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Tuesday, March 31, 2020

COVID-19: Nigeria Gradually Shuts Down


By Tunji Suleiman

As the world grapples with severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus-2 (SAR-CoV-2) or Covid-19 pandemic, Africa’s most populous nation and largest economy is shutting down.

It is trite that the leading horse guides the one behind in a race. The extant misfortunes of USA, Italy, and other nations under serious affliction of the killer virus due to lapses by their first responders versus China’s exemplary management and containment of the pandemic of uncertain origin which broke out on its soil should be pointers to the rest of the world. But folks continue to make U-turns on logic and common sense, harping on freedoms to move and to gather for religious worship and, invariably, to contract and/or spread the virus whilst ignoring the rights of compliant others to not be infected and to live. Alas!

Leaders have a duty to act decisively and adopt measures, akin to the Stand of Mordecai, appropriate for times like this. For as the lad learns to die, so must the parent practice for his burial. Nigeria appears to have belatedly started to do the needful. But is it too late?

Perceptions and posers emerge from recent posturing and actions of government as Federal and state authorities abandon mild admonitions for hardline measures to stem spread of the pestilence in the country.

President Muhammadu Buhari yesterday, March 29, 2020, on national TV, declared curfews in Abuja and Lagos, the nation’s capital and commercial nerve-center respectively, that have been worst hit by Coronavirus. The curfew also affects Ogun State, which, for its proximity, is susceptible to viral overflow from Lagos.

Earlier on Thursday, he had announced from his Twitter handle FGN’s grant of N15 billion (about USD39 million) to tackle the virus in the oil rich African nation. N10 billion is to be handed to Lagos to boost its capacity to control and contain Covid-19 in the state whilst N5 billion is special intervention to the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) to equip and people its facilities and laboratories across the country. FGN's preparedness before the index case in Nigeria and subsequently has essentially leveraged on the capacity of Lagos as exemplified by its management of Ebola in 2014. 

Prior to yesterday’s presidential address that was long in coming, the last two weeks had recorded divergent government actions and elicited varied reactions from citizens across the country.

Fiery South South governor, Nyesom Wike, announced an unprecedented shut down of Rivers State on Wednesday, March 25, 2020, locking movement in and out of Nigeria’s oil and gas capital. According to him, as aviation is federally-controlled, he can not stop flights to and from PHC airport; but no intending passenger will traverse the state to board flights and no disembarked passenger can enter the Garden City till further notice, suggesting to those intent on it growing maturation of Nigeria’s federalism.

The government of Nigeria’s commercial nerve center and finance hub was responding in different ways to control the virus spread and had been treating confirmed cases before the presidential hammer fell. Civil servants below Grade Levels 12 had been directed to stay at home since last Monday.
On Thursday, Lagos State government broadcasted a questionnaire to Lagosians via mobile networks to gauge public perception of adequacy and accessibility of health and emergency services, and to assess popular will and readiness to stay at home. “I don’t think it is necessary”, said Mrs. Nkechi Smithson, a school teacher in Igbo Efon; asking rhetorically in pidgin, “Na today Lagos State wake up?” Mrs. Aduni Omoronike, an oil marketer in Apapa was on her part testy. “They needed not bother”, she said irritably, submitting that no serous person who can afford it relies on government for healthcare” which according to her is non-existent or sub-par. Mr. Toyin Akomolede, Lekki-based engineer and consultant, thought the government was in order and that people should comply and stay at home in their own interests. Obalende tailor, Yakubu Abdullahi, charged the government to distribute food, medicines, water and light to the masses. “That is how to stop people from going out except they want to kill us. We hustle daily to survive, so they should help us, especially with food”, he pleaded. He should not be blamed: the road to the gullet is the path to life and/or death, goes a saying.

