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China’s Covid-19 stigma: The Nigerian factor

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Without any iota of doubt, if there is any country that has been most associated with the rampaging COVID-19 pandemic, that country is China. In the first place, the widely held belief that the offending virus originated from its territory disposed that country to share whatever misgivings, outrage, stigma and opprobrium that has been associated with the disease. There is normally no love for any agent of death, nor its base. Hence, given the daily rising incidence of deaths as well as humongous pain and anguish which COVID-19 has spread across the entire world, and in so short a time, any country or territory that is associated with the pandemic especially as the source, automatically qualifies as a hell hole. The fact that China also lost thousands of its own citizens – at least at the onset of the crisis and until it reportedly found some relief to the scourge, has not helped its case. This is the present lot of China, and attracts for it more stigma than sympathy.

It is ostensibly in that context that protests from sundry quarters – including the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) – the apex body in the country’s health care system had preceded and are dogging the current visit by a Chinese medical team to Nigeria on a COVID 19 ‘rescue mission. In a statement on the matter, the NMA expressed great dismay and disappointment over the Chinese mission – firstly when it was confirmed by the Minister of Health Dr. Osagie Ehanire, and later with the actual arrival of the Asian medics.

The grouse of the NMA is not unconnected with the perception that the government may have bypassed it in facilitating the visit by the Chinese medical team at this time. The NMA is therefore contending with how to relate with the Chinese medics, with whom they had no previous interface on the matter of COVID-19. The core issue around which the NMA case revolves therefore goes beyond whether the country needs the assistance of the Chinese even as Nigerian doctors are already in the forefront of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic in the country, and are even doing so at significant personal risk as well as cost to them. Many of these Nigerian medical personnel have in their heroic efforts to tackle the disease, suffered significant health challenges as well as loss of their lives, as they work under compromised operating circumstances, with the expectation that the government would endeavor to ameliorate their working conditions.

The concern of the NMA is more with the seeming act of betrayal by the government which went outside the country to surreptitiously import Chinese doctors, even without any formal need assessment in tow with local doctors in this period of national emergency. The NMA questions the rationale and utility of the invitation of the Chinese medics at this time, when the burning issue in Nigeria’s response to the pandemic lies more with the state of the country’s health management system. By the NMA consideration, if the government had been more discretional, it would have addressed itself to the depressed operating conditions, under which the Nigerian medics have been fighting the scourge. This is what the NMA sees as a disservice by the government.

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Hence, in expressing their reservations, the NMA notes among other points “with grave concern that the Government did not take into consideration the extant laws regulating the practice of medicine in Nigeria as enshrined in the Medical and Dental Council Act. This is one such circumstance where the Medical and Dental Council of Nigerian should be consulted to grant necessary approvals to foreigners to interact with Nigerian patients”., the Nigerian doctors have even cited the fact that since the pandemic still ravages China, the services of the visiting medics are required more in their country than Nigeria for now. To add effect to their protest, some NMA members have threatened not to allow the Chinese medics touch any Nigerian patient(s), otherwise they would abandon such patient(s) for the Chinese to work on.

From the perspective of patriotism, the NMA’s case qualifies as a water tight deal that is infallible, especially from the perspective of statutory eligibility of the visiting Chinese medics to handle patients in Nigeria, without ratification by the authorities. However, on the flip side of the matter, the NMA may need to tone down its sabre-rattling maneuver, in the light of prevailing realities of public health management as well as general governance in Nigeria.

For one, the threat by the NMA – if carried out may drive the association into a collision course with both the government and the citizenry. The state of frenzy and panic which the COVID-19 syndrome has driven governments and the citizenry in Nigeria may have desensitised the establishment into unfriendly response to any alternative tendency or line of thought or even action that is in opposition to officialdom. The NMA should even reflect on its official rating by government as even the Chairman of the 12 member Presidential Task Force on control of COVID-19 is the Secretary to the Federal Government (SGF) Boss Mustapha, who is not a medic, but a lawyer and politician. Under the circumstances, the NMA’s dismissal of the Chinese medical team can be countered by the argument that it is routine practice by both public and private Nigerian medical authorities to invite foreign medics to execute critical medical procedures in Nigeria. This technically vitiates the protest by the NMA.

Secondly, the rather hasty condemnation of the Chinese medical team by the NMA on the grounds that COVID-19 is still ravaging their country, needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, as evidence from the World Health Organisation (WHO) confirms that China’s health care system stands head and shoulder above Nigeria’s, presently. Even by the admission of the NMA, the Nigerian healthcare regime has remained in a state of stagnation as it is routinely denied any meaningful effort at facilitating its improvement by successive governments. To accentuate the poetic link between politicians and Nigeria’s healthcare system, there is a witty post that has been circulating on social media, which recommends that any politician who tests positive to the Corona virus should be quarantined within a medical facility in his or her locality. Such a recommendation if carried out, will attract interesting consequences for such politicians, because the facilities are just not in existence.

However while the NMA may be considering what to do with the visiting Chinese medics, it should also consider the fact – as painful as it may be, that Nigeria has technically degraded into an economic slave and virtually a vassal state to China, courtesy of the humongous scope of its indebtedness to the latter. Hence like many other debtor African countries, the Nigerian government has lost its voice in calling China to order even if and when its actions vitiate our national interests. Hence even if the rest of the world questions China’s excesses, Nigeria may not, or may do so with feebleness. What a pity.

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