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Lockdown Dilemma: Fear of escalating COVID-19 numbers, insecurity, hunger puts government in quandary

… We do need to look at what can work for us – Oyewumi … We must balance the lock-down with socio-economic issues – NECA DG …Lagos looking forward to the relaxation of lockdown by FG – Commissioner

Prevailing circumstances, including excruciating pain of hunger, escalating insecurity, and the complaints and alleged discrimination in the distribution of palliatives and relief materials, where available, and above all, the frightening daily rise in the number of confirmed coronavirus cases appear to put government at all levels in a predicament over possible extension of the lockdown.

The present situation where hunger is biting, economy is bleeding and the COVID-19 numbers are rising has been described as a mixed bag of woes for Nigeria, which experts say demands careful handling at this critical moment.

Much as some Nigerians would want an extension of the lockdown, many others want a gradual opening of the economy so as to save people’s lives and jobs.

The proposal by the Nigerian Governors’ Forum (NGF) for a 14-day national lockdown is an entirely new dimension to the stay-at-home order and Nigerians are praying that the idea ends just at that level of proposal because, to them, that will be one lockdown too many.

Nigerians blamed the Federal Government that when on Monday, April 13, extended the lock down on the federal capital city (FCT) Abuja, Lagos and Ogun states for two more weeks, it failed to address the concerns of the people which bordered on hunger and insecurity.

The consequence of that failure was spontaneous. The people are now defying the order and taking to the street to look for what to eat while armed robbers have gone on rampage and become hard on their targets.

Speaking with BDSUNDAY, Ajibike Oyewumi, a consultant, Healthcare Quality Advisor at a large hospital in Lagos , said it was a dicey situation that demands carefulness in handling.

“People are calling for an end to the lockdown, I am totally sympathetic, I understand very well how people feel; it is a very difficult time and it is a very difficult choice to make,” Oyewumi said.

According to her, “If we lockdown people, those who are making their living on a daily basis, they are faced with hunger, at the same time if we ask people to go out then we are faced with a risk of increasing Covid-19, especially now that the pandemic is in the community, we are beginning to see community transmission.

“So, we are in a difficult situation and have a difficult choice to make. However, we do need to look at what can work for us, because we run the risk that if people are hungry they would not obey government and we don’t want to run the risk of any form of disobedient and civil unrest.”

Attempting a suggestion, the health expert said: “So, what can we do in this situation? We acknowledged what is being done and I totally feel they can do more. So, one of them would be to increase testing, we are not doing enough, we are seeing some countries doing a lot of testing per day, I am not sure we are doing 10,000 per day. We do need to step up testing; we do need to be able to go take people where they are to places where they can be isolated to reduce the risk of infecting others.”

“Until we get to a point where we see the number coming down, then we are at risk. However, it is not about lockdown, we have a situation where people are living in overcrowded quarters; that in itself is a risk,” she also noted.

She further said there was the need to educate “our people; we need to do a lot more and the consequence of it and why the lockdown is necessary and the social distancing… Of course, the face masks are real and we have been hearing that they would produce face masks. Aggressive campaign is necessary; we have to encourage people to donate materials, which can be used to produce face masks.”

Timothy Olawale, director-general of Nigeria Employers’ Consultative Association (NECA), who spoke with our correspondent, said it has become imperative to balance the lockdown with socio-economic issues which seems to be assuming worrisome dimension.

“I believe there is need to balance the lock-down with socio-economic issues such as crime rate, increasing poverty and likely uprising or revolt of those in precarious situation,” Olawale said

To have this done successfully, he suggested that the government would need to put in place stringent national policy as done in countries like Ghana and Germany.

“I suggest a relaxed lockdown between 8am to 4pm and curfew between 5pm to 7am. For anyone that will go out, face mask should be made compulsory. Non-use of face mask should be criminalised,” the DG said.

Olawale further suggested strict enforcement of ban on inter-state travels, while businesses should be mandated to ensure stringent protocols such as social distancing, provision of wash-hand area within their premises.

“In extreme case, businesses can be encouraged to do a roaster for their employees so that there won’t be more than a certain number of employees at work at any given time.

“There should be a total ban of religious, political and social gatherings, limited number of passengers in public and private transportation and strict enforcement of same, amongst others,” he said

Muda Yusuf, the director-general of Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI), told BDSUNDAY: “Lagos, for instance, is highly cosmopolitan, very mobile with high velocity of business transaction. About 50 percent of the Lagos economy is made up informal sector. One of the main features of the sector is that the operators live by the day. Keeping such a commercially active population indoors for a month is a great challenge.”

Yusuf posited that neither Lagos State nor the Federal Government has the capacity to manage the social consequences of a prolonged lockdown that could manifest in hunger, restiveness and insecurity, hence a prolonged lockdown is not sustainable.

