a better year ahead if we don’t take responsibility and make different choices, now.
Ishiekwene is the MD/Editor-In-Chief of The Interview.