by Angela Odah

Introduction

Nigeria recorded its first case of Corona Virus on the 27th of February 2020 in Lagos State. With the experience of the Ebola outbreak in 2014 in West Africa in mind, the country went into action and opened registration forms for all incoming passengers into the country to fill. The information passengers were expected to fill include their location and phone contacts for themselves and their next of kin. The health authorities also mounted temperature reading machines at the airport entry points which all those coming into the country are expected to pass through before doing the immigration formalities. This is to detect passengers with fever and high temperature which are among the first alert that someone might need to be examined more closely. The contact addresses and phone numbers provided were to aid the authorities to trace people in case of any of those on the flight were to develop illness and test positive for corona virus. If this happens, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) would reach out to the affected persons and ask them to self-isolate, while they also come to do testing for the virus. This were the initial protocol members of the public were expected to follow. Nigeria is a Federal state with 36 state structure and a Federal Capital territory (FCT), which is administered like a state.

Federal and State Efforts at Fighting the Virus 

Early in March, the President, established a high powered Presidential Task Force (PTF) to coordinate Federal Government efforts in fighting the pandemic. The Task Force headed by the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF) Mr. Boss Mustapha, had the Ministers of Health, Interior, Information, External Affairs and Relevant agencies of Government like the Director General of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control(NCDC)as members.

The State Governments also set up their own committees on the Pandemic, and charged either Deputy Governors or secretaries to the government to head them.

As the cases of corona virus in the country started to increase with many of the cases coming from those who had recently returned from travels to countries with serious COVID-19 out breaks, various states of the Federation took a number of drastic measures to curtail the outbreak of the pandemic. These measures include closure of all schools, closure of state boundaries, banning of congregational prayers in churches and mosques. Social distancing was strongly advocated while all social activities such as weddings, funerals, going to cinemas, clubs and beer parlors were prohibited. A mandatory stay at home order was also declared in some states.

At the Federal level, the Federal Ministry of Education ordered the closure of all tertiary, secondary and primary schools nationwide.

President Mohammedu Buhari, in his first Address to the Nation on the corona virus crisis on March 29th 2020, ordered residents of Lagos state, Ogun State and Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), to stay at home for an initial period of 14 days with effect from 11pm Monday 30th March 2020. The order exempted hospitals and all related medical establishments as well as organizations in healthcare related manufacturing and distribution ( www.premiumtimesng.com 29/3/2020). The President said the containment period was to identify, trace, and isolate all individuals that has come in contact with confirmed cases of COVID- 19.

Earlier, the Presidential Task Force had announced the suspension of all flights coming into the country from 15 countries where the COVID-19 pandemic were most pronounced. With the Presidential address, all airports, land and seaports were also to be closed.

President Buhari also set up another Committee on the 9th of March 2020, under the Chairperson of the Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning, the Minister of State of Budget and National Planning, the Minster of State of Petroleum Resources, the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria and the Group Managing Director of the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation(NNPC), as members, to recommend fiscal measures to address the economic disruptions occasioned by the COVID-19 Crisis.

The Chairperson of the Committee in a recent Press Statement on the 6th April 2020, stated that Mr. President had approved a number of fiscal stimulus packages to address the health and economic challenges posed by the Pandemic. The measures include the establishment of a N500 billion COVID-19 Crisis Intervention Fund. The Finance Minister also announced the Government would approach the IMF, the World Bank and the African Development Bank to raise some $7billion Dollars loan under these institutions rapid Financing Instrument(RFI), to finance the economic Stimulus Package (Press Statement of 6th April 2020 by Hon. Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning, Mrs. Zainab S. Ahmed).

The Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria(CBCN) while paying a solidarity visit to the Secretary to the Government of the Federation and Chairman of the Presidential Task Force on the 8th of April 2020, announced the granting of full access to 435 Catholic Hospitals and Clinic spread across the country to the Presidential Task Force tackling the pandemic crisis, for its deployment in the fight against the COVID-19. The CBCN delegation which was led by Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of the Abuja Archdiocese, also offered their secretary of Health, an experienced public health expert to liaise between it and the PTF to coordinate their activities.

According to the Presidential Task Force for the Control of the Corona Virus (COVID-19), it has successfully traced no fewer than 8,932 people of interest said to have contact with persons that tested positive for the virus across the country. It   is also monitoring 220 others, according to the Minster of Information and Culture, Mr. Lai Mohammed, who spoke on Friday, 10th April, on Nigeria Television Authority (NTA) Network Programme “Good Morning Nigeria”.

According to the Information Minister who reinforced what the President said in his earlier broadcast, the strategy of the Task Force to curtail the virus was to “Trace, Test, Isolate and Treat”. “We are tracing people who came from countries with high prevalence of COVID -19 and those who have come into contact with them”. He said that those they contacted to monitor their health status, “if you have not developed any symptoms within the 14 days of your arrival into the country or coming into contact with some body that has it, we will let you go” (Daily Trust,11th April 2020).

Challenges in Response to COVID-19

Despite the outlined actions of the Federal and State governments in the fight against the COVID-19 Pandemic, Nigeria faces several challenges.

