Lawrence Enyoghasu, Elizabeth Ogunbamowo And Vera Wisdom-Bassey
Even in a world gripped by the fear of coronavirus pandemic, it was still a very disturbing sight: An able-bodied man with a placard hanging from his neck bearing the bleak inscription, “Help me. COVID-19 Starvation. I am hungry.”
He was a miserable figure at Total Filling Station, Ogba, in Lagos, moving from one vehicle to another; his prayer assailing everyone within earshot was a poignant recount of the fate that befell him. He was once a hardworking, self-sufficient man before the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic which brought in its wake the inevitable lockdown that unmanned him, rendering him penniless, redundant and now starving. Hence, his resort to begging to get his daily meal.
The COVID-19 beggar is not alone in this dire poverty. Countless Nigerians are in various degrees of this precarious state as the lockdown imposed by the Federal Government since March 29, 2020, in Lagos, Ogun and Abuja, extended to four weeks.
While the lockdown has become the standard measure adopted worldwide to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic sweeping across the globe, in Nigeria, the measure brought unforeseen collateral effects on the populace. In Lagos, complaints of hunger and poverty pervade the city.
Saturday Sun went round Lagos metropolis and spoke with different shades of Nigerians who shared their lockdown experience.
Airport taxi drivers in limbo
Airport taxi drivers claim they are among the worst-hit social categories because they were out of job when the airports were shut down even ahead of the lockdown. One of them, Ajayi Ogbe was seen begging a group of men at Adeoyo Street, Mushin for a handout.
“Please brothers, I would be very grateful if I could have one of those bags of rice for myself and my children at home. I left my house because I could not stand and watch my children agonizing over hunger,” he pleaded.
Ogbe explaining to Saturday Sun how he found himself in such a predicament, said he stopped working on March 21 when Federal Government shut down all airports.
“Since that day, our lives have changed. We tried to survive in the first week but the reality soon set in, now it is biting hard on me and my family. We started with rationing food and water, then we started feeding only the children,” he said. “It is not that I am lazy, it is the condition in the country that has turned me to a beggar.”
On why he has not explored the option of using his cab for occasional run around the city, Ogbe cited his fear of contracting the virus. “We might be hungry, it is better than to be on a sickbed in Ikoyi or Yaba, « he stated, «I’d rather be hungry than to be on a sickbed.”
In the case of Olusegun Asade, 74, a member of the International Terminal Zone Trustees of Airport Car Hire Association of Nigeria, he stopped working even before the lockdown was imposed. “Immediately, they said that a man of my age might not survive the disease if contracted, I stopped. I can’t put my family through it,” he said.
His family, like Ogbe’s is ravaged by hunger. “As we speak now, it is about 12 noon, but I have not eaten anything since morning,” he said. “As husbands and heads of the family, we have lost grip of the family when there is no food in the house, and we don’t have a job anymore.”
So far, he and his family, he affirmed, have been surviving on the generosity of neighbours. “Some neighbours have been generous to us. We have been using a formula for our daily feeding. Sometimes, once or twice a day; but there has never being a day we had three square meals.”
They had only heard of government’s palliatives, they have not seen or received any, he avowed, saying: “We have not been reached as persons who are most hurt in this period. Both federal and local governments have not reached us. Even the community we live in has not been reached. We are surviving by the grace of God.»
Saturday Sun also spoke with Adeniyi Olayinka, the celebrated airport cab operator who returned $2,400 cash left in his car by a commuter in 2019.
“For the past three weeks, we have been at home doing nothing. This is the first time I would experience this,” he lamented. “We eat in the morning and in the night. It is called 1-0-1. If government should extend the lockdown, we would have to go out. We can’t say that we are running from death and yet allow hunger to kill us at home. It is not possible. Hunger is deadlier than coronavirus. All my children are at home and I am trying to meet their need,” he stated.
