May 11, 2020
Fleeing Nigeria With COVID-19 Hours Ahead of the Lockdown
Bob was on oxygen and an IV drip as the ambulance braked hard at the airport runway gate in Lagos, Nigeria.
The guard wanted to see Bob’s “medical authorization form.” Bob’s doctor, sitting shotgun, knew there was no such form. That didn’t matter. “Go get it,” the military guard demanded, his AK-47 swinging loosely from his shoulder.
The Nigerian government was hours away from locking down the airport due to COVID-19. Bob’s plane – a private air ambulance with a full medical team on board – was idling on the tarmac, just on the other side of the gate.
If Bob wasn’t wheeled on board soon for the 20-hour flight to Omaha, Nebraska, he’d likely instead leave Nigeria in a pine box…
A chest X-ray confirmed that Bob’s lungs were struggling. At the time, Nigeria officially had only a handful of cases of COVID-19. Bob was in his 60s, in generally good health, and didn’t have any of the underlying conditions that spell coronavirus trouble. Still, now Bob knows that he should have been added to the tally.
And while Bob had medical-evacuation insurance, which pays to fly you out of places like Lagos when you have a serious health emergency, Bob’s medevac insurance provider couldn’t organize a flight and crew in time.
“I was going through a bottle of oxygen a day,” Bob told me. “I’m not a praying man, but when they told me they couldn’t medevac me out, I couldn’t stop praying.”
Bob had lived in nine countries in Africa over the previous 35 years… taking the scenic route to Lagos. His first Africa gig was in South Africa, in the teeth of the apartheid era. A lot of American companies – from Coca-Cola to General Electric – were leaving town because doing business in a country where racism was the law didn’t sit well back home. Bob’s job was to help wind down the business.
But he and his team saw that closing it down would just hurt the company’s mostly black work force. So instead, the South African arm of the company de-branded to remove the direct association with the U.S. mother company and carried on. Soon, apartheid ended and foreigners flooded back in.
A few years later, headquarters asked him to address some serious blunders at the office in Mauritius, a tiny island in the Indian Ocean about 1,200 miles off the southeast coast of Africa. He fixed things there… and also met the woman who later became his wife.
From there, Bob was posted to Kenya, then around East and Central Africa, as he was put in charge of managing ever-larger swathes of Sub-Sahara Africa. “I can’t tell you how unpopular I was with my family” for moving so often, Bob told me. He was posted to Lagos – his wife and a child in tow – nine years ago.
Even for international development consultants who make careers in the places that U.S. President Donald Trump infamously labeled “shithole countries,” Nigeria is the posting that no one wants…
- Lagos ranks second-from-last in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Liveability Index (between Damascus and Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh).
- It’s dead last in the Safe Cities Index, which covers digital, health, infrastructure, and personal security.
- And the United Nations’ Human Development Index – reflecting life expectancy, schooling, and standard of living – ranks Nigeria 158 out of 189 countries.
My wife, who was a foreign service officer with the U.S. government’s aid arm USAID, told me that Nigeria trails only Iraq and Afghanistan at the bottom of the global posting pecking order. “Everyone I know does everything they can – even do another tour in Washington – to avoid Nigeria,” she said.
But Bob loved the insanity of Nigeria. “It was the most fun, the most entertaining country I lived in while I was in Africa, hands down,” he said. “It was fascinating and exciting. It was like being in school every day, because every day was different and had new challenges.”
“The thing that most Americans know about is the Nigerian prince e-mail scam, and that’s so unfortunate,” he told me. “It’s an incredible country.”
Bob’s African adventure wasn’t supposed to end in search of a way to breathe in Nigeria – a country with just 169 ventilators.
But it likely would have, without a few well-placed friends in the U.S. government…
As Bob told me his story, I was incredulous that the American government actually helped a U.S. citizen in trouble abroad.
One of my favorite parts of “American gets in trouble in a faraway land” movies is when the out-of-water visiting American thinks he can “call the embassy” to get Uncle Sam to extract him from a pickle. For example, in 1997’s The Saint, one of the lead characters runs full tilt toward the American embassy in Moscow, a bad guy hot on her heels – back when Russians were still Hollywood’s go-to bad guys. “I’m an American! Open the gates! Open the gates!” she screams. And – magically – the gates open, the bad guy is left outside the fortress, and our American heroine collapses into the arms of a beefy U.S. Marine.
