By Juliana Taiwo-Obalonye
The Year 2020 started like every other year. Nigerians in different places joined others across the world to usher in the year with fanfare, great expectations and prayers as the case may be. Many slogans were bandied around: My Year of New Beginning; My Year of Great Accomplishments; My Year of Total Turnaround, and such other coinages.
The rat race started with January and then February followed. Before that second month could end, things have started changing. The coronavirus, which had started ravaging parts of the world, then crept into the country. And since then, the centre has refused to hold.
To tackle the Coronavirus challenge, President Muhammadu Buhari assembled 14 individuals and saddled them with the responsibility of controlling the spread of the virus in the country. That was how the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 (PTF) was formed. Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Boss Mustapha, was made the chairman of the task force. Its initial mandate was for six months.
The task force commenced work immediately, with its inaugural meeting held on March 17, about a week after it was constituted. It was at that meeting that Mustapha laid bare the idea behind the setting up of the task force and enumerated its mandate.
His words: “The composition of the task force will enable Nigeria deepen her multi-sectoral and inter-governmental approach to our national response. Actions taken by governments in different parts of the world point to the fact that COVID-19 constitutes a major threat to humanity and requires that our response must be firm, scientific, methodical and strategic.”
According to the SGF, the PTF terms of reference include to strengthen the national response strategy, particularly in the areas of testing, containment and management of COVID-19; strengthen collaboration with all tiers of government, private sector, faith-based organisations, civil societies, donors and partners; build awareness among the populace; direct the deployment of any relevant national assets when necessary; lay a foundation for scientific and medical research to address all emerging infectious diseases; and advise government on the declaration of national emergency as part of the containment measures when necessary.
Then the PTF started to give leadership in curtailing further spread of the virus in the country by regularly assessing the situation and advising the president on appropriate steps to take. Once decisions are reached, the PTF was consistently organising press conferences to inform Nigerians. For long, press conferences were being held daily before the frequency was later reviewed downwards.
At the instance of the task force, the president declared a lockdown that saw offices closed, movements across state borders restricted and international flights stopped. The task force spearheaded mass testing for Nigerians; it put machinery in place to have isolation and treatment centres across the country. When the curves started reducing gradually, it also spearheaded the phased easing of the lockdown.
At a point, the president extended the mandate of the PTF by three months. In September, the coronavirus curve seemed to be flattening in Nigeria, with fewer than a hundred reported cases. But the PTF had cautioned Nigerians against dropping their guards.
Mustapha, at the national briefing in Abuja on September 17, warned that the virus was still virulent and dangerous. Then the pandemic had infected over 30 million people globally while Nigeria recorded 56,604 cases. By then India had recorded over five million cases.
“These numbers are reminders that point to the need to gird our loins tightly in our national response and build stronger and more unified global collaborative efforts to overcome the virus. Looking back at our national response, using science, data and experience from other countries, we cannot but say that tremendous progress has been made and that we are beginning to notice that the curve is flattening.
“However, as we have always stated, this positive development shall be taken with vigilance and cautious optimism. This is based on the fact that we are convinced that we have not tested enough, we have only recently reopened our international flights and nations that had opened up their economies have done a re-think following the resurgence of the cases in their countries,” said Mustapha.
Indeed Nigerians had a cause for temporary ecstasy with the effective coordination mounted by the Task Force to forge a synergy between the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, the international community, state governments, organised private sector and civil society groups. The national response was effective; the spread was retarded at some point and about 70,000 confirmed recoveries were made possible by dedicated medical and other frontline workers across the country.
While presenting its report to President Buhari on December 22, Mustapha gave an account of how the task force “had led the execution of interventions geared towards achieving epidemic control of COVID-19 in Nigeria since March 2020, when it was inaugurated.”
He noted that Nigeria’s COVID-19 response was driven by science and data as designed to achieve interruption of viral transmission, reducing the risk of the health system and minimizing mortality among the most vulnerable parts of the population.
The SGF said other objectives which include the reinvigoration of the health system, infrastructure and manpower to enable Nigeria to conveniently confront future outbreak and also build potential for medical tourism to shore up foreign exchange and prevent brain drain have also been largely achieved.
“The operations of the PTF have been driven throughout the initial six months and the extended three months mandate, by a multi-sectoral process which facilitated expansive and in-depth consideration of issues as well as speedy decision making. The process enjoyed the overwhelming support of the partners from the private sector and the international community. Through these partners, Nigeria was able to put in place critical infrastructure nationwide, procure scarce medical equipment, test kits and personal protective materials. The PTF was also able to deliver palliatives to Nigerians in the various states,” he enumerated.
Mustapha restated, however, that the national response as at the end of nine months of hard work remained work in progress, as COVID-19 has not abated.
Alongside some countries of the world, Nigeria has started experiencing a second wave of infections said to be more dangerous. As such, having presented its experiences of managing one of the world’s most assaulting infections, many people have described the extension for another three months approved by President Buhari as most commendable and sensitive.
Aptly capturing the essence of the time described personally as perilous, President Buhari mentioned that reports at his disposal indicated that Nigeria is currently faced with a second wave of infections similar to those occurring in other countries across the world.
He identified Lagos, Abuja and Kaduna, where over 70 per cent cases are being recorded daily, as the new epicentres, even as he promised not to allow the loss of the gains already recorded in the space of nine months in the management of the scourge by the National Response Team.
“Closely associated with the foregoing is the need to speedily and strategically access and administer the COVID-19 vaccine in a safe, effective and timely manner. This is an important obligation that we owe Nigerians as we go into the year 2021 and it must be carried out through efficient machinery,” President Buhari charged the Mustapha-led team.
At that briefing, Buhari extended the tenure of the PTF till the end of March 2021. In doing that, the President urged all sub-national entities, traditional rulers, religious and leaders of thought to collaborate with the body by taking up the responsibility for intensified risk communication and community engagement at all levels.
In its report, the PTF had highlighted the need for continued multi-sectoral collaboration, increased but effective communication and all sector considerations during emergency and the health sector reforms as part of its recommendations.
As part of the effective governance of this era, the task team is also conscious that economic sustainability, recovery and preservation of lives and livelihood; structured data collection, analysis and retrieval remain critical for effective governance, including evacuation of citizens from all over the world.
Also, the PTF has suggested the need to review several public sector rules and statutes for effective response in extreme emergency situations and establishment of a dedicated fund to address all pandemics and outbreaks alongside building on the synergy established with the private sector, the National Assembly and the sub-national entities.
“Mr. President, the year 2020 has been very significant to humanity. As we approach 2021, therefore, the PTF is recalibrating to enable it respond in a more effective manner to the new dynamics thrown up by the pandemic as a result of the new wave of infections and the arrival of vaccines,” Mustapha stressed.
Stakeholders have noted that it is important for all Nigerians to embrace and cooperate fully with the PTF by supporting all initiatives aimed at reducing the risks and flattening the COVID-19 curve.