Tuesday, March 24, 2020 7:48 am
By Reuben Abati
This is my third commentary on the Corona virus pestilence (see “E ku Corona o” – ThisDay, March 3, and “Amala and the Corona virus patient” – ThisDay, March 10), and now, three weeks later, the most important subject still remains this mysterious plague that has changed the way we live, the way we think, the nature and character of markets, physical and futures, the face of globalization, relationships, and the world as we know it. This is not the first time a pestilence will afflict the world: commentators have traced the genealogy all the way to pre-historic times, with the most often quoted being the Biblical times, at the time of the 10 Egyptian plagues and the travails of Jews in Egyptian captivity, 5th C, BCE, as narrated in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, the Plague of Athens (430 BC), the Black Death (1346 -1353), the American Plagues (1519), the Great Plague of London (1665 -1666), the scourge of cholera (1817), the Spanish flu which infected 500 million people (1918 -1920), and in more contemporary times, the outbreak of HIV/AIDS (since 1981), Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) – since 2002, Zika (2015 -2016), Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) – since 2012, and Ebola – since 1976, most impactful 2014 -2016, 2018 -2019. But whereas the death rate for these other diseases may be on the high side, the current strain of Corona Virus code-named COVID-19 has proven to be worse than anything else mankind has seen. It spreads like wildfire. It has no known confirmed cure and science has not yet fully decoded it. World leaders from Boris Johnson to Donald Trump, UN Secretary General, and Angela Merkel have compared what the world faces and is experiencing to a state of war, and indeed mankind is at war, a different kind of war, which exposes humanity to the full extent of its own vulnerability.
In the natural chain of being, man sees himself at the head of the chain. He imagines himself to be the master of the universe, the most wondrous creation of God, gifted with immense cognitive powers to dominate and master the environment and modify nature to his own will. At the height of his glory, man celebrates his own genius and invincibility. Epistemological advances from pre-history to the present have thus been about man and the beauty of his capacity to tame nature and the environment and cast himself in the image of God. But for all his accomplishments, the biggest irony is that the more man seeks knowledge and attempts to master nature, the more he is reminded of the dimensions of the unknowable, the infinite immensity of the Cosmos, and the more this happens, man strives further, literally struggling with the proverbial task of Sisyphus in one myth and that of Atlas in another. In the face of this existential, or ontological dilemma, man is ultimately reminded that he is no more than a gnat, a very small part of the cosmos. Covid-19 is a reminder of this infinitesimality of man in the scheme of things.
It is also a most humbling experience about the power of science and reason, for it is clear to me that even if science catches up tomorrow with this rampaging mystery, and the Gordian knot is deciphered, there is no guarantee that humanity will not again be confronted with another challenge. Natural disasters have buffeted the world. Corona Virus has dismantled the well-known Elizabethan Chain of Being template on which many societies are based, even Queens and Princes are in self-isolation today. Celebrities and the High and Mighty have been humbled.
The streets are empty. The markets are grappling with unusual demand and the crisis of supply. The world is literally on its knees. We are all left wondering: why? We can’t touch surfaces. We cannot hug loved ones. We cannot sneeze or cough. Or kiss. We are told to stay away from others. The same world that is supposed to be a global village has suddenly become a vast collection of neighboring but isolated islands. All the things that make us human are suddenly weaponized as tools of separation by a pestilence called Corona. In the year 2020, mankind has been reminded of the limits of its own intelligence. Is this a test? From where? And by whom? Or is this a case of man overreaching himself, using his own intellect and ego to self-destruct and cause havoc for the community of a hitherto “coherent” whole?
Throughout known history, whenever man faces a crisis of such unknowable nature, his tendency is to resort to religion, faith, and ego. Ego, first: man believes in the worst of circumstances that he is invincible. In the face of Corona Virus, we have seen scientists racing against time, we have seen competition between the United States and China – the race is more about who will be the first to find the cure. Added to that is the racial dimension amplified by the megalomaniacal US President Donald Trump who insists on referring to COVID-19 as the Chinese Virus. This is not the the time for the world to play the politics of ego. What humanity needs is social solidarity in the face of one of the worst manifestations of Evil since the Biblical Last Temptation. Faith, second: Human beings are animals of faith. They simply believe that no matter what, they will defy every odd. This is the source of all the conspiracy theories around and about Corona Virus: from black people insisting that black does not crack and that even Corona Virus cannot affect a black man to the delusionary thinking that Corona Virus cannot survive in the Tropics. The same people have since heard about the status of Idris Elba and his wife, both as black as this writer, but they won’t listen. They have been told that a Nigerian in Canada, another in the UK, and another Nigerian in Nigeria yesterday, have died of Corona Virus, still they won’t believe. They insist that the consumption of alcohol or brewed Neem leaves (Dogonyaro as it is known locally) would help.
President Donald Trump turned himself into a self-appointed Chief Medical Director of the world when he announced that the use of chroloquine phosphate is the cure for Corona Virus. He has since been disowned more or less by the US Food and Drug Administration agency, the FDA, which says it is still investigating possible cures for Corona Virus and has not made any discovery to that effect. Nonetheless there are persons around the world who by Trump‘s say-so have embarked on chloroquine self-medication. President Trump’s declaration is irresponsible. Over the weekend, Nigeria recorded cases of chloroquine poisoning simply because some people listened to one powerful fake doctor called Donald Trump. World leaders have every right at this moment to empathize and show solidarity but they also have a duty to make only strictly responsible statements.
