• Friday, May 24, 2024
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BusinessDay

As Lagos goes hard on COVID-19, city’s fault lines are tested

Sanwo-Olu inspects failed portion of Eko Bridge

The Lagos state government has announced bans to large gatherings and ordered schools to close but these are measures that may be tricky to enforce in one of the world’s most densely populated cities.

With over 20million people, Lagos is mostly a glorified slum with a generous sprinkling of faux élan. The perfect picturesque of brutal squalor and odorous opulence fighting for a right of way.

The recent ban on motorcycles and rickshaws used for public transportation by the state government only tackles a symptom. The dystopian reality is a broken road network, unhinged city planning system, messy transport architecture, and dishonest regulation.

Often times, the discipline, temperament and intellectual rigor required to address the grim challenges facing the state has matched the professed intentions of those who run it.

Thousands of commuters ply rickety yellow buses with gutted seats, broken headlights and nightmarish drivers who attack the road under the inspiration of drugs and dry gin. Passengers are squeezed such that a sneeze or a cough isn’t something to avoid but pathogens to be shared.

In any other place, this would be a crying shame but in a state that aspires to be a mega city, it questions its seriousness. The time to pretend that this is not going to be a public health emergency when a pandemic is in the air is over.

In 2008, former governor Bola Tinubu launched the Bus Rapid Transit, the first of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa. It was supposed to be a public-private partnership with less stress on the private aspect.

But unlike in Columbia and Brazil where it copied the idea, there was no dedicated road for the BRT. The government carved out a lane from an already overstretched Ikorodu Road, condemning other road users to tear-inducing tariff jams.

Twelve years later, the BRT system has become a metaphor for hubris, a fitting allegory for how an example can easily morph into a warning. There are less than 500 buses for over 10million people who need them.

However hard people are squeezed inside buses meant to move less than a hundred people, thousands wait hours at bus stops for them. And the operators really make valiant efforts at squeezing people inside the buses many of which their cooling systems have stopped humming and passengers hold their breath as it sputters on raggedy roads.

With a poorly developed marine transport infrastructure, all it requires is for one sick person to ram his way through one of these overcrowded blue buses for the service to become a vector for the COVID-19.

While the state government has warned children off schools but without plans to keep them away from markets, roads and bus stops, where many hawk packaged sausage and soft drinks, keeping them away from school is merely adding hours to their hustle period.

To be clear, child-labour is immoral and illegal. In 2016, the Lagos state government revived its 2003 Street Trading and Illegal Market Prohibition Law which prescribes a fine of N90,000 or 6-months jail term for breaching the law.

Yet the practice thrives because the law is not progressive and enforcement is slipshod. Countries like Singapore and India have formalized the practice and incorporated street vending locations in city plans issuing vendors licenses. These children can still bring home coronavirus from street hawking.

“It is important for parents to ensure that their children practice ‘social distancing’ while at home, wash their hands regularly or use hand sanitizers and observe high standards of personal hygiene,” said a statement signed by Folashade Adefisayo, Lagos state commissioner for Education.

However, their parents have to go to work which presents additional challenges especially on how the children will be cared for while their parents are away.

Lagos markets in their current state typifies how mayhem got its acclaim. It could easily pass for a social experiment in mutually inclusive unreality. It takes a certain kind of witchery to build a fabulous shopping mall at Yaba and price it in such a way that those who rent a space find it profitable to sell right outside the mall.

Prior to the administration of Babatunde Fashola, the Oshodi market was a heaving mess of people. Many markets including Balogun, Oshodi, Idumota, and Ijora have large crowds of people running into each other. Many markets lack water or public toilets. So how do you practice social distancing at Oyinbo market?

In its bid to contain the coronavirus, Lagos has to contend with religious gatherings that seem to compete on crowds. Along the Ibadan express way, many hold mass gatherings and wisely some have started canceling programmes to help the government’s effort to contain the virus.

But the problem is the groups that will defy the government’s directive and convince their flock that the virus can be prayed away. People part with their entire savings, defy medical advice on the counsel of their religious leaders and go through traumatic experiences including brutal floggings to supposedly ostracize demons, ignoring sound counsel about the dangerous coronavirus spread is right up there in the alley.

These groups will test the resolve of the Lagos state government to enforce public health protective measures. Already the state has a poor track record of  enforcing rules against extremists of the predominantly two faiths in the state – Islam and Christianity.

Residents in Lagos groan over church services that run into the wee hours of the morning with reckless pastors leading raucous services disturbing the solitude of their neighbours.

Lagos has laws prohibiting outrageous noise levels but has failed to enforce them. There are also the Muslim faithful whose call to prayers rouse an entire community at 5 am without concern for their neighbours.

How would self-isolation be a pleasant experience in the midst of church drums and mosque megaphones pounding your ear drums?

The discovery of five new cases on Wednesday adds urgency to the quest to contain a virus that has killed over 8,800 people and sickened over 220,000 people worldwide. So far 84,000 people have recovered from COVID-19.

Its rapid spread across Africa demands an urgent rethinking of the continent’s healthcare infrastructure, social norms, and practices.