We need to realise that as long as our messaging lacks the humane tang, the more reliable information, infographics or statistics we push out there on the coronavirus, the more resistant the people will become to them, the more cognitive distance we will create, the more we push them away to seek the unfortunate but hearty messages from the other side of common sense.
Fela Anikulapo Kuti, renowned Nigerian poet, prophet and priest, in his melodic hymn “Teacher don’t teach me nonsense” best captured the reasons for the present scenario of people’s growing distrust of the world’s established body of medical orthodoxy in the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. While the urbane mind readily accepts the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) claims about the innocuous origins of the virus and the absence of a cure with equanimity, the majority of people are weary of any explanation that denies a conspiratorial cause of the virus or one that repeats the disclaimer, ‘there is no cure’. However, long before this disease outbreak, in all facets of life the world over, people had begun to increasingly dismiss conventional wisdom, creating their own lived truths.
For instance, during the American presidential primaries in 2016, the Republican establishment cancelled Donald Trump as a Republican presidential hopeful. They dubbed him a con man of the Trump University fame, an uncouth misogynist, coal advocate, an irredeemable racist and even a child. He was so out of place that when he mysteriously emerged the Republican presidential candidate, the two most recent Republican presidents declared that they would not vote him in the general elections. On the other side, the educated, enlightened, refined and respected political left got busy with fair speeches, brilliant analysis of polls, setting before the free world a classic female candidate to lead America. All the while the American public just kept quiet. Eventually, on election day, they came out and chose the most unthinkable man to lead the free world.
But Why? Why did America do this? The whole world was confused. But this repeated itself in the United Kingdom. David Cameron, the prime minister, overestimated the power of superior reason alone and offered his people a referendum on leaving the European Union. The people disappointed him. They equally messed up Lady May, his replacement, as she sought to navigate a sane and safe exit from Europe. They got Boris in there and quickly got their Brexit dream done anyhow. Brazil and other countries did the same. Even here in Nigeria, the country in a moment of mass hysteria threw out a teacher president and his highly sophisticated team and pushed in instead a cool septuagenarian tourist to ruin – sorry, run the affairs of their state.
While we may still try to accommodate these political vagaries at the borderline of reason, it is difficult to comprehend people’s disregard for health advise in the face of an existential crisis as the corona virus plague. But the reasons are not far-fetched. Fela had envisioned this present moment of disillusion with received knowledge and defiance of the expert:
Teacher, Teacher o no be lecturer be your name
Teacher, Teacher o, no be lecturer be the same
Make you no teach me I dey go
Person you teach finish yesterday he don die o
Person you teach finish yesterday he don die o
Me and you no dey for the same category …
All the wahala, all the problems,
all the things wey we think he good for this world he start
When teacher, school boy and school girl jam together…
WHO be teacher, I go let you know…
Na the problem side of teacher and student I go sing about
To paraphrase these cryptic lines in classroom English, we may render them this way:
There comes a time when the student no longer defers to the teacher; a time when the student actually defies the teacher. Since those who followed the teacher blindly yesterday have ended up dead; it no longer makes any sense to remain in that category of people. All the hardships and problems together with the seemingly good knowledge in this world emanate from the conventional teacher who misconstrues the humility of each of his new set of students as a sign of their utter cerebral vacuity, in contradistinction to his own perceptual superiority. So this teacher dismisses the student’s raw and urgent questions and gives them his own intellectual questions instead, thereby foreclosing their chances to articulate their own original problems or construct a solution for their recurring plights.
It is an understatement to say the coronavirus plague is a problem, globally and locally. Yet we have the visionary Fela’s muse that the world’s problems, COVID-19 infections and fatalities not the least of them, arise from a disconnect between taught theories and street realities. For example, recently, a notable medic in the state of Texas in the United States set up a white board on camera and began to do maths with human lives, and she simply demanded her audience to heed her advice on preventions, “since we don’t have a cure for this virus. We don’t have an antivirus drug that works, and we don’t have a vaccine.”
And this is the wahala of the literati. They keep studying books but don’t study people. They classify people only the way their books tell them to. People become mere statistics to them – mere figures. They don’t look into the eyes of that person. They ignore the unspoken word. They’ve lost touch with raw humanity. Yet, no matter the height of logic you bring to the table, if you don’t stop to look into someone’s eyes, if you don’t stoop to meet someone in their heart, you’ve lost them. That fine medical doctor knows so much maths but is so ignorant about the fact that human beings no longer have any respect for people who say there is no hope.
Why are conventional journalists struggling the world over, while unschooled bloggers take over their life stay? Why do election results now defy pre-election polls and political forecasts? Why are we stunned today when professors, legal luminaries, accomplished journalists and decent gentlemen defend the irrational from America to Nigeria? The reason is, our old social theories and new inquiries rely on recycled methods printed on recycled paper. People have developed an allergy for professional but unhelpful information. The moment they see facts, they just look the other way. Why? Because over time we have forced-fed them with our scientific facts and refused to listen to their felt facts. So a cleavage has emerged in the knowledge ecosphere where the intellectual elite no longer has a monopoly of common sense.
If we don’t know what the average Nigerian thinks about WHO, it’s presumptuous to talk down at people by saying WHO says this is wrong, WHO says this is right. Ask what the woman suffering from diabetes, the man suffering from cancer and the child suffering from sickle cell disease they think WHO is to their daily ordeal. Ask who they think is helpful to them. Ask what they think works for them. Get raw real life information. Then, if you still feel WHO is the greatest hope for the tens of millions of lives wasted by AIDS, while this global health Messiah has still been thinking seriously in over the past thirty years about a cure, your communications will reflect persuasion, rather than the usual authority and presumption.
We need to realise that as long as our messaging lacks the humane tang, the more reliable information, infographics or statistics we push out there on the coronavirus, the more resistant the people will become to them, the more cognitive distance we will create, the more we push them away to seek the unfortunate but hearty messages from the other side of common sense. You might write the best piece of editorial, but rest assured that it’s only you and your immediate circle of friends who are reading it. Those of us armed with the ethics and logic of information dissemination must return to the human level. We must share information at this time like a humane doctor on the bedside of a suffering patient. We must speak truth with love, disprove falsehood with a reassuring smile. You don’t lose a case if you have a smiling jury.
We are not compelled to come down to the people’s level. Let’s just be sure they will not come up to our level. And we had better begin to mourn for the future of truth, because these people we call ignoramus and shallow are in the majority, and are already defining our common destiny. This is the hard and humbling lesson the crown-shaped virus too has come to teach us.
Oluseyi Olufemi writes from Abuja.