Dying of hunger or COVID-19?

Emeka Omeihe

The caption above may sound somewhat abrasive or outright offensive because of the tinge of fatality it entails. But it inexorably captures the challenge confronting Nigerians in the face of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.

This contradiction emanates from the responses of governments to check the spread of the disease and the countervailing issues thrown up by them. The various governments had in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic rolled out measures including total lockdown in some states to stem the spread. If diligently adhered to by members of the public, the measures will lead to a quick curtailment of the viral disease and save valuable lives that would have been lost.

As well intentioned as the measures are, it soon became clear that total curtailment of movements and shut down of businesses cannot last for too long. Humans have to move around and engage in productive ventures to sustain life. It then became a matter of ‘time when’ the government will relax the measures so as not to suffocate the people on account of their biting effects.

The predicament of the government was not helped by the reality that even as the measures had run for about five weeks, there had been no significant reduction in the spread of the viral disease. As a matter of fact, available statistics showed the viral disease in a steady increase. The government was therefore faced with the difficult decision either to continue with the lockdown or throw the streets open so that normal life could resume.

But each of these options goes with serious repercussions or payoffs. If the government goes ahead with total lockdown, it risks social unrest and possible collapse of the economy. This had already started manifesting in the riots witnessed in some states as the lockdown lasted. It was also evident in emerging signals of economic downturn into which the country is irretrievably headed.

The other option is to throw open the economy and allow normal life to resume. This goes with the risk of an exponential spread in the viral disease such that can wipe out human population from the face of the earth. Given the fast mode of spread of the disease and the reality that no cure has yet been found for it, the consequences of such a decision could be too dire for the country. The government found itself standing between the devil and the deep blue sea. It was a difficult decision issue.

Whichever option it takes comes with consequences/payoffs. But it must take a decision. Decision theorists are interested in that option that will minimize losses in the event of the worst outcome. It is a middle of the road approach between the imperatives for a total lockdown and the need to open up a window to ameliorate the effects of the excruciating effects of the stay at home order. So it was that the federal government commenced a gradual or phased easing of the lockdown.

A phased return to normal life with conditions to be adhered to for it not to produce counterproductive outcomes was ordered by the government. These include social distancing, regular washing of hands, wearing of masks, ban on interstate travels and limiting the number of passengers carried by commercial vehicles. In rolling out these measures, the government envisaged a responsible citizenry willing to obey the rules for their own good.

In part, it placed the management of the pandemic in the hands of the citizens. If they behave rationally, they will become responsible partners in the effective management of the pandemic. Conversely, irrational action leading to scant regard for the regulations will produce very deadly outcome. It is a choice between temporary hunger and personal discomfort on the one hand and death by the killer disease on the other.

But what did we really find since the partial opening up of the economy of some states and the Federal Capital Territory? Are the citizens taking up that responsibility as partners in combating the disease spread? To what extent are people responding to those protocols on which the relaxation of the lockdown were predicated and without which its purpose will stands defeated?

These questions are at the very heart of the direction the spread of the disease goes in the days ahead. The way they are answered will chart the path as to whether there will be curtailment in the disease or another spike in its spread. It will say a lot about the overall disposition of our people- allow themselves be annihilated by the viral disease or suffer the inconveniences of the protocols aimed at containing the spread. That is the decision for all of us to take in pursuing our different economic endeavours to sustain life.

Sadly, in the first week of the gradual ease of movements, facts on the ground indicate scant attention to these rules. Apart from the wearing of masks which is being largely observed in Lagos, FCT and some other places, interstate travels, social distancing and other protocols are being observed largely in their breach. It was a sorry sight to behold people struggling to enter banks on the first day of the lockdown ease in Lagos and the FCT.

As this writer moved round some areas in Lagos, he was greeted with the usual bubbling and bustling environment that depicted Lagos in full session with even some people fighting and pushing themselves around at bus stops. The touts that usually collected tolls from tricycle operators were not left out in the brazen disregard for the rules of the time. Some of the operators neither wore masks nor complied with the mandatory number of passengers. It was more or less business as usual.

This raised eyebrows as to whether all that have been said about the lethality of the viral disease were after all, a ruse. How do we rationalize the relative ease with which caution was thrown to the winds with people behaving as if COVID-19 no longer existed? Or are we contending with a verity of the Freudian perspective that there is something inherent in man that predisposes him to suicide?

May be that dimension was largely at play. May be also it was a statement affirming the second arm of the title of this article- a preference to be exterminated by COVID-19 instead of hunger. That would be suicidal since hunger cannot kill in the numbers ascribed to COVID-19. In my local environment, there is an aphorism that hunger which has hope does not kill. Ours is hunger with hope. It cannot kill. So death by COVID-19 should be out of the calculation. That should be our collective resolve through sacrifice.

But there other miscellaneous matters working to stultify all efforts to stem the spread of the disease. And unless serious efforts are made to check their obstructive influences, we are in for a bigger trouble. Here, the almajiri factor comes into mind. Reports that truckloads of almajiris are being conveyed to the southern parts of the country are very scaring. This is more so with the disclosure by the Kaduna State government that 65 of the 72 almajiris repatriated from Kano tested positive to the disease.

Kaduna is not alone in this. Jigawa State is also contending with 16 almajiris from Kano that have tested positive to the disease. Given this chilling statistics and extant ban on interstate travels, the horde of almajiris making their way to the south is bound to raise serious suspicion. How come they were able to beat the security cordon in all the states’ borders they crossed without being detected? Or is it part of a larger agenda to spread the virus as some have alleged?

Other challenges to the integrity of the war on the pandemic include the issues raised by suspected COVID-19 patients’ demonstrators in Gombe State and the claim by Kogi State government that it is being forced to declare fictitious COVID-19 figures for political reasons. It will be nice to interrogate the Kogi State government on its claims. There may be more to it than ordinarily meets the eyes.

Before then, we hope the so-called Nigerian factor has not crept into the management of the pandemic. We shudder at such prospects.


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