Markets in Ajah, Igbara and Itedo, Lekki, Balogun on Lagos Island, and Mile 12, Mushin and Orile on the Mainland have all been closed since Thursday. Whilst most complied, some traders were resisting the lock-up orders. Wares were not displayed but market people were seen loitering to sell on the stealth whilst watching out for Local Government and LCDA officials out to enforce closures.

Meanwhile, a massive isolation facility is being erected at Onikan Stadium, near Lagos House on the Marina. It is ad hoc and intended to beef up capacity of  already existing permanent others. On Saturday, the State Governor, Babajide Sanwoolu, announced that the state had taken delivery of 200 special sprayers, vehicles that would be used to disinfect the state. Earlier last week on Tuesday, he had urged that all travel plans to and from Lagos be shelved for now.

As of yesterday, Sunday, March 30, 2020; confirmed cases in the former federal capital and epicenter of the deadly Coronavirus outbreak in Nigeria stood at 59 with 3 reportedly treated and discharged.

Vehicular traffic on ever-busy Epe Expressway, 3rd Mainland Bridge and Ikorodu Road at peak hours was uncharacteristically light and free-flowing last week. Driving along Lagos-Ibadan Expressway was hassle-free on Thursday save for construction-related delays and diversions as motorists and travelers have substantially abandoned the roads, intra- and inter-state, for dear life.

In Ibadan, shops along Challenge, Ring Road, Dugbe, Bodija and Mokola had closed by order of the state government since Thursday and the government was readying to shut down official business on Friday, March 27, 2020.
Politician and aide to Governor Seyi Makinde of Oyo State, Femi Josiah, who spoke on the sidelines of a government Coronavirus sensitization roadshow on Saturday, said that there were three confirmed cases in the state. “Accordingly, the Governor has imposed ‪a 7am-7pm‬ curfew and ordered lockdown of businesses except for food and essential perishable items sellers”, he informed, adding that the concern is over Lagos and Abuja that are the worst affected. He charged the Federal Government to do more for Nigerians, adding that the state would not wait idly and watch the virus spread in the state. The situation, he revealed, would be assessed ‪in two weeks‬ for next steps. Governor Seyi Makinde has today announced the result of his own positive test to the infection.

Kunle Muhammed who resides in Alesinloye in the sprawling former capital of Nigeria’s defunct Western Region has shut down the office of his engineering, procurement and contracting firm in Oluyole and ordered all staff to stay at home. “I have also locked my gate. Nobody is going in or out of my house till further notice”, he said. Reminded that it is not as easy for folks who live on daily income and can not afford to stock up on food and basics to stay at home, he said, “Rich or poor, no one needs infection or untimely death. I wish those who must go out for any reason good luck.”

In Ilorin, Kwara State in Nigeria’s Middle Belt, the Deputy Governor, Kayode Alabi, on Thursday announced containment measures that include restrictions on gatherings of more than 10 persons. All non-food and/or drugs businesses have been closed. Taxis, okada (commercial motorcycles) and keke (tricycles) have also been stopped from operating. Only private cars are allowed to move freely.

Muyideen Gold, a businessman in the city of Afonja and Alimi, blames the situation on the Buhari-led Federal government. “If they had acted promptly to stop inbound foreign travel immediately after that unfortunate Italian brought the virus into Nigeria, we won’t be where we are today”, he argued. Asked for his thoughts on what might have caused the delay he complained about, he responded with one word, “Indecision.”

Mojeed Ofamajo (not real name) commended Governor Abdulrahman Abdulrazak for his recent commissioning of an ultra-modern quarantine center in Sobi Specialist Hospital, Ilorin and urged him to replicate same in Offa, Kwara’s second largest town. He said that Kwarans love Abdulrazaq and want him to dismantle the feudal structures of the parasitic former leadership that elevated treasury looting and misrule to statecraft in the North Central state. “But he should test himself, publish the results and promptly seek medical care.” When asked why he doubts the governor’s health status, he said, “We saw recent pictures of him with Abba Kyari and Kogi State Governor, Yahaya Bello, at the burial of Bello’s mother and everyone has heard that Kyari has Coronavirus. We need him alive to deliver on the mandate we gave him but he needs to assure Kwarans that he is not infected or infecting others.”