Against this background, he said: “The option of partial lockdown should be considered. This should be preceded by a robust COVID- 19 risk assessment.

The LCCI DG, who argued that different economic activities presented different vulnerabilities, noted that in all cases, the observance of the COVID-19 protocols should continue under a regime of a partial lockdown.

At the level of Lagos State, Gbenga Omotosho, the commissioner for Information and Strategy, said the Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu administration was looking forward to the relaxation of the lockdown by the Federal Government, and once done, the state would roll out its economic recovery plan which is already being worked on.

“We didn’t lockdown the state, it was the federal that did. But we have our own plan. We’re redirecting our budget to reflect the situation we now have on hands once the lockdown is relaxed by the Federal Government.

“Our plan is to maximize the opportunities that this global adversity has presented in the areas of healthcare, medicine, information technology and science. We will see how the youth can be empowered to tap into these opportunities to better the economy of Lagos and grow its GDP,” said Omotosho.

The commissioner explained that the state hopes to achieve this by redirecting the 2020 budget in view of the sliding revenues- both internally generated and allocation from the federation account.

On daily basis, the number of people on the road, mostly the poor in the suburbs of the cities, keeps rising. These people, it seems, are unperturbed by the daily increase in the number of confirmed cases, especially in Lagos and Abuja. This means that there are some fundamental or underlying issues the government is not addressing.

Bamidele Adeyeye is a socio-political affairs commentator. His brief discussion with BDSUNDAY on the wisdom or otherwise for an extension of the lockdown was quite revealing. “Why do you think the poor are unwilling to stay at home; is it because you think they want to die?” he asked rhetorically.

“Let’s open our understanding and analyze within proper context,” he added, saying that there are two issues now in Nigeria in particular and Africa in general. These issues he named as (1) Health crisis and (2) Hunger crisis.

Adeyeye said that while the rich are afraid of (1), the poor are afraid of (2), noting that the rich are pushing the poor to stay at home because they (the rich) believe that is what will save the situation and, perhaps, save them as well.

“The poor are also pushing to survive as they know they may die of hunger and not the virus if they don’t take care. The rich, it appears, fear the virus and not hunger whereas the poor, it seems, fear hunger more than the virus. Each is fighting for his survival, only differently,” he said.

Adeyeye reasoned that if the rich are really serious, they should push their strategy further by feeding the poor constantly, not only once but twice, at least.  “If they just keep crying ‘stay at home’, the poor may interpret that desperate mantra to mean ‘die at home’,” he posited.

Magarette Jolayemi is a consultant public health physician who does not believe that the country should be locked down forever, especially when the resultant effects of the lockdown—hunger and insecurity— are proving to be more deadly than coronavirus itself.

Jolayemi, while opposing an extension of the lockdown, canvassed more rigorous enlightenment of the people, explaining that many of the people don’t believe that coronavirus is real.  “Government needs to engage these people through the churches, traditional rulers and even age grades,” she advised.

The consultant physician also advised that markets, churches, schools should reopen, “but we still have to maintain all the social distancing and personal hygiene directives by washing our hands regularly with soap and applying sanitisers. All these should be made available at strategic locations even in the markets.”

John Asogwa, who lives in Kubwa, Abuja is scared of the insecurity in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) just as it is in Lagos and Ogun, the three states that have been on lockdown for almost one month now.

Like in Lagos where all the city suburbs have been over-run by armed robbers, Asogwa says the residents of the satellite towns including Kubwa, Lugbe, Nyanya and Bwari live in fear. “It is no longer a case of one not sleeping at night. These guys rob even in broad day light. It is scary and unsafe here,” he said, stressing that extending this lockdown means killing them quicker than coronavirus infection.

Though Francis Faduyile, president of the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), argues in favour of an extension of the lockdown, he is of the view that government has to provide for the people, especially the poor who earn their income on daily basis to make them stay at home.

Faduyile is not comfortable with what, in his view, was “the politicisation of the palliatives”, explaining that there were political considerations in the sharing and distribution of the relief materials to the people such that a good number of Nigerians did not get anything called palliative.

Corroborating this, Rose Igwizo, a non-native living in one of the South West states, lamented that where she lives, food items were brought for distribution but you have to prove you are an indigene before they give you something. “I did not get anything because I am not a native and they want me to stay at home. I am a widow; I have nobody to feed my children for me,” she said in-between sobs.

As of Friday, April 24, confirmed cases nationwide were nearing 1,000 with 31 deaths with the numbers threatening to go up. The number of discharged cases has however remained at 197 in the last couple of days.

As of Friday April 24, the total test conducted by Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) since the beginning of the epidemic is less than 10,000. If this is compared to some neighboring countries, it is a far-cry, indicating that Nigerian has a lot to do to contain the crisis.

