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Opinions of Friday, 10 April 2020

Columnist: Jideofor Adibe

Nigeria after COVID-19

COVID-19, a strain of Coronavirus, which the World Health Organisation declared a pandemic on March 11, 2020, has been slow to take root in Africa but the number of cases is now growing. With about 1,500 people testing positive globally as of Wednesday April 8 2020 and some 83,000 deaths; Africa’s has a relatively low share of these figures – 10,712 infections and 533 deaths as at midday Nigerian time on April 8 2020. In Nigeria, the total number of confirmed cases was 254 and 6 deaths. In contrast, the total number of infections in the USA alone stood at 399,769 with fatalities of 12,906 during the same period.

Many people pray that the continent is spared the sort of gory stories and images we have seen in other countries – from China, Italy, Spain, Iran to USA. If, as some speculated, the continent’s hot and humid weather could be one of the reasons for the relatively low level of infections and fatality, many shudder what will happen as the rains approach in countries like Nigeria. The rainy season in many African countries means an increase in malaria cases, which, together with the high prevalence of other diseases like anaemia, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malnutrition, provide the underlying health conditions that expert say make infections with the virus deadly.

In addition to the above is the challenge of introducing preventive measures like social distancing in a continent where many people live in overcrowded accommodations and where social gatherings are critical aspects of the cultural milieu. Not surprising therefore attempts to enforce social distancing have led to violent protests in some places.

While the impact of the pandemic on health and healthcare seem quite obvious, there are speculations about the possible cascading impacts of the global lockdown spurred by the virus, especially if is sustained over the next couple of months.

One thing is certain: if the lockdowns persist over the next four months or so, many of the West’s top companies, already economically haemorrhaging from disruptions in supply chains and lack of customers, may go belly-up or become a shadow of their former selves – at least for a while- (if they are saved by their government’s life supports). If the pandemic pushes many Western countries into prolonged recession, it is still unclear whether such a scenario will automatically translate to economic power shifting towards China, (and probably also to Russia). The point is that while industrial production has substantially resumed in China (where the COVID-19 started), and the country is now ironically supplying the Western countries many of the equipment which they need in the fight against the virus (such as gowns, surgical masks and ventilators), growing anti-China sentiments may countervail any efforts by the country to leverage on the pandemic to maximize its economic power. Recently some prominent Nigerians called on the federal government to reject Chinese offer of medical assistance in the fight against the pandemic. In fact several conspiracy theories about the origin of COVID-19 which suggest it could have been a deliberate bioweapon by China in its trade war with the USA appear to have negatively affected the image of the country as a global manufacturing hub. Suspicions of China’s real motives in Africa, which have hitherto been nuanced and veiled in several countries, may become weaponised.

The image of the West, often seen in many parts of Africa as a land of greener pastures, has also taken a big hit by the way the pandemic completely demystified their technical prowess. In countries like Italy, Spain, Britain and the USA, panic buying of essentials like food and toiletries not only led to scarcities but also to rationing and to people literally fighting over these stuffs – as they do in Africa. Post COVID-19, we may witness reverse migrations of Africans from the various Western countries back to their home countries in Africa.

Will COVID-19 reset the world and people’s attitude to wealth and material things? In Nigeria, the virus equalized everyone: the rich are staying alone in their flashy mansions with no one to visit or genuflect to them, those with private jets cannot fly them and it is no longer status symbol to announce a vacation or medical tourism abroad. The poor have seen the rich brought to their level and things may no longer be the same – at least for a while after the pandemic. For instance, since the pandemic started, those who had spent time strategizing for 2023 have gone quiet. Sirens and vicious outriders no longer terrorize people on the streets. Feelings of foreboding have overtaken the land as no one knows what tomorrow holds. In fact with the pandemic, the common humanity of us all comes to the fore while cravings after material things seem to have receded to the background – at least for now.

How will the pandemic impact on our people’s attitude to religion and belief in God? This may not be straight forward: for some people, the pandemic, which came suddenly “like a thief in the night”, is a proof that the idea of apocalypse, (the end of the world) especially as espoused in the Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) – is not theoretic – even if the pandemic does not presage it. For such people, that just one virus has been able to shut down civilizations and overwhelm world powers is evidence that God rules the world and will do with it whatever He wills. On the other hand, the fact that none of the great pastors and Imams foresaw the pandemic (and the respected Prophet TB Joshua who predicted it would end on March 27 was wide off mark) or offered to go and heal the afflicted in the epicentres of the crisis, raises questions about their claims to healing power. That churches and mosques were also forced to close as part of the social distancing to stop the spread is a temporal judgment that their prayers will not be sufficient to ward off mass infections and deaths from such gatherings. If the pandemic lasts a couple of months and the idea of worshiping at home with one’s family members or through live streaming takes hold, then our mega churches and mosques may have to find other uses for their massive structures.

Post COVID-19, while some people’s belief in God may increase there will be corresponding distrust of religion by others. Since nature abhors a vacuum, there is the possibility of millenarian or revivalist movements springing up to fill the vacuum left by the discrediting of religion. Such movements, which may actually include new forms of separatist movements and religious revivalism, will position themselves as solutions to the existentialist crisis many people will be enmeshed in.

How will the pandemic impact on our democracy? With oil price projected to fall to as low as $10 per barrel, there is no doubt that the country will face a period of dire economic straits. And in moments of economic hardship, societies in transition tend to relapse to their dictatorial past where repression is usually used to contain challenges to unpopular policies and expressions of frustrations over a harsher economic environment. I believe our democracy will come under intense stress post COVID-19.

Post COVID -19 world will also see an increasing rejection of the philosophy of globalization of markets as nationalism and micro-nationalism become the new normal. We saw, how with the pandemic, various countries quickly shut their borders and air spaces. The various states in the country also quickly banned inter-state travels.

If, as some people claim, oil is the glue that holds our country together (through elite consensus on primitive accumulation from the black gold), then a collapse in oil revenue will unravel that consensus, accentuating in the process separatist agitations that may be expressed through several forms and innuendos. However repudiation of globalization will also lead to the emergence of contrarian forces, driven by enlightened economic self-interest. For instance, as globalization of markets becomes repudiated, we may see various parts of the country emphasizing on their areas of comparative advantage as they seek internal markets for their goods and services as well as develop local supply chains. This could lead to greater regional economic complementarities because if the cocoa produced in the Southwest is needed in the Southeast to make beverages, and the tomatoes produced in the North are needed in the manufacture of tomato pastes in the South-west, enlightened economic self-interest will lead to the emergence of new forces of unity as counterforce to the centrifugal forces of separatism and millenarian movements.

If lectures in higher institutions of learning in a post COVID-19 world will increasingly be delivered through various videoconferencing apps, how will most African educational institutions cope? Things do not look pretty for our education sector – at least in the short to medium terms – if the chaos at our Open University is an indication of things to come. A consolation however is that the mainstreaming of this new mode of teaching may also spur new innovations that can help ameliorate the challenges.

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