I WAS in Port Harcourt, Rivers State when the news of possible Ebola infection filtered into town. It was unsettling but not very surprising. As soon as the so called index case was confirmed in Lagos, I knew that it was a matter of time before a case
will be recorded in Port Harcourt. Somehow I was fairly prepared. I bought loads of hand sanitizers and other forms of disinfectant before I left England. How prepared can one be?
As soon as the result of the test conducted on the suspected case was confirmed to be positive, the State Governor, Rotimi Amaechi went on air promptly to direct that everyone in the state must scale up hygienic behaviour and avoid handshake. Yes, handshake. That was the toughest one. Somehow the practice of shaking hands is part of our culture especially in the south. So it was a tough one for residents of the city including visitors to enforce. It was a sort of an involuntary action to bring out your hands to shake after any greeting. It is considered disrespectful if an elder extends his or hands to shake you and you fail to reciprocate for fear of Ebola. So for the first few days, I caught myself still shaking many people thought I had to literally soak myself in the sanitizer as many times as I could.
The panic that the outbreak of Ebola sent throughout Nigeria will last with us for a while. I am delighted at the response of the federal government and the cooperation of the Lagos and River state governments. As at the last time I checked, the number of people under quarantine has reduced to only five persons. It clearly demonstrates how far political will and responsiveness can go especially when all levels of government cooperate for the common good of all. Many problems that afflict Africa today are both preventable and resolvable only if we can have the courage to confront the reality.
Even after we have defeated this dreaded disease, it is important that we draw necessary lessons from how it spreads and learn what we can for the experience. There are many of such lessons but I will limit this article to the issue of dishonesty. We are very dishonest people out there. Dishonest for some stupid reasons. That deliberate dishonesty has cost us beyond measure. For the case of Ebola, one can only imagine the millions of naira that have been spent in the last few weeks just because one man, the Liberian diplomat, Patrick Sawyer chose to be dishonest. It is very pathetic that things would have been somewhat under control if that guy said the simple truth about his condition.
Let me explain further to buttress my point. Those who followed the story will recall that it was reported that when that character left his country, he was fully aware that he had been infected with Ebola virus. His relations had died from the dreaded disease and he came in contact with some of them. He was actually said to have escaped from isolation. So why did he lie and endanger innocent doctors, nurses and care givers who attended to him? According to the records, when he was admitted to the hospital, he did not disclose to the doctors that he had any form of contacts with anyone who suffered or died from Ebola disease. When he was asked, he bluntly denied. That was why the doctors initially treated him for malaria and in the process got exposed to the infection before the confirmatory tests revealed that the guy was actually down with Ebola disease.
The story of the deceased Port Harcourt based doctor, Dr.Iyke Enemuo was even more pathetic. He was fully aware that one Olubukun Oke whom he treated was an Ebola patient and had primary contact with Mr. Patrick Sawyer. He could not even disclose the details to the management of the hotel where he chose to treat the patient instead of regular hospital. When he concluded the treatment, he tried to decontaminate the room using some disinfectants without the knowledge of the hotel. After the exercise he continued with normal life and even celebrated a thanksgiving where he came in contact with many people who apparently came to celebrate with him.
Furthermore when the late Dr.Enemuo took ill, he did not even disclose the full story to his colleagues who treated him. Even when he died, the Dr’s wife could not inform their relations who came for condolence visit about the possible cause of her husband’s death. That was why the late medical practitioner’s corpse was deposited to the University Teaching Hospital Port Harcourt alongside other ‘normal’ dead bodies. By the time the information came out about the true cause of Dr. Enemuo’s death, many people have been directly and indirectly exposed to him. But for the swift action of the Rivers State government, the simple act of deceitfulness of one person could have plunged the whole state into an avoidable agony.
This level of dishonesty that complicated the spread of Ebola is seen in every sector of our national life in Nigeria even in the whole continent of Africa. It defines our politics and our bureaucratic morality. Somehow to be a politician in Nigeria means that you have to be dishonest. A politician is said to be someone who will say yes when he means no. He is someone who will betray at the slightest opportunity. He is the one who cannot honour any agreement he gets into. He is the one who is incapable of drawing a line between what is public and what is private.
As we all rise to condemn Patrick Sawyer’s treachery and Dr. Enemuo’s untruthfulness, we must also draw the right lessons from the top. Our addiction to dishonesty has turned out to be a very expensive adventure. Look at the whole Ebola saga. It is now obvious that if we can commit ourselves to saying the truth about our national problems and going beyond the barriers of partisanship to partner to tackle them properly, our redemption as a people is still possible. Corruption and bad governance are similar to the virulent Ebola disease. At least I now wash my hands as often as I can even in faraway England-something that will potentially last me a life time. So we can imbibe new values in Nigeria only if we commit ourselves to do so. For me if we can contain and defeat Ebola, then who says that we cannot quarantine, isolate and defeat all other manifestly plagues of bad governance in Africa?
Uche Igwe is based at the Department of Politics, University of Sussex. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org