COVID-19: Reimposing Lockdown is Counterproductive

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Some ministers during the inspection of facilities for the early detection of Coronavirus
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COVID-19: Reimposing Lockdown is Counterproductive

The poor management of the coronavirus disease in Kano State is the clearest example of the confusion that has overtaken the fight against the disease in Nigeria. There are indications that almost as soon as the disease, otherwise called COVID-19, berthed in the country, it quickly progressed to community transmission.

And while it has been clear for more than a week or two to everyone who has had contact with the disease that the so-called strange deaths filling Kano cemeteries was related to coronavirus, the state has both lived in denial and approached the disease rather lackadaisically and shambolically.

The consequence is that more people are getting infected or dying of the disease, including the high and mighty, and mendicant almajirai who have been turned into national vectors of the disease.

There is little anyone can do now to mitigate the poor management of the disease in the states. The federal government was lax at the beginning in rising up smartly and quickly to forestall the outbreak of the disease.

And while it has seemed to work hard to curb the disease, its effort has been too little, too late and barely effective. In some northern states, the crisis has become truly gargantuan. Some of the governors are hysterical (Rivers), others are living in outright denial (Kano), and others are simply somnolent (Gombe).

All the other states, not minding the theatrical Kogi and Cross River States, are one shade or the other of the three archetypal responses. The point the country must now lament is that in nearly all states, not excluding the federal level, voters had deployed weak and foolish yardsticks in electing their leaders.

They are, therefore, stuck with their incompetent leaders and must find ways to ensure that their president and governors do not tip them into the abyss.

Take for instance Kano. Given its huge population and socio-cultural circumstances, not only was the state unprepared for COVID-19 outbreak, its reaction was horrifyingly slow and uninspiring.

It needed to treat the health crisis confronting it seriously, particularly the many deaths experienced in its cities, instead the state has petulantly described the deaths as strange, excoriated those who say the state got its diagnosis wrong, and has for weeks incredibly been unable to find the cause(s) of the problem.

Kano’s crisis is not helped by the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19, which have both failed to definitively determine whether the so-called strange deaths in the state were related or not related to the virus.

How hard could that be? They have prevaricated over verbal autopsies and managed to evade telling the truth. Why could they not exhume some of the bodies to do the autopsies? Are these people serious at all? Do they think they have the luxury of doing nothing or covering up the problem?

It is shocking that neither Kano nor NCDC, nor yet the PTF has seemed to appreciate the urgency of finding out what is amiss in Kano — and now Jigawa too — and doing something about it.

It is true the PTF and NCDC have stepped up their interventions in the state, but the figures of infections and deaths dished out by the government about the Kano coronavirus crisis seem to reflect collusion and deliberate attempt to underplay the problem.

By Friday, Kano was said to have over 500 infected people and about 13 deaths. Really? Yet, this is the same state whose almajiri population, as reflected by states to which they have been ‘repatriated’, indicate anything between 30 percent and 50 percent infection rate.

This is the same state whose notable elites are dying like flies. That the NCDC, PTF and Kano have not deemed it fit to come clean over the crisis is a reflection of either incompetence or collusion. It also dangerously reflects the more worrisome fact that no one seems to be anchoring the national response to COVID-19.

Responding to the disease and its effects goes beyond PTF daily briefings or frantic NCDC pacing around the country. Both panel and agency are expected to tackle the disease, its spread, treatment and any other measure needed to mitigate its consequences.

But there is a social side to the pandemic, a religious side, and more importantly, and economic side. It is not within the purview of the NCDC to find solutions to all the other spinoffs of the disease.

And no matter how hard working the PTF is, and despite their claims to the contrary, it is also not within their purview to resolve all the other tangential issues that arise from the rampage of the plague.

It is strictly a presidential affair, a crisis the president must speak to directly, manage directly, and resolve directly and forthrightly. For more than two weeks, the presidency has been unable to fill the vacancy created by the death of Abba Kyari, the president’s chief of staff.

It is not anybody’s fault that the chief of staff’s office has become the fulcrum of government. But since the president has made it so, he ought to fill the vacancy very quickly. Even if he makes a mistake, he can always correct himself.

There are after all no constitutional limits to how many times he can appoint a chief of staff. So far, a quaint feeling pervades the country that no one is really in control. No? Well, then, let the president prove the country wrong.

Kano State has handled COVID-19 outbreak very poorly, like most other states. So, too, has the federal government. But the crisis is just beginning.

Nigeria may theoretically be a federation; however, it is clear that there is an urgent need for someone who can personify the war against the disease, someone who can see the country’s problems beyond the disease, and someone who knows how to coax the states, or even cajole them, into coalescing their efforts into the federal government’s unifying COVID-19 battle themes.

No, no one is advocating the martial measure of locking the entire country down or issuing stentorian orders that are half-baked and poorly conceived.

Nor is anyone asking the presidency to ignore the peculiarities of individual states. In fact the first set of lockdowns inflicted on Lagos, Ogun and FCT were misconceived. So, too, is the one slammed on Kano, which is sadly being executed desultorily.

As experience has shown, the earlier lockdowns did little to stifle or slow the spread of the virus. On the contrary, it was the economy that was stifled, the people impoverished, and the populace exposed to the unfeeling and short-sighted comparisons between death and virus abatement.

What was required was finding a workable and healthy balance between harsh measures and easing of restrictions. Not only did lockdowns not serve the purpose for which they were meant, they inflicted the collateral damage of slowing the economy almost to a halt.

Wages have plummeted, companies and factories are shut, and jobs in their millions have been lost. In the midst of all this, the federal government has been spectacularly remiss and even incompetent in distributing palliatives, and have done precious little to save jobs or prevent companies from shutting down.

