OPINION | COVID-19 Pandemic:  8 Ways to Avoid Lockdown Leading to Breakdown in Nigeria

April 21, 2020
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Most Western and Asian industrialized countries that locked down their economies to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 pandemics are waiting for the curve to flatten before lifting the lock down order.

In the absence of a vaccine to curb the previous plagues especially the Spanish flu or influenza of 1918, social distancing was the most efficacious panacea until a vaccine was developed. It’s against the backdrop of the Spanish flu  experience that the century old concept of social distancing was adopted in the Western and Asian industrialized world.

And the plan of those in the advanced society on when the curve might flatten is based on established scientific and practical models which medical experts together with their social scientist counterparts put together and are managing.

The timing on reopening their economies is also hinged on identifying infected people, tracking the people who have had contact with infected people in order to isolate, and test them, thereafter issue certificates to those who have antibodies that would make them immune to Covid-19 and can therefore be exempted from the shelter in place social distancing rule.

At least that’s the goal, which is yet to be accomplished.

From the forgoing, it is clear that the advanced and industrialized society are working from the question to the answer by relying on science and historical data.

Can our technocrats justify their decision to lockdown society except that it appeared to be the most visible action that would give Nigerians the impression that their Govt is working in their best interest?

Is science and data behind the decision as is the case in the industrialized world? If it is science based , why are the models and data not being shared with Nigerians via the mass media, so that all would be abreast and confident that our Govt is not just blind and groping in the dark?

Another critical question is what’s  behind the sudden surge in the number of infected people in Nigeria to over 627?

Is the number of the infected and dead proportional to the volume  of testing now being carried out?

Are we approaching the peak or flattening the curve in Nigeria?

If it is not a case of joining the global bandwagon of locking down economies, irrespective of the fact that the socio-economic dynamics prevalent in the structured economies of the industrialized countries, which justifies lockdown does not exist in Nigeria, is there social intelligence to the decision to shut down our industrial, commercial and administrative power hubs of Lagos, Ogun and the FCT  for initial 14 days, now extended for another 14, bringing it to a total of 28 days?

The simple fact is that, on the contrary, and unlike the existential reality in the advanced industrialized countries where the measures that they have put in place are required, Nigeria’s socioeconomic dynamics are inversely proportional to what obtains in the advanced economies.

In the first instance, whereas the hallmark of advanced societies economies is that they are formal and structured, Nigerian economic environment is the direct opposite -informal and unstructured.

That’s why l’m mystified as to why Nigeria is reproducing the policy action being taken overseas which appears incongruent with our real need and therefore not an ideal panacea? In my view, social distancing is great and screening people coming into our country at  the entry points is also fantastic, but shutting down the FCT, seat of political power and lagos and Ogun states, economic engine rooms, is not a well thought through action in my judgement.

Bill Gates’s wife, Melinda had raised the alarm that Africans would be dropping dead like common house flys on the streets if coronavirus is allowed to spread to Africa unbridled and called for interventions by the rich Western countries.

As the co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a very well resourced organization committed to saving lives through philanthropy all over the world and especially, Africa, mrs Gate’s concern should not be taken lightly. But she exaggerated.

Nevertheless, it is better to draw attention by magnifying the matter than to understate it as president Donald Trump of USA had done at the onset of Covid-19 outbreak in China about four months ago, for political reasons.

For obvious reasons, it is too risky and reckless for those leading the anti Covid-19 war to be complacent, especially in such a matter of life and death.

Having said that, it is germane to point out that Nigeria had successfully fought off Ebola during Jonathan Goodluck’s reign which is about a decade ago.

As may be recalled, one Mr sawyer, the Liberian man that brought it from his country was quickly identified and managed before he could spread it further.

Sadly, the Nigerian medical doctor, Ameyo Adadevoh,  who first identified the Ebola disease in Nigeria, also died . But before she passed, Adadevoh saved precious lives of Nigerians that could have been at risk if the disease was not identified and curbed after she raised the alarm.

So, Nigeria has some reasonable  experience and bragging rights in managing a pandemic.

