What lessons have we learnt from the Ebola outbreak?

Symbolism with Simbo Olorunfemi

Email: simboor@yahoo.com Twitter: @simboolorunfemi

Simbo QEDNothing has been the same since Patrick Sawyer, our American friend, breezed into Nigeria, weeks ago. He made it in and received treatment, on the strength of our highly recommended hospitality. But he made it past the Airport on our well-documented penchant to be naïve and negligent, where it matters most. But Sawyer not only brought the Ebola virus, he brought much more than that. He came with death in the pouch, no doubt, but his death has also brought us life. He has breathed life into us – we are now able to put a lot of things, hitherto ignored, into focus. We are able to better place value on our lives and weigh the options we take, with greater care. Hopefully, we are now able to better put in proper perspective, the place of government in the lives of the people. A careless choice of those invested with the reins of power can lead to greater damage than we ordinarily assume.

For citizens of the world, we are now able to see ourselves for who we truly are – different fruits from same source, none immune to a virus roaming the world, seeking for whom to kill. We have now come into the realisation of how truly connected we are, as global citizens.  We are able to see the world for what it has become – a community, increasingly drawn closer by forces beyond its control. Technology is pulling us more and more together.  The globe has become a close-knit village, beyond the purview of what Marshal McLuhan could have ever contemplated. Now we see it, a threat in one country is only one short flight away from the other.

The world today faces a number of transnational challenges – terrorism, cyber security, climate change and pandemics, with state actors grappling for control. But globalisation has diffused power to the point where non state actors are pulling strings from their servers. Borders have gone beyond the physical. In fact, in many areas of international intercourse, there are no borders at all. To be unprepared for the realities of the day we live in, as we are obviously are, is a felony.  It is a sin that could lead to loss of lives. To be unprepared is to be vulnerable.

As Nigerians, first thing we have learnt is how prepared our government is, when it comes to dealing with any form of threat or emergency. It is not that the Ebola Virus Disease walked in unannounced. Alarm bells were already ringing months back, but our hardworking Minister of Information, Labaran Maku, came out of the Federal Executive Council with quick words of assurance. “The ministry has taken every precaution including getting the vaccines and medicines to ensure that should there be any incident in Nigeria, everything would be dealt with”, he said.  Brushing aside the goof on the vaccines, to simply address the level of preparation by the government, you are left with more questions than answers. How prepared could the government have been, that there was no form of precaution at our border posts. How difficult could it have been to simply set up a system to spot check people coming in from the countries already affected?

How prepared could our government have been, that Nigerians were left so unprotected and vulnerable. For simply trying to render assistance to a man in need, our compatriots have now paid with their lives. Their families are left stigmatised and in deep sorrow, loved ones gone. That tells you how prepared we were. We left it all to chance. We are forever clueless when it comes to planning for an emergency, so we simply leave it to fate. What would we have been saying if Mr Sawyer had ended up at one of the public hospitals, in full session? Who could have thought that we will have cause to thank God for the strike by doctors?

Now that the disease is here with us, it has further exposed our soft underbelly for the world to see. We cannot even present to the world a straight-forward narrative of what transpired with the index case. Did he collapse at the airport or did he not? Was he first taken to LUTH or LASUTH? How did a man who could not walk unaided end up at the ECOWAS office? At what point did he even end up at the hospital? What actually transpired at First Consultants? What is it with all the stories flying around? As usual, we just have a problem with counting. We have not been able to tell how many we are. We could not be exact on the number of people quarantined or under watch. We could not be sure on what exactly to do or not do. Eat bitter kola or swallow salt, we could not tell for sure. It has been difficult telling the difference between experts and merchants? The media, as usual, has been so eager to place before us anyone with a ‘take’ on the subject at hand. There are too many people determined to inflict upon us their knowledge that they have ended up confusing us the more. Is it so difficult to have designated people speak on this matter? Must every other doctor come on TV to lecture us?

Sometimes, you are forced to ask yourself what the decision-making process must be like, at the highest level of government. Take the Nano-vaccine debacle. Could some form of check not have been done before a public pronouncement by the minister? But for the vigilance of some Nigerians, that face-saving announcement of a rejection by the Ethics committee might not have come.  How come it is those empowered and paid to know that never seem to know, in our nation?

What lessons have we learnt from the Ebola outbreak? Our capacity to blow things out of proportion is high. Our ability to raise false alarm is legendary. Our capacity for mischief only slightly falls below our sense of humour. Our rumour-mongering skills are excellent. Rumour travels so fast in our land, while facts crawl around at snail speed, with only a few paying attention. We now know for sure, that the more ludicrous the claim is, the greater the propensity of acceptance. Who could have predicted the speed at which the rumour of the salt-water solution will travel? What have we learnt? That we are very clumsy handling an emergency. That making a false claim about the availability of a vaccine is not enough to get a minister fired.

What have we learnt from the Ebola outbreak? Nothing.