Saturday, 7 March 2009

Thought Picnic: A malaise of inexactitudes

Charges might not bring justice
Three people are facing six charges over the sale and distribution of adulterated drugs in a Lagos High Court in Nigeria [BBC][AllAfrica].
The background to the story is that they produced and marketed an infant teething syrup called My Pikin (My Child in Nigerian Pidgin English) containing the engine coolant di-ethylene glycol. [BBC]
I wondered how this could happen since there is a history of contamination with di-ethylene glycol which lead to the passage of the 1938 Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act and the creation of the FDA in America. [Healthline, Schwimmer][Wikipedia]
A deficit of exactness
Beyond the general view of greed, dishonesty and criminal activity which plays a part in all sorts of ways, the arraignment and subsequent judicial process would not half bring justice to the matter because this issue is more a manifestation of a malaise in the Nigerian psyche which I would attribute to a deficit of exactness.
Dealing first with time, it is rare to find a developed maturity to time, rather than have someone indicate a particular time prompt, you will find it said – “around a time”, no exactness, no datum just a rough idea of time.
The idea ignores the detail
The rough idea which probably is a kind of estimation or approximation works fine for some things but cannot be applied to all things – unfortunately, throughout my secondary and tertiary schooling in Nigeria there was this knock down saying in Yoruba – Idea la need – this translates crudely to – you do not have to be correct, you do not have to be exact, you do not have to be precise, if it is general, it is fine. [Google]
If you were off target you never got upbraided for not laying down the necessary meticulous steps to get things right because once you found it was wrong you were encouraged to accept the result – a a rough e ni – which translates to nobody would notice you were wrong we can con our way through saying it is fine.
Being very religious, too many disputes can result from people quoting inappropriately from Scripture and many times to suit their own intentions rather than contextualise their reference with appropriate interpretation. The verse gets mangled and listeners endure error with reverence.
A screw loose is left loose
I started my career in Electrical and Electronic engineering and it was interesting to see that when we fixed stuff there could be one or two screws left on the table if the device seemed to hold together, it was left as is – but the screws came from somewhere – I would dismantle the whole device and find where the screws go, but I would be – effico – overly efficient, facetious and pedantic; it is important.
Because, our television went for repairs and when it returned the channel range selectors had been left off exposing live voltage parts which I found my brother twiddling with a screw-driver; he was on a wooden stool but I was angry that we could not get those bits returned and by the time I cautioned my brother sternly I was already in receipt of a terrible electrical shock – touching him.
A recipe of the inedible
We have a society that does not covet the precise and is less bothered about measurements because we seem to have a sense of what is sound and what is not – the precision of cooking recipes in Western food is not easily translated to our cooking – if you had a cookery book you would probably hear the joke – a cup of water, a cup of rice and a cup of salt.
Surely, our secondary school organic chemistry class would have made it clear that one carbon molecule can be the difference between life and death. We were clearly warned that methanol was poison whilst ethanol was ingestible.
Methylated spirit is common whilst alcohol was taboo, the teachers did not want students disregarding the nominally single carbon molecule thereby gulping down methylated spirit – the information was probably imparted in fear rather than as a standard exercise in knowledge transfer.
Against the Nigerian way
Where I portend to suggest an alternative view, I am Western; where my cousin tries to run his department prudently, efficiently with probity and anti-corruption principles he gets called Bature – Hausa for white man – Why doing things right or thinking differently and hopefully objectively should set one apart as to be castigated escapes me.
Crudely, the Nigerian way could subsequently lead to Nigerian losses, Nigerian suffering and Nigerian deaths – that is not to say that some Nigerian ways have not lead to successes, developments and innovation but I would wager that the principals of those ways do not dwell in the malaise of inexactitudes.
Not surprised
So, to find that My Pikin had di-ethylene glycol rather than propylene glycol was not too strange because when a raid was conducted at the premises of the company some containers were falsely labelled one thing for another. [Wikipedia][Wikipedia][AfricanLoft, Coker]
That is beside the point, if there were quality control tests to ensure the exactness of content to the order, and no assumption that what had been done by rote could at times go wrong, if tests included those for batch toxicity – none of the tragedy that ensued would have happened.
Surely, people in the pharmaceutical field would have been aware of historical issues with contamination and adulteration especially in this case and instituted tests and controls to ensure they do not get caught out – this gives substance to the possibility of criminal conspiracy – more than 3 people should be in court.
When I was an intern of 15 at the West African Breweries, I instituted a simple quality check of 12 random cartons of beer twice a day at the end of the conveyor belt and it was amazing what we found from packaging to content – it fed back into the system with corrective action.
Quick profits are bad profits
We need to move on from the shady deal that seems to save lots on the short term but could lead to dire consequences on the longer term.
Indeed, the work of NAFDAC is commendable and is needed just as the FDA is an essential organ of government in the United States but its work seems to be absorbed on preventing criminal activity usually after victims have been laid out on slabs – it is progress, but they need more teeth to monitor the full channel of product management. [NAFDAC][Wikipedia]
I remember when my siblings were growing up they were given Ashton & Parsons Teething Powders; to have a home grown solution create such tragedy is outrageous in the least, but it also means that if we want to replace foreign products with local products we need to adopt the exacting standards of these more developed companies to be viable and prevent criminal sanction. [ExpressChemist]
Therein is the real issue behind the My Pikin saga and there is bound to be more like that until we adapt for exactness in our many walks of life.

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