Olayinka opined that given that airports were shut down first, “the airport drivers or workers are supposed to be considered first” in the distribution of palliatives. On how he has been surviving, he said: “I have been calling my former bosses to help my family.”
Afolabi Saula, Coordinator of Western Zone, Airport Car Hire Association of Nigeria (ACHAN) further disclosed that after the airport authorities stopped international flights, “we worked for about three days before it hit us that it was real and our lives mattered first.”
While praying for a quick end to the pandemic, he appealed to government to provide some palliatives and ensure that such is distributed equitably.
Okada riders’ risk for peanuts
The story was not quite different for commercial motorcyclists, popularly known as Okada riders. In Idimu, Saturday Sun spoke with a few who were seen operating illegally on the street.
“Since morning, this is what I could make,” said Yusuf Lawal who brought out N350 from his pocket. Previously, N5, 000 was his average daily earning. He claimed to have been on the street since 8am doing what he defined as “intra-street transport service” for those going to the market and people on essential service.
Lawal did not hide the fact that surviving has been tough for him and his family since the commencement of the lockdown.
Rafiu Abiodun, another motorcycle operator, was blunt in his response: “We are all hungry.” He said: “It’s really very tough for us now because the government told us to stock our homes with foodstuffs for two weeks; we did that, but even before the end of the two weeks, the food had finished; then the lockdown is now extended. What do we do?”
According to him, his family has been surviving from hand to mouth since the lockdown commenced chiefly because his wife who is a salary earner had been unable to go to work and was not paid for the month of March.
Rafiu claimed no palliatives from federal or state government had gotten to his doorsteps, hence, his resolve to continue to work hard so his family will not go hungry.
“Today, all I have made is N500, whereas, before the lockdown, I used to earn N10, 000 or more. Government should help us too because with the way things are going, the lockdown might be extended beyond this week,” he said.
Dare Abolarin is one of the Okada riders who don’t give a hoot about contracting the coronavirus disease. He would rather not die of hunger, he said, justifying his defiance of the stay-at-home order.
“Even at that, how much are we making now? I used to go home with at least N5, 000 every day but now I can’t even make a quarter of that,” he complained.
Virtually everyone on the street of Lagos laments about the side effect of the now four-week lockdown. Mr Fatai Ajayi, a vulcanizer was very blunt in his assertion about being trapped between the devil (COVID-19) and the deep blue sea (starvation).
The vulcaniser who journeys daily from Alagbado to Ikeja admitted that going to his workshop nowadays amounts to a waste of time, because “no customers dey come now and nobody dey come out to do tyre.”
Before the lockdown, he claimed his daily earning was around N4, 000, but now, he finds it difficult to go home with N1, 000 at the end of each day.
The barb of his anger was directed at the government. “They share some palliatives but it didn’t get to us; they promised to send money to people’s bank accounts, we have not seen anything, when they could easily go from street to street to share food to the people,” he raved.
Yusuf, a sales attendant in Ogba, also complained about the palliatives, claiming that it is not getting to people who need the relief and in most instances the dole was inadequate to sustain a household.
He advised government to use the National Identification Card database, which has names, addresses and occupations of citizens to send palliatives to them.
“That way, it will be easy to get to everybody, and then people can stay at home, otherwise, they will continue to disobey government’s order,” he said.
A tricycle operator along Agege told Saturday Sun, “I cannot stay at home seeing my children crying. If I don’t work a day, wetin my family go chop?”
He railed further: “Government is asking us to stay at home, two weeks, three weeks, and four weeks, that is why thieves are everywhere because government did not give us anything.”
He also tasked federal and state governments on the provision of palliatives to citizens, suggesting the use of Bank Verification Number to transfer N20, 000 to everybody. “The money will enable people to buy food for their families during the lockdown,” he said.
Failure of government to provide palliatives to citizens in the past four weeks, he asserted, is the reason many are disregarding the stay-at-home order. “As at today, the fear of death by hunger is worse than the fear of death from coronavirus,” he said.