It ought not to be a hard sell to convince anyone that, try as we may and have, Nigeria is well behind the emergency response curve required for tackling the COVID-19 pandemic. Hence, now is the time to escalate the national resiliency level holistically, and in an unfettered manner. Luckily, we have global response examples, best practices and lessons to borrow from, as well as mistakes that should be avoided entirely.
My assessment of this matter is non-partisan and purely from the policy and complex emergency response perspective. First, I believe that those who are against shutting down non-essential public and academic institutions are wrong. They are putting their economic considerations first. We must be aware that whatever economic of financial losses we incur nationally in our preventive efforts will ultimately pale, when compared to eventual national losses, if we fail to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 expeditiously.
Here is the painful reality. Nigeria now has a total of 27 cases of coronavirus in the country. COVID-19 infections in Nigeria will extrapolate exponentially. For now, we seem comfortable in orchestrating containment. The spread of infections will eventually rise because of indiscipline, our fluid form of urban and rural transportation, lack of societal control regimes and structures during emergencies, poverty, compelling need to fulfill sustenance and hierarchy of needs at any cost, poor national safety net, illiteracy and poor national orientation in compliance with public orders. Furthermore, we seem to be allowing our success in managing the limited-scope Ebola outbreak to induce a false sense of response capabilities.
The wide distrust gap that exists between the national population and government is a critical factor. If we must sell fear and use shock therapy to induce compliance with preventive measures, now is the time. That may be the only way to guarantee the escalation of our national resiliency to the required level. Federal and state cooperation will be imperative, beyond setting up the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19, and the National Economic Council meeting intermittently. Our leaders must also lead by example; first by personally exhibiting, publicly, the value of social distancing. That is not happening yet.
There are some other biting realities we must contend with. What, for instance, is the acceptable national casualty and fatality threshold. Will we accept hundreds, thousands or millions before the blame game starts? For now, fate has been kind to us, but I suspect it won’t be for long. We, as a nation, will eventually overcome the COVID-19 challenge, but the costs and fatality rates will only be mitigated if we act proactively and expeditiously.
I have commented elsewhere on the prevailing challenges. My point of view remains unapologetically consistent. I am not into doomsday scenarios, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. Bearing in mind that Nigerians, including traders, fuel vendors, contractors, consultants and even healthcare providers, tend to profiteer from crisis and emergency situations, the Federal Government must take the lead. We must have a strict Presidential Executive Order on hoarding and price gouging. That order must also be enforced. Various states might have some comparative response advantages in terms of finances and social and health structures but this is time to collaborate and not compete. Decentralisation will work best and help overcome the red tape and bottlenecks associated with all efforts, policies and finances coming out of Abuja.
So, what to do? Healthcare providers need more support. But we must have structured and uniform response units at the state level. The reactive responses so far are grossly insufficient for the scope of impending complex emergency and crisis that could be cataclysmic for Nigeria. At the state level, we must start setting up centralised and localised testing and holding spheres, as well as quarantine areas. The National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) and its state counterparts (SEMA), military and paramilitary agencies and all first responders should now be on “Code Yellow” operational mode across the nation. Our national prevention advocacy is disjointed. Television and radio jingles and handbills in various ethnic languages are not reaching the critical masses out there. This explains the recent cases of chloroquine overdoses, by those self-medicating. It also explains the lackadaisical response to social distancing. We need to escalate public awareness preventive measures advocacy process. Such campaigns should be national in scope.
We must also marshal all available national financial resources required to tackle this pandemic. Announced Federal Government response funding and Central Bank intervention support of N50 billion soft loans to small businesses are worthwhile. Likewise, the announced CBN increase in its intervention by another N100 billion in loans to support in 2020 the health authorities and ensure that laboratories, researchers and innovators work with global scientists to produce vaccines and test kits in Nigeria to prepare for any major crises ahead.
Yet, I have, even at the risk of sounding unrealistic, advocated that the Federal Government should as a matter of urgency release at the minimum N74 billion directly to the 36 states, the Federal Capital Territory and the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC). I stand by that recommendation. The resources recommended might seem outrageous, but Nigeria has expended far larger amounts on less critical national security matters. I remain convinced that not responding robustly and expeditiously now will ultimately cost Nigeria more, financially, materially, morally and, certainly, in terms of human casualties.
The COVID-19 challenge to Nigeria will demand collective national leadership that is assertive and robust. Nigerians need to see President Muhammadu Buhari and Vice President Yemi Osinbajo personally leading that campaign. Presently, Nigeria is on the lower rungs of the COVID-19 totem pole. The extrapolation and increase will definitely come, if lessons from Iran, Spain, Italy and the United States are anything to go by. Our demographic mosaic is much more diverse and equally much more susceptible. Our local population will involuntarily shift from epicenters of infections, and in doing so abet the spread. The crisis high point will come, if and when we are eventually required to lock down cities, towns and communities. We must, therefore, contemplate what our contingency sustenance plans will be for city and rural families in terms of healthcare, food, finances, if we arrive at the critical juncture.
From past experience, some, including bureaucrats, policymakers and consultants, have exploited moments of dire national emergencies as means of getting rich quickly. It happened in Niger Delta and in the North East, and even in the 2012 flood disaster. Yet, we should not allow such experiences stop the federal government in releasing the funds required to combat this pandemic robustly. States cannot go it alone and should not pretend to be ready when they know they are not. We must escalate our national resiliency now. We must seize the moment.
•Obaze, MD/CEO Selonnes Consult, is former Secretary to the Anambra State Government and a former U.N. official.