Sunday, April 18, 2021

Coronavirus, Security: Interagency cooperation as silver bullet, by Richard Ali

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tiamin rice

There is only one issue in Nigeria now and it is a global one—the threat posed by the coronavirus, coded CoViD19. The threat is an aggressive viral infection first detected in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. It is similar to the common flu but has also been described as being more like pneumonia. There are currently 263,335 active cases worldwide with almost 17,000 deaths recorded; 102,513 people have recovered from the disease. In Nigeria, there are 37 active case, with one death and two recoveries. The National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) has been at the forefront of managing our response.

Microbes, or microscopic organisms, are a category of single-celled animals of which there are an estimated one trillion species. Major types include bacteria and fungi; there are also protozoans, algae and several others. They are generally disease-causing and 99% of them are as yet unidentified by the science of Microbiology. Which leads us to viruses. Viruses are generally classed as microbes but are in fact peculiar. A cell is the unit of life and considering that a virus is not a complete cell, and is thus not alive, it can be argued that they should not be classed alongside bacteria or fungi. They are however exceedingly small (0.000014 inches, 20 to 100 times smaller than bacteria) and cause a wide range of diseases. Viruses are merely strands of genetic material and cannot replicate themselves. A virus can only replicate within a living cell. A cell, even a single-cell organism such as microbes, contains four main part—DNA, RNA and cytoplasm cased in a cell membrane.

How do viruses spread? A virus is a strand of either RNA or DNA encased in a protein coat called a capsid. Sometimes, as with the coronavirus, it has spikes on its capsid. These spikes attach themselves to healthy cell walls and, breaching it, use our cell’s machinery to replicate its own genetic material. Once this is done, the virus leaves the cell by slowly using up all the host cell’s plasma membrane so the cell material around it just dies or the virus simply bursts out of the cell to go on and infect the next healthy cell. The only purpose of a virus is to make more viruses.

In the last weeks on this column, we have written about radicalization, also the cell-type networks that underlie our various threat profiles. We have talked about how crisis entrepreneurs identify state weakness to cause insecurity and the killing of innocent citizens, disrupting daily lives and national development plans.  In this period of the coronavirus scare, we find a new metaphor for how all these are related.

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The type of anti-state actor that interests us—the crisis entrepreneur, be he a weapons’, human or drugs smuggler, or a Boko Haram Shekau-esque type, or the various amorphous violence minded ethnic “rights” organizations—are like viruses, are like the coronavirus. The coronavirus, in this case say a Sheikh Ibrahim Yusuf, probes society carefully and finds soft spots, areas of genuine disenchantment. Examples of this include the oppression of rural folk by state security operatives; or it could be the lack of materials for basic decency such as access to healthcare, potable drinking water or electricity; or the constraining of the human need for hope for a better future for one’s children. This probing is the coronavirus attaching itself to healthy but weak cells. It then works its way into the cell membrane, the minds of these already vulnerable persons, by identifying the state and other citizens as the problem and providing a solution so-called. Switching virus types now, the human trafficker empathizes about “how hard the country is” and, giving some money to a potential victim, tells her that she could get a job in Italy where the pay is far better, a place where she can take care of dependents abandoned by the state.

Switching virus types yet again, the SALW proliferator commiserates with herdsman and farmer at different fora on the loss of their cattle and crops and then suggest that since the government cannot protect them from such loss, they must protect their lives and property. They must be men. Eventually, a crate of AK47s will show up. Eventually, protecting lives and property translate to attacking “enemies” with very expensive bullets sold only by the SALW proliferator. At the bottom of all of these examples is crisis entrepreneurs taking over vulnerable people—the uneducated chap in Borno who has just had his betrothed taken from him by a wealthy local government official; the teenage girl in Benin whose sole breadwinner mother has just had a stroke without healthcare benefits; herder or pastoralist families led by Modibbo and Gyang in Kura Falls outside Jos, who have herded cattle and grown corn for generations—and using them for socially destructive purpose to leverage their own power. Just like the way a virus uses the material of the cell to replicate its own crippled genetic material. These viruses, Boko Haram or whatever else, make a lot of money from this but the inevitable effect is always death—of the individual cell, of the supporters of crisis entrepreneurs at all levels of interconnected cadres, and ultimately the destruction of government, the state and society.

