Understanding the importance of social distancing to save lives By Ehi Braimah

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When the governor of Bauchi state, Alhaji Bala Mohammed, tested positive to COVID-19, he went into self-isolation and treated himself. Before then, the governor had interacted with several dignitaries and his staff upon his return from an overseas trip – and the spread of the virus obviously continued unchecked. We are thankful to God that Mohammed has now tested negative to the deadly virus and he is alive – that was truly a remarkable recovery because many people are not that lucky.

However, it is reckless, irresponsible and unconscionable for the governor to attend a Jumat service, barely 24 hours after recovery, where over 50 persons were huddled together without any regard for social distancing when the whole world is battling to confront this invisible enemy and contain the spread of coronavirus. The governor, according to media reports, pretended to be observing precautionary measures by wearing hand gloves and face mask when the mosque was filled to capacity. This is unacceptable because all large gatherings including religious services have been suspended and lockdowns introduced in these extra-ordinary times. By the way, Bauchi state has other recorded cases of the virus and the governor should immediately think of imposing a state wide lockdown.

For the benefit of Mr Governor, social distancing may be a new terminology, but it simply means keeping a safe distance of at least two metres from the next person as recommended by the health authorities. So Alhaji Mohammed should be at the forefront promoting precautionary measures instead of endangering the lives of innocent people. The ‘big man’ mentality, the culture of servitude and impunity often displayed by our people may be the biggest challenges in the fight against COVID-19 in Nigeria. Some churches and mosques defied the orders and they were rightly shut down. A mosque in Agege, Lagos, was closed down by the state government for bad behaviour, acts of impunity and lawlessness. A church in Abuja was conducting a wedding ceremony and it was also promptly shut down by the authorities. Sometimes, I wonder what is wrong with us as a people. Out of ignorance, some people don’t believe there is coronavirus and that it is a deadly virus.

A pattern of coronavirus infections emerged shortly before our international ports of entry were closed – as it turned out, Lagos and Abuja are recording the highest number of infected cases simply because the international airports were not shut down earlier. Our VIPs who flew into the country through Abuja and Lagos international airports mostly from Europe and the United States did not quarantine themselves for the mandatory 14 days. Some of the cases that turned positive booked local flights and may have infected others with the virus.

Health experts have continued to emphasise the importance of social distancing and stay-at-home orders because they are effective ways of combating the spread of the virus. For now, no more body hugs and handshakes; these social norms may be cultural and help to promote a sense of community and bonding but this is not the time to socialize. All parties and social events should be put on hold until it is safe to do so. Popular actress Funke Akindele should have been wiser – the birthday party for her darling husband in Lagos was ill-advised at this time. Although she apologized later, it was an irresponsible behaviour. The governor of Bauchi state ought to lead by example and he should see spread of the virus and the rising death toll globally as a common threat to our humanity. What will Mohammed lose if he observes his prayers privately in government house, Bauchi? I really would like to know because of the grim statistics of COVID-19 around the world.

Here in Nigeria, we have been recording more cases on a daily basis. As at the time of writing this piece, Nigeria has recorded 305 cases, seven deaths and 58 recoveries; and in the United Kingdom, they have 73, 758 cases, 8, 958 deaths and 344 recoveries. The story is very different in the United States with 503,177 cases, 18,761 deaths and 27, 314 recoveries. In one day alone, on April 10, 2020, the US recorded 2,074 deaths! Although the intensive care unit (ICU) cases are reducing in New York, the Big Apple has more COVID-19 cases than any other country in the world — a heart-breaking record — with half of the death toll recorded in the US coming from New York. Because of the ravaging virus and death toll, New Yorkers are scared and worried; the concerns extend to who will be the next virus case and subsequent death – it is not a good way to live.

Alhaji Mohammed must understand that these figures are not made up and if he is still in doubt, he can check the World Health Organisation (WHO) website or the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) website and see the facts and figures on COVID-19 for himself. If that is too much trouble, he can place a call to Dr Chike Ihekwazu, Director General of NCDC, for a report on the deadly virus. He can also watch Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, as he presents his briefings on coronavirus and their efforts to stem the tide. May I also suggest that if his Health Commissioner is not giving him proper updates, Alhaji Mohammed should read newspapers and listen to media reports on the devastating effect of COVID-19 in Italy, Spain, France and other countries to give him a better understanding and appreciation of the dire situation of the global pandemic. Again, for his benefit, the global report indicates that we have, as at the time of writing, 1,712,655 cases, 103,639 deaths and 388,555 recoveries.

The global pandemic is real and it will not respect our ‘big man’ culture in Nigeria. If COVID-19 has not taught us any lesson, we should at least learn one thing: life is full of vanity. Coronavirus succeeded in declaring a third world war on us without a bullet – no school, planes are not flying, cinemas are closed, worship centres are closed, playgrounds are closed, no public transport, the lockdown season is here upon us; we are required to stay at home and work from home if you still have a job. You cannot even plan because you do not know when the coronavirus season will end. Will life ever be the same again?

When Alhaji Mohammed tested positive to the virus, he would have traveled abroad for treatment in a normal season because that is what most ‘big men’ in public office do with tax payers’ money. So, another lesson coronavirus has taught us is that we should develop our public health infrastructure so that our public officers will no longer be minded to travel to the United Kingdom, UAE, USA, Germany, Israel or India at the drop of a hat for medical tourism where they spend a lot of our foreign reserves – Naira, our unit of currency, cannot be spent abroad.

Some of us are not too versed in the politics of oil between the big players — OPEC, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the United States but it is important to note that COVID-19 has also affected global markets and oil prices with consequential implications on the value of our currency. This information, in my view, will be helpful when His Excellency Mohammed plans his next overseas trip — for the overall benefit of the Bauchi people after COVID-19 — because he would need to pay more Naira compared to before to purchase the same amount of US Dollars. By the way, how many primary healthcare centres do we have in Bauchi state that are functional? What percentage of the state’s 2020 budget is voted for healthcare? Answers to these questions will provide useful insights into how well the governor is taking public healthcare seriously in Bauchi state so that when next he needs medical attention, he would refrain from traveling abroad.

When Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, tested positive to coronavirus, he was admitted into St Thomas’ Hospital, a large NHS teaching hospital in Central London, for intensive care; this is a public hospital – not private hospital — funded by the UK government. The Prime Minister is now out of the ICU and his condition is improving; by God’s grace, he will live to share his experience and survival story.

Hopefully, coronavirus will definitely teach us in the days ahead to look inwards in different areas of our life and build capacity, especially for public health and education. The federal and state governments should promote the knowledge economy as a deliberate policy because, as the late Pan-Africanist Nelson Mandela once noted, “Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world”. Let us change Nigeria and make it a better place.

*Braimah is a public relations and marketing strategist based in Lagos

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