South Africa for example has mobile testing units to try and test as many people as possible and so far it has conducted around 60,000 tests for Covid-19, and is now testing at a rate of nearly 5,000 a day.

There are enormous challenges around the development of the tests, the cost of the test and the logistics involved but the nation need to intensify efforts in that regard.

The hope of any relaxation of the lockdown appears to have been dashed finally when the governors of the 36 states of the federation on Wednesday  April 21 “unanimously” agreed to the implementation of an inter-state lockdown in the country over the next two weeks to mitigate the spread of the pandemic COVID-19 virus from State to State.

The governors, operating under the aegis of the Nigeria Governors’ Forum (NGF),  were said to have reached the agreement after receiving briefing from the Governors of Lagos, Bauchi, Oyo and Ogun States who shared their experiences and lessons from the fight against COVID-19.

The governors believe that the decentralisation of the COVID-19 response could present the best chance of curbing the spread of the virus in communities with over 25 States now affected by the spread of the virus amid more evidence of community transmission.

Responding to the grim situation, a public affairs analyst and legal practitioner, Kayode Ajulo, in his Memo to President Muhammadu Buhari on the lockdown made available to BDSUNDAY, said the sad reality is that the virus is now spreading within communities and even within the poor communities, hence, the necessity to explore desperate measures to curb the spread of the virus.

“There is no need belaboring the fact that the lockdown measure taken by the President and some other similar measures such as curfew implemented in some states are not without significant benefits such as reducing the spate of the spread of the virus, however, total lockdown risks a complete halt of economic activity across the nation.

“It suffices to add that more than a third of the Nigerian population lives below the poverty line. While most of those live in rural areas and without access to basic amenities.

“While we are uncertain as to when business as usual will be restored, if there is a need to completely lockdown the whole country for a long time, the potential death toll is unknown. Economic recession and deteriorating livelihoods mean impoverishment, malnutrition, worsened access to routine health services, and that in turn all means lives lost as well,” he said.

According to him, “What we have failed to understand is the fact that we can’t impose a lockdown like more developed nations, as there are many citizens who don’t have homes. Nigeria has limited resources to replace the incomes of citizens coupled with the fall in the oil price from which Nigeria derives 95% of its revenue.”

While commending the Federal Government for releasing palliatives and relief materials to some indigents in some affected parts of the country, Ajulo called for effective accountability on how the public funds are being expended.

“Government needs to invest in this and consider alternative means of giving conditional cash transfer through BVN to citizens like some developed nations. We cannot tell people to stay away from work and make sure you stay hygienic when you don’t give them a way to do so,” he said.

Ajulo said further that “Government must focus on efficient testing, training and building capacity across board.  Creating reliable infrastructure and employing principles of transparency and good governance will also be crucial.”

Similarly the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) last Wednesday warned the Federal Government against any further extension of the lockdown over the pandemic.

The labour union through its President Ayuba Wabba, issued the warning in a letter he addressed to the chairman of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19, Boss Mustapha.

Wabba noted that the situation would get out of hand if the lockdown exceeded one month.

“Within the first two weeks of the lockdown in some parts of the country, there were widespread acts of civil disobedience, inducement of law enforcement agents to gain passes and even various forms of violent crimes. No one is sure how long this dam would hold,” he said.

The labour leader said its major concern is on the recovery of jobs, restoration of income, and sustainability of livelihood as the states under the total lockdown are the economic and administrative nerves centres of the country.

“The truth is that our economy might relapse into prolonged coma if the current lockdown in the nation’s nerve centres goes beyond the current extension,” he said.

Ikem Oti, an economist and public analyst, said that what gives him grave concern is the anticipated revolt by the hungry and tired Nigerians in the event of extension of the lockdown.

“In spite of the lockdown, crime rate is high because people are hungry. The extension will worsen the situation unless government changes strategy on delivering the palliative materials to those who need them, and the ones who are seen hawking at bus stops now”, Oti said.

Dare Okiki, a lawyer, said the government has not been fair in the distribution of the palliatives, hence many people who depend on daily bread would revolt if the lockdown is extended because hunger is biting harder and there is no help in sight.

“Government has not done enough to cushion the harsh impact of the lockdown on the masses as most families who depend on daily bread are suffering now. So, why will they obey government that does not care after their welfare. The extension will not be an easy one for everyone”, he lamented.

But if government relaxes the lockdown, Bidemi Adetunji, a medical doctor, said government would regret the action as the number of positive cases would skyrocket overnight.

“We have to do the needful to curtail the virus. It is sacrifice we must pay now to live tomorrow. Again, we do not have enough medical facilities and personnel to fight the virus when it escalates. We should learn from Italy’s experience and avoid it”, the doctor said.

 

CHUKA UROKO, OBINNA EMELIKE, JOSHUA BASSEY, INIOBONG IWOK (Lagos) and INNOCENT ODOH (Abuja)

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