Ebola: My greatest fear

I must confess that I never truly knew what a virus was until HIV/AIDS made its infamous entry into Nigeria in the mid-80s. There was no lack of the usual conspiracy theories about how the West engineered the virus and introduced it into Africa for the specific purpose of curtailing galloping population growth. So while most of the populace believed HIV to be a hoax, the authorities as usual did nothing. Then Nigerians began to die from what had already become a pandemic.

Throughout the 90s, government was scrambling to respond to a disease whose major mode of transmission is as discreet as its progression is surreptitious. At best, official interventions were half-hearted, and the attendant stigmatization ensured those already infected hid their status even from loved ones.

So, while public servants and their private sector collaborators were busy lining their pockets with filthy lucre from the burgeoning intervention funds, the disease progressed to the point where its incidence in some communities was as high as 30%. All the while, incredulously ignorant Nigerians gawked.

The only reason why HIV/AIDS seems to have come under control is because most families have lost someone to its stealthy scourge. In my family, I know of two for sure, and we went to great lengths to conceal the true cause of death. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish we had been more forthcoming. Except for the family of the late Afro-beat maestro, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti that was admirably forthright in announcing the cause of his death, most families would rather hide under the ubiquitous façade of “brief illness.” And that is a huge setback in the battle against any pandemic or epidemic.

Between HIV/AIDS and the latest member of the viral family to arrive – Ebola – a few relations have burst on the national consciousness. First was Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) commonly called Mad Cow Disease. It is a fatal neurodegenerative disease of cattle which when consumed by humans results in Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease: another grim reaper.

The United Kingdom bore the brunt of a disease that claimed over 200 lives and the slaughter of nearly 5 million cattle around the world. I recall a columnist in one of Nigeria’s dailies whimsically beg the authorities in the UK to ship the animals that were suspect to Nigeria for consumption. In his morbid logic, Nigerians subsist on far more lethal stuff!

Next came Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS); a viral respiratory disease that wreaked most of its havoc in China. Happening so far away, we mostly derived fun reading about it. Then there was the very popular avian influenza or bird flu which brought with it an interesting way of identifying viral strains, e.g. H5N1. It ravaged mostly Asia and Europe with minimal effect in the Middle East and Africa. Because birds (especially chicken) are major export items, there was a global eradication initiative that saw to the slaughter of tens of millions of chickes, and also involved an attractive compensation package.

Quite a few public servants became accidental millionaires in the course of supervising the many well-funded containment initiatives. A colleague was involved in the design of one of the facilities in Nigeria’s North-East geo-political zone. Judging from the unnatural dispatch with which they were carrying on, I had little doubt there was a lot of dough to be salted away. I have a hunch that most of those projects are currently moribund.

Ebola is already in Nigeria. Demonizing the index person, Patrick Sawyer is as unproductive as it is unfair. The man’s widow has explained that he resorted to Nigeria in desperation because he had little confidence in Liberia’s healthcare infrastructure: an unsolicited endorsement of our suspect healthcare delivery system. The fact of how he deliberately kept away from any cluster of people at the Monrovia airport lends credence to her thesis. I think we should rather be grateful Ebola arrived the way it did – bold and undisguised. That is why we can even afford to speak confidently about primary and secondary contacts with near certainty that the quarantine and other containment measures will yield the desired results.

Imagine a scenario where the index person crept into the country through the notorious Seme Border. After disembarking at the popular Mile 2, he heads to his tenement in Ajegunle where he’s still well enough to interact with very many family members and undertake a few social visits. The following day being a Sunday, he has to be in church. Thanksgiving is the only appropriate response to a successful journey and the fact of feeling increasingly unwell is even an extra incentive, after all, his pastor is famed for his healing prowess.

After an exuberant session of prayer and generous ‘laying of hands’ by the pastor and 24 elders, he barely manages to get home where his wife immediately decides it’s time for hospital. In five days, they traverse three hospitals manned by staff of questionable credential and competence. Even if any of them suspected Ebola, they keep tight lips so as not to draw attention to their illegality. When psychiatric symptoms begin to manifest, the desperate train moves to a traditional healing home. The smart aleck running the show there takes one look at our dishevelled man and rightly announces it is beyond his intervention. The train rolls right back to church where he expires within two hours; all this while, without the knowledge of the health authorities. By the time they are alerted, two primary contacts of the index person are already dead.

Despite the scary scenario I conjured above, I believe we will overcome the current scourge; and enable, as our custom dictates, the emergence of a sprinkling of Ebola millionaires. It won’t happen necessarily because the authorities did the needful. It’s much more likely God or Ebola will show abundant mercy. But once the red flag is down, we’ll all return to our old, selfish ways.

It is quite conceivable that in the not-so-distant future, these viral potentates (they seem like a tightly knit family) elect to pay us a visit all at once. If the presence of one is generating this much discomfiture, how would we cope if we had to host, say, nine?

That is my greatest fear.