COVID-19: Between politics and fight against a pandemic

Nigeria’s battle with COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by coronavirus, continues. So far, we have had the good, the bad and the ugly in our quest to nip a disease, which has tumbled global economy and affected almost every part of our existence, in the bud. Yet, as the country intensifies its fight against the virus with the aim of reducing its spread, there are emerging indications that politics is gradually taking the better of an issue which should be fought with national vigour across all government levels.

Nyesom Wike, governor of Rivers, earlier seemed to have sounded the alarm of what is come, when, in April, he accused the federal government of politicising efforts to fight the disease. Hear him: “It is quite unfortunate that the containment of coronavirus has been politicized by the federal government. While Lagos State received a grant of N10billion as a commercial hub, Rivers State as the nation’s oil and gas hub that produces a greater percentage of the nation’s wealth has not received any support from the federal government.”

For all of Wike’s dramas and perceived tilt to autocracy in his handling of government in a democratic setting – in the court of public of opinion — happenings in the recent times seem to lend credence to the governor’s claim. For instance, on May 20, the northern governors, in an ostensible request for financial aid from the federal government, were quick to point out that their region accounts for 54 percent of the total COVID-19 cases recorded in the country so far – a figure which appeared a bit inflated going by figures released by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) then. As of May 20, the region, with the exception of Kogi, had 44.9 percent of the total cases with 2999 patients.

In the case of the Northern Governors Forum, we are faced with two chronic problems. On one hand is the fear of states and regions subsequently inflating COVID-19 figures to drive home their demand for financial aid from the federal government. If not anything, my experience as a Nigerian over the years, has shown that nothing – whether good or bad – is impossible to achieve in the country in as much as the idea resonates with the government of the day. Sad.

In 2019, Ibrahim Magu, acting chairman of the Economic Chairman and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), had, to the chagrin of many Nigerians, alleged some governors “now covertly promote insecurity as justification to inflate their security vote.” While speaking on “Imperative of Fighting Corruption/Terrorism Financing in Nigeria,” in Abuja at the induction programme for returning and newly-elected state governors held at the Presidential Villa, the EFCC boss had said: “We have also seen evidence of theft of public resources by some state governors –  cashing in on the insecurity in their states. Insecurity has also offered the required oxygen for corruption to thrive as evident in the $2.1bn arms procurement scandal involving top military commanders both serving and retired.” While it would undermine logic to download such allegation hook, line and sinker, it can also not be easily dismissed in its entirety, especially given the source.

The foregoing is not only indicative of a deep-rooted corruption in the country but also a demonstration of the extent to which our leaders, which by constitutional composition, should be champions of good governance, can go to achieve their sinister motives. On the other hand is the fear that such development could further fuel one of the conspiracy theories making the rounds that the novel disease was an idea initiated by the elites to loot public funds. We need not be told the dangers such mindset portends to Nigeria as a nation and our quest to significantly reduce spread of the virus. It is worthy of note that Nigeria’s success or failure in the fight against the virus would be determinative of the people’s willingness to comply with government’s various directives. What now happens when many begin to subscribe to the conspiracy theory that the virus is a hoax introduced by the ruling class to amass public wealth?

Beyond the instances above and their possible implications on the fight against the pandemic, there is even a far more worrisome instance of unhealthy politicking with the fight against the coronavirus pandemic in Kogi state, where, according to the NCDC, there has been no recorded case of the virus. For the record, as of the time of writing this piece, Nigeria has 8,068 confirmed cases of the novel disease with 2,311 patients discharged while 233 deaths have been recorded. Kogi and Cross River seemed to have emerged the sudden heroes as the only two states yet to record any case since Nigeria had its first index case. The lingering drama between the Kogi state government and the NCDC clearly further shows the fight against COVID-19 is being fought along political lines.

On the part of the government, led by Yahaya Bello, the state, basking in the euphoria of the mouthed potency of its self-assessment app for checking for COVID-19 cases, appeared hell-bent in using the development to score cheap political points– even where there are concerns over the state’s testing capacity. The state, through its constant allegations against the NCDC, also appeared determined to shift blame, should any case of the virus be finally confirmed, especially given the projection by Chikwe Ihekweazu,  NCDC director-general, that the virus would spread to all the states in the country. Ordinarily, why should a state that its residents engage in transactions of all kinds with people from other states boast of being safe from a virus that can easily be contracted by merely collecting money from an infected person? Kogi needs to reassess its fight against the pandemic, particularly in what appeared to be a calculated move to equate its acclaimed zero case of COVID-19 with a feat above other states currently battling with the virus. The experience of Kano state – with no case of the virus at the beginning – but currently sits as the second worst-hit state by the virus in the country after Lagos state should be a lesson for Kogi. The state should collaborate with the NCDC to collectively fight the novel disease.

It is sad that unhealthy politics has become the hallmark of our democracy. From the least election to the highest in the country, cases of irregularities are not difficult to come by and it is unfortunate that the same experiment is playing out in our fight against the coronavirus pandemic. The ballooning cases of the virus are getting scarier at the tick of every second. What we need at this point is a collective effort – involving the leaders and the led — to make progress in our fight against COVID-19. This is not time for unhealthy politicking.

Ojo is a journalist at TheCable.


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