WEDNESDAY COLUMN BY USSIJU MEDANER
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This is one of those rare times that we all need to appreciate what leadership is – that is, those with executive, C-Level responsibilities of making critical decisions. This is particularly critical for presidents of heterogeneous nations – need, I add with deep fault lines. A time most people would not opt to be in the shoes of a President, anywhere in the World.
Take a look at Nigeria, COVID-19 came in subtly, bred on our disobedience and disregard for orders and gradually got its tentacles woven into our flesh as it travels round the nation bringing individuals and communities to their knees from onset, majority of us refused to stay indoors, refused to obey temporary social distancing rule, we even held our weddings under closed doors of event centers, and we took our churches to the houses and congregate to satisfaction in the streets’ mosques.
So much the virus is flourishing in our nation and across states. Some six weeks ago, we had less than 200 cases but today, despite precautions which in retrospect appears to be an exercise in futility, the infection figure has risen to 2,558 and we all know that there is no way to see to the end of that growth for now – going by what is at play in the public.
As at April 5 2020, the number of cases was 232; seven days after, April 12, it rose to 318, an increase of 86 (37.1%). By April 19, the figure had further increased by 175 to 493, an increase of 55.03%; by April 26, we have recorded additional 780 cases to take our tally to 1,273 and representing 158.22% new increase; and finally, as at the time of writing this on May 3rd, 2020, the figure has spiked to 2,558, an increase of 1,285 and represents 100.94% further increase.
Also is the concern that the virus has broken new grounds: Kano, Katsina, Sokoto, Yobe, Borno, Bauchi, Gombe, Zamfara and Plateau, and it seems the invasion is ongoing.
The country does not, at this point in time, show any sign of capacity to arrest the spread of the virus; and neither has it been able to check its free movement across states. The nation is gradually becoming overwhelmed by the crisis as our health care facilities might sooner or later become suffocated with the uncheckable growth of infected persons across. This is not about being paranoid or being a prophet of doom. The NCDC official infection figures tells it all – the rate of infection outpaces that of recovery yet death is also on the rise.
The nation is in a very critical times. Our characteristic disobedience has prolonged a battle that could have been won some two weeks ago and now we are still on the defensive and on the losing side.
And then suddenly, states and federal government are giving orders for a relaxed lockdown. I wonder if that decision is as a result of proper medical advice or improper political advice. I am very careful to qualify my preceding statement which I believe you all can digest it easily.
The nation seems to be going on the wrong path. Some politicians seem to have hijacked the process of handling the outbreak, sitting in committees and assuming conclusions that favour their interests more than that of the common our interest of survival. The President would not have eased the lockdown if they hadn’t given him plausible – suspiciously partial – reasons to do so; who are these people misinforming the president and to what ends are they doing so?
As at May 2 2020, Italy had done about 2.1 million tests and recorded 210,717 infection cases. That gives the country a probable infection rate of 10%. In Germany, as at April 29 2020, about 2.54 million tests had been done with recorded 163,175 infection cases and a probable infection rate of 6.4% for the nation. Russia has had approximately 3.3 million tests done with 134,687 infection cases and an infection rate of about 4.08%. The USA had equally tested about 5 million people (the highest tests globally) with 1,158,041 infection cases and 23.2% infection rate.
As at May 3, Nigeria had tested a total of 17,566 samples and recorded 2,558 infections thereby presenting a probable infection rate of about 14.6%. The figure as it is, is alarming being behind only USA in the cases above, but what is more alarming is the very low number of tests we have been able to carry out over the period of 60 days.
Compare to other countries, by interpolation, by the time we have done tests in the region of, say 2 million, we would be counting an estimated 291, 244 cases. How could we have done only 17,566 tests over 60 days? That is about 293 tests per day on the average when there have been claims of 1, 500 daily capacity for the country which was recently upgraded to 2,500. Somethings seem to be wrong somewhere; some people are deceiving Nigerians and probably presenting fake reports to the President thereby putting our collective lives in danger to the contagion.
Any form of relaxing the lockdown at this point in time; whether for political reason as is currently the case in the USA, or economic as it is purported in Nigeria or a combination of the two, would be our undoing as a nation if we don’t retrace our steps and reverse ourselves.
How can the virus be ravaging nation, as it is happening now, with no clue for solution and clear data and yet some people in authority find grounds for relaxing the lockdown for economic reasons.
Have we learnt nothing from history? Even when our population was a mere 18 million, a rushed relaxation of national quarantine order in 1918 led to the deaths of close to 500,000 of our population, not sparing any region of the country.
We read of the Bubonic plague that killed 50,000 of the 90,000 population of Marseille in 1720 because they place economic consideration above the safety of lives and allowed the evacuation of cargo aboard an already quarantined ship laden with infected people and without pratique.
In a press release on Sunday, May 3, NCDCP expressed fears that the number of coronavirus infections in the country will continue to rise and worsen as lockdown ends; I found it difficult to correlate the NCDC position with that of the states and federal government positions. We must all ask the question, who is advising Mr. President on this pandemic?
Yes, it is a public knowledge that the public outcry against continued lockdown has been on the rise; the likelihood of surmounting to pressure could be tempting, no doubt. A section of the populace wants the lockdown relaxed and return to the streets and their businesses and the President is under pressure to give in. But I will contend, this is the crux for those responsible to stir the nation, particularly the COVID-19 response team, to identify specific concerns against the lockdown and proffer solutions to alleviate those issues.
It therefore appears that the government has been misled to take a political route that is less optimal without much consideration for consequences. So, we started seeing Nigerians trooping out and enjoying their new found freedom from the lockdown and hoping everything would be fine; but if it happened not to turn out fine, we would then rushed back into our houses and we might not be as lucky as before because by then we will probably be packing body-bags like the USA is doing currently (God forbid ).