That experience has already been put to work through the prompt  shut down of airports and rigorous screening for Covid-19 in border/ entry points. Admirably, we have also been able to rapidly set up isolation centers and testing has been going on after tracking/tracing those exposed , although not optimal, for the obvious reason that the whole world is scrambling for the limited supply.

The Covid-19 task force/authority claim that Nigerians in excess of 20,000 have been tested for coronavirus. Some may argue that the number is paltry and infinitesimal for a country of estimated 200m people.

But given the challenges of sourcing test kits etc, we just have to encourage them to do all they can humanly to ramp up testing and contacts tracing /tracking and quarantining.

A good number of concerned compatriots are entertaining fears that in another two weeks or so, Covid-19 pandemic related deaths in Nigeria may spike like the situation in New York USA where at its peak , New Yorkers as much as 1000 were  dying daily.

Commendably, our country has taken some decisive actions deft  enough to protect citizens.

Flights into Nigeria from overseas were banned, shortly after local flights were also halted. Worshipping in churches and mosques as well as other places of worship were also prohibited, just as social gatherings for parties of more than 10-50 people or so was also forbidden.

Unarguably, by far the most monumental and devastating of all the actions taken so far is the shut down of the economy through the lock down of society by compelling people in the Federal Capital Territory, FCT, Lagos and Ogun states to stay at home for the initial period of 14 days before it was subsequently extended by another 14.

Grudgingly, most Nigerians have complied with the rule even though a lot deem the policy to be cruel as it is considered equal to forcing  them to go on involuntary‘dry fast’ as they have been unable to have food to eat since what they usually eat comes from hustling on a daily basis.

To that extent, by and large, the social distancing order has worked relatively well.

But there has been one or two breaches.

One by the actress that goes by the name,  Funke Akindele Bello and another by the mourners at the funeral  of Mallam Abba Kyari, the late former chief of staff, CoS to President Mohammadu Buhari, and the  highest Govt official so far sent to their early grave by Covid-19 pandemic in Nigeria.

Yes, those actions by the socialite and those who did not apply with the social distancing rule in Gudu cemetery,Abuja, last Friday when Kyari was being interred are capable of reversing some of the gains that had been made with respect to stemming the tide of Covid-19 pandemic spread via the lockdown.

But as the Americans would say, shit happens. However, the snag here is that this ‘shit’ could be seriously endangering the lives of innocent Nigerians.

While , l can drill down the Abba Kyari funeral incident to a case of spontaneous reaction in a moment of confusion arising from the sudden demise of such a high profile personality and it will likely not be repeated, with respect to the actress, Funke Akindele Bello who threw a shindig for her hubby, l hope her sentencing to community labor by a high court judge (a slap in the wrist) would serve as enough deterrent to others.

As President Muhammadu Buhari stated in his broadcast while he was extending the period of the lockdown about a week ago , one man’s irresponsible behavior can not be allowed to endanger the lives of other Nigerians.

Ironically, that’s exactly what might have happened during the interment of the late Abba Kyari whom president Buhari and other prominent Nigerian leaders have justifiably eulogized for his commitment to public service  .

Unlike in the USA where a church took Govt to court for banning worship and where a political party also forced the conduct of an election by obtaining the judgement of a court and against the Governor’s wish to postpone it, no church or mosque in Nigeria has taken Govt to court to assert their right to congregate.

In a country where the judiciary has been emasculated, no church or mosque could’ve received favorable judgment against Govt, anyway.

To be fair, Nigeria has succeeded,  to a large extent in preventing Covid-19 pandemic positive people  from entering our country via the airports.

Except for an Italian who was an index case, all the other transmissions have been from Nigerians arriving from Europe to the locals.

So , the situation in Nigeria may not be like New York, as some have feared could be the case in the next couple of weeks, if more drastic actions are not taken to enforce social distancing rules such that it would not be flouted without repercussions.

Experts reckon that, based on science and data from similar past pandemics, Nigerians are not as susceptible to coronavirus as people in the industrialized world.

