This essay, written by Temitayo Fagbule and first published on Business Day, was lightly edited and is reproduced here with permission from the author. Check out Global Voices' special coverage of the global impact of COVID-19.
On March 22, 2018, it was exactly two years since Bill Gates stood in the banquet hall at Aso Rock, the seat of power in Nigeria, with President Muhammadu Buhari, members of the Federal Executive Council and other officials. government and told them to face the facts: Nigeria's potential to become an economic power is as strong as the sickest Nigerian.
The following month, Bill Gates was the guest speaker at an annual conference organized by the Massachusetts Medical Society and the New England Journal of Medicine. He gave a talk: “Epidemics Go Viral: Innovation Against Nature,” in which he said the world was not preparing for a pandemic because the “medical infrastructure we have for normal situations would crumble very quickly during major disease outbreaks. infectious. This is especially true in poor nations. “
Nations with little leadership are even more vulnerable.
Both events advance as COVID-19 disrupts social and economic lives, and governments and scientists face their impact. No country saw the new coronavirus coming, although experts had warned that an unknown pandemic of a virus was possible.
The awkward responses of nations and international organizations to swine flu (N1N1) in 2009 and Ebola in 2014 showed how unprepared local and global health systems were. For 21 months, Ebola spread rapidly in West Africa and claimed 11,315 lives. Nations that lacked leadership and a health system were the most affected. Fortunately, Nigeria was saved.
Health has never been a concern of past and current governments. Nigeria is one of the most dangerous places to give birth, Gates said.
In Abuja, on that Thursday in March 2018, Gates told Nigerian leaders present to invest in health and education in the country's greatest resource: human capital. He warned that his choices could make or break the growth ambition.
Specifically, Gates pointed out that one of the three strategic objectives of the Economic Recovery and Growth Plan, designed to restore the Nigerian economy after the recession in 2016, was incomparable with the projects he prioritized.
Gates told them that “they do not fully reflect the needs of the people, they prioritize physical capital over human capital.” Bridges, highways and ports are useless without healthy and qualified people. We all applaud him for speaking bluntly but soon forget it and move on.
At his conference on epidemics, Gates told his audience the likely outcome of a simulated scenario of an outbreak of an airborne virus originating in Southeast Asia. The model assumed that there was no immunity, that the health systems were unprepared and that there was no vaccine – 33 million people died in six months.
(embed) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Af6b_wyiwI (/ embed)
Gates initially funded this study to help his foundation better understand and cope with polio, but he applied it to see how a pandemic like the Spanish flu, the 1915 pandemic, would spread in our time; showed how the disease could spread to every city in the world in just 60 days.
Why? We live in times of global and great movement. Today, our world is the perfect environment for such a disaster. We are witnessing how the violent attack by COVID-19 has disrupted social and economic lives. And his leadership is manifested in different nuances.
For example, Donald Trump, Justin Trudeau, Boris Johnson and Mohamed Ibn Zayed respectively heads of state of the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates, have accepted the reality and communicated it to their citizens on television and on social networks. Now Trump and Johnson give daily press conferences on infections. Emmanuel Macron, president of France, said his country is at war.
President Buhari has yet to speak. Its spokesmen have scolded the National Assembly for daring to ask it to address the country.
In times of uncertainty, fear and doubt, in a country with a chaotic healthcare infrastructure that neither the president nor his family trust, in a time when the country is divided by mistrust, the president preferred to be absent – to sit still and don't count it.
Also his predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan, was slow to take the reins during the Ebola outbreak.
Both responses to crises reveal the unique character of democracy in Nigeria. Here the elected governments act in their own interest, not in the interests of the electors. Nigerians think of the latter as not deserving of leadership in difficult times, be it a war against Boko Haram, the Islamic militant group, or a deadly contagious disease.
This attitude will undermine Nigeria's ability to cope with the COVID-19 contagion – which is not an ordinary crisis.
The United States central bank is injecting $ 850 billion into the economy to counter a recession. In Nigeria, a paltry 50 billion naira fund (about $ 163 million) – an amount that independent oil companies can release as a donation for the coronavirus – was announced on March 16, before bolder billion-dollar reforms of nairas (2.7 billion US dollars) that were released two days later.
It matters how quickly and responsibly a government responds.
Epidemiologists and scientists describe the speed with which a virus with an R index spreads – the higher the index, the faster the spread. COVID-19 spreads from one person to two to three, on average, making it more contagious than other viruses. It is also more deadly than the common cold. The chances of survival depend very much on the quality of personal health, in addition to the quality of a nation's health system.
More worrying than the rate of reproduction of an infectious disease is the lack of preparedness of countries in a rapid urbanization process with poor health care systems, such as Nigeria. A country that dedicates little or nothing to health is a danger to itself and to other countries.
As COVID-19 has shown, viruses can even bypass countries with modern laboratories, testing equipment, and medical personnel. Italy, with more than 3,000 deaths, has overtaken China.
Pandemics are more deadly than wars – infectious diseases such as the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed more than 50 million people, are believed to have caused more deaths than all wars, non-infectious diseases and natural disasters combined. .
Pandemics, one of humanity's oldest enemies, are, to a large extent, predictable because they have already happened and will happen in history (Ebola, Zika, SARS, MERS). However, the time it takes to understand a new outbreak, how it spreads, and the steps necessary to stop it, such as competent health personnel, a functional health system, and trusted leaders, are factors that determine whether governments will win the fight against COVID- 19.
We did not need Bill Gates to remind us that the primary health system in Nigeria is malfunctioning and underfunded. Nor do we need an existential threat like the coronavirus to remind us of the lack of leadership and its feudal republic of “be that as it may.”
Thousands of unnecessary and preventable deaths of children at birth and thousands more, likely from COVID-19 this year, are painful reminders that investing in health and education is the best bet Nigerian leaders can make if they want to reach their potential.