Femi Folaranmi, Yenagoa
Bayelsa State, under Governor Douye Diri, was one of the few states that took pro-active steps in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
On March 21, Diri assumed leadership of the Bayelsa State Task Force on COVID-19 and directed council chairmen to do same in their respective councils. In readiness for the battle against COVID-19, Diri inspected the isolation centre at the Niger Delta University Teaching Hospital (NDUTH) and in a state-wide broadcast ordered the “closure of all public and private schools with effect from Thursday, March 26, as part of measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.” Worship centres and other public gatherings were to accommodate not more than 50 persons.
On March 28, Diri placed Bayelsa on a total lockdown. A statement by the state task force on COVID-19, signed by the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Information and Orientation, Freston Akpor, announced a travel restriction from 7pm in the evening to 7am in the morning as part of moves to check the pandemic. “All entry points into the state from Adagbabiri-Patani, Igbogene-Mbiama, Gateway/Glory Drive-Zarama and Okaki will remain closed within the period,” the statement said. In addition, activities at all worship centres, including churches and mosques, were suspended with immediate effect.
As chairman of the task force, Diri, on March 29, embarked on a tour of Yenagoa, its metropolis and entry points of the state to assess the level of compliance. “I believe that there is substantial compliance and our neighbouring states have also already locked down. So, we believe that the proactive measures from our state and our neighbouring states of Rivers and Delta will be fruitful,” Diri declared at the end of the tour.
Following grumblings from certain quarters, the governor appealed to Bayelsans to cooperate with health officials and security agencies working round the clock to protect lives and their overall wellbeing, noting that government was not in a hurry to sanction those flouting the rules.
“For us, it is more of an appeal, orientation and understanding. Sanctions are not the first thing because we need to get the buy-in of our people to know that what we are doing is for their own safety, good health and wellbeing. The state government is taking proactive measures in an effort to prevent the deadly virus from getting into the state, and there is a need to get the people to key into what we are doing because it is for their own good,”the governor said.
The state government, it was gathered, was not unaware of the harsh living conditions imposed on the people with the lockdown. The State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA) was immediately directed to commence the immediate distribution of foodstuff in its warehouse. At an enlarged meeting with members of the state’s COVID-19 task force, including service commanders, labour leaders and representatives of international health organisations in Government House, Yenagoa, Diri called for unfettered passage of vehicles conveying foodstuff and medical supplies to the state. He said the state government was exploring the possibility of providing a COVID-19 testing centre in Bayelsa.
In another step, Diri signed an executive order, titled Bayelsa Infectious Disease (Emergency Prevention) Regulation 2020 to domesticate the Quarantine Act as part of strategies to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus into the state.
Governor Diri said the executive order was in exercise of the powers conferred on him pursuant to the provisions of Section 8 of the Quarantine Act, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2004, and further pursuant to all other enabling laws and powers. He ordered the temporary closure of all markets in the state, particularly Swali market, which is the biggest in the state capital. “Other public places affected include event centres, bars, places of worship, public and private educational institutions and other public gatherings except a written approval are obtained from the governor for such gathering” Chief Press Secretary to the governor, Mr Daniel Alabrah quoted the governor as saying.
Following pressure from religious quarters, Diri was forced to relax the lockdown orders to allow Christians celebrate Easter. Big churches were allowed to have 50 worshippers while small churches were allowed to have 20 worshippers.
Few days after Easter, Bayelsans returned to their old ways in total disregard for safety rules, a development which attracted a note of concern from Diri. “I appeal to our people not to let down their guards. Everyone should continue to be vigilant and observe the rules of simple hygiene and social distancing. On our part, as a government, we will do everything to prevent the spread of the virus into our state,” he said.
On April 24, Diri took another step by storming border points unannounced in an unmarked Hilux vehicle. He immediately checked vehicles coming into Bayelsa and anyone without the approved permit to be on the road was asked to turn back and prevented from entering the state. He promised he would embark on such surprise visits regularly to the border points to underscore the seriousness his administration attached to preventing the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic into the state.
“We cannot sleep or rest while we have an enemy we cannot see. COVID-19 is an enemy that we must fight till it is completely defeated,” he said.
As of last weekend, 184 persons have been infected in the state, with 41 individuals recovering and getting discharged, while 12 persons have died so far.
Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Health/chairman Implementation Committee of the COVID-19 State Task Force, Dr. Inodu Apoku, has insisted that there was no cause for concern on the pandemic in the state. But investigations have revealed that there are reasons for eyebrows to be raised, if Bayelsa actually wants to win the war against COVID-19.