That’s because our society is not as structured and as formal. And owing to our more modest lifestyle due to poverty, we may not even have as many people with pre existing health conditions (vulnerable to Covid-19) as much as they have in the advanced societies.The assertion above is derived from the belief that average Nigerians would consume more of organic food which is more readily available and healthy than their counterparts in the industrialized world where processed food is cheaper but more harmful to their health.

That’s a paradox of a sort, right?

Further more and historically , SARS and MER did not hit us here in Africa as it affected Europeans, Asians, North Americans and even people in the Middle East.

By the same token, Ebola did not affect those in the advanced society, but wreaked havoc on Africans on the continent.

By the way, in Nigeria, LASSA fever has recently killed and is still killing a few hundreds of people who live in unhygienic environments in the rural areas and slums in the cities. And Nigerians in more wholesome environments appear to be immune from LASSA fever. But they are simply not susceptible to it because their living environment is free of rats and rodents that are the purveyors of the contagious disease.

Given the analogy above, I would humbly argue that the real danger of coronavirus pandemic is that owing to desperation, most people in both developed and developing world would not worry much about their health, but worry more about how to survive.

What else can they do if they are unable to buy food and medicine as well as pay for a bed space to lay their heads?

Same philosophy is the underlying reason that although poor people know that junk and cheap food would result in health issues like obesity , diabetes , heart/coronary issues, yet they eat such foods because they can’t afford to eat more healthy, but expensive food.

Hence more poor people have developed health conditions that have affinity or make them more vulnerable or susceptible to Covid-19 pandemic as reflected by the fact that more blacks and Hispanics have died in New York and other hard hit cities in the USA.

A similar principle underpins the attitude of prostitutes who know that they can catch HIV aid by having multiple sex partners and die.

Yet they take their chances by having indiscriminate sex to earn income for survival, thus exposing themselves to what’s somehow  a death knell.

Sounds like another version of the gangster credo made popular by the American hip hop artist that goes by the name 50 Cents : “ Get rich or die trying “.

Back home in Nigeria, the star studded presidential advisory committee should rise from their slumber, which was perhaps occasioned by the poor health challenge of the late Chief of Staff, CoS Abba Kyari,  who was the driving force and wind beneath their sail.  Presumably, they had no access to the presidency while the CoS was ill, but now that he has passed on, they should find a way back to being between the ear shot of President Buhari.

Nigeria needs them now, more so  as navigating the economy through this very difficult period should not be left to technocrats alone.

While the continued lock down of the border posts is good, social distancing rule of limiting gatherings to 10/50 or less is fantastic;  and testing, contact tracking/tracing and quarantining Covid-19 positive patients to limit the spread, is equally perfect; but the concept of shutting down the economy even beyond the three locations announced by President Buhari in my view is a wrong headed policy that was not critically thought through. I would not like to emphasize the financial implications of the continued lockdown of the Nigerian economy that was already on life support. Rather, l prefer to leave that to the likes of Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote and other Nigerian members of the multi billionaires club that have joined forces to form what now looks like a sort of knight- in-a- shining-armor galloping majestically into town to rescue the weak and vulnerable in our society from the deadly Covid-19 monster that has forced both the highly and lowly placed in society to retreat into their cocoon.

While l commend the timely intervention of the new  clan of do -gooders, who are bringing succor and the biblical Balm of Gilead to compatriots, l’m sticking to the law and order point of view in this discuss.

In my humble opinion, it is doubtful if Aso Rock can afford to make an order that it may not have the ability and capacity to continue to enforce. Nigerians are weary and l doubt if they can continue to stay at home.

Allow me use the analogy of a sea diver to illustrate this point . After going under the water, at a point he has to rise to the water surface to exhale and inhale oxygen. That’s simply because he is not a fish that is biologically structured to live under water and breathe with the aid of its gills.

After 28 days, owing to desperation to survive, Nigerians would most likely not adhere to the lockdown rules.

What would then happen?

Would chaos arising from breakdown of the unenforceable lockdown order be imminent ?

There is a way out and the following are my suggestions:

(1) Continue with social distancing order, but lift the lockdown order.

(2)Observe the 6 meter distance in markets or supermarkets. Everyone should wear face masks and hand gloves. Limit taking children out because they can’t manage manage masks or gloves.

