Apart from the recent outbreaks of H1N1 swine epidemic of 2009 to 2010, West African Ebola outbreak of 2014 to 2015 and Zika virus (South America and Central America) of 2015, all of which are to some extent localised and of less magnitude, there had not been any outbreak of a pandemic like the coronavirus in a century.
The last of such pandemic was the Spanish flu of the 20thcentury which claimed 500 million lives from the South Seas to the North Pole in two years (1918 to 1920) even as the pandemic was made worse by the cramped condition of soldiers and poor war time nutrition generally during the World War I. During the Spanish flu, Nigeria also lost 199,325 people with Kano having 57,978 casualties and Ogoja with 62,832 deaths according to Public Health Record of 5th September 1919.
Despite the fact that epidemics, pandemics and plagues are as old as human existence, we actually thought that with technological innovations and advancement in sciences, we had seen the last of such deaths in the scale and magnitude we are witnessing now with COVID-19. How wrong! Coronavirus otherwise referred to as COVID-19 has proved that, from time to time, man’s vulnerability and science’s limitation will be tested.
That test is ongoing; as deaths through COVID-19 continue to rise all over the world: so far 238 people have been infected in Nigeria, five dead and 33 recovered. Globally, 1,360,661 have been effected and 75,940 gave so far died, while 298,138 have recovered. The disease has once more challenged scientists especially in technologically advanced countries to retreat to the labs in search of an elixir.
In this battle against the unseen enemy, there is a terrifying spectre in the horizon akin to only a physical war situation. No doubt, war creates fear, anxiety and uncertainty, but unlike the conventional war where all sorts of weapons including bombs are utilised, the COVID-19 war is about fear of contacting the disease and loss of loved ones, which is already happening just like the conventional war, but unlike conventional war, the powerful and mighty is also not spared; it is an equal opportunity war. In this war, everyone is a potential victim, as attested to by the hospitalisation of the British PM and some world leaders, including celebrities who had tested positive. Which conventional war would have affected our all-powerful chief of staff, Abba Kyari, some governors and son of a rich man like Atiku. In this war, money cannot guarantee personal safety.
There is real fear of loss of jobs and starvation if the pandemic lingers long, especially among the populace who lives on daily incomes from menial jobs, which are no longer available due to the lockdown.
The sunny side of it all, is that Boko Haram killings, kidnapping and banditry have reduced. Who will they kidnap anyway, when the roads are almost empty. It can only be COVID-19, the ultimate leveller of the arrogant human species, the powerful, those who have the instruments of coercion, the gun wielders, the strong, the tough ones and the weak. All the war heads, arsenals, nuclear, technological, biological weapons, long and short range missiles accumulated by world powers over time are incapable of flattening the curve; we all have to resort to physical and social distancing as scientists and ordinary folks are shocked at their helplessness. So, while COVID-19 ravages humanity and decimating the populace, we need to ponder about so many issues: How is it that all these nuclear war heads accumulated over the years, and costing billions of dollars are not useful and incapable of stopping the human misery, that is COVID-19.
Meanwhile, even as the world awaits the worse to happen in Nigeria, and Africa, the federal and state governments have put measures in place—isolation centres and palliatives. Now everybody is talking health, health and health. An unprecedented attention is now focused on health, a hitherto neglected sector, which had always given the affluent among us the excuse to jet out of the country. Whether we like it or not, we now have to salvage the health sector, just as the minister of finance talked about investment in healthcare facilities.
However, one thing is to make a policy statement, and it is another thing to carry it out to the letter. So, how are we faring with some of these measures? In the city centre of Abuja, the stay at home order is largely in force, but at precincts, where there is massive concentration of people, residents mill around freely. There were even traffic snarls at some places any time from 6pm, while those who should enforce the lockdown take bribes to allow people move around. Many had run shot of perishables, and so had to come out to buy. I learned there is virtually no restrictions in places like Kano and North-East axis. The news of COVID-19 and its devastation is yet to dawn on the people, or so it seems, due to the free movement of people. Thankfully, with the exception of Kaduna and Bauchi states, these nonchalant states are yet to record or report any infection.
But by far, the major issue for Nigerians is the ongoing discussion between the federal government and the National Assembly about the N500 billion COVID-19 crisis intervention fund. The Minister of Finance, Zainab Ahmed had already met with the leadership of the NASS to discuss the proposal and modalities for the intervention fund. According to her, the fund will “involve mopping up resources from various special accounts that the government maintain to be able to pull this N500 billion”, and as loans from multilateral institutions and expected grants. “The crisis intervention fund is to be utilised to upgrade healthcare facilities, among other things”. Nigeria, according to reports, is set to borrow 7 billion dollars from IMF, World Bank and others.
In an oil dependent mono-economy, which now sells below 30 dollars, the least any government can do is to take loans from wherever. Debt is a death trap, so we should be cautious in embarking on borrowing spree at this time.
The president has also directed that150 million dollars be withdrawn from the Sovereign Wealth Fund to be shared among FG, states and local government councils. This might be a good move in view of dwindling revenues from crude oil and reduction in Federal allocations to states. But without proper checks and balances, framework and guidelines for its expenditure, the COVID-19 fund for the three tiers of government will go down the drain, just like the bailout funds, whose benefits, if any, cannot be sighted anywhere, including personnel emoluments such as salaries and pension payment, since people are still owed in states across the country.
We do hope that excessive loans will not further burden and pauperise Nigerians if we survive the COVID-19 pandemic. It is common knowledge that 33 out of the 36 states of the federation are not sustainable, cost of governance is ballooning and yet we are talking of more loans. Besides, it sends the wrong signal that it took a global pandemic for the Nigerian government to think of improving healthcare facilities. With a debt overhang, it is also inconceivable that government will think of another loan at a time of global economic meltdown. Let us also think through all these loans and not mortgage the future of the next generation just because a pandemic once occurred.