Still in the North Central, Benue has recorded its first case of Coronavirus. Samuel Ortom, the state governor, disclosed that 8 persons that had contact with the index case had been traced and quarantined whilst more are being tracked. He has  shutdown markets, social gatherings and churches across the state and advised citizens to stock up on food and stay at home.

The Northwest that, alongside the Northeast, is the world’s poverty capital account for nearly 90% of the abject poor in the oil-rich African nation. With little or no internally generated revenue and dwindling federally-shared monthly allocations of oil earnings, unbridled population growth fueled by polygamy and child marriages, coupled with banditry, millions of out-of-school children roaming the streets as Almajiri and widespread illiteracy, predisposing conditions of preventable diseases, plus poor access to sanitation and hygiene and striking medical doctors, the North is vulnerable. A runaway breakout of Coronavirus anywhere in the region would be catastrophic.

The usually lethargic and conservative feudal ruling elite of six Northwestern states that had traditionally resisted progressive change and mostly played lip service to empowerment of the downtrodden northern masses, and so fueling southern accusations of deliberately keeping the masses down to sustain their control and stranglehold on power, thereby dragging the rest of the country back on aggregate national development indices met in Kaduna on March 21, 2020 under closed doors and amidst tight security to announce closure of schools in the region for one month. Aminu Masari, Katsina State Governor and Chairman of the forum rationalized the decision as crucial to prevent the spread of Coronavirus across the geopolitical zone.

Kaduna State has postponed the 2020 edition of its annual Investment Summit that has entered its fourth year with no new date in view. It has also started to fumigate markets. The state’s Deputy Governor, Hadiza Balarabe, announced midweek, an indefinite 24-hour curfew that she described as quarantine, during which only essential services workers in medical, fire and security, and fuel tankers would be allowed to move. Transit through Kaduna city would be allowed, she said, but only through the Western Bypass and everyone arriving the state would be subject to compulsory tests before entry.

Extraordinary and drastic measures to keep a virus at bay, one might add. But Covid-19 is of different timber and caliber in the comity of pathogens and these are no ordinary times for Kaduna, especially as earlier directives by the government for non-essential businesses and shops, event centers and places of worship to close had gone unheeded. On Saturday, March  28, 2020, the Governor, Nasir El-Rufai, announced that he had tested positive for Covid 19.

In nearby Kano, a major trade center and transport hub for travel within the north, to the south and beyond Nigeria; residents are allowed to move within but not in and out of the state. Like elsewhere, markets are closed.

On March 21, 2020, Borno State Governor, Babagana Zulum, announced the set up in Maiduguri of “a special task force to step up and expand the spectrum of COVID-19 prevention and control activities in the state.” He added that it had become both necessary and urgent to strengthen the state’s health system “in view of the vulnerability of our people to disease outbreaks due to the ongoing crisis, which has caused enormous internal displacements, loss of jobs and devastation”.

The problems of the killing fields of Nigeria’s besieged Northeast assailed by Boko Haram’s decade-long bloodthirsty insurgency with no end in sight particularly in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa States can worsen if the deadly specter of Coronavirus is given free rein.

The professor governor appears to be on point with Covid-19 in the circumstances of his scourged state and calls to mind the conjecture of Socrates on philosopher kings. His measures in collaboration with WHO have been impactful, as no case of the vicious virus has been recorded to date in Borno.

With Saturday’s announcement of El-Rufai’s case, the earlier one of Bala Mohammed, the Governor and one other in Bauchi State, and the index case in Benue for a total of 4 confirmed cases, Coronavirus spread in Northern Nigeria has been limited and fortunate in the overall context of the North.

Enugu State has a suspect case of Coronavirus. The suspect is said to have been isolated and the result being expected; according to the NCDC release monitored by BBC Igbo service.

