Playing With COVID-19

January 05, 2020 / 11:35 AM / by Dr. Reuben Abati / Header Image
Credit: Twitter; 

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Nigerians are playing with COVID-19, and in so doing,
they are playing with fire and death. Why are we so blest and yet so suicidal?
When the index case of the virus was announced on February 27, 2020, and the
government proceeded to adopt lockdown measures at both national and
sub-national levels, the people were gripped by fear and anxiety. COVID-19 was
something strange that they could not deal with. The fact that it turned out to
be a global pandemic, spreading like wildfire, burning down lives and hopes,
made the situation more frightening. When government, following the pattern
observed elsewhere decided to ease the lockdown, and businesses were allowed to
re-open in order to save the economy from total collapse, Nigerians heaved a
sigh of relief and began to run their lives in spite of the virus. They
respected the non-pharmaceutical interventions which government prescribed for
a while, but in due course all the masks disappeared. Even the isolation
centres that were set up in different parts of the country became inactive.
Many of those isolation centres were shut down and the healthcare workers were


We began to hear less and less of those phrases that
defined the pandemic at its peak: contact tracing, physical distancing, social
distancing, use of sanitizer. When the lockdown was eased, the Presidential
Task Force and the state governments rolled out a number of prescriptions. Religious
bodies were required to reduce their gatherings to half the capacity of the
hall in which their events took place. The register of those who attended such
gatherings was expected to be kept so that in the event of an outbreak of
infections, it would be possible to trace contacts and contain any form of
community spread. I love going to the market to buy vegetables, sea food and
other items. Over the years, this has provided me the opportunity to mix and
mingle with the real people of Nigeria. A typical Nigerian market has a life of
its own. 


As the pandemic raged, there were local government
officials manning the entry points to the markets. I recall being sent back to
the car more than twice, with a very polite reminder that without a mask, I
could not be allowed entry. I dutifully obeyed with apologies, or I promptly
fished out my mask and wore it, following which I would stretch out my hand for
a shower of sanitizer. Supermarkets insisted on the same protocol, but that
didn’t impress me, because once you got into the store, you could see all
manner of reckless persons yanking off their masks.  Because there
were no sanctions and Nigerian leaders who made the rules did not show the
example, the people themselves gradually began to conclude that COVID-19 is a
scam, some form of “play-play” (that is a Nigerian term) with which Nigerian
politicians siphon money from the state treasury.  They could see
politicians organizing rallies at which they disregarded COVID-19 protocols.
They could see government officials walking about as if they had a form of
divine immunity. The religious leaders did not help matters. Some of them
pointedly told the people that there is nothing called Coronavirus, and that a
Christian is covered by the blood of Jesus. For some reason, the prevalence
rates in Africa was quite low, except perhaps in the colder parts of the
continent (the Cape Province and Gauteng in South Africa and in the countries
of North Africa). Every one relaxed. Corona Virus became classified as a rich
man’s affliction, from which the poor were allegedly


I recall attending a small family get-together at the
time when everyone was almost forgetting about the virus. I arrived at the
event wearing a mask. Really modest gathering, to honour a friend who had
recorded yet another significant milestone in his life. The moment my friend
welcomed me into his compound, he kept telling me to remove my mask. I refused.
I wasn’t prepared to take any risks. He then asked me to look around if I could
see anyone wearing a mask. Indeed, nobody else wore a mask. The jollification
was in full swing. I looked around. There was this woman gyrating like a cone
on the dancing floor, thrusting her chest and derriere in a tantalizing,
mermaid-like, manner, enough to distract a man of gentlemanly manners. I got
carried away for a moment as I fixed my gaze on her wondrous assets. 


“Dr, I say remove this mask. You can’t be the only one
wearing a mask at this gathering. People will laugh at you”.

“No. I will keep it on. Coronavirus is real. It has
not gone yet. Have you not been following what is going in the United States
and Europe? We even hear that the situation could get worse before the end of
the year”.

“That is in those places. They are the ones who know
what sin they have committed that God is punishing them for. In this our own
town, there is no Corona here. Evil is not our portion in the name of

“There is Corona in this your town my brother. Every
day on Arise TV, we track the Corona virus trend, and offer analysis. I know
what I am talking about”.

“That is television. You people must have something to
say every morning. Even if nothing exists, you will create it and use sweet
mouth to convince people. I beg, come and sit down and eat and drink. Let me see
whether you will drink through the face mask. Mr. Co-ro-na!”


When it was time to take pictures with my friend and
his family, and I showed up in front of the camera, still with a face mask, he
was the one who personally removed my mask with his hands. “My friend, respect
yourself, you want to take pictures with me, you are wearing a mask. How would
I convince anybody that you travelled all the way from Lagos to honour me?” It
was the last community, family-oriented event that I attended in the year 2020.
As if I knew…!  

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As the year drew to a close, we began to hear reports
of a second variant of the virus, that is deadlier, more dangerous and 70% more
transmissible than the original virus named COVID-19. The mutant variant was
reportedly sighted in the United Kingdom where a Third Wave had already forced
the authorities to impose a tiered system of lockdown on the entire country.
The same variant was also sighted in South Africa and in due course in other
countries of the world: 33 as at the last count. Many countries began to shut
their borders again as the virus remained capricious. Meanwhile, the emergence
of a new variant of it, abbreviated the joy that the world had experienced with
the emergence of vaccine candidates with impressive safety, efficacy and
immunogenicity profiles which had already been granted emergency authorization
and deployed across the world. Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, Astra-Zeneca-Oxford
and the vaccines they came up with raised hopes that humanity would at last
beat the virus. In the US, UK, Canada, UAE, Russia, China and across Europe,
clinical trials and vaccinations were in progress. Scientists worked round the
clock to reduce and checkmate the terror of the virus. There were hiccups and
concerns, but it was instructive to see the amount of devotion that the war
against coronavirus generated across boundaries. 


