…as state witnesses rapid mysterious deaths

By OBINNA EZUGWU

As if the continued spread of the novel Coronavirus pandemic in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial centre is not bad enough, the sudden escalation of the disease in the Northern Nigeria city of Kano and other states of the region has presented Africa’s most populous country with a real nightmare scenario, promoting real fears of a massive outbreak.

Recent days have seen sudden spike in the number of Covid-19 cases in the country, and although Kano figures have not reflected on account of lack of testing kits, the rise in mysterious deaths in the state suggests rapid escalation.

As of Monday, April 27, the total number of confirmed cases in the country stood at 1337, with Lagos Lagos leading the pack 764, while 40 people had died and 255 discharged.

From moderate incremental figures of tens a few days ago, the past few days have seen a leap to between top 50s and 100 daily positive tests, despite the lockdown imposed by the states and the federal government in the hot-spot states. This is, perhaps in part because the lockdown is rarely effective beyond the city centres, as investigations by BusinessHallmark suggest that in various suburbs, many still leave the houses in search of food.

This is an inevitable scenario given the level of poverty in the country, and the fact that more than 80 percent of the population survive on daily income.

“With some 80% of Africa’s population living from hand to mouth on daily toil and hassle, complete lockdown would never be total, almost impossible in our social settings,” former CBN governor, Charles Soludo pointed in a submission last week.

“In most cases, the orders simply create opportunities for extortion for the security agencies: those who pay to move about! Attempts to force everyone into a lockdown for extended period may indeed be enforcing a hunger/stress-induced mass genocide. More people could, consequently, be dying out of hunger and other diseases than the actual Covid-19,” he said.

But the bigger concern for many observers is that states such as Kano and sister northern states with relatively huge population of the poor who earn a living daily, the idea of social distancing could be far-fetched and this spread far more uncontrollable. In the past on week, fewer than 600 persons died in the state from a strange outbreak suspected to be Coronavirus.
Yesterday, a professor of mass communication at the Bayero University, Kano, Balarabe Maikaba, in what was the latest of series of deaths in the state which hit mostly Dala, Fagge, Tarauni, Nasarawa, Gwale, and Kano Municipal worst.

Among those already buried are academics, administrators, bankers, media practitioners, and businessmen.

Among the prominent persons that died in Kano on Saturday were Prof Ibrahim Ayagi, Dr Musa Umar Gwarzo, Alhaji Dahiru Rabiu (former Grand Khadi), Musa Tijjani (Editor of Triumph Newspaper) and Adamu Isyaku Dal, who was a former Executive Secretary of the State Universal Basic Education Board.

Others are Alhaji Salisu Lado, Hajiya Shamsiyya Mustapha, Hajiyaj Nene Umma, Alhaji Garba Sarki Fagge, Dr Nasiru Maikano Bichi, Secretary Student Affairs, North West University, Prof Aliyu Umar Dikko of Physiology Department, Bayero University Kano, and Ado Gwanja’s mother, among others.

Aware of the urgency of the situation, the NCDC on Thursday sent 17 persons, including seven from the World Health Organisation (WHO) to Kano to deal with surging cases of the virus in the state. Coronavirus came and one Imam in Kano gets up and begins to tell you, “Ba Corona! Ba Corona.” And the people listen to him more than they listen to anybody else,” noted Mr. Oscar Onwudiwe, lawyer and president, Aka Ikenga.

“The conflict of ideology in Nigeria is so obvious, and you see in the way people react differently to things. Then we also have our own man here who believes that, look, why are people being driven away from the church when it is 5G that is killing people? You see how we are spreading ignorance,” he said.

Concern about uncontrollable outbreak is heightening. Although the country’s confirmed infection figures are still less than 2000 with 40 dead and almost 255 recovered, a modest number compared to such advanced climes like the United States, Italy, Spain and so on, where the number of deaths are in thousands, with hundreds of thousands infected, the modest number can be deceptive. It’s a country of an estimated 200 million people, out of which only about 9000 have been tested, at test capacity of approximately 600 daily which was recently raised to 1500.

This means that less than 0.01 percent of the population has been tested. In his broadcast to the nation fortnight ago, Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari said his government was working to double the number of testing laboratories in the country “and raising our testing capacity to 1,500 tests per day.”

He also noted that, “We also trained over 7,000 Healthcare workers on infection prevention and control while deploying NCDC teams to 19 states of the federation. Lagos and Abuja today have the capacity to admit some 1,000 patients each across several treatment centres.”

But observers were quick to point out that even the test capacity of 1,500 a day, if attained, will still be grossly inadequate. Should the country eventually attain the capacity, while it would be an improvement, it would only mean that in a whole year, the country would only have been able to test 547,500 people.

Devil and deep blue sea

Across the country, the federal and regional governments are favouring lockdowns as measure to contain the virus. But the measure has had the inevitable consequence of creating what has been described as hunger pandemic, even as businesses are suffering severely. The lockdowns have led to economic slowdown, many businesses have closed shops while crime rates are spiking.

Many critical sectors of the economy have been adversely affected by the lockdown, particularly tourism, aviation, trade, entertainment, oil and gas, real estate

“If this lockdown goes into Monday next week, there is going to be total breakdown of law and order, and you cannot blame the poor people for that because as it is right now, the rich are looking after themselves, they don’t care what happens to the poor,” noted Dr. Bongo Adi, senior lecturer, Lagos Business School.

In his broadcast on Monday, President Buhari promised to ease lock down in Ogun, Lagos and Abuja gradually from next week, while declaring total lock down of Kano for 14 days.

Last week, governors of the 36 states of the federation extended interstate lock down for another 14 days. But for Soludo, such lockdown measures will only serve to decimate the economy, create massive poverty and hunger, while still not solving the problem of spread.

“Social distancing in most parts of Africa will remain impractical. From the shanties in South Africa’s townships to the crowded Ajegunle or Mararaba in Abuja/Nasarawa, or Cairo or Kinshasa to the villages and poor neighbourhoods in much of Africa, social clustering, not distancing, is the affordable, survivalist culture,” he wrote.

“Communal living is not just about culture, it is a matter of economic survival. Hence, the statistics on infections will be coming in fits and starts: shall we be locking down and unlocking with each episode of surge as there may probably be several such episodes (unless and until a cure is found)?

“Even with over four weeks of “stay at home” or lockdowns in some African countries, the reported daily infections continue to rise. Some may argue the counterfactual that without the initial lockdowns, the number of infections could have been multiples. It is a reasonable conjecture or anecdote, albeit without any proof. The question is the end game for a poor society such as Africa?

“New infections have re-emerged in Wuhan, and both Singapore and South Korea are going back to the drawing board. Since we cannot sustain lockdowns indefinitely or even until the spread stops/declines, it means that we would sooner or later remove the restrictions. What happens then? There would still be infections, which can still spread anyway. Why not then adopt sustainable solutions early enough without weeks of avoidable waste and hardship? Let us think this through!

“Next, African states cannot pay for lockdowns. Many countries depend on budget support from bilateral and multilateral donors, and with acute balance of payments problems. They do not even have leg rooms to simply print money. Most are now begging for debt relief and applying for urgent loans from the IMF and the World Bank.

“In Africa, both the governments and the people are begging for “palliatives”. The most that African states and their private charities can do is “photo charity”—with much fanfare, drop a few currency notes or grains here and there for some thousands when millions are in desperate need, just to be seen to have “done something”.