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The Coronavirus diaries (18)


Festus Eriye

It’s getting on three months since the last of these diaries was done. Suspending them was tied to the sense that COVID-19 appeared on the wane in Nigeria and across Africa, and all the worst case scenarios had not come to pass.

It is still not clear how a continent where the pandemic was expected to hit hardest because of poverty and rudimentary healthcare systems managed to escape with minimal damage. Scientists are scratching their heads trying to stitch together an explanation, while clerics put it down to the mercy of God.

As it was in the beginning when the Coronavirus first hit these shores, so it is now. Back then it seemed like distant trouble, until travellers from China, Europe and the Americas began arriving the country with the virus in tow.

Today, the United States, United Kingdom and much of Europe are in the grip of a scary second wave, with infection rates and fatalities outstripping summer highs.

The US alone has had over 12 million cases and more than 260,000 deaths. The entire Africa continent has recorded a little over two million infections. The Nigerian contribution to that tally is 66,439 cases, with 1,168 casualties.

Those numbers have encouraged denial. People sneer and suggest that ‘scaremongers’ are overdoing things. You see that attitude in worship centres, markets and even offices. Very few wear the face mask anymore and even when they do it’s more of a facial adornment than a protective device. Protocols like hand-washing have long been abandoned in many locations, while social distancing is now a distant memory.

But while we are not recording the numbers of a few months ago when cases were in the hundreds daily, there is evidence that infections have grown where there are dense clusters of people.

The Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19 revealed that since National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) orientation camps were reopened, about 138 participants have been infected. In October a private secondary school in Lekki, Lagos reported that 181 of its 414 students had contracted coronavirus. The daily tally from the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) shows that infection is on the rise again.

Despite that, evidence abounds many are not taking the threat the virus poses seriously. Rather than do what they should to protect themselves, their families and communities, they are doing their level best to circumvent rules.

The PTF just reported that many travellers returning to the country have been presenting fake COVID-19 test results. As many as 39,000 haven’t paid for mandatory tests, while those who have paid as much N270 million collectively to private laboratories as cost of tests, chose not to show up for screening.

Unfortunately, Coronavirus has a diabolical sense of humour; it has a way of messing up those who make light of its deadliness or deny its reality. Just ask Brazilian leader Jair Bolsonaro or US President Donald Trump who often dismissed it as nothing more than a common cold, only to be laid low by it. They lived to share their survival stories, but more than 1,407,893 people across the globe have not been so lucky.

For Trump, it’s been double trouble. First the virus deflated his macho man act and then cost him his job. His cavalier approach to fighting the pandemic was compounded by concerted efforts to undermine whatever steps his political rivals had put in place.

He encouraged citizens to disobey restrictions in states governed by the opposition, while threatening to withhold funding from others. The politicisation of the COVID-19 response ensured that at a time when Americans voted on his stewardship, the country was battling an unprecedented health challenge made worse by Trump’s indifference and contempt for scientists. The upshot is in two months he would be an ex-president.

The strange thing about this pandemic is that even with overwhelming evidence of its deadliness many cling to conspiracy theories, or just choose to be sceptical about it in a bloody-minded way. I read an account by a nurse who said that even on his death bed one of her patients refused to accept he had contracted the virus.

COVID-19 is a prolific terminator not just because it takes lives but because it also destroys careers. The wave of job losses that followed lockdowns across the world are continuing – especially with the return to such measures in countries that had exited them months ago.

Nigeria just slipped into the second recession in four years; the worst such slump since 1987. A major cause is the pandemic that shut down major sectors of the economy for almost six months.

At the beginning of the crisis, scientists warned that lockdowns could trigger serious mental health issues. Now, in Japan, interesting statistics are showing that the side effect is killing more people than coronavirus itself.

A recent CBS News report stated: “Far more Japanese people are dying of suicide, likely exacerbated by the economic and social repercussions of the pandemic, than of the COVID-19 disease itself.”

“While Japan has managed its coronavirus epidemic far better than many nations, keeping deaths below 2,000 nationwide, provisional statistics from the National Police Agency show suicides surged to 2,153 in October alone, marking the fourth straight month of increase.”

Even as the world nears the grim landmark of 60 million cases, deliverance seems within reach with all the breakthroughs on the vaccine front. First it was Pfizer, then Moderna, then AstraZeneca and now the Russians, all claiming that their jabs have over 90% effectiveness against the virus.

The reports even have local flavour because one of the leaders of the Pfizer vaccine research team is Dr. Onyema Ogbuagu, a Nigerian and an associate professor of Medicine at Yale University. Everyone loves a success story and his countrymen would be quick to embrace one of their own in his moment in the sun.

But while the vaccine news is encouraging, it is unlikely that they would be widely available in the next couple of months. That leaves us, in the short term, with the only known remedies for containing the pandemic – the existing protocols of hand washing, use of sanitisers, face masks and social distancing – however burdensome we may find them to be.

Nigerian doctor in Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine trial speaks

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