Ebonyi Governor, Dave Umahi, confirmed on Tuesday in Abakaliki that the East was yet to confirm any case of the dreaded Coronavirus. Umahi who doubles as Chairman of South-East Governors’ Forum added that his government had put measures in place to contain the virus and protect people. These “include shutting down of schools, night clubs, ban on sporting activities, wedding receptions, burial ceremonies and social gathering of more than 50 persons.”

Prior to the first case of COVID-19 in Nigeria, the Ebonyi government had built two quarantine centres in Abakaliki and in Ishielu Local Government Area on the Enugu-Ebonyi border in response to the Ebola crisis. With state-of-the-art facilities, the Virology Centre in Abakaliki would be vital for Coronavirus  testing.

Churches and religious centers are to continue business as usual, but must provide face masks, running water and soaps and/or hand sanitizers as precautions, and ensure people entering and exiting wash their hands to protect them and the general public.

Sensible measures perhaps, but pundits wonder on adequacy especially with continuing religious gatherings.  Regardless of anyone’s rationalization, religious congregations are sources of crowding, understood to be no-no for effective prevention of infection and containment of spread.

Added to the foreboding prospect of religious gatherings is likely incredulity, disregard and carelessness in the region that might have been pre-validated by a boast credited to no less a personality than Chikezie Ikpeazu, Abia State Governor that his state would not record any case of the Coronavirus pandemic having been mentioned in the bible. Really?

Time will tell. But for now, there is no confirmed case of COVID-19 in the South-East.

In the nation’s capital, the FGN had announced, last week, travel restrictions to 13 Covid-19 high-incidence countries including China, South Korea, Iran, USA, Italy and most of Europe. It has also closed land borders and international airports for four weeks. According to Buhari, this is to enable government to “put up the appropriate policies, processes and infrastructure to cope with suspected and confirmed cases at home, without risking a compounding of the situation with more imported cases.”

The situation in Abuja is one of palpable fear since news of infection of the president’s Chief of Staff, Abba Kyari, broke; with reports of several other political leaders and high-profile government officials recently returning from trips abroad and testing positive to the deadly infection. Suleiman Achimugu, former MD of PPMC who tested positive and was subsequently admitted into isolation has gone down as Nigeria’s first fatality to the contagion.

These developments have fueled speculations that many more of Nigeria’s elite might be infected and infecting others but hiding their status to avoid stigmatization. If this is true, then NCDC data might be indicative but not representative of total infection in the nation, analysts say.

In his response, Alao Omotosho, lawyer with a government asset management agency in Abuja said, “My own issue is the index case in Lagos, who was reported to have been isolated and treated and that was later said to have tested negative. What medicine did they administer to cure him and why is the information hidden?”

Uche Olisa did not agree government delayed to close borders and airports due to indecision. He put it to selfishness to see family and friends of government people safely back home before acting in the larger national interest. It would be recalled that the president’s daughter Zarah Buhari and Mohammed Abubakar, son of the opposition candidate in the last presidential election, flew into the country after news of the index case was broken in Lagos. They subsequently went into isolation. The later was reported to have tested positive to the deadly virus.

Meanwhile bank MDs, heads of conglomerates and other wealthy Nigerians have been donating billions of naira to the Anti-Coronavirus war. Hakeem Rasaq, an analyst with an ethical fund thinks the scramble by rich people to donate money is self-serving and not about the masses. “They are coughing out what they stole from Nigerians because the abroad they run to for medical attention is no longer safe and they don’t want to die. Quote me, by the time this plague goes away, those of us that will survive will hear how government money and these donations would have been looted.”

Reacting in similar manner, Caleb Bulus said Coronavirus is God’s punishment for Nigerian leaders and that is why they are catching it and won’t be saved by their loot. “The chicken has come home to roost. The healthcare they didn’t fix will fix them now”, he said.