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How do we save people from the coronavirus? How we cure viruses? Science, but is not easy. In the case of the coronavirus, particularly, scientists are still unsure about its origins—whether a natural virus that mutated or something created in a lab. Vaccines have been around since at least the early 20th century and have been helpful in addressing diseases caused by microbes, including viral diseases such as chickenpox and the influenza virus. Scientists work in labs to understand a pathogen or microbe and, having understood its characteristics, create a vaccine. A vaccine works by training the cells to recognize microbes, be they viruses or bacteria, and executing a cellular-level protocol to combat them. A vaccine is a molecule introduced to trigger an order of battle. What is the effect? The body’s cells recognize a pathogen immediately and attack it aggressively. Secondly, even if introduced to the body, the disease-causing organism, such as the spiky coronavirus, will be incapable of attaching itself to a healthy cell membrane and is thus harmless until expelled. Returning to our emphasis, in a society where everyone is vaccinated, it is simply impossible for microbes to spread as there will be no host cells. This is the thinking behind mass vaccination campaigns.

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Now, putting it all together. A networked threat, such as a virus epidemic, needs to be met by a networked response, such as mass administered vaccines operative at the individual, cellular level. This is the only way to survive dangerous bacteria such those causing tuberculosis or viruses like the CoViD19. The failure of a networked response leads to casualties, and to paranoia and self-help that can only escalate incidences. In the Nigerian situation, while the NCDC led by Dr. Chikwe Ikekweazu has been at the forefront of managing the crisis, it has become apparent that even within the Ministry of Health, there has not been a networked response to CoVid19. The political leadership has, in instances, seemed more interested in the photo-ops as opposed to coordinating the political will to cooperate with related heads of MDAs at the frontline of any epidemic. The failure of the Minister of Health to bring on board the Ministers of transportation, interior and the heads of several government of Nigeria agencies to cooperate has seen our airports stay open up until last week when it was obvious that returnees from countries with high infections rates would bring CoViD19 here. The index patient was Italian; the sole death recorded so far picked it up from Europe. Within his own ministry, the current Minister of Health takes his place on the long roster of ministers who have simply been incompetent at shoring up Nigeria’s epidemiological sciences. We are, as the Giant of Africa, not in any danger of finding a vaccine to the coronavirus. Cuba maybe; Germany maybe; almost anyone else with the geopolitical and economic stature we assume for ourselves, maybe. But not Nigeria. The NCDC’s quickly sequencing the genome of the COVID19, for which it was widely and correctly praised, seems all the more remarkable.

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But here’s the thing: in the world we live in, there will be no Superman(s). Without a Nigeria-led, networked health systems reform, the NCDC can only do so much. Where is the Ministry of Education in all this, that headquarters of all Nigeria’s problems? Beyond soundbites, what has the Ministry, the current Minister and his predecessors since 1999, actually DONE to see a measurable rise in content, quality and quantity of Nigerian Science? Let us have examples and figures. Why is it that we can only consume science secondhand and join the most useless in our society—conspiracy theorists and the clerisy—to be ridiculous unfortunates when we could have planned and been scientific and proactive? It is because there is no networking to meet a networked threat. There must be intra-agency cooperation under competent political leadership. There must be interagency cooperation in the government of Nigeria in meeting threats. Coronavirus is merely the newest threat to show us how well we have failed in this regard.

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I have often spoken of an all-of-government approach to internal security. A networked threat, whether it is biological or arising from crisis entrepreneurs, must be met with a networked response. A reality where members of the House of Representatives as well as top government officials are exposed to coronavirus hotspots refuse to self-isolate and take the necessary precautions is not one that indicates that the political and administrative leadership to meet our threat profile exists. In this reality, one ought to start praying. Sadly, I am not a praying man.

Richard Ali was called to the Nigerian Bar in 2010 and has worked in private legal practice, consulted in a policy shaping role at the Ministry of Interior (2015 to 2017) and has run a preventing and countering violent extremism (PCVE) programme. His expertise is in soft approaches to PCVE. He is an alumnus of the US National Defence University’s Africa Centre for Strategic Studies (ACSS) and of the State Department’s International Visitor’s Leadership Programme (IVLP). He is also a novelist and a poet. He can be reached at [email protected]    

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