Monday, March 30, 2020 4:37 am
By Chidi Amuta
In his play, Madmen and Specialists, Wole Soyinka acknowledges evil as a potent force of history. At the climactic moment, the deranged professor protagonist admits the role of his own evil essence with a caveat: ‘Poison has its uses. You can either use it to kill or to cure’. This could be a fitting summation of the ironic mission of the raging Covid-19 virus pandemic. As nations, powerful and weak alike, cower under the grip of this most lethal pathogen; the invisible adversary may bear dividends which our current morbid frenzy may not readily perceive.
Understandably, these are dreadful times. In the worst affected countries, the bereaved can no longer attend funerals because they do not know if it is going to be theirs next. Recreational ice rinks have been turned into morgues as mortuaries are themselves bursting with morbid occupancy. The rituals of social existence have come to a screeching halt as whole nations have been quarantined behind the closed doors of wherever people call home. Suddenly, the things we were accustomed to taking for granted have suddenly become forbidden rituals of death or invitations to ailments with no certain cure. The citadels of high knowledge grope pitifully for a cure that humanity never anticipated. The places of comfort have suddenly turned into abodes of ominous danger, disease and even death as no one knows where this dark enemy lurks. As the powerful and the weak alike scurry behind closed doors, the very fabric of society and its communal essence have been fatally altered and fractured.
Corona virus struck at a time when humanity had become more united by technology than ever before. A world united by a ubiquitous social media and anonymous mob psychology is a ready victim to an unseen enemy that kills in thousands. The global crowd of common work and common leisure is suddenly dispersed by the silent voice of imminent death. An ancient unifier, the fear of death, has forced us all indoors to rediscover the primacy of self, family, the essential individuality of our mortality and the privacy of our primal destinies.
Yet, beneath the morbid siege of the unseen enemy, there may in fact be hidden dividends, benefits and lessons. Globally, the rise of Donald Trump and like-minded populist autocrats in different countries had made isolationism and rugged nationalism a growing fashion. Nations were shrinking inwards, retreating behind their borders, shutting out immigrants, refugees and sometimes-honest visitors. The gains of globalisation and a borderless world forged by trade, commerce and technology were being furiously eroded as new noisy slogans of selfish nationalism (‘America First!) and isolationism rent the air. The threats to our common humanity were palpable as the bonds that held nations in multilateral arrangements were being routinely shredded and dissolved. Global problems like climate change, inequality, extreme poverty, terrorism, the threat of nuclear conflict and the likelihood of epidemics were being deliberately downplayed.
Between the United States and its global power rivals, mainly Russia and China, a new but silent arms race and lavish build up was taking shape as a new struggle for global pre –eminence gathered steam. By the third quarter of 2019, Mr Trump could boast that he had committed a frightening $2 trillion to re- arming and re-equipping the United States for global pre eminence as mankind’s most formidable war machine. China and Russia unabashedly showed off new military equipment with previously unimagined capacities for mass murder.
Suddenly, the Corona virus pandemic strikes literally from nowhere. National boundaries have become useless in the wake of a virus that respects no borders. Arms and armaments are hardly called for because the world is at war with an enemy that has no face, no formations, no command and control, no rank and file and no recognisable uniform. As the virus spreads death and disease across national borders, attacking the powerful and lowly alike, national borders have become mere demarcations on the face of the earth, useful for the statistics of infection, disease spread and likely death. All the immigration controls, border walls, protective migration control legislations, trade barriers and other newfound separatist gimmicks have come under severe stress.
By a curious reversal, a virus that respects no borders is forcing the world to revert to the power of international cooperation to deal with an affliction that is blind to artificial demarcations. The corona virus recognises no passports, no skin colour, no social status. It is even blind to fame and bank account balance. Leaders that hitherto shunned international cooperation are turning to the rest of the world in search of protection for their citizens. In one day alone, Mr Trump confessed that he had been in touch with over 150 nations on ways to fight the Corona virus in a concerted manner. Two days ago, the arch immigration and travel ban president was lifting the ban of professionals from the ‘shit hole countries’ of Africa in search of doctors and nurses. The powerful Group of 20 (G20) most developed economies had to meet by telephone conference as their leaders are hunkered at home, forbidden from physical contact or even proximity with each other!
Suddenly, race, nationality, social class, geography and all the other divisive parameters that politicians usually conjure up to protect their interests and advance narrow national interests have become redundant. Interestingly, Covid-19, by the pattern of its infections in major countries, has attacked the blight of inequality with perhaps a direct message to those whose job it is to reduce inequality. By a curious irony of faith, political leaders, celebrities and global business moguls have fallen primary victims of the new virus.
