Since Monday, April 27, when the Federal Government announced modalities for the gradual easing of the five weeks shutdown of economic and commercial activities in Lagos, Ogun and Abuja, starting from Monday, May 4, when activities would start to pick up, Nigerians have been expressing their opinions for and against the exercise.
When in December 2019, the Coronavirus, which came to be known as COVID-19, broke out in far away Wuhan, the capital of Hubei Province in the People’s Republic of China, and people started dying, first in tens, and later in hundreds, fear gripped other countries of the world.
One of the measures adopted by China to contain the spread of the disease was to declare a total shutdown of the city of Wuhan. People were forced to remain in their houses while the government battled the virus. With the success recorded by this singular method, it was readily adopted in Italy, Spain, France, Germany, Britain and other European countries when the virus hit them. The same strategy was also adopted when the United States of America was hit by the pandemic; total shutdown of economic and commercial activities was adopted.
However, on February 27, the Federal Ministry of Health confirmed the first Coronavirus case in Lagos. And within the first four weeks after the index case in Nigeria, the figure had jumped up to over 40 cases, forcing the Federal Government of Nigeria to borrow a leaf from other countries where shutdown had recorded some level of success in the fight against the spread of the pandemic. In a nationwide broadcast on March 29, President Muhammadu Buhari, announced a total shutdown of Lagos and Ogun States and the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, for two weeks in the first instance. By this announcement, almost all the economic and commercial activities in these states were brought to a halt. Schools, government offices, transportation, manufacturing companies as well as small scale businesses were all closed. Only those involved in rendering essential services were allowed to move during the period. People were expected to remain indoors. It was believed that the approach would be a magic wand that could slow down the spread. But, that did not happen as the figure kept rising. That informed the government’s decision to extend the shutdown by another two weeks at the expiration of the first two weeks.
As at Monday last week when the second two-week extension elapsed, the figure of the infected persons had jumped up to over 1200. The development was a clear indication that another extension was inevitable, even as Nigerians groaned over the pains of the past four weeks. That, analysts believe is because majority of Nigerians survive on daily earnings. Many would starve if they don’t go out daily. After consulting widely and weighing all the available options, government extended the shutdown by another one week, but promised that gradual easing of the shutdown would start as from Monday, May 4, when the one week extension would have come to an end. By May 4, the states of Lagos and Ogun as well as the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, would have been shut down for five weeks.
Nigerians are already divided about the success or otherwise of the shutdown, with opponents and proponents advancing various reasons to buttress their arguments, which range from the mundane to the reasonable. There are those who believe that it was necessary to have shut down the affected areas at the time it happened and would even want it to continue until the spread is brought under control. There are others who believe that even though the exercise was necessary at the time, it was done in haste as the government did not consider those whose lives depend on daily earning. This group of Nigerians wants the government to look for alternative measures as the hardship brought upon the people by the shutdown in the last five weeks could only be imagined.
Yet, there are other Nigerians who believe that the shutdown was not necessary as according to them, government did not make any provision for the people to obey the order. They argued that a man who is hungry cannot remain indoors; he would be forced to damn whatever consequences and go out to look for food.
There are others who believe that the shutdown has only caused pains for Nigerians because of the widespread disruption of public life. They argued that businesses and government offices have been closed. People have lost loved ones. People have lost source of revenue particularly the weak in society, and those who depend on daily income to survive have been severely affected. They said the situation has led to a lot of people hanging around everywhere, begging for food just to survive.
They did not forget to point out that residents of Lagos and Ogun live in fear throughout the period as criminality peaked with the activities of roughnecks like the One Million Boys and other criminal elements who went on robbing people even in broad day light. Their activities overwhelmed the security agents such that residents constituted themselves into emergency vigilance groups, making bonfire in almost all the streets of Lagos and Ogun just to ward off the miscreants.
Those who do not see any benefit in the shutdown argued thus: “In terms of benefits, we cannot really say whether if we have not shut down, the cases would have gone higher than it is now. This is because when you talk of the spread of the virus, there is no yardstick to measure it in terms of benefit but it is taken that the shutdown was intended to curtail the number of infected people. Before the shutdown, the number of the infected people was very low, just about 40 or there about, but within the shutdown period, the number shot up to over 1200 cases, even when social distancing has become the norm.”
But, the government thinks otherwise. President Buhari, in his nationwide broadcast last week, where he extended the shutdown by one more week, said it was predicted that Nigeria would record an estimated 2000 confirmed cases in the first month after the index case. “This means that despite the increase in the number of confirmed cases recorded in the past two weeks, the measures we have put in place thus far have yielded positive outcomes against the projections,” he said.
However, on the move to open up activities in Ogun, Lagos and Abuja, from Monday next week, the former General Secretary of the Nigeria Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG), Chief Frank Kokori, lamented that while the whole world is thinking out of the box because of what they are facing as a result of COVID-19 and giving palliatives to their citizens, it is unfortunate the developing countries of Africa, including Nigeria, are virtually at zero level.