There have been reports of Friday gatherings in the past two weeks with police securing mosques against crowding . This resulted in the government arresting Aminu Usman and Umar Shangel, two imams who flouted state directives to  lead worshippers in congressional prayers penultimate Friday in Kaduna. Muslim leaders and clerics, including the Sultan of Sokoto and President of Nigeria’s Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs,  Sa’ad Abubakar, had admonished Muslim faithfuls to obey government orders  and heed advice of medical experts on combating Coronavirus. Yet some Muslims attended Jumah mosques in Jos and Katsina penultimate Friday and last week with many protesting their dispersal by law enforcement.

Some Christians also crowded themselves in churches in spite of advice from health authorities and government order against gatherings of more than 50. David Oyedepo, Bishop of Canaanland in Otta, Ogun State was reported to have held Sunday service upper week. In a video that went viral on social media, the multibillionaire pastor was seen challenging government restrictions on crowding, insisting that worshipers must congregate to fellowship. Another pastor whose name can not be ascertained for now, in another video, denied local incidence of the global virulence, declaring  “There’s no Coronavirus in Nigeria!.” This had led to cries that ‘men of God’ are misleading their adherents and perhaps deliberately or inadvertently setting them up for near-certain infection in what commentators have widely condemned and tagged bids to keep previously ballooning but now dwindling revenue from religious business flowing in from faithfuls.

The Christian Association of Nigeria had directed churches across the country to observe special prayers on March 22 and 29, 2020 in a bid to curb the spread of the Coronavirus pandemic.

In the main, most religious leaders are complying with measures by the authorities and leveraging on television and other channels to propagate preachments and sermons for their sheep to follow at home last weekend. They are also resorting to Fintec to continue collecting tithes and offerings.

Asked for his take on government efforts so far to combat the virus, Issa Ruhullahi, IT expert and entrepreneur, said governments may soon be overwhelmed as the infection spreads. The real threat, in his opinion, is the over-abundance of religious zealots who in their lack of imagination think the solution to every problem lies in prayers for divine intervention. “Religion is a menace that has caused or exacerbated major calamities of man from time immemorial. Most ordinary Nigerians are sensible, but those fanatics spread the virus among themselves when they gather in worship centers only to later go and share to innocent others. They are the ones government must watch and deal with decisively.”

The change in government strategy nationwide is coming ostensibly in response to pockets of resistance and defiance by people to informative and advisory releases on containment measures, chief of which medical authorities and professionals including the World Health Organisation, Nigerian Center for Disease Control, Federal and state health ministries all agree to be isolation from other people who may be asymptomatic Coronavirus carriers by staying at home, hand-washing frequently, generally practicing good hygiene, social distancing and constant hydration by drinking water.

The Nigerian army is reportedly preparing to deploy for a coronavirus lockdown, according to sources close to the military

“We are determined to be more aggressive in enforcing the measures aimed at containing the spread of the virus," Information and Communications Minister, Lai Mohammed, said in Abuja last Thursday.

"Time is running out. We have a short window within which to stop this pandemic or face an explosion in terms of the cases. We cannot afford to be complacent."

As of Saturday March 28, 2020, the Coronavirus pandemic has reached a total of 657,000 cases globally, with 30,438 deaths with China, USA and Italy leading the world in infection and fatalities, according to WHO. In Nigeria, total number of recorded cases of COVID-19 as of Sunday, March 29, 2020 stood at Ninety-seven (97). Three cases have been discharged and there has been one death so far.

These indeed are challenging times, unprecedented in the history of the African giant that has had  long-running challenges with good governance. Governments at federal and sub-national levels continue to mull total lockdown versus partial movement and trade activities to mitigate economic and lifestyle burdens on the citizenry. As Nigerians are locked at home to different degrees by government orders and cowering from the viral agent of death; the question remains: whither Nigeria?


Tunji Suleiman is a digital media expert, public affairs analyst and member of the NGIJ.

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