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Weep not, reader

Let me borrow a phrase that my senior in school once used during a students’ union quarrel. I am flabbergasted, perused and stultified that nearly…

Let me borrow a phrase that my senior in school once used during a students’ union quarrel. I am flabbergasted, perused and stultified that nearly every story in the newspapers, on the airwaves and on social media these days is about a certain God forsaken virus. I will not dignify this virus by calling the name that WHO gave to it. This is because, like all terrorist groups, this virus loves publicity. Since it denies its victims the facility to breathe air freely, we should also deny it the air of publicity, so that it will quickly go back whence it came from.

It is very distressing to be reading and listening, day and night, weekday and weekend, in the newspapers, on radio and television, stories about only one virus, which is so tiny that it cannot be seen under a normal microscope. In all the years I have been in Nigeria, the government never told us to remain in our houses because of elephants, lions, buffaloes or hyenas. There are scorpions, snakes and crocodiles all over Nigeria but government never did a lockdown because of them. Now we are all hiding and cowering because of one virus, and some of us think that news about it will dominate newsprint and the airwaves forever?

Well, I have news for you. Many stories that once seemed everlasting have come and gone. I have been reading newspapers since my primary school days, and in all these years I heard many stories that for a time seemed like they will never go away, beginning with the Vietnam War. Every morning on my way to primary school, the main story on BBC News was Vietnam. America bombed this; North Vietnam attacked that; Vietcong ambushed this; Kissinger offered this; Ho Chi Minh rejected that; Nguyen van Thieu went to so and so; Nguyen Co Thach arrived in Paris, etc. Where is that story now?

Vietnam War’s end in 1975 was quickly succeeded by stories about the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal rule in Cambodia. Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot’s name was on every newscaster’s lips, until Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1979 and drove them out. In turn, China’s leader Deng Xiao-ping said Vietnam will be “punished” for that. But when waves upon waves of Chinese People’s Liberation Army [PLA] attacks were repulsed at the border by Vietnam’s battle-hardened Army, TIME magazine rhetorically asked, “Who is punishing who?”

In 1979 when Iranian students, with the support of the Islamic revolutionary government, entered the US Embassy compound in Tehran and took 52 diplomats hostage for 444 days, the world’s top news agencies had no other story. Things got more interesting when the US mounted a failed military operation to rescue the hostages. That episode consumed Jimmy Carter’s US presidency.

The deaths of three prominent Heads of State in the 1970s  dominated the news for many months. The first was Spain’s fascist dictator Francisco Franco in 1975. Second was Algeria’s fiercely nationalist leader Hoari Boumediene in 1978, and the third was Yugoslavia’s fiercely independent leader Josif Broz Tito in 1980. All three men were terminally ill for weeks, and in all three cases, their governments issued daily medical bulletins on the leader’s health. When Franco died, New Nigerian newspaper’s headline was “At last, Franco kicks the bucket.” Even as a young secondary school student, I thought that was impolite.

Stories of high-profile assassinations once dominated the news for months on end. The shooting of iron fisted South Korean President Park Chung-hee in 1979; the shooting of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat at a military parade in 1981; the shooting of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984; the killing of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by a Tamil suicide bomber in 1991 and the shooting of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 all occupied the news as if they will never end. Add to these the failed assassination of US President Ronald Reagan in 1981 by John Hinkley, who was trying to impress actress Jodie Foster. Cap it all with the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II by the Turkish crank Mehmet Ali Agca in 1981.

Before the death of Nelson Mandela in 2013, there were two memorable deaths that dominated all the airwaves. In 1978 when China’s leader Mao Zedong died, TIME’s story was titled The Great Helmsman passes. Across the world, the news media talked about nothing else. Four years later in 1982, when General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party [CPSU] Leonid Brezhnev died, TIME magazine’s story was titled “Half a world lies open.”

In the mid-1970s, stories of American mass killers Son of Sam and the Hillside Strangler dominated the news, as did the mass suicide of 900 Americans at the Reverend Jim Jones’ People’s Temple in Guyana in 1978. In 1983, Soviet fighter planes shot down a South Korean passenger plane that strayed over their highly militarized Kamchatka peninsula. Even while Westerners howled, the Soviet Airforce sacked its commander in the Far East because he was a minute late in giving the order to fire. Exceeding it in news dominance was the Falklands War of 1982 between Britain and Argentina. Its most sensational elements included the sinking of the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano and sinking of the British warship HMS Sheffield when Argentine Airforce chief Brigadier Basilio Lami Dozo’s Super Etentard fighter planes fired French-made Exocet ship-killing missiles at it.

The Lebanese civil war, which reached a shattering climax in the early 1980s, and Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, leading to the massacre by Christian Phalangist militiamen at Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps, dominated the news for weeks. Very newsworthy in 1983 was Britain’s Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, CND. Its extremely energetic leader Monsignor Bruce Kent fought to stop deployment of US short range nukes in Scotland. When some people reported to Pope John Paul II that Catholic priest Kent was involved in politics, the Pope declared that opposing nuclear weapons is not politics; it is a moral issue.

For a time, it looked like two rounds of the Palestinian Intifada will dominate the news forever. Israel’s highly sensational killing of top Palestinian guerilla leader Khalil al-Wazir, alias Abu Jihad and Salah Khalaf, alias Abu Iyad, dominated the news almost without end. Blowing up of Pan American airlines plane over the Scottish village of Lockerbie in 1988, allegedly by Muammar Gaddafi’s agents, dominated the news, as did the 2000 AD sinking of Russian navy submarine Kursk in the Barents Sea. The British coal miners’ strike of 1984-85, which pitted Arthur Scargill against Margaret Thatcher, for a time seemed unending.

For a decade and a half, the campaign for sanctions against Apartheid South Africa made as much news as the Soweto uprising of 1977, killing of Steve Biko, assassination of Ruth First and shooting down of President Samora Machel’s plane in 1986. The epic South African mine workers’ strike of 1988 was so newsworthy that BBC opened its world news every morning with a sound bite from General Secretary of South Africa’s National Union of Mineworkers [NUM], Cyril Ramaphosa. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and subsequent collapse of the East Bloc was the biggest story in the world since 1945.

Let’s not forget the many rounds of Strategic Arms Limitation Talks [SALT] between US and USSR, Lancaster House talks of 1979, Camp David peace talks of 1978 and Oslo peace talks of 1993. Disappearance of the Malaysian Airlines plane over the Indian Ocean in 2014 was ceaseless news. Whoever thought the US election impasse of 2000 AD and even the 9-11 terrorist attacks will one day stop dominating the news? Robert Mugabe said at the time that African Union must send election observers to ensure that US elections meet international standards.

Remember the opening poem in Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s 1964 novel, Weep not, child? Let’s adapt it a little. The ravening news of COVID-19 shall not be long victorious. They shall not long possess all the news channels.

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