COVID-19 pandemic lays bare the political leadership deficit in Nigeria

Left to Right: Bill Clinton, US president (1993-2001); William H. Gates III, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; Thabo Mbeki, South Africa president (1999–2008); Tony Blair, UK Prime Minister (1997 to 2007); Bono, musician; and Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria president (1999-2007), World Economic Forum, Davos, Switzerland, January 27, 2005. Image by Remy Steinegger (CC BY-SA 3.0). 

This essay, written by Temitayo Fagbule and first published in Business Day, was lightly edited and re-published here with permission from the author. Check out Global Voices’ special coverage of the global impact of COVID-19.

March 22, 2018, will make it exactly two years since Bill Gates stood in the banquet hall at Aso Rock, Nigeria's seat of power, with President Muhammadu Buhari, members of the Federal Executive Council and other government officials, and told them to face facts: Nigeria’s potential to become an economic powerhouse is as strong as the sickest Nigerian.

The following month, Bill Gates was the guest speaker at a yearly lecture organised by the Massachusetts Medical Society and New England Journal of Medicine. He delivered a speech: “Epidemics Going Viral: Innovation vs Nature,” where he said the world was unprepared for a pandemic because “the health infrastructure we have for normal times breaks down very rapidly during major infectious disease outbreaks. This is especially true in poor countries.”

Countries with poor leadership are even more vulnerable.

Both events are playing out as COVID-19 upends social and economic lives and governments and scientists grapple its impact. No country saw the novel coronavirus coming, though experts had warned that an unknown pandemic from a virus was possible.

Bungled responses by countries and international organisations to swine flu (H1N1) in 2009 and Ebola in 2014, showed how unprepared local and global health systems were. Over 21 months, Ebola spread rapidly across West Africa ravaging 11,315 lives. Countries that lacked the leadership and health systems were hit hardest. Nigeria was spared, fortunately.

Health has never been a concern of past and present governments. Nigeria is one of the most dangerous places to give birth, Gates has said.

In Abuja that Thursday in March 2018, Gates told Nigerian leaders in the room to invest in the health and education of the greatest resource of the country: human capital. He warned that their choices could make or mar the ambition for growth.

Specifically, Gates noted that one of the three strategic objectives of the Economic Recovery and Growth Plan, designed to revive the Nigerian economy after the recession in 2016, was unmatched by the projects it prioritized.

Gates said they “don’t fully reflect people’s needs, prioritizing physical capital over human capital.” Bridges, roads and ports are useless without healthy and skilled people. We all applauded him for speaking bluntly but soon forgot and moved on.

At his lecture on epidemics, Gates shared with his audience the likely outcome of a simulated scenario of an airborne virus outbreak originating from South East Asia. The model assumed there was no immunity, that health systems were unprepared and there was no vaccine – 33 million people die in six months.

Gates funded this research initially to help his foundation better understand and tackle polio but applied it to see how a pandemic like the Spanish flu, the 1915 pandemic, would spread in our time; it showed the disease could spread to all cities in the world in 60 days.

Why? We live in global, fast-moving times. Our world today is the perfect environment for such a disaster. We are witnessing the onslaught of COVID-19 has it upends the social and economic lives. And its laying bare different shades of leadership.

In the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates, for instance, Donald Trump, Justin Trudeau, Boris Johnson and Mohamed Ibn Zayed have accepted the reality and reached out to their citizens on TV and social media. Trump and Johnson now give daily press briefings daily on the contagion. Emmanuel Macron, the President of France, has said his country is at war.

President Buhari is yet to speak. His spokespersons have even scolded the National Assembly for daring to ask him to address the country.

In times of uncertainty, fear and doubt, in a country with a shambolic health infrastructure that the president and his family do not rely on, at a time when the country is divided because of distrust, the president has chosen to be absent — to sit and not be counted.

Goodluck Jonathan, his predecessor, delayed taking the lead during the Ebola outbreak, too.

Both their responses in the face of crisis reveal Nigeria’s unique brand of democracy. Here the elected government acts in its own best interest not that of the electorate. Nigerians are an afterthought, undeserving of leadership in trying times whether it is a war against Boko Haram, the Islamic militant group, or a deadly contagious disease.

This attitude will undermine the ability of Nigeria to cope with the COVID-19 contagion — which is no ordinary crisis.

The central bank in the US is pumping $850 billion United States dollars into the economy to forestall a recession. In Nigeria, a paltry 50 billion naira fund (about $163 million US ) – small change that independent oil companies can cough up as a coronavirus donation — was announced on March 16, before bolder reforms of 1 trillion naira ($2.7 billion US) were made public two days later.

How rapidly and responsibly a government responds matters.

Doctors walk past women with lying in the ward of the Lagos Island Maternity Hospital in Lagos, Nigeria. Flicker image by Sunday Alamba/Commonwealth Secretariat. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Epidemiologists and scientists describe the speed with which a virus spreads by an R-rate —the higher the rate, the faster the contagion. COVID-19 spreads from one person to two or three on average which makes it more contagious than other viruses. It is also more lethal than the common cold. Chances of survival depend a lot on the quality of one's personal health in addition to the quality of a nation's health care system.

More worrying than the rate of reproduction of an infectious disease is the unpreparedness of rapidly urbanizing countries with poor health care systems like Nigeria. A country that devotes little or nothing to health is a risk to itself and other countries.

As COVID-19 has shown, viruses can even elude countries with modern laboratories, testing equipment, and medical personnel. Italy, with over 3,000 dead from COVID-19, has overtaken China.

Pandemics are deadlier than wars – it is believed that infectious diseases like the Influenza Pandemic of 1918, which killed more than 50 million people have taken more lives than all the wars and non-infectious diseases and natural disasters in the world put together.

Pandemics, one of the oldest enemies of humanity, are to a large extent predictable because they happen again and in history (e.g. Ebola, Zika, SARS, MERS). Yet the time it takes to understand a new outbreak, how it spreads, and the measures required to stop it such as competent medical personnel, a functioning health system and trusted leadership 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 care system in Nigeria is broken and inadequately funded. Neither do we need an existential threat like coronavirus to remind us that Nigeria lacks leadership and is the feudal republic of “anyhow-ness.”

Thousands of unnecessary and avoidable deaths of children at birth every year and thousands more possibly from COVID-19 this year are both painful reminders that investment in health and education are the best bet the leaders of Nigeria can make if it is to achieve its potential.

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