Religion: I have left this as a last point to be addressed because this is precisely what many fall back upon in a season of distress and so it has been. As Corona Virus arrived in Africa, and made its landing in a few countries, the people trooped to places of religious worship in typical default response. Africans, victims of Karl Marx’s often wrongly contextualized statement that “religion is the opium of the people” usually blame God for everything. They regard God as the ultimate solution, indeed as the know-it-all-Being, the invocation of whose name can provide all answers to everything on earth. Richard Swinburne, a theist argues in his book – Is There A God? (Oxford University Press, 2010), that whereas the existence of God is “the ultimate brute fact”, human beings also have “obligations” or what he calls “supererogatory good actions” or “moral truths” to which they must abide even as they profess their love for God.
Africans often mix this up. As the Corona Virus pestilence spreads in the continent from one or two cases to over 1, 500 cases and over 50 deaths, more of the people rely on the assurances of Pastors and Imams who promise a cure or advertise the possibility of it. In Ghana, one Prophet said he had found an anointing oil to cure Corona Virus, and the Chief Imam of the same country reportedly announced that all Muslims are now free to consume alcohol to combat Corona Virus. While Europeans and Asians are in quarantine, Africans rush for anointing oil, alcohol and herbal solutions. When Trump proclaimed chloroquine as cure, they obeyed him robotically. In Nigeria, pastors and all sorts have come up with passages in the Bible to justify the pestilence and how the cure is spiritual. Corona Virus vigils and special deliverance programmes have since been announced across communities. The people ignore science and reason and decide to follow religion. It is the most scandalous part of the experience so far in Nigeria. The matter was put to the test just this last Sunday.
By Friday, the Federal Government of Nigeria had announced that no church or mosque or any event at all should have a congregation of more than 50 persons. To our utter surprise, the Friday prayer worship was held in mosques across the country. Every announcement that Jumat prayers had been shut down in Iran and the entire Middle East, and that Nigerians should do the same, fell on deaf ears. The people insisted that it is at a time like this that the people need God. The Christians repeated the offence on Sunday. Lagos and Ogun state governments had to call out Task Forces to disperse church services which violated the official directive that every one should observe social distancing. In Lagos, event centres were sealed off, bars and restaurants were shut down. What is it about our people?
There is a video now making the rounds on social media about how some persons in Zimbabwe had to be caned to get them out of church on Sunday. Nobody caned people in Nigeria. But given the fact that nobody has any right to endanger the lives of others or even commit suicide, I am recommending that this week, should any strong-headed person refuse to obey the directives on social distancing, either on Friday or Sunday, such persons should be physically whipped by Nigeria’s law enforcement agencies. Nigeria has recorded up to 40 cases of Corona Virus with one death. That was how it started in China, Italy, Iran, the US and the UK. Nigeria should not become the epicenter of Corona Virus in Africa, just because some people believe that God will do it. The painful truth is that many Nigerians, Muslim and Christians alike, including the educated, suffer from the “Jerusalem syndrome.” This is the biggest threat to all efforts so far to contain the spread of Corona Virus. The Jerusalem syndrome is a form of mental disorder, a kind of delusion, the pain that believers inflict on themselves. Extremely religious people behave as if they want the world to come to an end, in line with their expectations and tantrums. They should not be allowed to put all of us at risk.
Christopher Hitchens who likes to identify as a libertarian anti-theist, is the author of a book titled “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” (London: Atlantic Books, 2007). He argues in Chapter Two of the book that “Religion Kills” and in Chapter Four he writes: “A Note on Health to Which Religion can be Hazardous”. It is perhaps not an accident that in South Korea, the most affected group is a religious congregation. Italy, the home of the Vatican, is the epicenter of the pestilence in Europe and has since displaced Wuhan as the global epicenter.
Friedrich Nietzsche before eventually proclaiming the Death of God (1882), wrote about what he called the “futility of an illusion”, that is the illusion that religion can save humanity, or the futility of illusions that we embrace in order to make life possible. Sigmund Freud in 1927 wrote a similar book about The Future of an lllusion. Today, we are in the age of illusions. There have been too many illusions especially around the subject of the Corona Virus. People ignore the reality and embrace illusions. They want to live but they ignore the biggest threat of the decade. This is why in Europe, sanctions are being imposed on persons who refuse to obey the social distancing and lockdown rule. The UK Prime Minister has promised more drastic measures if people refuse to stay at home. In Italy, the police are out on the streets to arrest those who defy the Corona Virus order. Nigeria must follow up all existing measures with strict sanctions for those who continue to embrace the illusion that Corona Virus is a foreign virus. It is not. The pestilence is here.
For a fact: Nigeria has adopted a number of measures: schools have been shut down, airports have been closed, state governments have responded, some steps have been taken to protect the economy and businesses (not far-reaching enough), but the big missing link, I insist, is the absence of sanctions for those who continue to argue that the pestilence means nothing because they believe “something” will protect them. That something may feed their illusions, but it may not protect others. It is because of such persons that Nigeria should impose strict, enforceable sanctions. As we have seen, Corona Virus is not a respecter of boundaries, nations, persons, status, faith or size. What is missing is what Nietzsche calls the “gymnastics of the will”, the will to confront a wicked problem with reason and common sense. Rwanda, Ghana and South Africa are doing much better than other African countries. Nigeria has the largest population in the continent. It carries a much heavier burden of its own and for the sub-region, if not the continent. We need more purposeful leadership, and a greater sense of urgency. Let me end this with this: China has often proclaimed its love for Africa. It has managed so far to combat its own Corona Virus burden. Will it step forward at this critical moment to help Africa or look the other way?