Lessons from Abba Kyari’s exit

Abba Kyari

By Lasisi Olagunju 

There is a prime place in medical history for Mary Mallon, a career cook for several wealthy families in New York who spread disease and death everywhere she worked. One of such wealthy people was Charles Henry Warren, a banker with a Midas touch who engaged Mallon in his Long Island vacationing home as a cook in 1906. Medical historians state that “from 27 August to 3 September of 1906, six of the eleven people present in Warren’s house suffered typhoid fever…” In 1915, as a cook of Sloane Maternity in Manhattan, “she contaminated, in three months, at least 25 people, doctors, nurses and staff. Two of them died.” She moved from home to home such that as she built her career, she also innocently built the unenviable, solid reputation of having contaminated at least 122 people, including five dead. In the end, she was stigmatized as ‘Typhoid Mary,’ quarantined and isolated for 26 years, had stroke, died at 69 in 1938; her corpse was ‘hurried away’ and buried in a grave of ethical controversies. 

‘Typhoid Mary’ today is an item in English lexicon. In medicine, it means ‘a healthy carrier’ of bad diseases; it also means, in general terms, “a transmitter of undesirable opinions or attitudes.” A dubious reputation is an eternal damnation, and it can be very painful when it is garnered in innocence. But in matters of life and death, innocence mitigates nothing; vigilance does. The cook from Cookstown, Ireland, hosted a contagious disease, lived in its denial and was very fierce in resisting being tested for it. “I never had typhoid in my life and have always been healthy,” Mallon wrote while in confinement. “Why should I be banished like a leper and compelled to live in solitary confinement with only a dog for a companion?” She sounded almost exactly like some forcibly confined coronavirus suspects in 2020 southwest Nigeria who still take the lethal, viral infirmity as an elite plot to make money. 

Millions of such obstinate healthy carriers are everywhere today as humanity battles the virulence of COVID-19. President Muhammadu Buhari’s late Chief of Staff, Mallam Abba Kyari, came into the country last month from Germany as a ‘healthy carrier’ of the killer virus. He, apparently, did not know and never believed that coronavirus would ever be his portion. Because of him, governors, ministers, ambassadors, even the president had to go do tests. Some came back negative, some positive. Some still stroll around in stupid denial, refusing to learn from the dead. Even after he lost his immunity as a healthy carrier of the disease, fell ill and was ‘isolated,’ Kyari’s aura still denied his fate and hid his location. “I am well and will be back at work soon,” Kyari wrote all of us while finally admitting his status. We may never know the depth and breadth of his post-infection devastation of the presidential Villa but the fact of his infecting at least one aide, the upending of Villa activities, and his own death a month later are enough to set off alarm in cities and circles of denial.  

When Ebola broke and was clinically contained in Nigeria in 2014, many believe the feat was because it came in through Lagos, the Centre of Excellence. Lagos is still the epicenter of this COVID-19 pandemic and it is, again, showing how to proactively and reactively kill off a morbid threat. The concern now is beyond Lagos and the contiguous South-West states, with their many cases of coronavirus patients. The six South-West governors have, so far, exhibited themselves as models in gubernatorial responsibility. But a vast number of their people are still in stupid denial; it is still business as usual as they converge, trade and shun all rules of social distancing. Someone described this as the South-West playing with fire. Yes, but the good thing is, among the Yoruba, experience teaches better a child who chooses to play with fire. Already, the death of Kyari is whipping so many into the line of reality. 

But the greater concern is the ashen North with its elite and street denial of this pandemic. A diseased North will blight everywhere else with viral death. You saw how ‘healthily’ the burial of Abba Kyari was done. You saw how ‘few’ the people there were in agreement with the social distancing rules of the government. You saw a well-kitted member of the burial party disposing his highly contagious PPE with his bare hands by the roadside in Abuja. You read what the Federal Capital Territory Administration said about the burial: “All individuals, including the man in question, that participated in the burial and were not properly kitted have been identified and are being isolated. Necessary tests will be conducted on all of them to determine their level of exposure and ensure that they do not infect other people.” What do you make of that bolted horse and the assurance that “all future burials of victims of COVID 19 (will be) conducted in line with protocols established by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC)”? Did that burial not make you ask how many more COVID-19 corpses have been buried in violent breach of contagious diseases protocol?

As that Kyari burial was on, would you believe that the song was still of denial of the danger on the streets of the North? You saw some pallid creatures on video washing their hands into bowls and drinking the slop in a mockery of coronavirus? And these were quite different from the horde who sang “Mallam yashe babu corona” (Mallam has said corona does not exist). I am sure you also follow the controversy trailing the death of a medical doctor in Daura, Katsina State. He was one of the first cases of coronavirus in the president’s home state. Has he been buried? If yes, how? Who were the people who washed his body and where are they? Have there been other unexplained deaths in that area since his burial? 

Buhari has been funneling billions in COVID-19 palliatives to his people who do not believe there is something called COVID-19. The truth is that these people need knowledge and understanding more than they need Buhari and his largesse in this season. They should be close to people of knowledge in the North who know the implications of their people’s attitude to this scourge. There are online reports of unexplained deaths, especially in Kano which may soon overtake Lagos in this COVID-19 tragic race. A worried Kano resident sent an SOS to a friend on Friday on the deathly denials still with his people: “Before the corona lockdown, people had disobeyed previous restrictions imposed by the government. Ban on entry into the state was disobeyed by indigenes of Kano. They came from index places like Lagos and Abuja and refused testing and isolation. Those returning from abroad refused to isolate themselves. Kano people don’t want to know what is social distancing. The Almajiri ban has been resisted and the system has continued unchecked.” 

I do not live in the North and, as such, cannot confirm the claims made by the person above. But you also heard northern governors announcing last week that they could not lock down the North because their people must go out to farm. I did not hear them give the assurance that they had found a cure or treatment for COVID-19 beyond the globally recommended social and physical distancing with lockdowns as a decisive component. They clearly have no idea – or are in denial – of the enormous threat this scourge poses to their region, farmers and their farms. Or is it that they fear the political backlash of a lockdown from a region with ingrained street rebellion against all laws?

However, while we grapple with the fix-able laissez-faire attitude of the other parts of the country, we must all race to the rooftops, shout and prevent the North from becoming the COVID-19 version of ‘Typhoid Mary’ for the entire country. If the loud death of Abba Kyari would not be the shrill bell the North needs to make it think well and face where the world faces, it means nothing else will. But before we all get dragged to that point of no return, we must be seen to have fought a good fight of collective survival.