Much like the rest of the U.S. government, embassy workers have better things to do than help their compatriots. “Go to the end of the line” and a surly “What is the purpose of your visit” is your more likely reception if you visit.
That’s why Bob didn’t bother going through the front door for Uncle Sam’s help…
Over the years living in cities where the expat population was small and tight, he’d made friends with diplomats from all over, including from the U.S. That’s how he had a plane waiting on the other side of the machine gun-toting guard.
But even the long arm of Uncle Sam couldn’t help with the imaginary medical authorization form to get Bob’s ambulance past the guard and onto the tarmac.
After an extended conversation between Bob’s doctor and Machine Gun Guy, the ambulance was directed to a different gate. That one was locked and there was no guard, so the ambulance drove down, parallel to the runway, to a third gate.
“Where’s your medical authorization form?” Gate No. 3 Military Guard Guy asked. “When I heard that again, I thought it was over,” Bob told me.
But Bob’s quick-thinking doctor wasn’t giving up. “He said something like, ‘Oh, the other guard already took it,’ and just like that, the guard let us through,” Bob told me.
“Why didn’t you just offer the guard a bribe, and save everyone a lot of trouble?” I asked Bob. Nigeria is rated 146 (out of 180 countries) in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, so you might imagine that Guard Guy would take advantage of his very strong bargaining position. But no… Bob told me that while most cops are willing to look the other way for “dash” – that’s what bribes are called there – a military man can get shot for accepting illicit cash.
Within minutes, Bob was in the air en route to the Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. That was the main treatment center in the U.S. for the Ebola virus, and it’s now seeing a lot of coronavirus patients.
At Nebraska Medicine, Bob was part of a clinical trial for remdesivir, an antiviral medication that’s being tested as a treatment for COVID-19. And while Bob doesn’t know if he was part of the placebo control group, after two weeks in intensive care his condition improved. Now he’s continuing to recuperate in southern California.
Bob says he wants to go back to wrap things up back in Lagos. And then he wants to return to the U.S. and write a book about what he’s seen and done in Africa.
But he’s in no rush. Now’s a particularly bad time to be in Nigeria…
“Oil slump, coronavirus create a perfect storm for Nigeria’s economy,” headlined a recent story in the Wall Street Journal. As I mentioned in February, collapse in the price of oil will further weaken an already-rickety health care infrastructure – making the country even more susceptible to the rapid spread of COVID-19.
Officially, Nigeria has just 3,200 cases of COVID-19. That’s as many as the state of Arkansas, which has less than 2% the population of Nigeria. Nigeria’s figure is vastly understated because it’s hardly testing for the virus. Per unit of population, Nigeria is doing just one-tenth the number of tests that India is doing… or 0.4% the level of the U.S.
And now, Nigeria is easing lockdown restrictions in some areas. Not because the country is beating COVID-19… Rather, because of the “limited social safety net to compensate for extended lockdown conditions,” according to Africa risk analysis company Signal Risk. In other words, they’re trying to reduce the number of people starving to death in lockdown by letting them mingle again.
For now, Bob’s a world away from that. And when he goes back, you can bet he’ll take along a big pile of facemasks.
Now here are some of the stories we’re reading…
Inside the Early Days of China’s Coronavirus Coverup
The dawn of a pandemic—as seen through the news and social media posts that vanished from China’s internet.
Trust No One on the Phone… Not Even the Fraud Department
Any time a company calls you and asks for your information – especially your credit card, bank account, or Social Security numbers – hang up and call the number you have on your credit card or bill instead. If it did just call you, it’ll have a record of the call. If it was a fraudster, you just saved yourself from a potentially devastating scam.
The World of Sports Betting in a World Without Sports
The novel coronavirus shut down major sports worldwide and, in the process, crushed the sports-gambling industry. Casinos, online bookmakers and the bettors themselves have spent weeks trying to figure out what now—from pro table tennis to Belarusian football to simulated NFL games—and what’s next.
America’s Reopening Will Depend on One Thing: Trust
As America’s economic reopening fitfully proceeds, it is becoming clear that it will require a precious resource often in short supply: trust. Americans are about to see a new referendum on how strong is the glue that holds them together.
And let us know what you’re reading at[email protected].
May you find your way through the chaos,
Kim Iskyan, American Consequences
With P.J. O’Rourke and the Editorial Staff
May 11, 2020