TUESDAY WITH REUBEN ABATI
The biggest threat to our collective humanity today is not the suspected threat of a Third World War, but a corrosive, debilitating, murderous pathogen known as new Corona Virus. The fear of a World War III was fuelled by tensions and differences among key super powers dictating contemporary geo-politics notably: the US, China, Iran, Iraq, Israel, North Korea, South Korea and the entire Middle East. But while relationships with the world’s power axis will always have implications for global peace, security and stability, the biggest and the most urgent threat by far is the outbreak of a new strain of the Corona Virus, in Wuhan, China which has within a short space of one month shown the vulnerability of man, the conflict between man and biology, and the limitations of science in the face of an immediate, accidental, unforeseeable, pathogenic onslaught.
The first case of Corona Virus was reported just before the Chinese Lunar New Year 2020 celebrations, and since then, the new virus has defied both man and science. On January 28, the highest number of reported cases was reported, but by Monday, February 10, that had jumped exponentially to 97 casualties per day and total cases in excess of 40, 000, with 908 persons reported dead. The statistics and the sero-prevalence rate seem unprecedented, far worse than the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome of 2003 which claimed 774 lives. The World Health Organization has classified the new Corona Virus as a public health emergency of international concern, a delicate, diplomatic phrasing which barely stops short of declaring the nCoV-2019, as it is otherwise known, a global pandemic – considering the fact that mainland China, especially Wuhan, a city of 11 million people and the Hubei province in general, remain the epicenter – 99% of reported cases are in mainland China and out of the total number of deaths, only two have occurred outside China.
The Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO) has commended China for its efforts at prevention and containment, even if the Politburo, the highest political body in China has had to express regrets for “failing” the people. The truth is: China is overwhelmed. Businesses have been affected, the stock market is down, lives are threatened, over 40 million people are in quarantine. China is engaging the world as the epicenter of a crisis, the global economy is likely to be affected given China’s strategic importance, and yet nobody knows when the Corona virus will ease off, or when scientists will find a cure. It is not only China that is at risk, it is the entire world. Our civilization is under threat and of course, the tragedy is man-made. These are the cold, uncomfortable facts as at the time of this writing. The Corona Virus has brought the entire world to the precipice of uncertainty and disaster. It reminds us collectively of our mortality and the common humanity and vulnerability that we share.
Globalization turned the world into a small village, technology erased distances, but in the face of a global scourge like new Corona Virus, the world has turned into a much smaller village. Most of the people and countries that are taking precautions against Corona Virus don’t even know where Wuhan is on the map. Some people ate snake meat or is it Pangolin or bat meat in Wuhan and they got infected with a virus – animal to man transmission, which has now spread to over 27 countries and mutated as a deadly human-to-human communicable disease. China which is ordinarily regarded as a major superpower has suddenly become a pariah nation. Countries have issued travel alerts to their citizens: do not go to China, and those who are in China are being evacuated and whoever arrives from China is immediately quarantined for two weeks.
This is the same China that only recently engaged the United States in a trade war. The same China is now the diseased nation that nobody wants to touch. Imports from China have been suspended. Trips to China have been put on hold. China’s tourism industry is bound to suffer. Who wants to go to a country where a virus is on rampage, and the air is polluted? It is not for nothing that the media in Europe has dubbed the Corona Virus, the China Virus – an average Chinese citizen would not like that – but the truth is that the new Corona Virus wears the toga of a nationality. Before it, there was the Swine flu (2009), Polio (2014), Zika (2016), Ebola (2014, 2019) but it is the new Corona Virus that has obtained a national passport and an identification tag of notorious universal recognition. This may have translated into racist conclusions about Chinese identity and cuisine. I have heard allegations that the Chinese eat anything and everything, including animals that are considered a taboo in many cultures – Bats? Cockroaches? Rats? Snakes? Millipedes and centipedes? Monkeys? Pangolin? E-eeish! It is said that the Chinese have brought this latest biological dissonance upon humanity because of their unusual culinary taste. I know people who have simply opted to stay away from anything Chinese in the meantime, until there is some certainty about what exactly is going on. I wanted to order food from a Chinese Restaurant the other day. I was quietly reminded of Corona Virus. I had no option but to restrain my palate. I wanted Chinese balm, a popular product in Nigeria, a few days later. I was also advised to be careful. I ignored that advice. The labelling of everything Chinese as an item crowned by a virus is exaggerated and overblown. But as Nigerians would say in pidgin English: who wan die?
This is probably why every country and institution is taking precautions. The United Kingdom, Australia, South Korea, Singapore and New Zealand have had cause to evacuate their citizens from China. Airlines including FinnAir, American Airlines, United, Cathay Pacific, Air India, Ethiopian Airlines, British Airways, Air Asia, and Lufthansa have either stopped flights to China or reduced their Chinese operations by 90%. The effect is that supply chains have been disrupted with consequences for trade performance. The global economy is bound to slow down in the long run if this situation persists. But what is perhaps more relevant to us should be this: How prepared is Africa and particularly Nigeria? I don’t think Africa is prepared at all, and we are likely to be worst hit should the virus make an effective landing in our continent.
