ABOUT THIS TIME A YEAR AGO, Coronavirus infection began to make waves as a new phenomenon. At first, it was assumed to be a localised affliction within China – a major blunder and inexplicable complacency that allowed it to escape into the wider world as a result of failure of the presumed “competent authorities” to act fast and provide the appropriate leadership in the ensuing health crisis. Various forms of counsels, recommendations, instructions and orders were given by the health, media, humanitarian, philanthropic and government authorities in various parts of the world in desperate attempts to limit the spread of the new-found disease with limited success. The world entered a panic mode while various forms of experimentation, nomenclatures and sloganeering began, with the ultimate baptism of the affliction as COVID-19. It was rather interesting that, in an age of information explosion, advancement in information and communication technology and cutting-edge medical breakthroughs, many aspects of COVID-19 management were messed up miserably. The use of internet, unfortunately, contributed to the muddling up of facts, fallacies and falsehoods.
Some authorities contradicted themselves at some points and some generated heated arguments over the appropriateness of certain preventive and control actions. The dogma of ‘great reset’ was up in the air as it formed the theme of the 2020 World Economic Forum (WEF) even as Klaus Schwab, the founder, tried to persuade the world on the perceived way forward. And, of course, one of the business ideas launched on the floor of an earlier WEF summit became the arrowhead of the COVID-19 vaccine diplomacy. The idea of working at home became a vogue, irrespective of its suitability or otherwise for specific types of works. Face masks, which some ‘experts’ have earlier argued as appropriate only for use within limited time, became a thing to be worn every time outdoors. Social distancing became a new buzzword, progressing into a doctrine, and vaccination became an unwritten law tacitly agreed to and given an unprecedented global advocacy and social marketing. Then, politics took the centre stage, as politicians adopted divisive tactics in their bid to use the epidemic to score cheap political points. The one-size-fits-all approach to handling the emerging pandemic and the overwhelming voice in support of vaccination and data gathering measures intruding into personal privacy gave many people the basis for suspicion, conspiracy theories and concerns that some influential individuals and corporate bodies are trying to railroad the world into a particular direction, and that the COVID-19 virus itself was a deliberate creation.
The unquestioning public would soon be told that everyone has to be vaccinated. They would be tested too. But herein lies the confusion. The leading voices in the campaign against COVID-19 saw the problem from various standpoints, albeit with a point of convergence. While the scientific community saw an opportunity to explore and make discoveries, the business interests saw an opening for profit making. The politicians, on the other hand, were more preoccupied with how this played to their electoral advantages. While the business interests responded under the veneer of compassion, working hard on the rolling out of vaccines, the hybrid of humanitarian and philanthropic agencies ran quickly to reinforce the message of vaccination and the politicians wasted no time in making manifestoes out of vaccination ideology. One obvious point which was missed – and for which the public is already paying a heavy price – is the denial of thoughts about alternative remedies. It is saddening, though, that the media space has been dominated for over a year by talks about everything COVID-19, and much of efforts and attention have concentrated only on vaccines and vaccination. This is disappointing but not altogether surprising. The downside to many of these heroic moves by the leading voices from the various areas of intervention is that the global populace, coming to some realisations later, might feel conned, short-changed or denied opportunity to make a good living. This is as many industries are prospering during COVID-19 while many are endangered or at the risk of extinction.
As the world seems to be settling down and adjusting to the COVID-19 that is not likely to disappear soon, various manifestations of reactions will become apparent – from compliance fatigue as a result of lockdown, use of face masks, regular and repeated washing of hands, social distancing and working at home. Many industry leaders who have seen their enterprises going steadily on a downward slide will complain and probably resist some of the seeming consensus of opinions that have gained ground in the past year. Many of the proposed or recommended measures earlier promoted as relevant to overcoming the COVID-19 spread will come under intense criticisms and will be vehemently challenged. Only a few days ago, David Solomon the top helmsman of Goldman Sachs, a financial institution of global standing, openly rejected remote working as a “new normal” and chose rather to label it an “aberration.” He was unapologetic and not prepared to be politically correct as he said “I do think for a business like ours, which is an innovative, collaborative apprenticeship culture, this is not ideal for us. And it’s not a new normal. It’s an aberration that we’re going to correct as soon as possible.”
