Lockdown in a Feeding Bottle Economy

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As we practice social distancing, it is important to practice mental distancing as well. This means staying away from certain categories of people: Quack doctors who claim they have a cure for coronavirus; fake prophets who tell tales of how they saw this virus coming and can end it; conspiracy theorists who argue that this virus is a result of 5G technology and neurotic friends who spread fear by constantly updating you on the number of corona-related deaths but won’t say anything about the recoveries.

With billions of people across the world in some form of isolation, quarantine or lockdown, mobile networks are making a killing from the amount of data being expended as we all exchange messages from the privacy of our homes. It is within this context that we can situate the foregoing quote which I adapted (with slight editing) from a WhatsApp post. Before I go into how the admonition might serve us, I must also add that what keeps many of us sane at this most unusual moment is the amount of laughter we generate from a number of these posts.

As a matter of urgent national importance, a ‘patriotic’ Nigerian has asked members of the Health Committee of both the Senate and the House of Representatives to embark on their usual ‘fact-finding’ tours, this time to Italy, Spain, UK and the United States. In Ghana, Mr Agyemang Kwekwu Eric cannot understand the hoopla about using Africans as guinea pigs for the trial of coronavirus vaccine when there are 275 MPs, 123 ministers and about 50 deputy ministers in his country who could help. “The MPs represent the people. They can agree to represent the population as a sample of the COVID-19 vaccine trial. Afterwards, they will report to us the findings…This will serve as the perfect opportunity of restoring citizens’ lost faith and confidence in our leaders,” he wrote.

Staying at home has also led to all manner of discoveries. A man said he never imagined that a time would come when his hands would consume more alcohol than his mouth! We must have heard about politicians who have had to wait patiently for results they could not rig. Apparently based on ‘expert opinions’ shared on the pandemic, a young lady summed up in a Tweeter post: “My mum has acquired a PhD on coronavirus from WhatsApp University.” It is from this same ‘university’ that I learnt that residents of a city in the South-east stay in their homes in the morning hours to isolate. “In the evening, when the virus has slept, they troop out and gather in joints to drink beer and eat Nkwobi.” These ‘experts’ have also been able to differentiate between quarantine, social distancing and lockdown. When you have enough to eat and a healthy bank balance, and only staying at home because of COVID-19, that, according to them, is social distancing. When you have no food and money, yet cannot go out of your house, that is quarantine. If you have neither food nor money and you are stuck at home with a troublesome spouse. That, they explained, is a total lockdown!

If we are to survive this season, we must take heed of a few things. One of the clerics who ‘saw’ COVID-19 coming is South African evangelist, Paseka Motsoeneng, popularly known as Pastor Mboro. I am not sure he has garnered the $100,000 “transport money” he requested to enable him to travel to hell (yes, that is the task he has set for himself) to confront coronavirus so as to relieve the world of this pandemic. “There is no need for worry, the real problem is the demon causing this disease and I am ready to kill it once and for all,” said Pastor Mboro. But everything is conditioned on the small detail of the $100,000 ‘transport allowance’ to hell where he says coronavirus is currently domiciled.

In Iran, a five-year-old child lost his sight after his family gave him modified industrial alcohol to drink, based on the speculations that it cures the virus. A Muslim cleric who has another idea to tackle COVID-19 is now on the run. Morteza Kohansal was applying what he called the ‘Prophet’s perfume’ under the nose of COVID-19 patients in a Gilan province hospital until the authorities went after him, thus putting an end to what must have been a most lucrative enterprise. Interestingly, in Nigeria where you expect demonstrations of such ‘faith healing’, many chose to trust the ‘prescription’ of chloroquine by the one and only emeritus professor of coronavirus, Dr Donald Trump over the emphatic prophesy of Pastor T.B Joshua that the pandemic would end on March 27. As it would happen, some of those people died of chloroquine overdose before corona even visited them.