A major challenge is the structural neglect of healthcare infrastructure across all spectrum throughout the federation as a result of decades of underfunding by all tiers of government in country. According to a member of Nigeria’s National Assembly, Senator Adeyeye, (also a medical doctor); University College Hospital (UCH)Ibadan, where he trained in the early 60s as medical doctor used to rank number 4 within the British Commonwealth, where the Saudi Royal Family used to come for treatment. Presently, as a result of ill-equipped medical facilities and the resultant massive brain drain of Nigerian medical professions to Europe, America and the rest of the world, the Pandemic is coming at a time that the country is ill prepared to handle a major health crisis.

The President of the Nigeria Medical Association (NMA) Dr. Francis Faduyile, alluded to this in the Association’s first Pres Statement on the Crisis, where the Association raised concerns about the lack of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), masks and ventilators. The Minister of Health Dr. Ehanire, in his initial response to the NMA statement, accused the body of not offering support to the Federal Ministry of Health in the effort to fight COVID-19 Pandemic.  He berated the association for saying there were not enough PPE and ventilators in the Federal Hospitals and Isolation Centres (Sunday Punch 29/3/2020 p.20).

The reality on ground, however, justifies the apprehension of the NMA. According to the DG of the NCDC, Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu, by the second week of April, Nigeria would be testing 1,500 people for COVID-19 every day. Before then, 500 tests were conducted per day. Some states including Oyo and Edo have complained that they were facing a shortage of testing kits for corona virus ( www.punchng.com 31/3/2020). In a country with a population of about, 200 million people, this is unacceptable, given the scope of the crisis. Even the donation by the Chinese Philanthropist Jack Ma, of 100,000 face masks, 20,000 pieces of test kits and 9,999pieces of Face Shields and 1,100 pieces of PPE announced by the Health Minister in the context of Nigeria’s population is still grossly inadequate.

Inconsistent Enforcement of Measures at the State Level

Another major challenge in the fight against corona virus in Nigeria is the inconsistency in the implementation of the lock down measures and social distancing at the level of the states. By Easter weekend 6 states namely: Akwa Ibom, Rivers, Bayelsa, Katsina, Kogi and Ondo States had asked their residents to feel free to go to Church for the Easter Celebration or to the mosque for Muslim prayers. Five other states: Cross River, Imo, Ebonyi, Abia and Taraba were among the states said to be preparing to lift the restriction order.

Bauchi state where the Governor and five others had tested positive for the virus also didn’t observe the social distancing directive, while the Governor was on self-isolation. The deputy Governor, Mr. Tela told journalists during one of his briefings on COVID-19, that he was “disappointed” that the residents were not complying with the social distancing directive given by the state government. The State Government has demonstrated little or poor commitment to combatting the spread of the disease (premiumtimesng.com10/4/ 2020). Government explained that it had to reverse its decision on the earlier two weeks total lockdown because it didn’t have enough resources to provide the needed palliative for the residents that would remain at home.

The Catholic Diocese of Port Harcourt in response to the relaxation of the restriction in Rivers State, in a statement said it preferred to have its members stay isolated at home rather than coming to church for Easter.

Katsina State Government had to reverse its decision to allow mosques and churches to open and re-impose lockdown in Daura, the home town of President Buhari, following the confirmation of 3 additional cases of COVID-19 in the town, where the wife and two children of a dead medical doctor tested positive for the virus. The doctor had himself, earlier died of the virus.

The NMA, in yet another statement dated, 10th April said “relaxing any guideline that promotes mass gathering in any part of the Nation now, can only heighten and not flatten the curve of transmission dynamics”. It urged the state governments concerned to “rescind their decision in the interest of safety of lives”.

For Owei Lakemfa, columnist with the Vanguard Newspapers, “if Saudi Arabia and the Vatican can enforce lockdown, how can Governor Bello Masari (of Katsina State) be wiser than our collective wisdom and Governor Akeredolu (of Ondo State) be more Catholic than the Pope” (9th April 2020).

Ondo state eventually cancelled Easter Day Celebration after another corona virus positive case was reported for the state. In a statement signed by the State Commissioner for Information Donald Ojogo, on 10th April, he said the Government took the decision after consultation with the Christian Association of Nigeria ( www.premiumtimesng.com, 13/4/2020).

The State also said that other previous measures it took to prevent the crisis are back in force including measures to effectively man the boundaries to close all interstate entry points into Ondo State ( www.premiumtimesng.com, 13/4/2020).

Large Informal Sector

In Nigeria, the lock down in the key states of Lagos, Ogun and Abuja (FCT), as well as the restrictions in place in many of the other 34 states of the Federation has a devastating effect on the livelihood of workers in the informal sector, which the International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates to be over 70% of the total workforce. The Federal and State Governments in Nigeria are yet to develop a sustainable cash transfer policy to support this vulnerable segments of the population to pull through the difficult period.

In its latest Report on the COVID-19 Pandemic (7th April 2020), the International Labour Organization(ILO) estimated that an equivalent of 195 million jobs will be wiped out globally in the second quarter of 2020.

