The sudden arrival of coronavirus, its astounding rise to the status of international health hazard, and its incredible spread and impact like the Australian wildfire should remind us of the axiom “Prevention is better than cure” which every child in primary school should know. This is probably one axiom that the world of medicine should use as its motto. But that would be disastrous in the world of commercial medicine, the reason it is probably rarely used in that sector.

Donald Trump, as usual, has trumped-up charges against the Democrats and followed it with a press conference to boast his triumph in Afghanistan first, and then boast about the wonder of his anti-coronavirus team. At least he has done several things: travel ban on persons returning from China, South Korea, Iran; public enlightenment; and very importantly, getting his fawning Vice to head the rescue team. This is an indisputable indication of Mr Trump’s view of the threat.

Let’s look back a little but as far as back as the 6th century. The first pandemic via bubonic plague that ravaged the world was in the Eastern Roman Empire or Byzantium. The disease is said to have entered Constantinople or modern-day Istanbul in Turkey in 542 AD. An estimated 25 million people lost their lives. The second, the worst, took place between 1340 and 1400. It claimed about one third the entire population of Europe and when losses in Asia and Africa were added, about 50 million people were wiped out of the earth the way Coronavirus recently wiped out six trillion dollars from the world economy is about one week – just like that! The third plague killed far fewer people, about 80,000 mainly due to experiences of the past. It started in the late eighteenth century and continued in fits till early 20th century. There are things to note:

All the pandemics so far came from wild animals.

The second pandemic is said to have started from China and Mongolia and spread through Italy following trade routes. Fleas picked the virus from rats and spread to human beings.

Nicholas Wade writing in the New York Times of 31st October 2010 noted that the third pandemic most likely originated from the Yunnan Province of Southwest China, describing the area as “natural plague foci.” Bubonic plague comes from wild animals.

Yunnan, the birthplace of the current pandemic is also in Southwest China. Again Italy is the worst hit after China and the disease is traced to a market for wild animals.

Den Xiaoping started the Four Modernizations in Communist China in 1975 but in practice in 1977. In a little over three decades, China grew from almost a beggar nation to the world’s second-largest economy, supplanting Japan in 2011. Japan had held that position for 40 years. Why would a nation with such mind-boggling resources not find a way to eliminate the sources of deadly diseases particularly the ones originating from wild animals?

Well, we can blame China for not focusing on disease prevention. But what about the most populous black nation on earth with the status of the world’s 6th largest producer of crude petroleum? Can’t Nigeria eliminate malaria? Yes she can, if there is the political will which would include confronting anti-malaria drug producers the world over, companies that are thriving on blood money, money from the lost lives of citizens. Prevention will require massive investment in research and development of vaccines, clearing bushes and pools of water, and use of insecticides in a manner that would not cause collateral damage. The World Health Organization reported on 14th January 2020 that in 2018, six countries accounted for more than 50% of all malaria cases in the world. Nigeria topped the list with 25% followed by Congo with just 12%.

Meanwhile, what is the state of preparedness of Nigeria for what could turn out to be quite devastating because medical services can hardly contain ordinary flu? The first case of coronavirus has been confirmed by the Federal Government. Given the unenviable state of national statistics in the country, that number, one, might as well mean one hundred.

Let’s try politics since everything in a democratic setting is reducible to the denominator of politics. In my opinion, one of the most successful government programmes in Nigerian history was the fight against Ebola. The Federal Government headed by Dr Goodluck Jonathan pulled all stops before and during the fight against an armless predator that was knocking down people mainly across Africa. Entry points into Nigeria had personnel with equipment for early detection. Enlightenment campaigns were in top gear. Hospitals were fairly well equipped for treatment.

At the level of states, governments went into schools and campaigned, mainly on preventive measures. At the height of the Ebola war, I was operating in Rivers State. Then-Governor Rotimi Amaechi proclaimed a ban on shaking of hands. Citizens listened and stopped that habit so much loved by Nigerians (till date I find it difficult to shake hands with anybody). Commercial buses that were seating four to five people on one row of seats, carried three people to avoid commuters rubbing their sweat-soaked and possibly Ebola infested bodies on others. Thus while smaller countries in Africa were scrambling to contain the spread, Africa’s most populous nation was declared Ebola-free quite early.

This indeed is not about politics. There is no political campaign in Nigeria now. This is advocacy – a plea – that the feat can be replicated and repeated. Probably Nigeria’s Vice President can be given this assignment if the Minister of Health is not ready? That is what has been done in the USA not only to demonstrate the seriousness with which the government sees the threat but to calm nerves and allay fears. Professor Yemi Osinbanjo has a history of getting things done when he has a direct mandate.

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