Prof. Jibrin Ibrahim
It took the President, Muhammadu Buhari five weeks to address the Nation on the COVID-19 pandemic we are facing, but we are glad he finally did it.This pandemic is a serious threat to the lives and livelihood of Nigerians and therefore requires that the highest political authority engages with citizens to calm their fears and provide a clear sense of direction in these trying times. He also needs to show empathy and compassion to the people affected in different ways by the disease. Nigerians have been concerned by the announcement last week that the meeting of the Federal Executive Council and the National Council of State had been postponed at a time when people believed it was urgent for Government to meet, even if it had to be held electronically, to address the challenges faced by the country. The President therefore needed to reassure citizens that governance had not stopped and that in spite of the economic crisis facing the country that the government has the wherewithal to deal with the current crisis.
We believe that the President’s address achieved many of these objectives. First, it put paid to a series of fake news and rumours that the President had fled the country and gone abroad to seek medical attention for his own health challenges. Secondly, he was able to show that the Federal Government had been active in planning preventive, containment and curative measures to counter the spread of the disease in Nigeria. The President made it clear that since the confirmation of the first case on 27th February 2020, the entire instruments of government have been mobilized to confront both the health emergency and economic crisis we are experiencing.
The President’s call on all of us as individuals to play our role in combatting the pandemic by washing our hands regularly with clean water and soap, disinfecting frequently used surfaces and areas, coughing into a tissue or elbow and strictly adhering to infection prevention control measures in health facilities is appropriate. Finally, the President took time to explain Nigeria’s two-step approach to addressing the pandemic. First, to protect the lives of Nigerians and residents living here and second, to preserve the livelihoods of workers and business owners to ensure their families get through this very difficult time in dignity and with hope and peace of mind.
The steps taken so far have also been significant. They include the introduction of healthcare measures, border security, fiscal and monetary policies. Given the data from the Ministry of Health and the NCDC that Lagos and Abuja have the majority of confirmed cases in Nigeria, the President has directed the cessation of all movements in Lagos and the FCT for an initial period of 14 days with effect from 11pm on Monday, 30th March 2020. This restriction will also apply to Ogun State due to its close proximity to Lagos and the high traffic between the two States. All citizens in these areas are to stay in their homes. Travel to or from other states are to be postponed and all businesses and offices within these locations should be fully closed during this period. This decision should have been taken at least two weeks ago but it is good that they are finally made and implemented. This containment period would be used to identify, trace and isolate all individuals that have come into contact with confirmed cases said the President.
The President however did not provide enough specifics to completely reassure Nigerians. For example, the Minister of Health announced a couple of days ago that Nigeria had only 26,000 test kits for a country of over 200 million inhabitants – how would people be traced and tested in all thirty-six States with such few kits available. Have we ordered new kits, from where and when will they be arriving we would like to ask the President. We are also concerned that so far, the test centres in the country are only based in Lagos, Edo, Osun and Abuja with no centres catering for the North West, North East and South South – this is completely unacceptable and must be addressed speedily. The announcement that new centres would be opened in Kaduna, Kano, Sokoto, Borno, Plateau, Rivers and Ebonyi is not enough, each State must have a centre. South Korea with just over 50 million inhabitants for example has 600 test centres.
In terms of care for infected people, the President also needs to brief Nigerians on current availability of and arrangements for procurement of respirators, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), face masks and preparation of isolation and treatment centres. In other words, the President should not take the attitude that he has spoken and can therefore withdraw into his cocoon, he must continue to brief Nigerians and the world on a regular basis.
Ibrahim is Senior Fellow, Centre for Democracy and Development, Abuja (For Friends of Democracy)