We are Africans so we hoped and prayed our continent will be spared the COVID-19 virus because the weather is too hot and, in any case, we were not ready for it, (as if the virus cares). The damn virus did not heed our prayers and it came nonetheless. Just to irritate us, it chose Burkina Faso, with its plus 40 degrees temperature to have 27 cases and the first death in sun-Saharan Africa. Our own Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO Director-General, speaking to journalists in a virtual news conference on Wednesday said Africa needs to wake up as official numbers of COVID-19 cases do not likely reflect the full picture. We have simply not been testing enough to see the full picture of infections on the continent.
WHO’s other main recommendation is that we must stop mass gatherings. We Africans know that we are world champions in mass gatherings, specifically in the form of religious congregations. So far, I have seen indications that only two out of our 36 States have announced plans to stop religious congregations of more than 50 persons. We have seen how religious congregations in South Korea, Malaysia and Iran have been the nurseries for mass infections and its senseless to delay taking such radical measures in our own country.
In Nigeria, the latest information from last night is that we have 12 cases but the suspicion is that we might have much more than the ones we have tested and discovered.Nigeria has been late to act because we were hoping and praying. Over the past two days, we have developed a sense of reality and we are finally taking actions we should have taken weeks ago. The Government has finally placed a travel ban from 13 high risk countries to curb the spread of the virus. The NYSC camps all over the country have been closed and some States are closing down schools while others are still thinking about it. We have seen that in most countries, the virus infections have accelerated after a certain tipping point and it would be madness to wait for that to happen before we take drastic action.
We are facing a national emergency and our health system is so fragile that if a allow a full-scale epidemic to develop, millions of Nigerians could die. The President has not seen it fit to address Nigerians on the issue, which is concerning. The most urgent issue for the President however is toimmediately call a National Council of State meeting on the COVID-!9 pandemic so that we take uniform and coordinated action in all States of the Federation. Measures to accelerate testing have to be taken as well so that we have a clear picture of developments.
The Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA) under the leadership of its President-General, His Eminence, the Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Muhammad Saad Abubakar, CFR,mni yesterday issued a useful advisory to all Muslim organizations and the entire citizens of Nigeria. They called on all segments of the society, including religious bodies to adhere strictly to all public health directives and regulations provided by the competent authorized agencies such as Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and the Federal and State Ministries of Health regarding COVID-19. This, they explained is in line with the Qura’nic injunction, “O You who believe, obey Allah and the Messenger, and those in authority among you” (Qur’an 4:59). It is also in line with the injunction of Allah in Chapter 16, verse 43 that says: “…..So ask those who possess knowledge if you do not know”. They called on everyone to take all necessary precautions to prevent the spread of the disease. Such precautions include frequent handwashing with soap, limiting physical contact by giving verbal salutations instead of shaking hands and hugging, observing proper hygiene when coughing or sneezing.
The economic hit of COVID-19 on the economy is going to be massive. We have spoken of diversification of our rentier economy for 50-years and done nothing about it. Now that petroleum prices have collapsed, the Government, which was already broke is now destitute. The value of the Naira is under massive pressure already and there appears to be no alternative to devaluation. Maybe in preparation for that bitter pill, Government has announced a twenty-Naira reduction in the price of petrol from 145 to 125 per litre. They however announced it with a caveat stating that henceforth, petrol prices would reflect market trends, which means it would no longer be a fixed price so when petroleum prices increase, the pomp price of petrol would also increase. Government has also acknowledged that the budget would be revised downwards to reflect the new realty. A central issue of concern to Nigerians is our high debt profile and the implications of drastically reduced revenue to our ability to service our debts within the context of Government determination to borrow even more.
One of the major challenges about the spread of the epidemic has been the massive amount of disinformation circulating on the matter. The Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) has been tracking the issue and I cite some examples of what they are discovering. For example,following the initial low reported cases of Coronavirus in Africa, multiple sources including Abia Pulse News, Kenya Bulletin, African Daily Mail and CityScrollz published stories with the claim that the African Blood Genes are resistant to the virus.The report claimed that the Chinese doctors released one Senou, a Cameroonian student who had been infected by the virus, after he was cleared and confirmed cured. According to the report, Senou is alive because his blood genetic composition mainly found in genetic composition of Sub-Saharan Africans saved him. Screenshots and links of the posts were shared thousands of times around Africa since February 11. Fact check by CDD showed there is no medical or scientific proof to the claims. According to WHO, there is no specific medicine recommended to prevent or treat the novel coronavirus at that time. Such stories however had the negative effect of making us complacent at a time when we needed to start taking drastic action.
Another example is that at the peak of the Coronavirus scare, TodayNG published a report that men should shave their beards to stay safe from the disease.The report which was widely shared on the Twitter page of Nigeria Newsdesk on February 28 claimed that shaving beards is part of the preventive measures against Coronavirus. When fact checked, it turned out that no Centre for Disease Control (CDC) in the world had spoken of any scientific proof that shaving beardsprevents people from contractingthe disease.
Finally, on February 28, 2020, the CDD fact-checkers spotted a report on AIT Nigeria News Facebook page that the driver of the Italian man – Nigeria’s first Coronavirus case – had threatened to spread the virus.The report also said that the Italian man’s driver whose picture was shared on every social media platform and given the name Adewale Isaac Olorogun was diagnosed with Coronavirus in Ogun state.It was alleged that in a message forwarded to the Ogun state commissioner for health, the man threatened to run away from the hospital and spread the virus all over Nigeria by taking public transport.According to the AIT News report with over 2.5k shares, 531comments and over 500 likes., the Italian man’s driver said he will only renege on carrying out the threat if his family is paid N10 million. Fact checking revealed that the said AIT Nigeria News Facebook page, which was created on March 7, 2017, is a parody account and one of those purveyors of Coronavirus related disinformation, misinformation and fake news.The AIT through its official Twitter account @OfficialAITlivehad to state clearly:“This is to inform the general public that the above story purportedly credited to AIT Facebook Account is indeed a FAKE NEWS.”
This means that at the same time that we are confronted with a devastating pandemic threatening our lives, we also have a large army of purveyors of fake news seeking to deceive us and distort the reality we are facing. Moving forward, the Government must take proactive measures and decree a total lockdown of the country to ensure that the pandemic does not do even greater damage to the country.