Nigeria’s Coronavirus Challenge/ Sonala Olumhense

In a nation such as Nigeria, hobbled by a ramshackle leadership, how do we fight such a war as COVID-19?

To begin with, the mass media cannot afford to report the crisis the way the Western media does.

On account of the geographical evolution of the war, from China through Western Europe to the United States, we did not have the “usual” challenge of foreign reporters descending on Africa to report.

Instead, Africa was first able to watch the crisis as it played, almost like a movie, with the arrogant appearing to interpret the problem as one that would never come to the homeland.  Ignorant government officials traveled, as always.  Prosperity-preachers dismissed it with empty prayers. 

But it never was just another man’s problem, a reality that has now hit home, particularly in a nation without medical facilities. 

Nigeria’s medical strategy has always depended on the privileged few being able to fly out of the country to take advantage of good facilities in other countries.  It is on those beds that wives and children of our leaders and former leaders live or die. 

The nature and speed of the spread of COVID-19 nullified this strategy, compelling the high and mighty to remain in Nigeria and share the air of the poor and lowly that they despise, belittle, exploit and cheat.

With this disease, Nigeria now enters its darkest hour, given that there are no answers, and that the countries we would normally cry to for help are themselves in dire straits. 

This is why civil society and the media must work as if there is no government, to lead a massive prevention effort knowing that there is neither treatment nor a vaccine.  ]In a classic case of inferiority complex, a local Nigerian researcher who claimed to have a cure gave his invention to the government.  The government gave it to another government!]

Civil society and the media should work with the telecommunication companies to design educational messages to be delivered—perhaps in pidgin English—by cell phone and other agreed means.  These telecoms companies are able to deliver direct messages to users.

These urgent messages must focus on the nature of the virus and indexed on the evidence being provided by the World Bank and such reputable sources as the CDC of the United States, and adapted as much as possible to local conditions. 

Among what we know is:

  • That the virus can live on various surfaces for hours, and in some cases, several days. 
  • That in addition to social distancing efforts, it is helpful to clean and disinfect daily—using water and soap or detergent, or a home-made disinfectant of bleach and water—such shared and high-use surfaces as door handles, phones, light switches, TV remotes, sinks and toilet seats. 
  • The use of approved and hand sanitizers to disinfect hands after touching public surfaces. 
  • Routine and repeated washing of hands with soap for at least 20 seconds after touching public surfaces.

The reality, however, is that several of these suggestions make little sense in the African context.  I am not sure how you implement social distancing in crowd-oriented cultures and economies. 

Nor do I know how meaningful it is to ask people who live in large numbers to stay indoors indefinitely, or to quarantine.  In exactly what locations do members of a family quarantine when they have only one or two crowded rooms, and without electricity?

How do you tell people who live from hand to mouth to stock up on supplies, or to buy disinfectants and bleach when they have no food, or even to wash their hands regularly when they lack water?

Still, it is important to educate people enough to know what their options are, if any, which would be far more than the government has the heart to do.

In the medical sector, it is no secret that General Muhammadu Buhari has executed his presidency with considerable indifference, as illustrated by the State House Medical Centre (SHMC).

So bad did that clinic become that in 2017, even his wife and daughter publicly criticized its output. 

On Twitter, Zahra Buhari directed her query at Jalal Arabi, the Permanent Secretary at State House: “More than N3billion budgeted for the State House clinic and workers there don’t have the equipment to work with? Why? Where is the money going to? Medication only stocked once since the beginning of the year?  Why?”

That was in addition to the First Lady Aisha disclosing that she had had to use another hospital in Abuja when she needed x-rays. 

In response to the scandal, SHMC announced first that it would be “commercialized,” and when that was also questioned, that it would not be commercialized. 

In 2017, the House of Representatives began to investigate the disappearance of N11bn budgeted for the SHMC, an investigation which itself disappeared, as usual.  In 2018, N15.47bn was appropriated for the clinic.  

But the questions were really all aimed at the wrong targets, especially Mr. Arabi, who fell in a minor “cabinet reshuffle,” last week, “demoted” to another Ministry.

The questions should have gone to Buhari.  If a ruler would rather travel abroad for a service he can obtain a few steps down the road for no better reason than being positioned to take advantage of the nation’s resources, such a man is certain to attract grave disrespect. 

It is no surprise then, that when Buhari last week atrociously pronounced “COVIK-ONE-NINE”—five months after the virus entered the news—it became a glaring warning about how intellectually removed he is from the business of governance.

And he quickly attracted scorn and laughter around the world.  On Twitter, “Imam of Peace” Mohammad Tawhidi led an onslaught, dismissing the Nigerian leader as the “dumbest person in Nigeria.”

It is shameful that Nigeria would be this embarrassed before the world, but even sadder to see the country this exposed to the current monumental medical danger.   

This is why it is now largely up to ordinary citizens to and the media to try to educate the public in order to frustrate the virus. 

In the weeks ahead, the Nigerian government will take charge of large sums of money over coronavirus but not of governance, over which there continues to be an absence of both heart and will.   

For 50 years funds have rarely been the issue, but at a time that most nations have serious problems of their own and not enough of the equipment we will supposedly be seeking, it may be months—by which time it may be too late—before we are able to buy anything. 

That battle will be led by a man who has “defeated” Boko Haram several times since May 2015, even the group continues to wipe out soldiers and civilians; a man so successful at combating corruption that it has taken over his government.

If he does not know what the COVID-19 is that is all over his ipad and his TV, we must do our best to protect ourselves.  Sometimes, it is the cure, not the disease, that we must be wary of.

[This column welcomes rebuttals from interested government officials].