Pandemic, Politics & Practice of Social Work

Boye Leye ALABI

Politics seem to be a staple of major global events, the climate of fear and uncertainty created by pandemic has provided a breeding ground for conspiracy theories and various governments’ responses to it. At the start, Public perceptions regarding the danger posed by influenza altered markedly following the 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic. When the decision was taken to establish a new universal health organization in 1946, one of the first tasks assigned to the Interim Commission of the WHO was to develop a new program to monitor and study influenza. Another theory which was able to spread as rapidly as a virus itself in the African region was that novel coronavirus is somehow linked to 5G technologies. Some claimed that 5G is the cause of COVID-19, another claimed that the Corona Virus is a biochemical/biosecurity weapon to put the entire globe under the control of some high-profile individuals like Bill Gates and that the development of a COVID-19 vaccine is an attempt to microchip the global population

Despite these conspiracies being debunked by medical scientists, technology experts and fact-checkers, they have spread across social media platforms which have been slow to react in clamping down on misinformation. According to research in the UK, over one-fifth of people think that COVID-19 is a hoax, while nearly two-thirds believe that it is to some extent man-made. The President of the U.S, Mr. Donald Trump once labeled the coronavirus “China Virus” while China had also promoted the theory that the Virus may have been intentionally transplanted to Wuhan by the U.S military

The trace to the actual source of the virus remains uneasy and groundless speculations about the origins of the pandemic continued to gain ground by how some eye-catching tweets reveals how China’s changing propaganda tactics have interacted with mangled news reporting, social media conspiracy theorising, and underlying US-China tensions — all resulting in high-profile misinformation about a global public health crisis, It’s clear some conspiracy theorists see COVID-19 as an opportunity to gather more mainstream appeal.

Pandemic and politics is not only limited to China or the US, conspiracy theories are everywhere since the outbreak of the virus. Even in many Muslims countries, people blame western countries for the spread of the virus. China has recently turned to Norway in the blame game over claims of Corona Virus detected from imported frozen Salmon fishes. Everyone seems confused.

In Nigeria, the NCDC and the federal government have been accused by many Nigerians of playing politics with the pandemic. People have expressed concerns over the release of only the figures like ‘ daily livescores’ and have continued to criticize the decision to keep the identity of the infected cases strictly confidential. Many believed that knowing the identity of the infected cases could have helped far better in the collective fight against the pandemic. We saw footage of videos of political rallies from Oyo State in March and recently from Edo state publicly defiling the lockdown and social distancing rules. Nigeria government at various levels have continued to ease the lockdown at a time when the Covid-19 cases continue to rise significantly despite the fact that there are questions begging for answers.

What is Nigeria’s readiness after its first case was confirmed on 28 February? As of 17 June, the country had more than 17,000 cases and 455 deaths. Is Nigeria among the global race to find a vaccine? If not, Why not if a production laboratory in Lagos was still functional? Records show that Nigeria’s Federal Vaccine Production Laboratory in Yaba, Lagos was created from the Rockefeller yellow fever laboratory, established in 1925. “The Yaba laboratory started producing smallpox vaccine in 1930s, followed by anti-rabies vaccine in 1948 and yellow fever vaccine in 1952,”

A 1987 technical consultancy report on the laboratory showed that it was making yellow fever vaccines in the 1970s and 1980s. It produced 316,000 doses of yellow fever vaccine in 1978, reaching a peak of more than 500,000 doses in 1987.  As at now, no human vaccines are currently being produced in the country. Only vaccines for animals are being made. In May 2020, Nigeria’s parliament passed a motion urging the government to reopen the Yaba facility to help fight diseases such as Covid-19.

Implication on Social Work Practice

Social workers and national social work organizations should be a part of the national advocacy movement to enact these precautionary and responsive changes in large numbers. Some of this advocacy can even be done from home by writing letters or making phone calls. There is no limit to the number of issues that need social work advocacy. We must rise to the challenge. It is critical to discuss triage. Our hospitals will be overwhelmed. There is very little suggesting at this time that we can completely stop this. There is still hope of flattening the curve to help minimize this surge in hospitals, but avoiding it all together seems like a statistical improbability. Social workers absolutely must engage in this process – first, the hotspots. Underlying structural racism and socioeconomic barriers will exacerbate difficulties in this public health emergency as with health care writ large.

Lastly, Social workers working in hospitals have a responsibility to be involved in the policies addressing access in this emergency. We have expertise in social determinants of health and can be essential in identifying policies that might impact them before poor policies are enacted. Triage decisions will need to be made in the moment. Hospitals are already discussing the guidelines. How will we ensure that people with disabilities are not denied care simply by virtue of their disability? How can we ensure that implicit (or even explicit) bias does not drive triage decisions? Social workers can serve on ethics committees. We can volunteer to work on the committee designing the policies.

Boye Leye ALABI, is a Medical Social Worker at the Medical Social Services Dept, Neuropsychiatry Hospital, Akure