By Ikechukwu Amaechi

I had a discussion that bordered on the novel coronavirus sometime in March with a childhood friend who lives in the US.

He was scared that the pandemic which had exploded there may really get out of hand despite the US going into the crisis with what Fintan O’Toole, Ireland’s celebrated columnist, described recently as immense advantages: Precious weeks of warning about what was coming, the world’s best concentration of medical and scientific expertise, limitless financial resources, a military complex with stunning logistical capacity and most of the world’s leading technology corporations.

I told him that if the US with all its awe-inspiring capacities and capabilities could still become the global epicentre of the pandemic, then he should appreciate our predicament because if there is a significant spike here, it will be catastrophic.

He said we have no reason to worry because what is ailing us is different from the tragedy that had befallen the US. While Americans are afflicted with COVID-19, he teased me, Nigerians have covic-one-nine  – two viruses with different lethal capacities. We laughed it off.

In the last two months, I have had cause to ask myself if indeed the coronavirus we have here is the same that has brought US, the acclaimed global superpower, on its knees with over 1,238,083 infections and 72,285 deaths as at Wednesday, May 6, when Nigeria, the so-called giant of Africa with feet of clay, has only 2,950 infections and 98 deaths.

A lot of explanations have been made for the paradox, none of them scientifically validated, I must add. Granted, the insignificant number of confirmed cases is a function of our abysmally low testing capacity. If testing is ramped up as it is in many other countries, the numbers will go up significantly, no doubt.

There are many asymptomatic carriers of the virus who are enabling community transmission without being aware. But the befuddling truth is that Nigerians are not dropping dead as it is the case in other places at their peak of the epidemiological curve. Even with the so-called mysterious deaths in Kano, if Nigerians start dying in their numbers because of the virus, the augury will be too stark to hide.

Many attribute our good fortunes so far to environmental factors even as others simply ascribe it to divine benevolence. But whatever is the reason, the question that concentrated my mind as I drove to work on Monday morning was: “Are we not in real trouble this time around?”

If we have been lucky thus far, have we not stretched the limits of our luck?

The scenes that confronted me beggar belief, made more so because they contrasted sharply with the scenarios of the past month. I knew that the first post-lockdown day would be chaotic. But nothing prepared me for what I saw.

It took me more than 30 minutes to drive from the Alausa Secretariat end of the Obafemi Awolowo Way to Allen Avenue roundabout and almost another 30 minutes from there to my office on Allen Avenue. Déjà vu! That stretch takes me maximum of five minutes without the crippling traffic.

The beggars were out in full force, competing for space with hawkers, who, as usual, were displaying their wares ranging from sachet water to the now ubiquitous facemasks. Trust Nigerians and their ingenuity. The facemask business is the rave of the moment: hawkers were modelling them for their prospective clients to sample before making their choices.

I saw a young man who sampled four of the facemasks hawked by a little girl who had them in a cellophane bag. She would bring out one for him to wear and see if it fitted. He would then hand it back to her to put back in the bag, rummage and hand him another one. Yet, this is a virus we are told by medical experts is so contagious that we have to wear facemasks to stop the droplets from entering our noses and mouths. I was nonplussed.

READ ALSO: Covid-19 Curfew: FCT apprehends night travellers from neighbouring states

Then, when I thought I had seen it all, I was confronted with the chaotic scenes at the banks on Allen Avenue. I shuddered in disbelief. With dozens of people shoving, spitting on one another, literally, and arguing with each other, you will be excused if you thought that Nigerian banks will go extinct the next day.  I wondered what was going on inside the banking halls.

The bus-stops were crowded and the yellow buses conveniently ignored the 25 per cent capacity rule. Each seat had maximum four passengers and two in front with the diver. The kabu-kabus  (local taxicabs) had their usual four passengers on the back seat and two others with the drivers in front. The commercial motorbikes that were prohibited from operating throughout Lagos were out in their numbers.

In all these, the idea of social distancing became a taboo, observed more in the breach.

On the streets, some wore facemasks, many others didn’t. Even for those who had their facemasks, they became more of chinmasks because many people used them to cover their jaws rather than their mouths and noses. Some simply hung them on their neck. I was appalled and knew we were courting trouble with our eyes wide open.

Videos that started trending in the social media later in the day showed that what happened in Lagos was not an exception. A crowd somewhere in Jos, Plateau State, was ecstatic with the people screaming “babu coronavirus”, meaning no coronavirus. You would think they had just been released from prison. The revelry was unrestrained and inexplicable and I couldn’t help but wonder if that was not a collective death wish.

Do Nigerians really appreciate what they are up against with this pandemic? Why did most people, even those that had absolutely no reason to, decide to go to the bank on Monday? While the lockdown lasted, banks were working, even if skeletally. The electronic banking outlets were up and running and people could complete basic banking transactions and access cash at most ATMs. So, why didn’t they avail themselves of such facilities? So alarmed and scandalised was the Director-General of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, NCDC, Chikwe Ihekweazu, that he threatened a possible re-imposition of the lockdown restrictions.

“We knew today would be a problem because for the first time people were let out of their homes. But now that we are out, the challenge for us as a society is how do we now organise ourselves to mitigate these risks and limit transmission from each other,” he mourned.

“Yes, we might have a few extra infections today and tomorrow, but what we don’t want is an explosion of new infections. If we do have that explosion, there will be almost no choice left for the leadership of the country than to ask all of us to go back into our homes.”

Granted, in a largely informal economy, the poverty capital of the world, where most people live from hand to mouth, the kind of lockdown imposed by most developed countries is a no-brainer here. We needed to devise a homegrown strategy of curtailing the spread than the copy and paste approach we have adopted.

In June 2019, the World Poverty Clock revealed that 91,885,874 Nigerians, that is 46.5 percent of the country’s estimated 200 million population, live in extreme poverty, which according to the World Bank translates to $1.90 (N693.5) per day.

With no palliatives despite government’s promises and no bailout to businesses that were struggling at the best of times, whether the government eased the lockdown or not, the hunger-virus was ultimately going to force Nigerians out of their homes and into the streets.

But what many Nigerians did on Monday was irresponsible, knowing that if there is a sudden spike in this pandemic, it will be catastrophic. What is happening in the U.S. and Europe will be child’s play. It is a shame that with this rampaging pandemic, most Nigerians are still in denial even as the number of infections and fatalities continue to spiral. With what has been happening since the lockdown restrictions were eased on Monday, if Nigeria survives the months of May and June without any exponential increase in the number of infections and fatalities, I will begin to agree with my friend in the US that what we have here may indeed be covic-one-nine and not COVID-19.




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