He argued that the world, including Nigeria, is not even ready to open up now but it has become inevitable because people must eat, and in order to avoid hunger, which could be more dangerous than the pandemic, the shutdown just has to be lifted. “Not that the world is even ready to open from the shutdown but if you don’t open, there would be hunger and that is more dangerous. I think Nigerians should just follow guidelines by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and start opening up gradually and that is all. Not that the shutdown has achieved much but the people must eat, they must feed. The government can’t take care of the people. Leadership level of African leaders has been under scrutiny and has not really impressed the world generally, neither has it impressed very few good people in Africa. So, we have this problem of leadership and corruption and all that. When you talk of palliatives, those who get it are not the right people, and they even get far less than they should have gotten. So, normally, you have to think out of the box in this instance. So, I quite agree with the easing of the shutdown,” he said.
He attributed the minimal impact of the virus in Nigeria to God’s love for Nigeria and the continent of Africa rather than the shutdown. He said: “We are lucky in this part of the world. I think God just loves us because even with the less we are doing; we are just recording very low death rate and very high recovery rate. This is not just in Nigeria alone; it is all across Africa. Even in South Africa, they are doing very well. Look at Nigeria; if the statistics is right, we have just recorded about 40 deaths so far. What is 40 when countries like Italy, Spain, South Korea and other small countries which populations are not up to half of Nigeria, are talking of over 20,000 deaths? America is now talking of over 200,000 deaths; same thing with Britain. So, we should start opening up gradually, just like the world is doing, not that it is the best option but we should because of hunger. And we should just try to abide by directives from the NCDC and what other medical persons and scientists are telling us. We should try to discipline ourselves. I will encourage leaders at various markets, and local governments to try and educate the people so that together, we can all keep to the guidelines.”
On the gains of the shutdown, he said it had made Nigerians to sit up. “It has also made most African leaders to sit up. Even the United States has been made to sit up. As powerful as America is, it never sat up. Apart from the South East Asian countries like China, South Korea and other countries that took it very serious, no other continent was prepared. Even European countries failed their people. Americans woefully failed until they decided to sit up. But, like I said, the hand of God is in everything in Nigeria, nay everything Africa,” he stated.
Looking at the pains of the shutdown, the labour leader said it brought deprivation upon Nigerians as most people became hungry, following the abrupt loss of income. “Do you know the meaning of loss of income? Do you know how many Nigerians that are in organised labour, I mean those in the informal sector of the economy? People who depend on daily income? Most of them were thrown into hunger over night; they suffered deprivation. Even the public sector people that are sure of their salary; mainly federal public servant, which is about less than one percent of the Nigerian population are all suffering. So, everybody lost, everybody is just managing. The little upper class people that had some savings have exhausted all their savings. So, everybody is losing apart from the government fat cows,” he submitted.
Also dissecting the shutdown and its effects on Nigerians and the economy, the Spokesman of the Afenifere Renewal Group (ARG), Dr. Yinka Odumakin, argued that in terms of the gains, maybe, the virus had spread more. He said: “According to a recent analysis I listened to on one of the national television stations, before the shutdown, there were about 112 cases of COVID-19, but now after the shutdown, we have about 2000. The analyst said there was an average of four cases per day before the shutdown but after the exercise, it has gone up to an average of 40 cases per day. So, when you look at those data on its surface, you can say that the shutdown did not have any positive impact, but maybe, it could have been worse without the shutdown.”
He also argued that post shutdown period would be tough for residents of Lagos, Ogun and Abuja, as the informal sector which is the backbone of the country’s economy had been badly bruised. He expressed fears that a lot of businesses might not be able to bounce back, and even those that could bounce back would find it extremely difficult to do so. He said: “Well, shutdown is not a vaccine for the virus; it is just to limit the rate at which people mingle or interact, without which the spread could have been worse than it is today. But, in terms of the economic cost, there will be serious problems. There are businesses that would never recover. There are others that will recover, but they will find it very difficult to do so. You can say that the cost of shutting down may have saved more lives because many more could have died of the virus, but definitely, we are going to suffer gravely from this. The backbone of the Nigerian economy is the informal sector, and shutting them just like that will have serious economic impact. There will be various shocks here and there.
“At the end of the day, you can say the shutdown was worth it because of lives that could have been saved by the exercise, but you don’t just shut down an active part of the economy as if you are shutting down some barracks or cantonment. There should be a better approach to this kind of thing in future, and not just a president sleeping for weeks and waking up one morning to say that he is shutting down the country the next night; that is not how to run a modern society.
“I am worried because this has completely exposed furthermore what people have been talking about over the years about the state of our health infrastructure; it is zero. We have no capacity for anything. Even if you look at the testing we are talking about, even though no nation was actually prepared for it but you could see that the way nations responded was based on the existing infrastructure that they had. Look at Ghana, South Africa; but look at Nigeria, we are just there. So, it is unfortunate that the greatest problem in Nigeria is the elite.”