By Niran Adedokun
Hard as it is, the lockdown order on Lagos State, Ogun State and the Federal Capital Territory is government’s most proactive step towards curtailing the COVID-19 disease so far.
Arguments that government should have ordered the closure of Nigeria’s border as soon as the Italian index case presented do not sit well with those whose consideration is mainly economic. Their position, which is not invalid, is that an import-dependent economy like Nigeria would do itself a lot of harm by arbitrarily shutting its borders to the world.
But that deposition is in a sense, like putting the cart before the horse. For a country to have an economy at all, its people must be alive and well enough to work. A virus like COVID-19 and the deadly microbe that dispenses it have, in the last three months, infected close to one million people out of which about 44, 000 have lost their lives. The United States of America and many European countries with all their sophistication are now overwhelmed and struggling to contain the virus with death tolls rising by the minute. Countries with weak health systems and huge populations like Nigeria would, therefore, have no chance playing catch up. They must for their survival, post-coronavirus, devise pro-active ways of staying ahead of the virus and the harm in its wings.
The country lost yet another opportunity to get ahead in its management of returnees from high risk countries. Nothing, other than controlling the isolation of entrants would have made sense at that time. No matter what it costs, government would have quarantined these people at its own cost for 14 days. That would have checked the transmission of the virus to their tens, possibly hundreds of contacts that the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control claims it is now trying to trace without traces.
How do you trace anyone given the proclivity for poor management, even manipulation of data in this country? And this data, which successive administrations have only prioritised on paper, would definitely be needed given the very sure fact that once out of the arrival halls, many Nigerians will not re-present themselves to officials until at the point of death.
Aside from the near fatal optimism that afflicts the Nigerian, conditions at the government isolation centres could be a disincentive to coming out. A couple of weeks back in Enugu, a lady alleged that conditions under which her mother was kept at the isolation centre led to her untimely death. The said lady, who visited from the United Kingdom ultimately tested negative for the virus. On Monday, there were claims that a suspected case was isolated at a mortuary in Jigawa State pending the result of his test. There is also a video of a lady making so much fuzz about conditions at the isolation centre in Benue State.
Stories like these invariably discourage people from stepping out and complicate things for the country given the speed of contagion between humans; and in the case of the coronavirus, whether carriers are symptomatic or not. This brought us to this juncture where at least 6,000 people are like weapons on the move. The only thing to do at that point is to reduce the exposure of more Nigerians.
There is of course, the argument that coronavirus is an affliction of the elite as most of the cases in Nigeria returned from some trip abroad. Those who travel abroad however have family members with whom they have had contact on return. These family members move about town in public transport; they jump from one badly kept yellow bus to another. They get onto commercial tricycles and motorcycles. They go to poorly planned and overcrowded markets where body rub against body without efforts. They pick up items and drop them because their pockets do not fit the final bargains thereby unwittingly transmitting the virus onto loads of others. To avoid the risk of such a widespread exposure, which would render Nigeria totally helpless and may lead to uncontrolled loss of lives, government had no choice than to take Nigerians off the streets, especially in places regarded as the epicentres of the disease. This is why everyone should stay in their homes.
With the state of healthcare delivery in Nigeria, otherwise healthy citizens cannot afford to come down with the COVID-19. Of course, the authorities are doing their best to deliver care to the over 100 cases at the moment, but an outbreak will overwhelm healthcare workers in unimaginable ways.
The dilemma of the citizens in the avoidable event of community transmission will start with the inability to get tested. As we speak, there are six testing centres with the capacity to test 1,000 daily; so the system can only cope with so much. In addition to that is the limited number of bed spaces, (which the country is working so hard to scale up) but worse of all is the large-scale drought of doctors and health workers in the country. All of these would, without doubt, lead to mortalities, vicious and comparable to the unfortunate scale in Italy and Spain.
Fortunately, lockdowns worked to a large extent in China. In fact, some public health researchers suggest that the couple of weeks China delayed in imposing this lockdown account for the importation of the virus into other parts of the world. A report on www.nature.com quoted a model simulation by emerging-disease researchers at the University of Southampton, UK as showing that: “If China had implemented its control measures a week earlier, it could have prevented 67% of all cases there. Implementing the measures three weeks earlier… would have cut the number of infections to 5% of the total.” Even then, the first seven days of the lockdown reduced to the number of people each infected person passed the virus to from 2.2 to 1.05 on the average. This did not pass without recognition of the World Health Organisation.
But while other countries have made adequate and data-inspired plans to cushion the effect of the lockdown on the personal economies of their citizens, Nigeria’s promises seem wild and haphazard.
The Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, Sadiya Farouq, said on Tuesday that 11 million Nigerians would benefit from government’s palliative measures. While the minister spoke about an already existing register of this number, there is the more important question of the percentage this group constitutes when the same minister said that 90 million Nigerians lived in extreme poverty just a couple of months back.
One of the reasons why lockdowns are difficult in Nigeria is that a substantial part of the population depends on a daily trade for subsistence. Denying them that opportunity for no fault of theirs puts a huge responsibility, which government must quickly come to terms with. This, more than any assumptions about the inability of Nigerians to comply, is the most potent threat to this all-important lockdown.
Even before the official pronouncement, many Nigerians had gone ahead to stock up their homes, purchase face masks, litres of sanitisers and as much soap as any stay-at-home would require. What, in any case, does that take for a citizenry already used to providing their own water, power and even security? However, when government denies its people their means of livelihood, it must provide an alternative.
And while at that, one also hopes this emergency becomes a wake-up call for policymakers and political actors in Nigeria to take stock of their failings, save the country from haemorrhaging, rebuild the public infrastructure and reverse the big failure that it is becoming.
Adedokun tweets @niranadedokun