Above and beyond the urgent compulsion to international cooperation and the restoration of the post World War II global order, the power of the nation state is being challenged anew. The primary duty of protection of the citizens has come back to centre stage as the Leviathan is summoned to urgent duty. Big government is being challenged to return to the primary work of the social contract. What now cuts across all nations is the protection of its citizens from the present public health emergency and its economic consequences. This is a call that nations are answering according to their divergent abilities.
The United States Congress has approved an unprecedented $2 trillion splash to salvage families, businesses and institutions from the economic dislocations attendant on the Corona virus assault. The United Kingdom has voted an equally whopping £500 billion as have France, Germany and the other EU countries. Here in Nigeria, he federal government has made some incoherent noises that indicate basic concern even if belatedly.
All over the world, the onset of the pandemic has redefined the parameters of society as we know it. First, it has compelled the emergence of a new language for communicating our common predicament as humans. In one of the most injurious linguistic assaults on the concept of society, we now have something called ‘social distancing’, a veritable damage to the communal essence and soul of society as a close bond that unites humanity. We are a society because we can reach out and touch our family, friends and neighbours. The ritual places that underline our humanity and sociality such as churches, mosques, stadia and night -clubs are shut because they cannot obey the new aberration of ‘social distancing’. There are other new linguistic deformations. To reduce the incidence of the virus, governments must now work to ‘flatten the curve’ of both new cases and rate of casualty. In order to reduce the spread of the virus, we must now ‘self quarantine’ or go into ‘voluntary isolation’, sometimes even from our families!
In the process, the essential sociality of our humanity has become devastated. The compulsive handshake of friendship, fellowship and partnership, the endearing hug of family, the spontaneous welcome of the kids to a long gone parent, the universal hunger for love and the magnetic pull of amorous allure; all these have suddenly gone cold as we maintain a mandatory distance of a meter and half from each other.
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In order to keep our livelihood on life support by working, organisations and employers now mandate workers to work from home. This license of necessity is good in itself. Even when the virus abates and disappears, humanity will have dissevered that it is possible to achieve so much work through stretching the elasticity of the digital canvass. Digital technology will attain greater penetration to serve us better.
Not to talk of the license of leisure and luxury at every level. Whether it is the palm wine joint or the high brow drinking lounge, there is a temporary halt to group night time revelry. For the elite, the copious array of international cuisine at choice restaurants in cities of the world will have to wait. Even, the freedom which globalization and travel at the speed of light offered to those who could afford to jet off at the slightest inkling is in abeyance for now.
Nearer home in Nigeria, the Corona virus has exposed the naked underbelly of the totem we erected and worship as government. Only in Lagos state has sovereignty displayed the committed responsibility that justifies its mandate. In the other states it is a mixed bag of the ridiculous and the half hearted. Some state governors have decreed their states immune from the virus as an act of divide covenant!
At the federal level, it has been a series of knee jerk actions that at best indicate embarrassing confusion at the apex of power. Borders and entry points were left open for a little too long. There has been little or no synergy among government agencies on a coordinated approach to protect our populace from the virus. The belief seems to be that the staccato of uncoordinated actions will shield Nigerians from the worst hazards of the pandemic and eventually vindicate governmental lack of seriousness. The federal government has convened a committee of laymen to handle the pandemic in a nation replete with all manner of world class medical and scientific experts.
And for the economic consequences, we can only await apocalypse in instalments. Businesses, markets and offices are shutting down. Livelihoods are also shutting down. As in the rest of the world, jobs will be lost. Lives and livelihoods will evaporate and the poverty spread will widen.
Our natural national recourse to religion for succour will not serve us now. Religion thrives on congregations. Social distancing abhors crowds. One good part is that the organised crime of evangelical extortion in the churches will slow down a bit. The tribe of ‘cash and carry’ pastors whose cash flow projections were tied to the wallets of impoverished congregants may have to rethink their business plans as the congregants stay home.
On the good side, the Corona virus emergency has forced a new solidarity and commonality of fear among Nigerians. The artificial walls that divide us have taken a back seat. The Corona virus has forced the National Assembly into a bipartisan consensus of the frightened. Corona virus does not discriminate between Moslems and Christians, Southerners and Northerners, Buhari devotees and PDP stalwarts. A new boundary has gone up: it is that between those who have the virus and those who do not.
Pretty soon, the corona virus emergency will go away and may leave us all in an altered state. Hopefully, there will be a restoration of international solidarity against humanity’s common adversaries and challenges. In our nation, we now know the limits and limitations of our governments. In our private lives, perhaps we will witness stronger family communion and maybe a better appreciation of our mortality. For me, the few biblical quotes I still recall now point to the end of this travail: ‘This, too, shall pass’. Soon, we will be able to recall it all and say: ‘And it came to pass’!
-Dr Chidi Amuta, academic, journalist, social critic and Public Relations Consultant, is the Chairman/CEO of Wilson & Weizmann Associates Ltd., Lagos.