After dithering for weeks, federal and state governments have swung into action. They have taken several steps to curtail the spread of the deadly Coronavirus, such as enforcing a lockdown of socio-economic activities, advising the populace to observe “social distancing” measures and to imbibe a high level of hygiene. But, critics say the biggest challenge of the President Muhammadu Buhari-led administration is that it too laid back and too slow to act. Deputy Political Editor RAYMOND MORDI examines the challenges of governance in times of an epidemic.
UNTIL an unnamed Italian who flew into Lagos from Milan took ill and was later confirmed as Nigeria’s first Coronavirus patient, the thinking in government quarters was one of indifference, disbelief and complacency. Officials boasted that government was battle-ready to combat the outbreak of the virus that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared a global pandemic. But, after the confirmation of the young Italian as Nigeria’s first index case on February 27, the government’s attitude changed. It dawned on everyone that the global Coronavirus epidemic is a reality and that it could spread rapidly, given the country’s dilapidated healthcare system.
Taking a cue from its successful containment of the Ebola epidemic in 2014, the Lagos State government, the hardest hit by the disease has been brazing the trail in the management of the confirmed cases, which includes isolating them, tracing persons that have had contacts with them and providing healthcare. The Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) has also supported the activation of emergency operation centres to serve as coordination platforms, while its Coronavirus Preparedness Group meets daily to review the situation and manage the response efforts.
But, indications are that the situation is much worse than the picture being portrayed by the government and its agencies. With some prominent Nigerians reported having spent several days after they arrived from overseas mingling with friends and associates before complying with the directive to self-isolate and to report to the NCDC, the fear is that the spread of the virus would accelerate in a densely-populated city like Lagos. But, with the country’s lack of proper data collation and management system, the shutting of its international airports for one month, coupled with the closure of land borders to human traffic, the next one or two weeks would probably determine whether it is spreading or being successfully contained.
After dithering for weeks, federal and state governments appear to have swung into action. For instance, President Muhammadu Buhari has imposed a two-weeks lockdown on Lagos State, Ogun State and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). The situation will be reviewed by next Tuesday. State governments across the country have also taken several measures to curtail the spread of the virus. Both federal and many states’ governments are enforcing a lockdown of socio-economic activities and have ordered residents by ordering Nigerians to stay away from work, closing down of markets and banning all sorts of social gatherings.
They have taken several steps to curtail the spread of the virus, such as advising the populace to observe “social distancing” measures and to imbibe a high level of hygiene. The Federal Government first barred travellers from 13 countries from entering Nigeria. Then, it went further to close the country’s international airports and land borders, suspend the weekly Federal Executive Council (FEC) meetings, and warned of tougher measures ahead to curtail the spread of the epidemic.
But critics say government’s intervention may be coming a bit late because speed and accuracy are the keys to curtailing the spread of the epidemic. Such critics say the biggest challenge of the Buhari-led administration is that it too laid back and too slow to act. The government had earlier turned deaf ears to entreaties by the public to ban travellers from highly infected countries. Government officials said the administration was adhering to World Health Organisation (WHO) directives, by keeping the borders open and screening travellers on arrival. The experience of China has reinforced the importance of listening to public health experts in handling the pandemic. Overreacting, they insist, is better than not reacting.
They also called for effective communication, to keep the public well informed. For the most part, Nigerians have only been getting tips on how to overcome the epidemic through social media and through the intervention of corporate organisations that have sponsored messages in the print and electronic media. The National Orientation Agency (NOA), the body tasked with communicating government policy, staying abreast of public opinion, and promoting patriotism, national unity, and development of Nigerian society, has been missing in action in this regard.
Observers say the government’s decision to advise citizens to observe “social distancing” measures and the order for workers to stay at home in the interim is a step in the right direction. Social distancing is a term applied to certain actions that are taken by public health officials to stop or slow down the spread of a highly contagious disease. Social distancing measures include limiting large groups of people coming together, closing buildings and cancelling events. In other words, it means people staying at home and avoid going out unless it is necessary; keeping about 1.5 metres away from others; avoiding physical greetings such as handshaking, hugs and kisses; avoiding public gatherings and practising good hygiene such as the washing of hands with running water and using alcohol-based hand sanitizers.
