By Obinna Ezugwu
Like every strange and unexpected scenario, the outbreak of the COVID 19 epidemic has brought with it a fleeting rush of emotions, permutations and responses from across Nigeria and the world.
These have ranged from disbelief to apprehension, statistical analysis to futuristic planning, and on to even weirder conspiracy theories and scientific mumbo-jumbo. In all of these, what is however established at the moment is that there still is no very clear and completely acceptable explanation for the scenario, just as there is equally neither a complete cure for the ailment nor complete discernment of the depth of its anticipated effect on the social and economic lives and well-being of the people of the world.
To mitigate the scope of the challenge, and particularly take steps to defray its possible spiral spread, several governments, including that of Nigeria, have elected on locking in their borders and even within borders, also to further shut in swathes of their geo-physical spaces that are considered to have already been affected with a view to curtailing its possible spread to other yet to be affected areas.
In Nigeria, the economic and political epicenters of Lagos, Ogun and the Federal Capital Territory, FCT have been so shut in, with a number of other sub-sovereigns also taking steps to partially or fully lock down their own spaces too.
While the move towards the adoption of this option has come ostensibly at the behest of the medical authorities, and most critically, the increasingly influential Nigerian Centre for Disease Control, NCDC, it has also come to be adopted by the Ministry of Health, the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 and the Presidency as perhaps the best option today under the circumstances.
But there have been challenges with the approach, chief of them being the colossal economic burden that comes with it.
Already estimates from the World Bank, the IMF, NBS, AFDB and other sources point to the fact that the nation may just be waiting for the publication of its next set of financial indicators to formally begin its descent into recession.
For a country that has only just come out of two long agonizing years under the recession belt, it is clear that this prospect is definitely not a cheering one.
But that is not all of the trouble as there are also serious issues related to security and compliance management at this time. One aspect of this is that there have been reported incidents of robbers and gangs taking advantage of the situation to attack traders, loot shops, invade homes and generally unleash mayhem in notably Lagos and Ogun States. However, there is also the accompanying challenge that has been witnessed in a state like Delta, where the citizenry has loudly taken to the streets to protest the economic pangs associated with the lockdown.
There are also the deepening psychological worries over what fate would befall the people either in the longer-term with-COVID or post-COVID era. Would a cure be found? Would a vaccine be developed? On which terms would it be administered?
In its response, the Nigerian government through, chiefly the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, has elected to increase its commitment to the existing Social Investment Program, SIP that on a good day catered for just about 2.6m of Nigeria’s burgeoning poor population.
According to President Buhari, one more million beneficiaries are to be added to the roll, to now bring the numbers to 3.6m beneficiaries.
Also, the Customs Service and the managers of the nation’s grain reserves have been ordered to release stacks of the food in their possession for distribution to needy segments of the population.
In the course of the outgoing week also, the Humanitarian Affairs Ministry suggested that it was now poised to bow to popular pressure to use BVN and telephone transactions as additional vehicles for identifying and sending palliatives to needy Nigerians. While many think that the suggested bars of N5000 bank balance and N100 recharge card lines would not do justice to the original proposition, they are however still waiting for the ministry’s bureaucracy to finish its work on spelling out exactly how the scheme would work before going on to cement its implementation mechanisms.
The security challen
There are also issues of reported excesses from the security forces that had been deployed to ensure compliance in several of the lockdown locations in the country. Indeed as at Wednesday, while just about 12 victims had reportedly been felled by the pandemic in the country, a damning report credited to the National Human Rights Commission, NHRC, was indicating that the number of those felled by the security services in the course of ensuring safety and reduced casualty numbers from the pandemic was already a most confounding 18!
There are also the international dimensions of the unfolding scenario. As highlighted by the commentator, Emmanuel Ehigie, the convulsions that have come on the COVID-19 scene were already setting the stage somewhat for enhanced rivalry between the major powers in the world. Focusing particularly on the announcements from Washington and Beijing in relation to the funding of the World Health Organisation going forward, he queried:
‘How do you see China taking over from US in the funding of WHO? They even promised to double what the US contribution is. What does this portend for the world? After WHO, UN would probably be next in line.
Will China becoming a dominant super world power be good for Africa?’
Asked on what suggestions he would proffer to individuals and government on the way to go with the management of this pandemic and its economic fallout, Augustine Okwara said:
‘The lockdown is not helping us and may cause more damage both to the health of citizens and the economy of the nation. The so called sharing of food items as palliatives where thousands of people struggle over bags of rice in trailers is unacceptable. It’s disgusting to see women and men who are ought to be locked down fighting for government rice.’
Rather than take this self-indicting route, Okwara posits an alternative:
‘It would have been better to distribute the food items via churches. If churches are allowed to distribute the food items lots of people will receive the items. My small RCCG Parish in Festac organized food items to members of the church and for people living around the church. It was well organized and social distancing was maintained in the sharing of the items.’
But that is not all of the trouble under consideration: ‘
‘I can say without equivocation that the media is causing more problems in the manner of the reportage of the so called pandemic. I believe more people have died from fear than from the virus. The two gentlemen who committed suicide by jumping off very tall buildings did so out of fear. If the world was a global village when the Spanish flu happened more people would have died. Why can the media report the recoveries and celebrate them and remove their eyes from those becoming positive. I believe Pastor E. A Adeboye who has said that the virus will go after the world had gone on a compulsory holiday. He also said that only those marked to die will die. From the reports only people with underlying diseases are dying,’ the commentator equally remarked.
Breaking his recommendations further down on the way forward, he also said:
‘I believe that what needs to be done is to halt the distribution of food items. If people were given say 10k each they will buy the food they want rather than fighting over food in a manner that exposes them to individuals who may be victims of the virus. Government should also emphasize the wearing of face masks, use of hand sanitizers and gradually open up the economy. Let people return to work properly equipped with information on how to behave whilst in public. Thankfully we don’t have trains so we can start limiting the number of passengers a bus can carry. It may be more expensive but it’s better than carrying so many people squeezed together in a bus. Keke can carry only two people at the back and every passenger must have face masks on. Except we open the economy the lockdown may lead to unemployment. Some people are working from home. With time their employers will discover that they can do without these people. The ripple effect of such unemployment will be catastrophic. I agree with you than rather than palliatives government should offer support to businesses. This is so that Nigerians can remain employed. Wuhan and other Chinese cities are not totally free of Corona Virus but they decided to open their economy for the reasons I have enumerated above. We have alternative to lockdown. Let there be a gradual opening of the economy. Workers should start by working every other day rather than give employers the opportunity to say they cannot pay having not earned. Some investment companies are not paying subscribers on the excuse that they have not been working. Next this will affect ROI’s and these May lead to suicides just as we had in the American collapse in 1928/29. There is a need for a separate economic team to be empanelled to advice the government on the economy while the Covid 19 can also continue though I have argued that Mr. Babatunde Raji Fashola and Dr Onyebuchi Chukwu should take over from them if the country is serious about killing this virus.’
As for John Ilogbo, we are indeed faced with a Catch-22 scenario. It is however one that he says has been compounded, very sadly, by tepidity in the governance arena:
‘Seriously, there is no alternative to lockdown due to the level of illiteracy in Nigeria. But the Federal Government has proven to be a poor crisis manager. The government’s actions show lack of understanding. Taking the decision to lockdown down without providing significant financial support to reduce the opportunity cost of the lockdown on people is unwelcome. FG