Wednesday, 01 April 2020 05:48

What’s to be done about the pandemic? - Kayode Komolafe

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It is axiomatic that in the raging global war against the Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19), each country is a battle front.

The leadership in each country constitutes the command structure that is expected to mobilise men and equipment to fight the public health enemy until victory is achieved.

Nigeria should take its own battle front seriously for the health of its people and because its action is very strategic for Africa in the unfolding crisis.

Unlike the global crises of recent years in which world powers were expected to provide leadership, the war against COVID-19 provides a different situation in which such a leadership is simply absent. For instance, the United States of America and its allies in Europe are themselves overwhelmed by the spread of the virus. So, no serious country appears to be looking westward for rescue.

The epicentre of the disease has moved from Asia to Europe and now to America. Yet, perceptive global observers are warning that if the poor countries are not given a helping hand in this crisis, the rich country may still remain endangered even after the crisis is presumed to be over in some parts of the world.

After all, if there is any lesson of the pandemic that is undeniable, it is the lesson of the common humanity. It is the point that the whole of mankind could sometimes share the same fate in global crises as those of health, environment, nuclear armament and biological weapons.

The extraordinary nature of the present crisis is also partly explained by the fact that it was virtually unpredictable even though the year, 2020, happens to be the one “that launched a thousand forecasts,” as the London newspaper The Economist, puts it in its yearly publication, The World in 2020. There have been many predictions about 2020 especially from the beginning of this century. There were even predictions made a century ago and in the middle of the last century of how 2020 would look like as the target year.

Some commentators were reportedly asked in 2009 to state their visions for 2020. Their responses would seem intriguing now in retrospect. One pundit had a vision of villages inhabited only by pensioners who would employ the services of robots. There was also the forecast that in 2020 Britain would have a national DNA database. Another futurist predicted that by 2020 there would be artificially grown hearts in the laboratory for sale to patients.

No one said precisely that a virus would emerge that would change things in such a dramatic way that this coronavirus appears to be doing at present.

Amid this process of looking back and imagining the future by thinkers, the United Nations rose to the occasion yesterday with the launch of a 26-page report with a “call to action” on governments.

In the report entitled Shared Responsibility, Global Solidarity: Responding to the Socio -Economic Impacts of COVID-19, the United Nations (UN) challenges governments and the society to action.

The timely call is premised on the following fact:

“The COVID-19 Pandemic is a defining moment for modern society, and history will judge the efficacy of our response not by the actions of any single set of government actors taken in isolation, but by the degree to which the response is coordinated globally across all sectors to the benefit of our human family.

“The United nations global footprint at the national level is an asset for the global community to be leveraged to deliver the ambition needed to win the war against the virus.

“With the right actions, the COVID-19 pandemic can mark the rebirth of a society as we know it today to one where we protect present and future generations. It is the greatest test that we have faced since the formation of the United Nations, one that requires all actors – governments, academia, businesses , employers and workers’ organisations, civil society organisations, communities and individuals – to act in solidarity in new , creative, and deliberate ways for the common good and based on the core United Nations values that we uphold for humanity.”

This informed perspective from the UN is another categorical rebuke of isolationism and a proof of the suitability of global action to problems confronting our common humanity.

It’s worth recalling that the viral scourge came in the ferment of right-wing populism in the West ranging from Trump’s “America First” to the upsurge of neo-fascist politics in Europe.

The important voice of the UN should, therefore, bear some resonance in Nigeria as it tackles the public health crisis.

Not a few thinkers have made the prognosis that the multi-dimensional impacts of COVID-19 would be such that things would never be the same for the polity, economy and society in many countries. There is already the suggestion of paradigm shifts in many areas of human life.

Historically, the moment could turn out to be so defining that it would continue to feature in the course of analysis of epochs many years from now. Hence in 50 years from today, a pundit analysing some events of the early 21st Century may have to indicate if the period he is referring to is pre-COVID -19 or post-COVID-19.

In fact, while the future is awaited (and no one could say precisely when victory would be proclaimed by mankind in the war against COVID-19), some changes are already afoot. Take a sample. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson reportedly said amid the battle against the virus (which he has unfortunately contracted) that “there is such a thing as society.” He made the important statement in a recent press conference.

