The pressure on President Muhammadu Buhari to relax the lockdown on Lagos, Ogun states and the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, must has been enormous and, after five weeks, apparently, the government could bear it no longer. But it appeared reasonable for the government to maintain some of the restrictions, including the nation-wide 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew, the imposition of the mandatory wearing of the face masks and the social distancing rules of getting Nigerians to stay six feet apart from one another at all times and in all places.
It’s a compromise, an effort to find a middle ground in a conflict that brooks few half-measures. The biggest drawback of the middle ground is that it is rather optimistic. Nigerians are culturally a communal people. Our society is not wired for extreme individualism. We should try to learn it if only to survive the pandemic, but it is going to be hard. Our markets are not designed to keep customers at arms-length, to say nothing of six feet away. Something else to learn. Even our shops, banks, offices are bound to create four kilometre queues at six feet apart in some branches. TV footage of such queues in Ghana and the United States were fascinating.
We had expected that the President would take his decision on the lockdown based on scientific evidence and by getting the unequivocal support of the doctors and health experts. We do not see that he has that support. The Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) which spearheads the nation’s response against the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has not minced words. It fears a spike in infections. The Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) says the relaxation of the restrictions is premature. The World Health Organisation (WHO), almost daily, warns of the dangers of a rush to reopen the lockdowns because it is bound to be more painful to re-impose them if the reopening fails.
It has been argued that we are relaxing the restrictions because people are dying of hunger and our businesses are collapsing. What seems to be true is that we may have a lot of food for everyone but would be unable to get it to the needy promptly, if at all. And unless these food items can be distributed transparently and equitably, they are going to rot in warehouses all over the country or find themselves back for sale in our markets via corrupt officials. Given the quantity of food in circulation, much of it donated by public spirited Nigerians and organizations, hunger should not be an emergency at this point if the government can devise a credible way to distribute them. Indeed, the NCDC must reckon that there would be a link between the restrictions and the palliatives designed to make the restrictions bearable. Seeing that the palliatives get to the needy ought to be part of the NCDC strategy because if the mitigating precautions collapse and the infections get out of hand, the NCDC would be unable to shift the blame for failure. To prevent failure, the NCDC must incorporate the monitoring of the distribution of palliatives as necessary part of the task to lessen the restiveness among the needy thereby putting pressure on the government to ease the restrictions.
The world seems to be of two minds in its attitude to pandemic deaths. American woman, Dr. Lorna Breen, threw herself into the battle against the pandemic in a New York hospital. No matter how hard she worked, she came home frustrated because there were so many people still in need of help. She thought she was not making a dent on the problem. She quit by killing herself last week. Her opposite was the Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who, when told that the COVID-19 death count of his country had reached 5,000, queried: “So what?” Of course, in the long run we are all dead. He echoes the attitude of those who think the issues are now a choice between opening the businesses and accepting greater number of deaths. The gamble of reopening may work, given the unexplainable low fatality rates in Africa. But it is clear that China has reopened Wuhan, the city where the virus originated. They had locked down not for five weeks but 10 weeks. Wuhan has had no new infections for 16 days. South Korea has relaxed restrictions and is opening up without new infections. They were closed eight weeks, not five. New Zealand has recovered. Italy, Spain which bore the highest death rates in Europe are beginning to reopen. They shut down for`10 weeks, not five. The first day of our gamble with the relaxation of the lockdown on Monday is an eye-opener. The government should watch the situation for a few days and act accordingly. We think the NMA was right that the relaxation is premature.