Why COVID-19 may not go away soon

It is a foolish man, they say, who does the same thing over and over again, and expects a different result. True, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, the Federal Ministry of Health, and the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 have repeatedly emphasized the need for personal responsibility in containing the coronavirus pandemic, but they have been locked into a cycle of repetitions. In briefing after briefing, the message is the same, save for information about new confirmed cases and deaths. As a result, the few reporters in the briefing room, who happen to be the same faces, keep repeating the same questions. The admonitions and reporters’ questions notwithstanding, the positivity and mortality rates keep going up.

At the same time, citizens, most of whom are not even privy to the briefings, are like the proverbial foolish man: They keep flouting the non-pharmaceutical measures of containing the virus, and expecting that either they will not contract it or that it will simply go away. Many still do not believe that the virus exists at all, while others, especially in the rural areas, have little or no idea about its existence. Yet others, who know about it, believe that it is not “their portion”.

One of them, another Wild Christian (apologies to Professor Wole Soyinka) even told me that coronavirus was God’s punishment for our sins. However, she continued, God has heard our supplications, led by her deeply religious Church, and He would make the virus disappear on July 14, 2020. She told me a few days before the due date. I nearly lost my cool, as I scolded her profusely for believing in the pastor, who told her such an anti-science lie.

July 14 came and passed. The following morning, I sent the NDDC data of new infections and deaths to her. There were 463 new cases nationwide and 14 in her own state. I added the following caveat: “Let’s give today to God and expect zero cases tomorrow. It is possible your church leaders didn’t hear Him well”.

The following morning, July 15, 2020, I sent her another message: “Seriously, please tell me what God says we should expect today so I can plan my day accordingly.” Her response is a further demonstration of her faith in God’s ability to stop the virus. Hear her: “What I can say is that God has taken us over this pandemic”

 

Needless to say, the infection rate keeps rising. So are the positivity and death rates. As of the time of writing, Nigeria had recorded 37,225 cases, that is, 3,609 more cases than the 33,616 cases of July 14, when the virus was predicted to disappear. Yet, neither the NCDC nor the PTF has shied away from emphasising that Nigeria has yet to reach the peak of infection.

 

Unfortunately, the distance to the peak will get longer and longer with the so-called partial relaxation of restrictions and the opening up of religious houses, where some pastors and imams are deceiving their followers about the virus. Unfortunately, churches and mosques are getting fuller and fuller. Engagements, weddings, birthday parties, and funerals are returning to normal scale.

With the increase in scale came the collapse of social distancing. Face masks, once worn by a few are now completely jettisoned. Last weekend was particularly troubling for me. Governor Yahaya Bello came to Akure, where I have been hibernating since March. He came to supervise the Ondo state governorship primary election for the All Progressives Congress. He lodged in a hotel within 300 meters of my residence. One of the aspirants lives about 100 meters away from me. Along our street was a teeming population of Bello’s aides and the aspirant’s supporters for two days running. My gateman kept reporting that he did not see anyone wearing a face mask! I told him to locked our gate with key!

 

Ondo, of course, is a special case. There was never a lockdown. Only a temporary curfew, which was breached more than it was observed. The Commissioner for Health in charge of coordinating the state’s response died of the virus. So did a former Chairman of the state branch of the Nigeria Medical Association, who owned a vibrant hospital in Akure. The Chief Medical Officer of the University of Medicine Hospital Complex also contracted the virus. So did the state Governor, his wife, and some members of the State House of Assembly.

Nevertheless, if you go through Akure today, all you see is business as usual. No face masks. No physical distancing. Some stores, which initially mandated face masks and hand washing before entry have since given up.  Yet, the infection curve in the state is on a steep rise. But that is the subject of another day.

 

Against the above backgrounds, the NCDC and the PTF have more work to do. I commend the tact with which they dealt with the recalcitrant governors of Kogi and Cross River states. All governors have to work with their local governments and wards as well as community leaders in those units to organize coordinated responses to the pandemic. I had earlier provided some guidelines (see Community transmission: Individual and community responsibility, The Nation, May 20, 2020).

This is essential because Nigeria will be in deep trouble, if this pandemic were to spread into the hinterland in the Southern states, where over 60 percent of infections have so far taken place. By hinterland, I mean the rural villages of which there are millions in the seventeen Southern states, which are used primarily as farming outposts. The consequences of the virus spreading into the villages for agricultural production will be incalculable.

It is good to increase bed capacity for Covid patients, by building more isolation centres, especially in states experiencing unusual spikes. It is also good to ramp up testing. But these moves will be meaningless without the adequate supply of PPEs, testing kits, and reagents. State after state bemoans the shortage of these necessary supplies.

Finally, the NCDC has done a good job of providing detailed information on testing figures and results per state on its microsite. State coordinators of the pandemic should be encouraged to publish all necessary figures in their state on a daily basis in order to further educate an incredulous public about the reality of the virus.

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