The world has drastically changed over the past few months with the COVID-19 pandemic. Its impact on Nigeria has been evident in the disruptions on the economic and social lives of individuals, households, and businesses. At the onset, the Federal Government imposed a mandatory lockdown on Lagos and Ogun states as well as the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), banned non-essential interstate travels, and introduced various other restrictions to contain the pandemic. Many state governments have also followed suit, in line with local circumstances within their various jurisdictions.
On our part in the House of Representatives, we passed an Economic Stimulus Bill to provide the necessary cushion for the country to balance the increasing demands of managing the pandemic and its economic fallout. We are also considering a Control of Infectious Diseases Bill to strengthen our country’s capacity to control this and future infectious diseases. Laboratories have also been activated in virtually all the states to strengthen and expand the country’s testing capabilities.
A few weeks ago, the government commenced various steps to ease the restrictions. Most recently, the government has announced the reopening of airports, lifting of interstate travel ban, while also reopening schools for examination classes. However, it is important that we remind ourselves that opening up the country for socioeconomic activities does not imply that the spread of the coronavirus is closing out. As a matter of fact, confirmed cases of COVID-19 stood at 111 and one death at the time the lockdown and restrictions were announced. But as I write, the figures stand at 26,484 cases and 603 deaths and the statistics will likely worsen by the time this piece is published. So, clearly, the restrictions are being relaxed due to socioeconomic imperatives, as Mr. President rightly admitted.
Also, the World Health Organisation (WHO) believes that “the worst is yet to come.” Addressing newsmen only a few days ago, WHO boss, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, warned that the COVID-19 war was “far from being over.”
It is, is therefore, quite depressing when leaders, who should shine the light for the people to see, choose to grandstand, live in denial and put the life of their people at risk as currently obtainable in Kogi State. This is the time to scale up our vigilance, prevention, and mitigation strategies as we continue to wage war on this invisible enemy. The responsibility of winning now lies with the government and citizens at this momentous intersection of health, economics, politics, and social considerations.
National and subnational governments are now confronted with tough decisions that require bold and decisive actions to ensure rapid and sustained economic recovery in the short term while keeping our citizens safe and healthy. One such imperative is to scale up investments in public health to withstand the pressures caused by the pandemic. It is imperative to expand our response readiness across the entire healthcare system, especially investments in primary healthcare, so that our first responders in the communities can detect and isolate suspected cases in the rural and semi-urban areas. Subnational governments should provide special protection for the vulnerable, especially our elderly persons in the rural areas that are extremely vulnerable to the disease. They need special attention, care, and education on COVID-19.
Furthermore, all strata of government must increase investment in the expansion of water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) infrastructure across the country. it has been established that handwashing and good hygiene practices are key preventive measures to stop the spread of the virus by citizens. But access to water supply in Nigeria is estimated to be 67 per cent, with a lower 40 per cent in the rural areas. So, we cannot sustainably defeat COVID-19 without significant improvement in access to WASH facilities. Government needs to work with the private sector to provide the needed technology and expertise to support the delivery of WASH infrastructure.
COVID-19 has also highlighted the need for strong digital infrastructure to support e-government, digital learning, telemedicine, work-from-home, e-commerce, and financial services. Nigeria’s public and private sectors must, therefore, place greater emphasis on massively improving our ICT infrastructure, primarily in broadband technology and Internet penetration, in all nooks and crannies of the country. It is gratifying to note that most states are already reducing right-of-way charges drastically. This will boost Internet access and fast-track economic recovery. The Federal Government needs to incentivise the private sector to scale up ICT investments across the country.
It is scary to see that Nigerians are letting down their guard when the war, according to WHO, is just starting. It is even scarier that many still contest the existence of COVID-19 in our clime. Therefore, citizens also have a responsibility to comply with guidelines and regulations such as proper handwashing and hygiene procedures, compulsory face masks and physical distancing, which requires limits on the number of persons that can stay within a defined environment at a time, among others. This is not a time to second-guess the virus or to live in denial of its existence. COVID-19 is real, and several Nigerians have lost loved ones to the disease.
Our health systems are already getting overstretched, but we can break the cycle of transmission of COVID-19 by focusing on our individual responsibility to take necessary recommended actions. However, the most important aspect of our collective responsibility remains a national strategy to look inwards and seek local content in the areas of innovation, technology, research, and development. This is a global pandemic and most countries have demonstrated that effective responses are driven by local innovative solutions that are delivered with best practices. Nigeria is endowed with inventors, innovators, scientists, and much more. The time has come for us to harness the potential of these human assets to think through local approaches and solutions in the development of medicines and vaccines for COVID-19.
Public and private sector investments should be dedicated to support these efforts, but we need a coherent national strategy to drive it. Nigeria should be on the global map of research and development to combat this virus and mitigate its effects on humanity. Fortunately, our bright minds are coming forward with great ideas, products, and services. They need the support of government to protect their intellectual property and encourage private investments to commercialise them. The National Assembly stands ready to support such efforts with the appropriate legislative framework to deliver them.
As nations strive to fend off the pandemic, I am supremely confident that Nigeria can win the war against the pandemic. But government must adopt a smart local content national strategy and all Nigerians must remain focused and take responsibility.
•Okechukwu is Deputy Minority Leader, House of Representatives