Johnson is a conservative prime minister like his late predecessor, Margaret Thatcher, who said in 1987 in a famous interview that “there is no such thing as the society.” Thatcher spoke at a time when neo-liberalism began to rule the wave of public policies during the last quarter of the 20th Century. It was the period of the triumphalism of market forces and the glorification of selfish individualism; a period when every problem was deemed to have a market solution including the ones in the social sector of health and education. Thatcher would probably shake her head in the grave now that one of her conservative successors doesn’t seem to be embracing the neo-liberal ideas of Fredrick von Hayek. Von Hayek was the ideological inspirer of Thatcher. But the ideas of John Maynard Keynes appear to be coming alive again in the West with Johnson’s stimulus package that is very similar to that of President Donald Trump in America.

So, one lesson that Nigeria could learn from the global dynamics is that some problems should be viewed as those of the “human family” as the UN aptly puts it. These are not the issues for a deal in “competitive markets” as our neo-liberal experts often insist in policymaking. For instance, every country affected in this public health crisis is so involved as a member of the “human family” and not as an “emerging market” or a “developed market.”

In short, the society is certainly more than a market.

That is the lesson from America, the richest country that is having its health infrastructure overwhelmed by a virus. The investment in the health sector should not be subjected to the logic of market because public health issues have no market solution as demonstrated from Asia to America. They are purely social issues. You could be infected by a virus if your neighbour cannot afford the cure of the disease caused by the virus. The social character of any pandemic is self-evident.

Talking about policy failure, it shouldn’t take COVID-19 for the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) to be properly funded if public health is understood to be a social sector investment. Such an institution should not be subject to logic of free marketeers. For years, the advocacy for increase in health budgets have fallen on deaf ears and successive neo-liberal experts in power would insensitively justify why the poor people should be responsible for their bills if they want “quality and efficient healthcare delivery.” Universal healthcare is treated with unpardonable tokenism. But as shown by this pandemic, a virus is not only a danger to the poor man who cannot afford the bill; it also puts the health of everyone in peril.

The healthcare infrastructure being put in place by state and federal governments should not only be an emergency measure. This public health emergency should be a positive turning point for the Nigerian healthcare delivery system. For Nigeria to be part of the change for good that pundits are predicting for the post-COVID-19 world, it should invest heavily in the health sector. This should include health infrastructure uplift and the development of the manpower to run the system. That should be a policy priority . Modern equipment should be made available and the working conditions medical staff should be improved upon to the extent that medical professionals would turn down offers from other countries to work.

For the avoidance of doubt, paying attention to these global political and economic trends in tackling the pandemic should be without prejudice to what could appear as peculiar issues here in Nigeria.

One of the WhatsApp messages circulating on the pandemic is as follows: “Corona Virus is very respectful. It is the only disease that came into the country and went to greet the leaders first.”

Here is a related WhatsApp post: “Discipline saved China. Indiscipline drowned Europe. Arrogance is killing America. I hope ignorance will not kill Africans.”

In a way, the second message is an admonition on the first one. It is sheer ignorance to say that only “leaders’ are first infected by the virus. It is universally known that the virus is no respecter of class, race or gender.

Some commentators even call it an equalizer.

The fact is that it is not the “leaders” who constitute a majority of the officially reported cases. For ethical and other professional reasons, the identities of those who test positive are not disclosed by NCDC unless otherwise requested by the patients. Now, the politics of coronavirus is that the public would expect political office holders and other public figures to announce their status especially if they test positive. So, only the names of governors and senior government officials and their relations and acquittances as well as businessmen have been mentioned as being positive. Hence, the wrong impression is given that COVID-19 is an ailment of only “the big man.”

There are videos of residents in poor neighbourhoods almost forming a club of coronavirus deniers. The matter is not helped by the poor capacity for testing and contact tracing. This is a sociological dimension to the problem. Public enlightenment and health education could cure this disease of ignorance. The respective departments for public education in the various tiers of government have their work cut out in this respect.

What is to be done? Perhaps, in the difficult circumstance of Nigeria it is better to err on the side of optimism. Coronavirus will be defeated in this war. Nigeria should, therefore, rethink its battle strategy against COVID-19 so as to prevent loss of lives in thousands as being witnessed in more developed climes.

Time and truth are two important things to which attention should be paid in the process.

Beyond that, the country should be prepared for the changes the world will witness post-COVID-19.

 

Thisday