More scandalously, both the PTF and the NCDC have threatened to recommend another round of lockdown if Nigerians do not adhere strictly to the rules and regulations governing the easing of the lockdown. Nonsense.

The government has the responsibility to police the regulations guiding the easing of the lockdown. They cannot push their inefficiency to the harassed and hungry populace.

They have been unable to police the interstate lockdowns, and their security and law enforcement agents have turned various national checkpoints into extortion rackets. It is necessary for the public to cooperate with the government to ensure the successful easing of the lockdowns.

But it is the responsibility of the government to ensure compliance. They should take their responsibilities seriously instead of threatening the public.

If there was a central figure anchoring the COVID-19 war, and if he is intelligent enough to weigh all the options and factors involved in the war, he would recognise that a balance must be created between the measures and the economy because in the final analysis, hunger will spur disobedience, no matter how foolishly analysts compare war situations to COVID-19.

The government has hinted at a second lockdown; but it is doubtful whether they have done any analysis of the first set of lockdowns, what they gained from them, and what lessons they have learnt to get the best out of a lockdown and make the measure less painful.

They are hinting at a second lockdown, perhaps a national one this time; but have they honestly fathomed the impact on the economy? Oil prices have collapsed; Nigeria is unable to sell its oil even at a discount; national revenue is shrinking; more companies are closing, and the informal sector has all but collapsed sending many into poverty and hunger without all the safety nets of countries which have enacted general lockdowns.

Between the first lockdown and now, the country has only managed a little over 10,000 tests compared with many other smaller countries which have done tens of thousands of tests.

If a few thousands of tests were carried out during the first lockdown, and testing is one of the most powerful tools of fighting the disease, what does the government hope to do with a second lockdown without a corresponding significant increase in testing? Reagents are needed, so too are test kits.

Until a few days ago, all reagents were imported. Even now, it is not clear just how many test kits the country has, or how much reagents they have in store. In the beginning, the country should have developed its own test kits, rather than depend on importation, and manufactured its reagents rather than scour the globe for the materials.

It also ought to assemble its scientists to find a cure for a disease that should in the first instance not be too difficult to tackle. Instead, its parliament is engaged in the ludicrous exercise of concocting an infectious diseases bill to regulate its quarantine system, and the government is sending S.O.S to other countries to donate ventilators that have become suspect in the increasing mortality of COVID-19 patients.

The government also shamelessly justified the importation of Chinese medical experts, their new business partner before whom they genuflect. Some countries have subjected imported test kits to reliability tests and found them wanting.

What has Nigeria done? Are tests in these parts infallible? What of the cures? How many have their scientists suggested, especially in light of higher death figures per population of infected people?

The COVID-19 war is a huge and sensitive one. The country should spare nothing in fighting it, and governors must be encouraged to do their best.

But states like Kogi have trivialised the fight; others like Rivers have whooped for war instead of a scientific and less hysterical approach; Kano has shunned reason, lived in denial and appeared overwhelmed; and many other states, assured that revenue allocations would come from Abuja every month, have needlessly grounded their local economies, administered and extended lockdowns, and drawn an inverse relationship between death and lockdown.

There is abundant lack of competence at the states level, and this deficiency is not helped by the inability of the federal government to think for the country.

The threat of re-imposing lockdown or hinging its extension, as Ogun has just done for another week, must not be deployed as punishment for civil disobedience. Ogun State even suggested that lifting or extending the lockdown was in the hands of the people, not the government.

That is an appalling quid pro quo. Unfortunately, the federal government seems inclined towards the same specious reasoning. It must, however, be reiterated that the government has the resources to enforce compliance. It should go ahead and discharge its obligations.

Restricting and endangering the livelihoods of a people, which lockdowns imply, not only speaks to a sorry lack of imagination and excessive dependence on federal allocations by state governments, it also reflects incompetence.

The months ahead are fraught with economic disruptions for Nigeria, especially if oil prices and global demand for the commodity continue to stagnate or regress. To compound the coming crisis with wholesale restrictions and dislocations of the informal sector through the mindless execution of lockdowns is to predispose the country to large-scale instability.

Even without lockdowns, there is little to suggest that the country can successfully navigate around the coming turbulence. Current attitude to lockdown, in the face of lethargic execution of other equally appropriate measures, is courting unmanageable trouble.

Lagos profited little or nothing from its five-week lockdown, and despite being baited by unenlightened public discourse to countenance the measure again, has wisely refused to contemplate or speak about it. It should resist the temptation.

It is not clear what the federal opinion of another lockdown is, or whether anyone is even thinking for them, or that such thoughts are deep and superior and convincing.

Hopefully, the feds will also realise that except they are prepared to test millions of Nigerians in a week, and give tangible succour to the vulnerable beyond the disgraceful tokenism they have so far implemented, a lockdown is a terrible waste of time.

The federal government now has only a few options left, obviously due to its poor management of the crisis since the index case landed in Nigeria on February 27.

Lockdown is not one of the few options. Social distancing and its concomitant effects on weddings, clubbing, funerals etc., face mask for all it is worth, reorienting work place culture to lessen crowding, hand washing and use of sanitisers, and above all testing, isolation, contact tracing and adequate local and innovative treatment should do the trick. The virus will abate in due time.

Hopefully, the country will have learnt some lessons from the crisis, chief among which is how indispensable it is to examine the emotions, temperament and qualification of candidates for high office before electing them.

To repeat the mistake of consistently electing wrong people into office, as has been done since the beginning of the Fourth Republic, because of ethnicity or religion, or because voters are beguiled by their style and manners, is to make the country eternally vulnerable.

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