Opinion (13/1/2021): Death And COVID-19, By Lasisi Olagunju

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A friend felt unwell and went for covid test; the result just came out last week; he was positive. He is in Abuja. A private chat with another friend revealed she was positive too. She texted me: “Take care please, covid is real…Recovering with my household. A horrible experience.” She is in Lagos. A third colleague is in another city in Nigeria. She told me she was COVID-19 positive too, ill: “I can’t sleep, it is not funny at all but I will be fine.”
Each of these journalist-friends suffers this scary experience with their loved ones. “We are now admitting whole families,” a doctor friend who works in an isolation centre informed me on Sunday. When whole family members are down with a deadly disease, who then takes care of whom? There are in official records 99,063 of such people with covid experience in Nigeria. There may be hundreds of thousands undocumented others in the privacy of homes doing self medication. Meanwhile, Isolation centres are getting full; hospitals lack safety gears; nurses, doctors get infected in almost epidemic proportions. And the end is not near.

COVID-19 is not the first pandemic to hit humanity; it may not be the last. Before this experience, pandemics had plagued the world across ages. Depending on the era and the descriptive abilities of those who lived each of the horrible experiences, it was called The Pestilence, the Black Death, Spanish Flu, the Great Mortality, the Great Plague. Whatever name it was called, the defining character was death served without favour. Those who survived those terrible times were the obedient ones. We are not learning from anything that happened in history and from things that are happening now. Schools are reopening soon without safety provisions for teachers and students. Markets are daily refusing to acknowledge the deaths and the ravaging sickness from covid; night clubs bubble cities till dawn; social parties paint towns, cities and even hamlets red. We do not appreciate the scalding waters we are toying with. Nineteenth century American poet and literary critic, Edgar Allan Poe, in his ‘The Masque of the Red Death,’ sums up this behaviour and the sorrow, distress and grief that follow hosting a masquerade ball (bal masque) during a pandemic: “He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of the fall…and Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all…” The plague experience this author describes here almost 200 years ago (May 1842) fits into the stories we read daily since the outbreak of COVID-19.

You should remember the opening paragraph of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…” Dickens could well have written, not about the extreme, radical opposites of the French Revolution, but about today’s covid deaths and our stupid refusal to run away from its avoidable, morbid path. We live with the best of technologies which should help us avoid contracting this virus, yet we still do all the wrong things of seven centuries ago. Those who went with all the previous plagues resisted the order to distance themselves from crowds and take cover in the bunkers of their homes. Or they stayed at home and hosted home parties. That is exactly what we are doing and our best are dying, dropping dead like diseased oranges. A General of the Nigerian Army died in Abuja in December 2020, a frightening line of professors and other professionals soon followed – and are following, exiting in rapid succession. A celebrated actress died, her brother followed, her sister followed. A former senator in Osun State, a generally good man died last week too. People with whom we said ‘Happy New Year’ just days ago are gone like candles in the wind. It is awful – and still, the storm is not abating – and we are still not obeying the orders of wisdom.

People die daily of COVID-19; but not all of humanity will die of it. As it was in the past, so it is now. In the same parish register where the baptism of William Shakespeare (Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakspere) was recorded on April 26, 1564, the Latin words ‘hic incipit pestis’ soon appeared. It means ‘here begins the plague.’ And after that entry, what followed were recordings of deaths after deaths of parishioners. That was a pandemic that killed millions and wiped out whole families – across the world. One out of every four persons in Shakespeare’s hometown died in that disaster. But Shakespeare was one of the saved. His parents and siblings lived too. How did they escape it? They obeyed the strict rules- particularly of lockdown, quarantine, social and physical distancing. And that experience was not the only mass death the playwright witnessed. He lived his entire life dodging death from one pandemic to another – and flourishing along the way. Whenever pandemic deaths exceeded thirty per week and the London authorities closed the theatres, Shakespeare obeyed – he innovated with his trade; he did not lead a rebellion against the rules – and then die. Imagine what the world would have lost if he had lived stubborn and died of complications from a stupid plague. What that tells us is that the one who would write the history of this covid war should first survive it. And how do you survive the ravages of war with stiff-necked, suicidal disobedience to simple rules of survival? Victory is not just walking through the valley of death, it is not retaining one’s head on one’s neck while others lose theirs; it is conquering the war itself and its circumstances.