The government is simultaneously telling Nigerians that it is not safe for them to go out; that the threats of the pandemic is still with us and at the same time telling us we could resume work, and go about our business carefully. The government is not easing the lockdown because it is safe to do so, that much I am sure they should know, but because they had to give Nigerians what they want; that is a cause for concern.
If the worst happened as it may likely be, considering precedents, only one person would take the blame, everything would come to rest on the table of the president. No one would remember he was pressurised or misled into reopening the economy; no one would remember how they prefer to die outside from the virus to dying inside from hunger. Posterity would only demand to know why the president would succumb to pressure to risk the life of citizens he has sworn – in three consecutive period of times – to protect.
We cannot allow this to continue. Today President Trump is fast becoming a laughing stock among a large section of Americans because of his sloppy handling of the responses to the pandemic. I don’t see posterity forgetting nor forgiving him for the avoidable deaths of over 67,000 Americans because of his many miscalculations.
It is not too late to review the presidential decision to relaxed the lockdown which has kicked off on Monday. While we cannot close up the system for too long, we must realise we need to be alive first to have an economy or business to run.
I don’t know when the lockdown would be safe to be relaxed or not but I believe that decision should solely come from those who are currently most qualified to give it and not politicians.
Already, we are seeing the public reaction to the lockdown; we have seen normalcy return to the streets; we have seen how people have been careless and disorderly about safety; banks operating at full gear with rowdy crowds everywhere; we have seen absolutely no real proactive safety measure on the streets; no fumigation facility, no handwash or automated disinfectant/body temperature machines at strategic positions; but disorderliness, crowds, chaos and total neglect of all safety precautions against the spread of the virus.
The Lagos state governor said the easing of the lockdown is not a license for the people to flood the street. What does the government expect? You locked the people up for five consecutive weeks and then you open them up to remain indoor – to humans who by nature are social being; we could as well open the lock of the lions cage in the zoo and instruct the lions to remain within their hold!
What baffles me most is that the governor is well aware of the high probability of going from zero to 100 as mentioned in his speech, yet it seems we have chosen the path of wishing it wouldn’t happen; abandoning events to reckless chance.
Nigeria is sitting on a keg of gunpowder. In a population of 200 million plus, we have only managed 17,566 tests and with a current infection rate of approximately 15% and death rate of 0.55%. The truth about our testing capacity is that it is below what is normally expected by a large margin. The direct implication of this and much more at a time when we have taken the uninformed path of reopening the economy and relaxing the lockdown, would be likely severe and the challenge of attribution of the causes; we might soon be experiencing surge of deaths without knowing what the causes are because we are not getting to carry out enough testing; and the more this persists, the more people would contract the virus and the more the economy and businesses that are dearer to us now would collapses.
So, what should we do now? What should the nation do differently to get the needed result?
We have repeatedly said that effective and mass testing is the first response to the virus; if other countries can develop capacity for mass testing, it shouldn’t be difficult for us to do the same – except if those manning the testing operation are incompetent or starved of funds. Having the capacity for 2,500 tests per day on paper – which is over a week ago – but reporting about 400 test per day only makes a caricature of our entire response to the fatal outbreak. We must quickly improve on the capacity of all our existing testing laboratories, establish new ones across the country and synergise with the private and international community; at least a minimum of two in each state, and then develop human and material capacity to test in the region of 100,000 samples per day is a more serious, feasible response. We should place international order for reagents and disposables needed as a priority if we want to appear serious with the fight against the virus.
Secondly, the federal government must reverse itself and re-enact the lockdown order across the federation for a possible final three weeks at a stretch. That would be enough time for the country to pick out all the infected persons and isolate them. The previous lockdown had been proven ineffective because Nigerians were mostly in disobedience to the order going by the risen indexed the infection.
Thirdly, the government should stop giving food aids and palliatives to the people; rather, it should make a national arrangement for a survival monetary fund, a release of a minimum of N15, 000 to all Nigerians who do not fall into the categories of government workers, private organisation workers with guaranteed salaries despite the ongoing crisis, individuals with a constant minimum deposit of N100,000 in their bank account in the last 12 months before the pandemic, individuals below the age of 23 years and NYSC corps members. It is an opportunity to bring those categories of Nigerians into the financial system and hopefully to nudge them into the tax system post-pandemic.
It would be helpful that the federal, states and local government should contribute in an agreed ratio to the citizens survival fund through the course of the pandemic. Access to all citizens and screening of beneficiaries can be done in days by using existing BVN, voters registration database, the national identity management data, the Nigerian Communication Commission data ( from the service providers) and engaging competent professionals to handle the services – at concessionary rates. To accommodate aged citizens who do not have bank accounts or other information capture statures, the government should immediately create a platform to get them registered for reimbursement. After all, it is so easy to gather the aged on a community basis or to reach out to them in their homes and capture their data.
Once this is done, the government should really become serious about enforcing its own order and to evaluate performance of those responsible to quench the fire. What we had in the last five weeks wasn’t a lockdown but a joke, and we are currently paying for that now. China locked down all affected provinces for more than 8 weeks and today, the country is back on its feet. Until we put our house in order, we still have a long way to go.
The Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19 must fully wake up to its responsibility to reversing the rising infection figure and fatality rate which is the main yardstick the public is looking at to appraise its performance and that of the entire response team. We are in a make or mar situation and in the interest of the nation and its citizens, all those saddled with the responsibility of taking us through this crisis should professionally and patriotically give their best and nothing less. That is the only way we can substantially win the war against the virus, minimise casualty and to reopen and salvage our economy and resume normal life.
GOD BLESS THE FEDERAL REPUBLIC OF NIGERIA