(3)Allow church services and mosque attendance of not more than 50 people at a time and with 6 meters social distancing rule inside the church or mosque .

Multiple church or mosque services can be held in a day provided the venue is sterilized and sanitized after each service session.

(4) Schools can reopen provided it’s not for a classroom containing more than 50 people at a time. The authorities can be creative by rescheduling lecture time tables.

(5) Civil/public servants should work on shifts with limited and essential staff only, at work at every point in time.

In other words Govt should operate on a skeletal level.

(6) Public transport system managers should ensure social distancing rules are observed so that passenger are not packed like sardine which was the case in the past.

(7) As for the fear that in the event that private car owners are allowed on the roads, there would be gridlock and social distancing rule may be violated, let’s go back to those old days (1976) when odd and even number vehicles were allotted days to be on the roads to beat congestion .

There would likely be less traffic congestion’s . The number of people riding in a car can also be limited to maximum three or four.

With nolstagia, President Buhari may recall the vehicle odd and even registration number experiment aimed at curbing road traffic congestion in the mid 1970s and as the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention.

By nature, Nigerians are very creative and resilient and they have already started producing imaginative face masks and gloves from Ankara, tie&dye etc.

The lgbo, Tiv , Idoma, and Fulani hand woven fabrics can be added.

Who knows , a new industry may spring fort from the trade.

(8) Aso rock should vigorously engage global financial institutions such as the IMF, the World bank and other global creditors with a view to receiving funds to tide the nation through this difficult financial period, especially at a point where crude oil is selling for less than  $15 per barrel and the benchmark for  budget 2020 is $57. That our country was sidelined from the $21Bn that the IMF recently availed indigent countries underscores how light weight, ignorant and inexperienced in international financial and diplomatic matters  the present crop of technocrats managing the nation’s affairs at the federal ministry of finance are.

Such exclusion of Nigeria could not have happened under the watch of the pair of ex president, Olusegun Obasanjo and then finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-lweala whose combined efforts had helped Nigeria receive debt relief from global creditors- parish club in 2005 , about six years after our country’s return to democracy in 1999.

With Nigeria’s weak fundamentals, to the extent that it is now notoriously tagged the poverty Headquarters of the world by an organization that monitors and measures world poverty index, our country is eminently qualified for poverty intervention by the Breton wood institutions.

Both Obasanjo and Okonjo-Iweala are still active and around.

If the duo have to be engaged to do again what they did before, the authorities should not shy away from toeing that line.

By no measure or means are the suggestions above exhaustive or sacrosanct.

And I urge our technocrats to think less in the box, and more out of the box .

They should consider the approach and measures being taken in Israel, Hong Kong, Germany, Mauritius , Norway , Austria and other dynamic countries that have in one way or the other tamed the Covid-19 monster.

Nigeria’s technocrats can not afford to continue to be fixated on what for lack of a better characterization, l would like to refer to as another Washington Consensus.

Like swimmers who have been under the water for too long, and need to resurface for a breathe of fresh air, Nigerians need to and deserve to exhale.

And the journey to normalcy can follow the same path that the lockdown took.

Use the first two weeks as trial period for the partial opening and if it goes well, extend by another two weeks.

Meanwhile, our immigration officials at border posts must continue to put visitors through rigorous Covid-19 screening processes.

Before admitting travelers, they should ask them for certificates indicating that they are coronavirus free, in the same manner that Nigerians are required to present chicken pox vaccination certificates at points of entry into foreign countries.

Incidentally, the billionaire philanthropist, Bill Gates, had recently proposed that a coronavirus free certificate should be issued as a precondition for workers to be allowed to go back to work in the process of reopening Western economies. The idea remains germane if the current pursuit of testing for antibody becomes fruitful.

Better still, the restoration to full normalcy can be accelerated, if the spread of Covid-19 pandemic slows down or per adventure a vaccine is found much earlier than anticipated.

*Onyibe, a development strategist, alumnus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, Massachusetts, USA, and former cabinet member of Delta State Govt, Nigeria, sent this piece from Lagos.

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