Home » News: Chronicles of a South African diplomat in Nigeria on COVID-19 lockdown

News: Chronicles of a South African diplomat in Nigeria on COVID-19 lockdown

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As the world’s skies began to shut down, with the Covid-19 pandemic spreading, travellers abroad scrambled to get home and governments laid on repatriation flights. But for key diplomats this wasn’t an option – they had to stay in place, at their stations.

I write this article from my apartment in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria. Like many of my ilk, and the general population, I am in lockdown, observing Covid-19 protocols as outlined by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC).

This is the same spot where I have been sitting since the beginning of lockdown in Nigeria on Monday 30 March 23:00 (22:00 GMT). Since then, I have been working remotely, with intermittent visits to the office as the Nigerian government was courteous enough to grant movement permits to the diplomatic corps.

This was the first time in my career as a diplomat that I’ve had to embrace the idea of working from home. It was something foreign to me, an approach I have always resisted due to the architecture of my work. But under such volatile circumstances, one is left with two options: adapt or resist. I chose the former. In brief, the Covid-19 pandemic prevailed over my resistance.

This adaption brings into sharp focus a necessary reflection about the extent to which Covid-19 has potentially changed the conduct of our diplomatic work, a subject which is likely to occupy the minds of diplomats across the world. Inherently, diplomacy is an orthodox and often conventional profession, characterised by strict ritualistic practices.

Traditionally, the art of diplomacy lies in the ability of diplomats to engage each other in person – it is a contact profession. This is so because ours is a profession that requires both precision and circumspection. But Covid-19 has completely eroded this traditional approach and revealed the often-overlooked utility of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) in the diplomatic workspace.

As I worked remotely from my apartment, I mellowed at the magnitude of work I was able to accomplish. This was made possible by what the Brookings Institute calls a function of digital technologies, artificial intelligence, cloud computing, the internet of things and wireless technologies.

According to the institute, globally “the 4IR does not mean the end of development. It means a more innovative and experimental journey for policymakers and governments, who will have to let go of detailed planning and be prepared to try things, learn and adapt. The path to the future economy is there, but governments will have to take that first step.”

This pandemic has provided an opportunity for us to act swiftly, adapt and embrace an inevitable change in our lives.

In ensuring business continuity at work, I remained preoccupied by the effect of Covid-19 at home. I never ceased to follow developments in my home country because mine is a life of a diplomat, marked by a double-edged sword. I spent much time reflecting on what is happening at home and agonised about the exponential increase in Covid-19 cases and the number of fatalities.

But I was also pleasantly elated by the increasing rate of recoveries – all thanks to efforts by our government to curb the spread and, indeed, the selfless role played by healthcare workers who remained on the frontline when our people needed them the most. I salute my compatriots for their unflinching bravery.

Similarly, I also agonised about developments in my immediate environment in which I faced direct threat of infection. This is a natural reaction for a diplomat whose life is metaphorically marked by duality – a life in South Africa and a life in Nigeria.

Being away from home during a period of such a lethal pandemic leaves one with a pain that cuts deep. But such is the life of a diplomat – to represent your country at all costs, defend it by all means, keep the flag flying high and remain steadfast in the frontline when many have retreated.

In his article published in Daily Maverick of 25 May, South Africa’s ambassador to Brazil, Ntsiki Mashimbye articulated aptly on the agony of being away from loved ones during this period of Covid-19: “The greatest cause of anxiety among diplomatic officials, both in Brasilia and São Paulo, is the health of family and friends in South Africa, especially those with elderly and vulnerable parents and siblings.”

We in Abuja and Lagos are not immune from this sense of anxiety. Our true emotions we endure silently in our little corners, because giving up is not an option and staying the course represents the true character of a diplomat.

When the Nigerian government announced its first 14-day lockdown at the end of March, many South Africans could not return to South Africa. Though the announcement about closing the skies was made in good time, to allow a window period for travellers to reschedule travel, it coincided with travel dates of many South Africans who came to Nigeria on either short business trips or to visit friends.

As the clock ticked and days passed, anxiety grew, and many were overcome by panic and uncertainty. They did not know if they would get home soon. Some had exhausted their limited budget for daily subsistence and accommodation since these are linked to the duration of stay on business trips. Those who visited friends had to extend their stays and reached out to their families to provide financial assistance for day-to-day expenses.

Another group of affected South Africans was not intending to be repatriated. They live in Nigeria with in-laws and are financially dependent on spouses who work in South Africa, some as priests and others as informal traders. These people no longer had income and could not send money home to Nigeria for family upkeep.

Within a few days of the lockdown, the South African missions in Nigeria – in Abuja and Lagos – began the process of activating communication with the Command Centre of the Department of International Relations and Co-operation (Dirco) for assistance. Discussions about evacuation plans ensued and missions were advised to start compiling data of all South Africans who wished to return home.

At this point, a WhatsApp group of South Africans in Nigeria was activated and a total of 119 South Africans, from different states in Nigeria, confirmed their wish to be repatriated. In order to facilitate their movements, the mission made contact with police commissioners in the respective states to issue road travel permits for passage to Lagos, the point of departure.

On 12 April, this group of South Africans converged on the Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos to board a South African Airways flight to South Africa. They were all subjected to a 14-day mandatory quarantine at home, but were joyful at the prospect of being reunited with families.

This entire experience was for me an emotional journey but, most remarkably, a reminder that, as diplomats, ours is a task of serving and putting our right foot forward, even in the toughest of times.

By Bobby J Moroe
Source: dailymaverick.co.za

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