COVID-19 pandemic and your Position in Society, By Isaac N. Obasi

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Abba Kyari, Chief of Staff to President Muhammadu Buhari

In an earlier article on COVID-19 pandemic and your occupation, I stressed the point that the importance of any occupation under this period of COVID-19 pandemic emergency, is judged by the role it plays in stopping the spread of the virus and helping to flatten the curve. The point was also made that all other occupations that provide essential services to keep the society going, occupy the next important position in the fight against COVID-19 pandemic.

In this present article, we are focusing on COVID-19 pandemic and one’s position in society. One of the numerous lessons from COVID-19 pandemic is that human relations (both in organisations and the wider society) should be guided by the principle of respect for human dignity which should depend on character of the person and not upon possession of wealth or the position the person occupies in society.

But in Nigeria, position in society is everything. It is either you occupy a high position or you are nothing because you will be treated as ‘Mr. or Mrs. nobody’. This has made some people to use the symbols of big or higher position like big cars (even when they can ill-afford to maintain such), flamboyant dressings, or other forms of regalia, to announce their presence and attract commensurate respect whether legitimately earned or not. There is a bigger problem associated with this mindset of occupying an important position or the mentality of seeking to be recognized as important. Many Nigerians are using their positions to commit all manner of impunity hurtful to others and obstructing the common good.  For example, some use security men to harass others, or use Siren to break traffic rules (e.g. traffic lights). Again, many use their privileged positions to grab everything, or influence many other things in their favour thereby blocking others from getting their fair share. In Nigeria therefore, people’s position in the society has been a major driver of their uncivilized and barbaric behaviors (such as cheating others, maltreating them like taking over their properties and land). Although no society is perfect or free from these, some civilized societies however have used effective enforcement of laws and rules to reduce the damaging influence of impunity in their public space.

COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that it does not respect anyone’s high position (just as the ultimate presence of death does as a leveler). But unlike death, COVID-19 does its own in a more dramatic and embarrassing manner at a time one may be feeling and showing a sense of good health. Think of the hardworking and ebullient British Prime Minister Mr. Boris Johnson (may God grant him healing) and you get a sense of what I am saying. Again, think of our own very politically powerful Chief of Staff to President Muhammadu Buhari (Mr. Abba Kyari may God grant him healing also), you would get the right sense that COVID-19 is no respecter of positions. There are also few Governors (those of Bauchi, Kaduna, Edo, and Oyo) that tested positive to COVID-19. Although the virus respects no one, some people still but regrettably feel that their position can exempt them from even obeying the lockdown order of the government.

The preceding discussions bring to mind what happened this last weekend of April 4 & 5, 2020, where two ‘role models’ in this fight against the COVID-19 pandemic (one in Nigeria and the other in Scotland, United Kingdom) disappointed the public because they did not follow what they were asking the people to do. One of the incidences in Nigeria, concerns a Nollywood actress, Mrs Funke Akindele-Bollo who organised a birthday party in honour of her husband last Saturday (April 4th) with sizeable number of people that violated The Lagos Infection Diseases Regulations 2020. The video of the party that was circulated in the social media showed that the lockdown as well as the social distancing order were violated. The party was considered more scandalous because Mrs. Akindele-Bello has been serving as the face of Dettol Nigeria campaign in a television public enlightenment programme on how to stay safe and stop the spread of COVID-19 pandemic through improved hygiene. The incidence attracted public condemnation with Mrs. Akindele-Bello apologising profusely soon after. Swiftly the police justifiably arrested her and her husband for breaking the law. They were subsequently prosecuted in Court and found guilty. The rest they say is now history. This is indeed a ‘coronavirus-ly’ created ‘new Nigeria’ where the police and the law worked effectively to serve as a lesson to those who think that their position in society is a license to act with impunity in the land. 

In somewhat a similar incidence in Scotland, the Chief Medical Officer of Scotland Dr. Catherine Calderwood who had been the official face of the government issuing guidelines against the spread of the dreaded virus, violated the same rules she helped to make by travelling to her second home reportedly ‘a drive of more than an hour from her Edinburgh’ residence. Although, she apologized profusely and admitted that she was very wrong, but as a rule-based society, certain actions followed immediately. First, the police visited her and issued her a warning about her conduct. Secondly, a decision was taken to remove her as the government ‘face of the coronavirus public information campaign’ to retain public confidence. This was after the Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said that although Dr. Calderwood was wrong, it would be damaging not to have her advice and expertise as chief medical officer in the ongoing fight against the dreaded virus. (see https://.www.aol.co.u). Dr. Calderwood nearly escaped being sacked because of the importance of her occupation in fighting the COVID-19 now, but that was not to be. As the BBC World news reported, she had to resign from office (see https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-52177171). This is a case of the burden of public morality on her conscience. But even in this case, we see that hypocrisy and impunity in high position appear to be a natural tendency in man and woman which effective enforcement of the law in civilized societies amply checkmates and minimizes. This is the way for Nigeria to follow in post-COVID-19 pandemic period. In the present Nigeria, no one resigns on grounds of burden of conscience.           

This is because in Nigeria, impunity has been a major driver of governance deficit which itself is a product of huge deficit in public morality. In short, governance deficit has been a function of high public morality deficit that drives people to behave with impunity and total disregard of the values that sustain the common good. The wider society has been the worse for it over the years. This impunity disease afflicts both officials in high position and ordinary citizens. We see these in how many tricycle drivers in Abuja totally disregard traffic light in broad day light. In fact, everyone behaves as if rules are meant only for others to obey. The impunity disease in Nigeria is as bad as the COVID-19 disease itself. There is a need for total transformation of this attitude and mentality of always I or self-first, and others to hell. It is this mentality and the absence of empathetic concern for the public interest (which also manifests in both petty and grand corruption), that has kept this ‘giant’ of Africa called Nigeria down. COVID-19 should teach everyone a lesson to work for the common good because we might be the first victims of a poor public health system (for instance) that we helped to create. 

Prof. Obasi teaches Public Administration at the University of Abuja. Email: nnamdizik@gmail.com      

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