COVID-19! Short, audacious and terrifying. So much so, that if you have not heard of it, you would think it is a word from outer space, an indecipherable gobbledygook. But no! It is simply a byword for coronavirus disease, the current respiratory illness, which, like an all-consuming whirlwind, is attacking people, leaving in its wake sorrow, tears and blood – an unprecedented crisis in the annals of human history.
Countries all over the world are doing all they can to curtail the virus: a thorough washing of the hands; wearing of face masks; maintaining social distancing of at least two metres, and staying indoors. Most borders have also remained closed and numerous aircrafts grounded. But for most Nigerians – as I observed upon my recent visit – the whole exercise and safety measures are ‘a mere storm in a teacup’. Their lackadaisical treatment of the whole matter is accentuated by social media ‘deliberations’ and anecdotal reports on the virus, many of which are mere infodemics of misleading tittle-tattle: the use of bitter kola and garlic, as antidotes; exposure to the 40°C sun; calling upon the Holy Ghost on a bucket of water, and bathing with it afterwards; marking the sign of the Cross on the forehead with olive oil; consumption of Kparaga – a concoction of cannabis and the local brew (also known as Ogogoro or Kaikai) – and others too shocking to be mentioned. Why Nigerians should fall prey to these and throw every caution to the wind leaves me baffled, and somehow corroborates the idea that we do not take precautions until it is too late.
When the issue of HIV/AIDS came to us many years ago, it was laughed off by men, who labelled it ‘The White man’s disease’, and every cautionary measure rebuffed. There is no gainsaying the fact that today the disease has come to stay, as statistics show a very high percentage of us are ravaged by it, though we would not admit it for fear of being stigmatised. More so, when mad cow disease was reported in Europe, we ridiculed it – true to type – with a dismissive, nonchalant wave of the hand: “Their antibody is weak up there! Let them bring a whole truckload of the beef here and we’ll consume it all. Nothing kills the Black man! Cook the stuff thoroughly and it’s ready to be consumed without fear…”
As we revel in our crass ignorance and self-gratification of being ‘indestructible’, there have already been over 14 deaths resulting from coronavirus, and 200 cases of infection – and the numbers are growing. A people who fail to learn from the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. Therefore, it is high time we woke up from our deep slumber, and adhered strictly to the practical things needed to nip COVID-19 in its bud, or at least reduce it to its barest minimum. And the government must be involved too.
In most European countries, where there is a partial or total lockdown due to the virus, the people are promised a certain percentage of their wages and, where they are unemployed, other financial benefits. How feasible could this be in a country as volatile as Nigeria, where corruption is rife, effective system of taxation lacking, and people left to their own devices? With its huge natural resources and petrodollars accruing therefrom, Nigeria should be able to take care of its people in these very difficult, uncertain times. Besides compensation for loss of jobs or investments, the government should embark on enlightenment programmes on COVID-19 and its far-reaching repercussions. This will increase awareness and help curtail the huge dependence on social media platforms, which feed the people with fear, instigating the adoption of unreliable safety measures. In this vein, the government should summon back or restrain the dreadful Mobile Police, which has already been unleashed on the people to enforce compliance. Such high-handed action is not only counter-productive, but beyond the realm of the ridiculous, as the conventional wisdom is that people must go hunting for their daily bread in the absence of any worthwhile or viable option by the government. Put succinctly, where hunger holds the common man hostage, every escape route is conceived and experimented on. Even at that, Nigerians, should be thoroughly educated on the need to observe these lockdown measures, rather than being clobbered into accepting them.
It is my sincere belief that this coronavirus will asphyxiate with time, and things will return to normal. But all hands must be on deck. We must play our part in its annihilation. In so doing, and having gained victory over the virus, our most cherished mode of salutation – the effusive shaking of hands – will be re-established, and the current ‘elbow bump’ jettisoned into the garbage heap of history.
Martins Agbonlahor, a trained lawyer and journalist, is the author of Killing Them Softly: The Struggle for Women’s Rights in Nigeria. He lives in Greater Manchester.