The bank boss said the investment bank had operated throughout 2020 with “less than 10 per cent of our people” in the office, arguing further that it does not suit the work culture at Goldman Sachs. The “work-from-home” proposition already adopted by many firms seems to be at variance with his eagerness for workers to return to the office. With the public pronouncement made by Solomon, those who thought that working from home could become a permanent and widespread culture at work may now have reason for a rethink as his pronouncement could embolden others to challenge the thinking that informed that decision and open a floodgate of criticisms of such an idea being sold as a global revolution in the workplace. Although many industries may have irreversibly adopted such an idea, a good number of others will either partially implement it or not at all. Apart from purely political consideration, governments have no other strong reason for sustaining the ‘stay-at-home’ orders for far too long.
The lockdowns – by global reckoning – have depressed many national economies so badly and irreparably that governments will henceforth be forced to adopt cautious and localised approaches to lockdowns where there is a thought of absolute necessity in perceived high-risk areas instead of generalised lockdowns. They will be more inclined to boosting their economies through increasing revenue generation which is more likely to be possible in areas free from movement restrictions. This reality will apply in developed countries as well as developing countries. The Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) form a bulk of the economies of developed countries despite their industrialisation status. In most developing countries, SMEs form a greater source of government revenues, especially where the informal sector is prevalent. The predominant businesses such as restaurants, tailoring, hairdressing, transportation, mechanical works, and a host of others, are not accessible through remote online means. They require, for the most part, direct physical contacts. Strict and unbending policies that lean more on the side of working remotely will snuff lives out these peculiar jobs and investments. There is therefore likely to be some forms of resistance against the work-from-home decisions if they are made official policies. This alone is a proof that not all the measures proposed by the leaders of thought on the control of COVID-19 are time-tested, universally suitable or sustainable, especially as there would be need for trade-offs if the world economy is not to grind to a halt. While the tech industry workers may afford to work remotely, there are a lot more businesses that cannot afford to.
Human contacts are a fact of life. There is growing body of findings that could adequately fill existing knowledge gap and help in more accurately predicting disease transmission dynamics and the impact of control strategies. This will warrant more attention on innovations and innovation uptake, cultures and adherence to well-informed perspectives. In the densely populated and relatively poorer parts of the world, particularly Asia and Africa, the rules that apply in the more affluent but less populated North America and Europe may not strictly apply, particularly when the need for trade-offs is considered. It will take a long time, for instance, before the open market culture is discarded. A study on “contact structure, mobility, environmental impact and behaviour: the importance of social forces to infectious disease dynamics and disease ecology,” published in 2017, revealed human factors, including contact structure, movement, impact on the environment and patterns of behaviour, can have significant influence on the emergence of novel infectious diseases and the transmission and amplification of established ones.
As anthropogenic climate change alters natural systems and global economic forces drive land-use and land-cover change, it becomes increasingly important to understand both the ecological and social factors that impact infectious disease outcomes for human populations. Of note is the fact that livelihoods are a major driver of compliance with, or resistance against, official instructions. Poor people, with no food, no income and no means of assuring health care delivery services are not likely to comply with work-at-home order, especially when that does not provide an opportunity to work and earn a living. We heard, at the peak of the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020 that some who defied the lockdown orders said they would rather go out, work and catch the disease while earning an income than remain at home and die without any means of livelihoods. This will inform the decision of many people in the economies that are not yet dependent on services that can be rendered remotely. In an informal economy, a lot of people are involved in traditional services that depend on daily income, not monthly
These all place an onus on those leading the charge against COVID-19 to broaden their scope of thinking and allow a wide spectrum of perspectives into the intervention mix. A particularly ignored aspect that will be given more elaborate attention is the area of alternatives to vaccinations. For Africa, the reliance on COVID-19 vaccine could ultimately turn out to be a misplaced priority. Alternatives are worth the time, the thought and the attention. African leaders and interventionists on COVID-19 pandemic control will do well to allow a space for discussions on these alternatives to save more lives and incur less costs.
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