Many people are however questioning the idea of ordering small-scale entrepreneurs who survive on their daily earnings to stay at home, arguing that it will inflict untold hardship on the poor. The Socialist Party of Nigeria (SPN) said a majority of Nigerians are poor and cannot stockpile food and other essential commodities like the rich. But experts say human beings are the bedrock of the economy and that it is someone is alive today that can be productive tomorrow.
Nevertheless, given the lessons from countries that have successfully combated the epidemic like China, observers say the government’s approach towards stemming the tide of the Covid-19 epidemic is wrong in several areas. As already indicated, the first criticism is that it did not act quickly. The experience of the above countries suggests that speed and accuracy or taking the right decision at the right time is the best way to halt the spread of the virus.
For instance, the SPN blames the spread of the virus on the indecision and lethargy of the Muhammadu Buhari-led administration. The party said the brutal truth is that unless the virus spread is contained, Nigeria’s health sector is too weak and backward to confront its outbreak.
In a statement by its Acting National Chairman Abiodun Bamigboye and National Secretary Chinedu Bosah, said the government’s response was slow and belated. The statement reads: “Despite the ravages of the virus globally and the near-certainty that it could affect Nigeria, the Federal Government did not take serious action, beyond screening at international airports and self-isolation advisory until late on Thursday, March 19, 2020.
“Even when the index case tested positive on February 27, the Federal Government still did not roll out effective actions that could have arrested the virus spread. It was only when the virus had gained a foothold with the possibility of local transmission that flights to heavily affected countries were stopped and schools, public institutions and religious worship centres closed.”
It said the government was slow to act because it feared that stopping international flights, closing land borders, banning of movements, public gatherings and locking down society will disrupt business to the detriment of the rich. It added: “Therefore, the delay in the decision by the Buhari-led government to take bold actions in this respect is a deliberate effort to protect the interest of the rich and big businesses, even though we are aware that lockdown and restriction will also affect poor people.
“We recognise that the Federal government and some state governments have now directed schools, public institutions, airports, religious centres and bars to be closed. Public gatherings exceeding 50 has been banned in many states. In some states, workers have been asked to work from home. Sadly, all of these measures may not be enough to prevent the spread of the disease. The pre-existing social conditions which the capitalist system has created mean that even the best of emergency measures may have little effect in containing the spread of the virus. For instance, handwashing, the most basic measure to check the spread of the virus, is not within the reach of many as millions of homes in urban and rural areas have no access to running water!”
The SPN also blamed members of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the Southwest for organising a political rally despite the severity of the situation. It described the PDP members as a bunch of self-serving individuals “who only think of short term interests instead of the welfare of society”. The SPN added: “One of the musicians at the rally, who is an aid of the governor (Seyi Makinde of Oyo State), was said to have just returned from the UK and attended the rally without having observed the prescribed 14-day self-isolation measure.
“Coincidentally, a day after the PDP rally in Ibadan, the Oyo State capital, a resident of the state who had just arrived from overseas tested positive to Covid-19. Due to the indiscretion of the Oyo State governor and the PDP, the health and safety of residents of Oyo State and other states from which participants at the unfortunate rally came from may have been compromised. It is for this reason that we in the SPN argue that, all the pro-capitalist state governments across the country and the Buhari-led Federal Government must be held responsible for the spread of the virus.”
Before President Buhari addressed the nation, a number of prominent Nigerians had prevailed on him to do so. One of such Nigerians, Dr. Obiageli Ezekwesili, had urged the President to come out of his self-isolation and provide leadership for the country to win the war against the Covid-19 outbreak. The former presidential candidate said the economic impact of the crisis will be severe on the more than 93 million categorized as the country’s extremely poor citizens.
“President Buhari must be reminded that leadership is not about personal comfort,” the former Minister of Education added.
In a statement, Ezekwesili urged the National Assembly to invite the president to address the two chambers and the Nigerian public on his administration’s strategies at containing the pandemic and the global economic shock. The statement reads: “At a time Nigeria is at war against a rapidly escalating pandemic of Coronavirus and an increasingly distressed, deteriorating and declining economy, the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, President Buhari is missing in action.
“As a citizen of this country, I demand that the National Assembly, the leaderships of the Senate and the House of Representatives, must in the exercise of their oversight role, immediately invite President Buhari to render account and plans of his stewardship on the pandemic and economic wars the country is thrown into. Do this now.”