In the news conference on the 7th of April 2020, the ILO Director General, Guy Ryder said workers in the informal sector who account for 61% of the global workforce or about two billion people, will need income support to survive and feed their families as their jobs disappear. On the lockdown being put in place in several countries of the world as a measure to fight the pandemic, the ILO DG was quoted by the UK Guardian (8th April 2020), thus: “if you require people to stop working, go home and stay at home but they have absolutely no other source of income, then the choice can become between that of protecting yourself against the virus and having no means of surviving, no means to feed yourself and these are impossible dilemmas”.

The lockdown in Abuja, Lagos and Ogun States as well as other restrictions in movement in the other states of the Federation has brought a lot of pressure on informal sector operators, majority of whom are women. For instance, the women who sell fresh bananas and peanuts around the corner of our estate in Abuja said since the lockdown began, they had to leave their homes in the satellite settlements of Abuja by 4am in order to avoid being stopped from coming to town by security forces, enforcing compliance of the lockdown.

Similarly, the Federal Capital Territory authorities has now restricted markets which are permitted to open to sell food items only, to opening just twice a week on Wednesdays and Saturdays between 10am -2pm. It goes without saying that they are losing a lot of customers.

Conclusion

The Nigerian strategy in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic leaves a lot of holes. For example, the lockdown measures are difficult to sustain for a long period, as the experience of the first two weeks of the lockdown have shown. Therefore, this needs to be reviewed. The Asian example of extensive tests and contact tracing might be more effective than complete lockdown.

Similarly, palliatives which the Federal government said it has distributed to 2.5 million households via the Social Investment Programme (SIP), apart from not been a new Programme directly responding to the new crisis, this seems not to have seriously impacted on the lives of those whose economic activities have been severely disrupted as a result of the enforced stay at home over the last two weeks. A more transparent and wide ranging intervention programme would need to be put in place with the participation of critical stakeholders, such as organized labour, employers’ association and civil society organizations.

The weakness of Nigeria’s response to the crisis can be seen in the few number of people being tested. For a population of about 200 million people, achieving 1500 daily testing projected by the Presidential Task Force and echoed by the Minister of Health is completely inadequate. The government hopes to increase the testing centres from 6 to 12 across the country. This will still be grossly inadequate. Establishing testing centres in each of the 36 states of the Federation and the Federal Capital territory and in each of the 774 local government areas in the country would be ideal.

In the same vein, the Economic Stimulus Package, outlined by the Minister of Finance, whose main highlight is the N500 Billion Intervention Fund being established; may be insufficient to address the economic shock this pandemic has bought into the economy. Therefore, more comprehensive measures need to be articulated in which concrete support for small businesses, and other key sectors of the economy are provided for.

As Professor Jibrin Ibrahim aptly put it “the real governance issue is that we are in crisis today because we have allowed our health system to collapse as our elite became completely reliant on foreign systems and now they cannot go abroad as everyone is in crisis. We must plan our way out of this crisis with a renewed commitment to rebuild our health and educational systems so that we can survive the uncertain future that is arriving” he concluded. (COVID-19: The Strong Are not so strong without Good Governance, Jibrin Ibrahim, Friday Column Daily Trust, 3/4/2020).

The enforcement of the various lockdown measures by the Nigerian State in the bid to fight the COVID-19 pandemic has raised some concerns about a return to the strong armed tactics of the authoritarian state which Nigeria witnessed for many years under military rule. While the limitation of freedom of movement and freedom of assembly, among other measures being enforced may be deemed necessary given the nature of the crisis we are facing and therefore trying to overcome, there are reports of some of those returning from trips overseas, giving inaccurate information regarding location, next of kin and phone contacts. This may be due to fears that the state may use this information for other purposes than just fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

 The report of the Nigerian National Human Rights Commission, titled “Press Release on COVID-19 Enforcement So Far, Report on Incident of Violation of Human Rights” dated 14th April 2020, is very revealing of the highhandedness of the security agencies in their treatment of the citizens. The report showed a total of 105 complaints covering 24 out the 36 states of the federation including the FCT. Lagos and Abuja topped the complains of violation of human rights with 28 and 10 incidents respectively. According to Tony Ojukwu, the Executive Secretary of the National Human Rights Commission(NHRC), who authored the press release “there were 8 documented incidents of extra- judicial killings leading to 18 deaths. Out of this number 12 deaths were recorded in Kaduna state, Abia state recorded 2 deaths from two incidents, while Delta, Niger, Ebonyi and Katsina states recorded, 1 death each”. The report further stated that as at the date of the press release 14/4/2020, COVID-19 had killed 11 persons, while law enforcement agents had extra judicially, executed 18 persons enforcing the lockdown. The statement went on to state that this was a “sheer display of impunity and reckless disregard for human life in law enforcement by security personnel”.

President Buhari, is expected to address the nation for the second time in fourteen days on the COVID-19 crisis by 7pm on the 13th April 2020. He is widely expected to announce the extension of the lockdown in the three key states in the forefront of the pandemic for another fourteen days.