Nigerian authorities would eventually wake up. They
began to warn afresh about the need to #take-responsibility. The Presidential
Task Force and the National Centre for Disease Control announced that the
infection rate in Nigeria was going up. They further disclosed that the new
variant that was reported in the UK in September had actually been identified
at a Genomics Laboratory at Redeemer’s University, Ede, Osun State, Nigeria, in
a research led by Professor Christian Happi and his team. If the UK had
probably not raised the alarm,  Nigeria would not have drawn
attention to this fact. By the last week of the year 2020, the country was
already recording over 1, 031 infections per day, and that grew steadily to 1,
074 cases per day. Still, the people couldn’t be bothered. They defied
government counsel and continued to hold all kinds of parties: weddings,
funerals, house-warmings, naming ceremonies. The counsel that people should
stay away from large gatherings during the Yuletide and New Year season was
ignored. Lagos and other state governments re-imposed curfews  and
threatened that there would be sanctions. Lagos declared what it called “Operation No Tolerance”. Government could well have been talking to the


The people rang in the New Year on their own terms.
They trooped to the beaches in large numbers. One video showed a sea of heads
at a beach in Lagos! Entertainment spots were filled up. End of the year
parties were held. On cross-over night, the churches welcomed end-of-year
revelers who brazenly advertised their violation of the law. We stepped into
the year 2021, against the background of fears that the numbers will rise and
there may be chaos lurking around the corner. When reminded of their own folly,
the average Nigerian would tell you that COVID-19 had disappeared with the year
2020! When told that in one week alone, 20 doctors died and that more celebrity
deaths were recorded, the people ignored the message. To have a community where
the people do not care whether they die or not is a classic representation of
Nigeria’s descent into anomie. 


In one word, Nigerians refused to take responsibility.
The government failed to enforce its own rules. I used to urge
the  Nigerian government to pay more attention to public
communication and adjust its strategies. At this point, I am beginning to doubt
my own prescription. It may now be difficult to convince anyone that strategic
communication is the problem. One year after the virus, I do not think that
there is anyone in the world who has not heard of COVID-19. People in the rural
areas have relatives and friends living in the cities. Both rural and urban
residents know at least one person living in Europe or North America and Asia.
The No. 1 topic in the media has remained the scourge of COVID-19. We are
paying the price for the lack of trust between government and the people. Why
should Nigerians trust the same political leaders who kept COVID-19 palliatives
for themselves and used them as birthday gifts? One of the most enduring images
of 2020 was that of poor Nigerians forcing warehouses and the homes of
politicians open to liberate COVID-19 palliative materials. Thus, when
government officials talk about saving the people, nobody takes them seriously.
The people would rather resort to self-help. 


In Nigeria, this has proven to be costly. The vacuum
created by the government has been filled by merchants of faith, spell-binders
and mercenaries engaged in a “Plandemic war” – a war of misinformation by
anti-vaxxers. Their main arena is the social media and the pulpit where they
spew conspiracy theories about how COVID-19 is an artificial creation by Big
Pharma and a greedy, cross-border capitalist elite, or as they argue, unconscionably,
a ploy to create a World Government under the control of the Illuminati. There
are now about 31 million people following anti-Vaccine groups on Facebook and
YouTube. The church is part of this anti-Corona movement. Pentecostal Pastors
are particularly notorious. They hide under divine immunity to mislead their
congregation and impose their own alternative facts. There is a video in
circulation for example of Pastor Chris Oyakhilome where he tells his captive
audience: “Let me show you something. A calendar”. And then he goes on to
indoctrinate the people relying on a calendar nobody else has seen. 


It must be possible for the Congregation to
interrogate pastors and ask cogent questions. No Pastor should be allowed the
affectation of Solomonic imperialism that we now see in Nigerian churches. It
is even more disturbing that some politicians have joined the trend. There is
this other video showing Senator Dino Melaye speaking evangelically about
COVID-19 and the vaccine. He asked people pointedly not to take any vaccine. I
thought the man in the video was a body double. But he looked like Melaye quite
alright. I was alarmed. Melaye was not dancing, singing, or making comedy, for
which he is well known. He was dead serious. That is the reality of our situation.
I won’t be shocked if my carpenter suddenly shows up tomorrow as the Anthony
Fauci of Nigeria and he gets a sizeable followership!    


It is the failure of government and the crisis of
leadership that is at play. Towards the end of 2020, we had the untidy
situation whereby the Presidential Task Force openly blamed state governments
for failing to sustain the interventionist pathways funded by the Federal
Government and the Organised Private Sector under the auspices of CA-COVID and
the Central Bank of Nigeria. The states were asked to reopen the isolation
centres. But how many of those isolation centres and laboratories are still
functioning or in good shape? They have probably been looted. The Federal
Government also asked the states to suspend the re-opening of schools till
January 18, 2021. Some of the states are insisting they would re-open schools
anyway. One state government’s spokesperson reportedly said they would listen
only to the Governor of their State. So is this about ego then?  What
does this tell us? Lack of synergy. The Federal Government says we should
expect vaccines by the end of January. How? Which vaccines? Are we on any
waiting list? Have we made orders? Is there an operational plan in place? We
are in January already. Nigeria needs to learn how other countries like Greece,
for example, manage these things. And then the other day, the Federal
Government published a list of 100 passport numbers,
travelers who failed to
observe the 7-day post arrival, mandatory PCR test. Of what use are those
passport numbers? Is it not better to name the owners of the
passports?  Nigeria needs to get its acts together. We are far
behind. We need new thinking. 


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Previous Posts by Author -
Dr. Reuben Abati

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