Rich Man’s Disease
Last Wednesday we decided to relocate from Lagos to Bwari, a modest-sized town on the outskirts of Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory 400 miles away in the centre of Nigeria. Some state governments were already making noises about restricting movement. The figures for those infected with Covid-19 were still low – 51 in all, including 32 in Lagos and 10 in the FCT – compared to countries in Asia, Europe and North America. But the numbers were that low in Italy six weeks ago, and in any case nobody ever believes any figures touted by the government.
The international diplomatic community, which was planning to airlift some of its staff out of the country, reckoned there were at least five thousand people who had already been exposed to the virus: ‘This is the real danger,’ a European diplomat was quoted as saying. ‘A lot of people who have had contacts with original carriers of the virus don’t even know they have the ailment and have in fact gone ahead to mingle with hundreds and thousands of others in the society, spreading the virus further.’
Whatever the case, we didn’t want to find ourselves trapped in the commercial capital of 21 million people should all hell break loose, and we didn’t need Chikwe Ihekweazu, the head of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), to tell us that ‘we don’t have infrastructure to scale testing,’ to say nothing of available hospital beds.
Not that people were panicking. In Bwari, as in Lagos, the few who went about wearing facemasks were looked on with bemusement. The idea had firmly taken hold that the virus disliked high heat and humidity and was, besides, only dangerous for the elderly with an underlying medical condition. As I write, the temperature is 37°C with humidity to match in a country where more than half the population – as in most of Africa – is under the age of 35.
All known cases so far had caught the virus abroad, hence the disproportionate numbers in Lagos and Abuja, including Mallam Abba Kyari, the chief of staff to President Muhammadu Buhari, who had apparently become infected during a trip to Egypt and Germany. It seems he broke into a prolonged coughing fit during a meeting on 21 March with the president, the vice-president and selected ‘top aides’, although at 82 he was already reported to be in poor health.
Whether the 77-year-old president was infected as a result of this encounter is unlikely to be revealed, given that we are yet to know why he was in hospital in London at different times for more than 170 days between February 2016 and May 2018. The day after the meeting with Kyari, a presidential spokesperson announced that only 16 of the hundred or so State House correspondents would be permitted into the Presidential Villa from now on, ‘in view of the current restriction in the Federal Capital Territory against gathering of not more than 50 persons at the same time at any venue, as well as to be able to maintain social distancing following the spread of Covid-19 pandemic’. Unsurprisingly, trusted reporters from state-owned media formed the bulk of the chosen.
Such pointless actions are all too typical of the way our leaders behave, as if withholding information will somehow make the problem go away. It is cold comfort that this time around the wealthy cannot flee to London and Delhi for medical treatment, as they did during the 2014 Ebola outbreak. Every day, we hear of prominent people getting tested, even when they don’t have any symptoms, while ‘ordinary’ Nigerians who fear they may have caught the virus are told to come back in 14 days’ time. Covid-19 is known as ‘the rich man’s disease’: you needed the wherewithal to travel abroad in order to catch it in the first place, and the wherewithal to get tested on your return, having infected the ‘masses’ in the process.
When Buhari finally stirred himself to issue a statement last Thursday, following the news of Kyari’s condition, he announced the ‘immediate release’ of 10 billion naira (around $26 million) for Lagos State to enable it to ‘increase its capacity to control and contain the outbreak’ (while also supporting other states with ‘capacity-building’), and ₦5 billion for the NCDC ‘to equip, expand and provide personnel to its facilities and laboratories across the country’.
Meanwhile, individuals and corporations have been falling over themselves to do their patriotic duty, including Aliko Dangote, Africa’s richest man, who donated ₦1 billion (as did four others), and Tony Elumelu, the chair of the United Bank for Africa (and much else besides), who donated ₦5 billion. The single biggest donation, of ₦11 billion, came from the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, the company through which the federal government regulates and participates in the oil industry, but this is small beer beside the tens of billions of dollars it was accused of looting in 2014. That amount would have gone a long way towards beefing up the country’s healthcare system the better to meet the current crisis.
Buhari also announced the formation of the Presidential Task Force on Covid-19, which will be co-ordinated by the air force ‘to enable a … more effective response across the country’. He ordered the immediate closure of all international airports and land borders for at least four weeks. Only cargo vessels that have been at sea for more than 14 days will be allowed to dock ‘after the crew have been tested and confirmed disease-free’ – with the exception of vessels carrying oil and gas products.
In a subsequent address to the nation on Sunday, by which time the number of confirmed infected had climbed to 111 (and two deaths), Buhari ordered the cessation of all movement in Lagos, Ogun (its neighbouring state) and the FCT for an initial period of 14 days with effect from 11 p.m. on Monday: ‘All citizens in these areas are to stay in their homes. Travel to or from other states should be postponed. All businesses and offices within these locations should be fully closed during this period.’ As elsewhere, only those providing vital services are exempt.
Telling the majority poor to stay indoors may prove impossible, however. As more than one person in Bwari has told me, Nigeria is not ‘London or America’. The point about a ‘developing’ country is that the majority poor depend on their daily wages to feed their families.
As I drove around on Sunday evening with my brother-in-law, watching people going about as usual to the churches and mosques and beer parlours, it was obvious that this was going to be a tough call. When we stopped to buy barbecued beef, the seller pointed to the wood fire and joked that it had already killed the virus even as he was cutting up our meat, provoking much laughter from the young men standing around. It is hunger that people here fear, not a virus they can’t even see.
The federal government is well aware of this: Buhari was quick to let us know in his earlier statement that the army was on standby to maintain order, as it invariably is at the slightest sign of trouble. A military operation tagged ‘Op-Second Eleven’ by the Chief of Army Staff, Tukur Buratai, allows for the ‘forceful transfer of the sick to hospitals’ and the ‘enforcement of the government movement restriction order’.