Despite the fact that we are on lockdown, there has been no dull moment in Nigeria. I even understand that the ‘COVID-19 Ankara’ that we will all wear to celebrate the end of coronavirus next week is already out. Indeed, a celebration may have already begun for Ibrahim Oboshi, a councillor in Nasarawa State who is currently on a blissful matrimonial quarantine with the two wives he married on the same day last week. In Lagos and Abuja, isolation and social distancing now mean hundreds of men and women congregating on the Gbagada axis of the Third Mainland Bridge and Games Village expressway respectively for physical exercise. Meanwhile, the arraignment of Funke Akindele and her husband on Monday for hosting more than 20 people at their home was witnessed by more than a hundred people (comprising lawyers, social media busybodies, the ubiquitous Lagos touts, etc.) in a small court space. Well, such little details hardly matter in a nation where a governor hosted a lavish enlightenment campaign on social distancing for senior officials of his state, after which he took a group photograph with dozens of participants who huddled together!

Last Sunday, Pastor Chris Oyakhilome lectured his church members on how the COVID-19 pandemic was created to popularize the 5G network as part of a grand plan for the coming of the anti-Christ who will impose a new world order. The moment your carpenter begins to imagine that he can also make your clothes, according to a man on twitter who waded in on this claim, you are already in trouble. Fortunately, Pastors Matthew Ashimolowo, Sam Adeyemi and Poju Oyemade have offered a more credible counter to this controversial thesis. But if Juma’at prayers hold tomorrow in Mosques across Katsina State as approved by Governor Aminu Bello Masari, then many churches could also open on Sunday across the country with dire implications for the fight against coronavirus. With that, we may also hear more on ‘the role of G5 and the anti-Christ’ in this pandemic.

In the name of palliatives, some South-west governors have taken the idea that ‘half bread is better than none’ to a new level. Loaves of bread, scoops of rice and beans, miserable sachets of Garri Ijebu, tins of palm oil etc. are now being offered families to lock themselves down for weeks. On a serious note here, while I fully endorse all measures that will help us in the fight against the spread of coronavirus, we should also be mindful of the social conditions in our society and the level of deprivation many have had to endure. Care should be taken to ensure that the economic pressures that necessitate the growing resistance to the lockdown do not graduate into anti-poverty uprisings which will be harder to suppress without unnecessary loss of innocent lives.

Meanwhile, the federal government on Tuesday released its plan to mitigate the effect of COVID-19 on the economy. But the roadmap announced by the Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning, Mrs Zainab Ahmed, shows that we remain a huge feeding bottle state. While other nations are looking at the businesses that have been affected and the jobs that are lost as a result of the lockdown, we remain trapped in the politics of sharing oil proceeds. With shortfalls arising from a downturn in prices, we are removing $150 million from the Nigeria Sovereign Investment Authority (NSIA) just to share at the next Federation Account Allocation Committee (FAAC) meeting.

Since many of our people will move from lockdown to layoff in their offices as a consequence of the havocs the pandemic has wrought on the global economy, the proposed public works programme which has been used well in many places could be a game-changer. That will happen only if we ensure the 1,000 jobs per local government result in the much-needed infrastructure for communities rather than become another avenue for political patronage. But since the challenge of the moment is health-related, several questions are begging for answers in this package.

In a nation bristling with creativity and enterprise, why is there no plan for funding urgent medical research to find vaccines, therapy and homemade protective gear for our hospitals or how to give resources to local industry to fabricate some of these medical appliances? On the economic front, how many jobs are being lost? In what industries? Who most desperately needs help and how many are they? If, as the Finance Minister indicated, this package is intended as a COVID-19 intervention, why is there a string of presidential approvals to incur expenditure even before National Assembly appropriation? And the committee or task force that is about to authorize these disbursements, what powers does it have when the Accountant General, Auditor General and the Bureau of Public Procurement (BPP) Director-General are not even represented? What accountability mechanisms are in place at a time some ministers are personally sharing cash to undocumented people in a manner that lacks transparency?

To the extent that it is no longer fashionable to leave the economy to market forces, we cannot fault the idea of government intervention, especially in this season. On this score, the Financial Times of London editorial of last Friday on “the frailty of social contract” is quite revealing. The editors advocated that “governments will have to accept a more active role in the economy” after conceding that the “lockdowns are imposing the greatest cost on those already worst off” with the overnight loss of millions of jobs and livelihoods in hospitality, leisure and related sectors across the world.