How many will remain when these torrents stop? As of yesterday, coronavirus had killed 1.93million people worldwide. Nigeria had an official share of 1,350 in that figure of the dead. Before anyone says our figure is low, let the person put himself in the position of any of the families of the dead. Imagine mourning orphans who long in vain for the protective airs of parents; husbands waiting beside the covid corpses of wives; wives nursing gasping memories of husbands as they slip into eternity. How do we walk through the mines of these difficult times of Covid and live after it? We must listen to science and do as those with knowledge tell us: wear a mask, avoid crowds, wash and or sanitise hands; and more importantly, stay generally safe – at home.

Stay safe, do not put your trust in the chariots of vaccines. The powerful will take care of themselves as they did in all the pandemics in history. Check the Great Plague of Athens of 430 BC, the Black Death of 1348; The Great Plague of Marseille of 1772; the Spanish Flu of 1918-1920 and all the others before them. People of power always seized escape platforms, like these vaccines, and left the poor to meet their certain deaths. The World Health Organization (WHO) is already talking of inequitable access to the vaccines. Bruce Aylward, a special adviser to the WHO chief, said last week that “50% of high-income countries are deploying vaccines — and zero percent of poor countries are.” It means the rich are buying up everything covid vaccine and leaving the poor to die if they like. Even if the vaccines come here, how much should we put in the hands of the government on this matter? It has vaccination plans to save those it can from these lurking deaths but are you sure you will be a beneficiary of that plan? This year, 40 percent of Nigeria’s 200million people will get covid vaccine. Director, Disease Control and Immunisation, National Primary Health Care Development Agency (NPHCDA), Dr Bassey Okposen, said so last Friday. He was addressing a virtual NPHCDA sensitisation meeting on COVID-19 vaccine introduction. According to him, the 40 per cent Nigerians that are expected to receive the vaccine this year include one per cent of health workers, 10 per cent of adults above the age of 50; 17 per cent of persons with co-morbidities below 50 years and 12 per cent of other risk groups. Next year, he said, another 30 percent will be vaccinated, adding that high priority would be placed on states like Lagos and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) with the highest numbers of COVID-19 infections. Where is your place in this plan? Or you expect the virus to wait as we pick and choose who and when to vaccinate?

‘How to survive a Plague’ is a 2012 American film (and book) by David France. It is about the epidemic of HIV/AIDS, its ravages, the life-or-death struggles of victims, treatment protocols and how to live through the experience. It tells the power of hope over helplessness and that humanity, with utter conviction, can burrow its way out of any scourge that defies cure. Again, ‘How to Survive a Pandemic’ is a 2020 book by Michael Gregal, a physician and public health expert and author of ‘How not to Die.’ The 2020 book documents deadly pathogens, their evolution through history, their pathways and “what humanity must rectify to reduce the likelihood of even worse catastrophes in the future.”

The books recognize the fact that plagues are essentially caused by bad human behaviours and that with good behaviour, we can prevent such tragedies. So, if we do what science says is right, we will find out that it is also possible to count blessings and make ‘the best of times’ out of this very bad covid era. I go back to the Shakespearean experience. A literary historian notes that “the greatest plays in the English language were written during a pandemic — and wouldn’t have been possible without it.” The 1348 Black Death in Italy inspired Giovanni Boccaccio’s collection of 100 novels titled ‘The Decameron.’ History tells us that bubonic plagues closed theatres repeatedly during Shakespeare’s career. Theatres were closed but creativity flourished – through some other safe ways. Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet, died in one of the pandemics, and from the tragedy of that experience he wrote “Hamlet” and his other tragedies. He was able to do so because he took heed and survived the plagues. May we also live to tell the story of this pandemic.

– Olagunju is a respected journalist with Nigerian Tribune

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