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Corona 🦠 Thoughts – 5: Lockdown, Reflections on Life’s Unpredictability and Fake News

Today marked one week since the lockdown was announced by the President. Lockdown is such a dramatic word that evokes memories of action movie (and TV series) scenes. Close your eyes and imagine Jack Bauer in CTU yelling “Secure the parameter! Lock this place down!” on receiving news of a possible infiltration. For those of us of a certain age, the word itself would not be out of place as the title of a movie starring Jean Claude Van Damme or Michael Dudikoff. In fact, it sounds so much like a movie title that I googled to find out if there ever was one bearing that name. Guess what I found?

The thing about the week-old lockdown and the circumstances leading to is it that the events have often felt like a movie. One in which we are unfortunately not starring and, even more unfortunately, one that no human being is directing. Before the total ban on personal vehicle movements, it felt so surreal to hit the road and not see a single taxi (commuter minibus). With the total ban in place now, it feels even more surreal to take a walk through the neighbourhood and only see the odd vehicle on the previously busy roads. Initially, it really felt like a bad dream from which one badly needed to wake up. Sadly, it has slowly sunk in that this is actually real life and we have to face this situation head on.

One of the things I’m sure so many people are reflecting on right now is the sheer unpredictability of it all. At the beginning of the year, as silly as it sounds now, one of the things that was occupying my mind was a sense of trepidation about the English Premier League. I am a Liverpool fan and I was very worried about getting overhauled and beaten to the title. As the month of January slipped by, I grew increasingly confident that this would finally be our year and I started thinking about how I needed a couple of new jerseys for the inevitable celebrations. Imagine how trivial this all sounds now! Of course, there were other non-trivial issues on my mind such as the fact that we’re expecting a baby in early May but the fact that I had the time and space to think about EPL celebrations shows the kind of carefreeness that I was enjoying at the time. I suspect I wasn’t alone in this regard – many of you were probably looking forward to a pretty normal year with the same old challenges as ever, some breakthroughs and victories, same daily grind and probably a little unease over the coming political season. Nothing out of the ordinary.

Now all this and more is almost nearly forgotten in the need to get through this unprecedented period unscathed or with at least minimal impact on our lives, families, livelihoods and communities. The most amazing thing about this pandemic is how it practically blindsided the whole world. Imagine all the sports mega leagues and events that have had to be cancelled or rescheduled. Even the Japanese who put up a spirited display of defiance eventually conceded and pushed the Olympics to next year. Think about all the airports – large and small – whose check-in counters are completely idle right now. Think about all the livelihoods and plans – both grand and modest – that have been disrupted like never before on a global scale. At the beginning of the year, the British Prime Minister was looking forward to executing his Brexit mandate following a convincing electoral win a few weeks prior. Now, at the time of publishing this, news had just filtered through that he’d been placed in intensive care. This virus truly knows no status or rank in society. If there’s anything we’re learning from this, it is that life can be truly and frighteningly unpredictable.

The strange thing about this unpredictability though is that the one thing that was quite predictable – even without the benefit of hindsight – was the emergence of an infectious disease that would sweep across the world if we weren’t prepared for it. Lots of people have now watched Bill Gates’ TED talk where he made the case for preparing for such a pandemic the same way nations across the world prepare for war. But it turns out that a lot of academic and public health experts have been saying the same thing since the SARS outbreak close to two decades ago. Unfortunately, it seems human beings are not good at heeding warnings about invisible threats.

Interestingly, the aforementioned Bill Gates talk has spawned all sorts of fake news and conspiracy theories that many people are excitedly forwarding to one another. Some of them are so laughably rubbish that they make you despair when you realise some people actually believe them. More than ever now, one has to ponder why people are so gullible. A few weeks ago, as different countries were starting to institute lockdowns, a story went round claiming Russia’s President Putin had unleashed 500 (0r 800) lions on the streets of Moscow to enforce the lockdown. I took this as the joke it obviously was until I noticed some people were referencing the story quite seriously on some Whatsapp groups I happen to be a member of. I was completely confounded by this. First of all, the story emerged at a time when Russia was one of the few Eurasian countries that had resisted the idea of a lockdown and so life was still going on as usual in Moscow and elsewhere in Russia. This was easily verifiable at the time. But secondly – and more importantly – does a person who believes such a story not have enough brain power to think rationally about it: where would Russia get 500 or 800 lions to let loose onto its streets? And then once released, how would they be retrieved? How would any sane person even think this could possibly be true?

This brings me to the subject causing the greatest howls within the conspiracy circles – a vaccine for COVID-19. These are a global problem with some of the most ferocious voices coming from the West. But let’s focus on ourselves here: for some reason, lots of Africans think that Africa will be the testing ground for a COVID-19 vaccine. Quite a number of these also think (or believe) that the vaccines to be tested contain a tracking chip that is being developed by Bill Gates (seriously!) Granted, some might have been influenced by the video of those racist French guys on TV. But even before that video emerged, a lot of these vaccine conspiracies were floating around on social media. Again, it would be good for us to step back and think critically: with countries literally stealing other countries’ medical supplies, why would any company or organisation developing a vaccine even focus on Africa? The countries that are most desperate for a vaccine will most likely take charge of the clinical trials and once they’re done, they will most probably grab as much of the finished product as they can. Just like we’re at the bottom of the buying lists for ventilators, we’ll likely be at the bottom of the access list for any new vaccines. For what it’s worth regarding clinical trials, note that Ebola outbreaks to-date have mostly affected African countries but the vaccine trials were carried out not only in African but in North America and Europe as well. Clinical trials are part of the medicine development process which millions if not billions of people eventually benefit from. Of course, there might be some unethical procedures in the process but these should be sorted out by having the correct policies and practices on place. The responsibility for this lies primarily with the local authorities. But even the torrid of indignation and abuse being hurled at pro-vaccine people online should teach us something – instead of protesting, why aren’t we involved in the actual development (either in collaboration with those Western entities we’re pillorying or wholly indigenous efforts)? I sincerely hope the leadership across the continent is different and they’re quietly strategising to improve our scientific R&D so that we too can take a seat at the table and not wait for the crumbs. Many people will say my hope is misplaced…