Nigeria: COVID-19 Infection Rate - the Numbers Game

opinion

The tragedy today is that too many states are playing politics with COVID-19, significantly increasing the risk of infections and death in their communities for the silly image-improving deception that their numbers are down, so that normal life can resume.

The story of COVID-19 has always been about the numbers - the fear that tens of millions of people might be killed by the pandemic, turning the world into the doomsday prediction that has frightened people from antiquity. The world remembers the 1918 flu epidemic in which 500 million people were infected and 50 million died. The fear, therefore, is real and fuels the ways in which nations, communities and individuals have responded, which vary considerably. Some policy responses have been silly, others have been fear-induced over-reaction, and we have also had the sheer stupidity of thinking that the epidemic is not real. One key factor has been the over-bearing presence of material conditions in differentiating how the poor and the rich respond to the infectious disease. Except for a few countries that had planned properly for pandemics, most governments reacted on the basis of fear, imposing total lockdowns and sealing people in their homes. They did not think about the feasibility and utility of their actions. For poor communities, total lockdown is a transformation of people's lives from frequent hunger to starvation, as they feed on the basis of their daily hustle, and no hustle means no food. Governments in poor countries pretended to respond to the problem by offering PALLIATIVES to the poor but the offer reached only a tiny percentage of the hungry. In the coming months and years, we will put a lot of effort into studying how lockdowns created hunger, wiped out savings and capital of operators of artisans and small producers, and significantly crippled economies.

In Karl Marx's theory of the materialist conception of history, it is material conditions rather than ideals that determine human action. If people are locked up by the state, and are hungry and need to survive, they would do the necessary. That was what happened in Nigeria, and lockdown has imploded under pressure. State policy has responded by lifting it, couched, of course, in careful language, suggesting that the measure was thought through and action was based on an objective assessment of the situation. It was in this context that the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 told Nigerians that they can move within their states, as if they had not been doing this. The federal government also announced that moving forward, decisions would be taken by state governments, who are closer to the people. Maybe, the federal government had forgotten that they had previously argued, at the beginning of the crisis, that it was a national problem that needed a unified nationally coordinated response - an eminently sensible position.

The reality was that the federal government got overwhelmed. The key turning point was when officials from the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) had to run out of Kogi State, their tails between their legs, as the all-powerful Governor Yahaya Bello threatened to lock them up on a two-week quarantine. The governor had decided that there was, and there will be, no incident of COVID-19 in his State. We know that the disease has spread all over the country and does not respect borders, as long as people move, so maybe we all have a knowledge gap on how all the movements to the State happened without transmission. Of course, the knowledge gap must exist for doctors in the State, who have affirmed that they have been seeing cases of the disease but lamented that they are not allowed to say the truth. The same question is relevant for Cross River State, which took the same position. At the height of the lockdown and travel ban, the online newspaper, PREMIUM TIMES, sent its journalists to travel round the country by road and they all went to the places they were asked to go to and came back. Nigerians have been moving across the country and the fiction that inter-state movement is banned makes no sense. The real issue is that in most of our states today, the reality is what state governments say it is. This is a dangerous situation.

In each state, the collection of samples is done by task forces set up by the governor. The laboratories can only test what they are given. He who controls the sample set controls the numbers. Very sadly, most state governors have taken the decision that high COVID-19 infection numbers is bad for the image of their states...

I believe that the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) knew what they were saying when they announced that Nigeria will be finished if state governors are allowed to take over the COVID-19 battle in the country. Their president, Professor Innocent Ujah, said this on Monday during an interview on Channels Television. He was concerned that devolving COVID-19 policy measures to governors is a threat "because apart from Lagos and maybe one or two other states, the commitment is, to say the least, very disappointing and coordination of measures is so important."

I agree with him but the problem is that governors run their states and their definition of what is important prevails. Every evening, NCDC releases numbers of infections and casualties of COVID-19 but what do these numbers mean? In each state, the collection of samples is done by task forces set up by the governor. The laboratories can only test what they are given. He who controls the sample set controls the numbers. Very sadly, most state governors have taken the decision that high COVID-19 infection numbers is bad for the image of their states, so apart from Lagos, the numbers have been going down because fewer people are being tested and even fewer of the tested samples are being taken to the labs. In Kano, for example, the director, Centre for Infectious Diseases Research, Bayero University, Kano, Professor Isa Abubakar, has drawn attention to the fact that the dramatic reduction in the announced numbers is not a reflection of a reduction in the rate of infection. He made it clear that what has been happening is that fewer samples are being supplied to the labs.

Let's recall that the Kaduna State government complained that Almajirai "deported" from Kano to its territory was the biggest component of COVID-19 infections in the State. The Plateau State government also complained that its index case was exported from Kano. The Kano State government felt insulted and said other states had also exported infected almajirai to its territory. Shortly thereafter, the number of infections from Kano started to decline. NCDC is run by excellent professionals who know what they are doing but sadly for them, their numbers are captive to what state governments give their labs. The tragedy today is that too many states are playing politics with COVID-19, significantly increasing the risk of infections and death in their communities for the silly image-improving deception that their numbers are down, so that normal life can resume.

At this time, the importance of social distancing, face masks and washing of hands with soap is crucial and self-protection strategy is the best pathway to safety, as governments give up. Everybody who wants to know is aware that ending lockdown must be accompanied with increased testing, tracking and isolation of those infected.

At the level of the community, it is normal that people would be quick to grasp at the straw that infections are declining. Although not all restrictions have been removed, the reality is that normal movements have resumed and people are not practicing social distancing. At this point, governments have given up on protecting the people and those who seek to avoid infection will have to depend on their own discipline and proactive responses on the situation. One good advice from the federal government is that religious congregations can resume under state government tutelage but those over fifty years should stay at home. Those who want to hear should be told that at this point, there is no evidence of turning the curve in Nigeria, even if the numbers are being turned downwards.

Nigerians should reflect on the 1918 tragedy. At that time also, people were placed in quarantine, which was enforced strictly and as such the suffering was intense. The pandemic came in three waves. After the first wave, the quarantine was lifted and people went out to celebrate. They were all screaming to hell with social distancing. The virus was happy at the good luck it had as people were massively infected as they danced and hugged each other, while celebrating the end of quarantine. That was the moment that the second wave, which killed most of the 50 million people occurred. At this time, the importance of social distancing, face masks and washing of hands with soap is crucial and self-protection strategy is the best pathway to safety, as governments give up. Everybody who wants to know is aware that ending lockdown must be accompanied with increased testing, tracking and isolation of those infected. There are no signs that it would happen in the coming weeks.

Emerging research is indicating that the impact of COVID-19 on Africa might not be as devastating as it had been in other continents. One important finding is that high temperature and humidity slows down the spread of the virus. If this is true, it means the spread of the pandemic would slow down over the next six months. There is however a warning from the World Health Organisation - the disease is not going to disappear anytime soon. What this means is that MAYBE we have a six-month window to stop playing politics with the COVID-19 numbers and develop a serious workable containment strategy against the disease. In other words, there should be NO COMPLACENCY; we must get ready for a possible massive second wave with the harmattan winds from November.

A professor of Political Science and development consultant/expert, Jibrin Ibrahim is a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Democracy and Development, and Chair of the Editorial Board of PREMIUM TIMES.

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