For now across Africa, we have only heard of suspected cases: in Ghana where there were two suspected cases involving a Chinese and an Argentine who returned from China, but the result was negative in both cases. Suspected cases in Ethiopia, Ivory Coast, Kenya and Botswana have also proven negative. The only reported case of infection involving an African is that of a Cameroonian student living in Wuhan. Kenya has taken steps to evacuate its students in China. Mozambique has suspended its visa on arrival policy. Africa and South America seem insulated from the scourge so far. But for how much longer? The Chinese Lunar New Year Holiday was extended, in the face of the outbreak of the virus, but that holiday ended yesterday, Monday, February 10. Using that as guide, if there was any Chinese living in Africa or doing business in Africa, he or she is likely to return to base after the holiday.
In the last decade or more, Sino-African relationship has grown tremendously, China seeking to fill a vacuum inadvertently created by the EU and the United States, has increased its scope of influence in Africa through friendly loans, investments and cultural outreach. It is not an accident that African leaders at the just concluded 33rd AU Heads of State Summit in Addis Ababa expressed solidarity with China! The Chinese presence in Africa is unmistakable and it is quite pronounced in a country like Nigeria where the Chinese are involved in significant sectors of the economy including oil and gas, telecommunications, manufacturing, infrastructure, SMEs and retail trade. This week, all the Chinese who went home on holiday will start returning one after the other.
When the story of the Corona Virus broke, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) was most unusually proactive, which I think is commendable. The Federal Ministry of Health quickly followed suit, to educate Nigerians about the threat of the Corona Virus. Preventive guidelines were announced, and a travel advisory was issued. This is indeed commendable, even if the efforts were not translated into local, indigenous languages, that is – the languages of the majority of Nigerians. The campaign has thus far been so elitist and restricted. In due course, the Nigerian authorities further announced that the Federal Government had established eight isolation centres as follows: in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) and seven states of the Federation – Lagos, Akwa Ibom, Rivers, Enugu, Delta, Cross River and Kano. The problem is that nobody knows exactly where these isolation centres are located.
The relevant authorities tell us that in preparing for the Corona Virus which has not yet been reported in Nigeria, they are relying on the protocols and infrastructure already put in place in 2014 to combat the Ebola Virus. In 2014, Nigeria was confronted with the Ebola Virus crisis, introduced to the country by a traveler from Liberia who came to Nigeria to seek spiritual cure for Ebola. Knowledge and experience can definitely prove useful in everything including a biological and pharmaceutical crisis such as Corona Virus. But has Nigeria done enough or is Nigeria prepared? I don’t think so. There is definitely no evidence that we have enough medical counter-measures to protect the medical and public health personnel who are supposed to man our ports.
A gentleman who just returned from Chicago reported on live television and I have no cause to doubt him, that the situation at the Murtala Muhammad International Airport in Lagos, to cite a specific example, is chaotic and below standard practice. Government officials pretend to check for high temperature and other symptoms but they are not protected. Nigeria has not made any provision for medical counter measures. Nigeria is sending medical personnel and Ministry officials to the ports to put them at risk. Until we have another case of Stella Adadevoh, like Li Weliang, the Chinese whistleblower who paid the supreme price for Corona Virus, the Nigerian government is not likely to wake up. That is unacceptable.
The Nigeria Centre for Disease Control and the Federal Ministry of Health and state governments have to do a lot more. I will comment on the latter. As at this moment, only three states – Lagos, Ebonyi and Ogun out of the 36 states of the Federation would seem to have shown interest in the Corona Virus prevention campaign. We expect every state of the Federation, close as they are to the grassroots, to take up the campaign and inform the populace appropriately. At the national level, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control and the Federal Ministry of Health will also need to address what has become around the subject of Corona Virus, an “infodemic crisis” – that is the crisis of conspiracy theories and misinformation and hazardous false information. Is the Corona Virus a biological weapon?. Really? Is it a strategy by big pharmaceutical companies to enlarge market and increase profit? President Donald Trump and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have also been linked to the conspiracy. Does that make sense? We have also been told that eating garlic or drinking a bleach concoction can help prevent a Corona Virus infection.
Is that true? The Nigerian agencies are yet to respond to this. They should. They should take the additional step of addressing the spiritual question which determines everything in Nigeria from politics to business. Is Corona Virus a spiritual affliction or biology gone awry? If care is not taken, Nigerian shamanists, prophets, traditionalists and pastors will soon take advantage of the uncertainty to claim that they had predicted the occurrence of the virus and that, indeed they have the solution. Government should immediately arrest anyone who mouths such idiocy. Our only hope is that the Corona Virus will never make its way here, but as the Boys Scouts motto states, we should “Be Prepared”. The bad news is that there is no effective treatment for the virus. And a worse virus may soon show up, leaving humanity effectively at the mercy of disease and the environment.
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