It is therefore laudable that the federal government has come up with a fiscal stimulus package. The main challenge is that the fall in crude prices following COVID-19 has once again exposed the kill-and-share vulnerable dimension of our oil dependence. That is where the ‘feeding bottle’ scenario comes in. Everyone knows that commodity prices are prone to boom and bust cycles but we hardly use the boom period to properly diversify our revenue base or save enough for the rainy day. This despite the fact of the pains of oil price slumps we experienced in 2008/2009 and between 2014 to 2016. Depending almost solely on a single revenue source in an economy that revolves around the government is extremely dangerous, a lesson we have failed to learn over time.

On the whole, this moment presents another opportunity to do the hard things of further expanding the economy and cutting wastages. The response so far is commendable but needs to go deeper and be sustained. We must also find a way to deal with the glaring inequalities that have enabled some to donate hundreds of millions of Naira in a society where, according to the United Nations projection, majority of citizens earn incomes from “vulnerable employment.”

Okay, maybe I am asking too many questions today out of idleness. Let me own up here: There is a paralysis that comes with this unusual period that is difficult to fathom or explain. According to renowned author Chimamanda Adichie, who described coronavirus as a menace both in the air and in our heads, there are moments when our spirits will sag or we feel mental exhaustion from inactivity. “But how can we not? The world as it is today is foreign to us. It would be strange not to be shaken to our core,” she argued. The more worrisome aspect is that nobody knows for how long this crisis will last. While we should, therefore, hope for the best, we need to prepare for the worst. What we cannot afford is to allow the crisis to take us down. For that not to happen, we need to maintain a healthy distance from those who delight in spreading doom and gloom within our spaces.

Toxic people who spread panic, fear and sensationalism are the same people spreading the coronavirus stigma. Given the experience of Ebola in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone and the HIV/AIDS deaths on the continent in the nineties, we should be wary of them at a time like this. In his address at the United Nations General Assembly in September 1987, the late World Health Organization (WHO) researcher, Jonathan Max Mann characterized the three major phases of any infectious disease. The most dangerous, he said, was a stigma, which grinds down victims with shame and isolation.

Despite the fact that coronavirus has affected prominent people in our country, there is stigmatization in both the reporting and manner in which infected people are being viewed by society. I am even seeing irresponsible media adverts congratulating politicians for testing negative to coronavirus. This is precisely the sort of recklessness that could prevent those who need to be tested and possibly isolated from coming forward. When people begin to hide what ails them, as we have seen in Ilorin, LUTH and Edo, they endanger caregivers and put the entire system in jeopardy. It is going to get worse when the global spotlight shifts from the disease and we are left to our own devices.

As Nigerians try to find meaning into how a virus has thrown the entire universe into jeopardy and changed the way we now live, there is a powerful treatise that I found most appropriate for a time like this. Apparently written by an environmentalist, it is speaking to us in a powerful way as to why we should not waste this moment, as individuals and as a nation:

We fell asleep in one world and woke up in another. Suddenly Disney is out of magic, Paris is no longer romantic, New York doesn’t stand up anymore, the Chinese wall is no longer a fortress, and Mecca is empty. Hugs and kisses suddenly become weapons, and not visiting parents and friends become an act of love. Suddenly you realize that power, beauty and money are worthless, and can’t get you the oxygen you’re fighting for. The world continues its life and it is beautiful. It only puts humans in cages. I think it’s sending us a message: ‘You are not necessary. The air, earth, water and sky without you are fine. When you come back, remember that you are my guests. Not my masters.’

I wish all my readers a Happy Easter with prayers that the resurrection power of the Lord Jesus Christ will heal our world.

Sex for Grades

Since I continue to receive enquiries on when my book, ‘NAKED ABUSE: Sex for Grades in African Universities’ will be in the market, let me restate that once the current lockdown is over, the copies will be on sale. An online store has already been built by MAX to enable anyone to purchase the book and get it delivered to their door, in Lagos and Abuja. For other cities, we will also work out an arrangement to make the book available once this crisis is over.

• You can follow me on my Twitter handle, @Olusegunverdict and www.olusegunadeniyi.com

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