Unlocking the lockdown!

Emeka Omeihe

It is exactly four weeks today President Mohammed Buhari ordered a compulsory lockdown of Lagos and Ogun states as well as the Federal Capital Territory FCT as part of the measures to halt the spread of the coronavirus disease COVID-19 pandemic.

The choice of the two states and the FCT then was on account of the high number of residents who had tested positive to the viral disease. Considering the mode of transmission and speed of infection, the measure appeared the most viable option to stave off further escalation. Before then, some states had shut down all schools to avert the possibility of the most vulnerable population from contracting the disease.

Apparently taking a cue from the president, many state governors also came up with a surfeit of measures to insulate their respective states from the devastating effects of the ravaging virus. As of Wednesday last week, the governors had resolved to further extend the ban on inter-state travels for another two weeks, among other measures to contain the pandemic.

The initial lockdown ordered by the president was meant to last for two weeks. But further assessments at the expiration of that period, showed rather than decline, the pandemic was spreading to more states with the overall figure of national infection on a steady rise. Given this chilling statistics, President Buhari had to extend the lockdown for another two weeks when he reviewed the situation a fortnight ago.

As that timeframe expires today, the nation is full of apprehension as to the further measures the president has up his sleeves to tackle the festering challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. This anxiety is to be expected for a number of compelling reasons. The first is the inability of the government and its agencies to flatten the curve of the disease spread. With the continuing increase in the number of those daily affected, there are genuine worries as to the consequences of easing off the lockdown under such uncertain circumstances.

Conversely, there are also serious concerns regarding the deleterious effects of prolonged lockdown on the economy, the citizenry, and the imperative of survival for a great number of our people. The situation poses a contradiction of sorts. It is a contradiction between the imperative of maintaining the lockdown to stem the disease spread without suffocating out of existence, the very people the policy seeks to protect due to the inability to access basic human needs.

That is the uncanny dilemma in which we are inevitably entangled. That is the difficulty starring the president on the face as he unfolds his plans on the way forward. It is going to be a difficult balancing process especially for a country at our current level of development hosting a burgeoning population that finds it difficult to eat on a daily basis.

Whether Buhari opts for a wholesale unlocking of the lockdown, maintains the existing measures or relaxes them partially are issues to be sorted out when he speaks, possibly today. But if my reading of parts of his national broadcast penultimate Monday is anything to repose hope on, wholesome lifting of the measures is completely out of the way. His mind frame on this can be gleaned from his constitution of a committee of some ministers charged with the responsibility of fashioning out the modalities for the Nigerian economy functioning with COVID-19.

That says a lot about the direction of the president’s thought frame. The fact that no cure has yet been found for the deadly disease, should instruct that we will all have to live with it for the nearest future. This ipso facto imposes serious responsibility on the government to come up with options that will enable life to go on while the war on the pandemic is sustained.

But we have our own peculiarities here. We stand the risk of an exponential rise in the spread of the viral disease such that will make a mess of whatever mileage gained so far. We will have to contend with the possibility of escalated infections overwhelming the decrepit, weak and sub-standard health infrastructure available in the country. Faced with such huge deficits, there is the risk of system atrophy and possible collapse which will prove so dire to bear.

It is also dicey to retain the measures to contain the pandemic in their current form. What we face is a game situation involving choices with far-reaching payoffs. And in such game situations where policy outcomes remain largely fluid, the right choice is that which will minimize our losses in the event of the worst outcome. That is rational choice and rational calculation. This rule instructs a phased and gradual easing off of the lockdown.

The reality is that a lot of our people have been thrown into untold hardship by the current measures, as inevitable as they are. The economy we run is one in which a majority of our citizens live from pocket to mouth. Operating mainly from the very informal sector, they must as a matter of necessity move around daily to find something to eat. Many of them eke out a living either by socializing or begging.

For this group and they are legion, the lockdown is another name for sending them to their early graves. We may be stretching their patience so thin by continuing with the lockdown undiluted. A measure of the lethal threat the continued restriction on movements and freeze on economic engagements pose, is evident in the upsurge of criminal activities in Lagos and some other cities. It is the same reason that accounts for the high number of violations since the exercise began. The situation will definitely exacerbate if some respite does not come soon.

By respite, no reference is being made to the palliatives the various levels of the government are said to be dishing out. Here, we have in mind the imperative to strike a balance between the need for lockdown and some form of relaxation to allow activities resume in some selected sectors of our national economy. For, even with copious claims on the ‘success’ of the palliatives’ distribution, the reality is that it has not even scratched the surface of the suffocating poverty and destitution that pervade the entire national landscape.

The scramble we saw in some distribution centres that gave scant regard to social distancing and other protocols to stem the spread of the viral disease gives further credence to this view.

National president of the Nigerian Labour Congress NLC, Ayuba Wabba captured this dilemma when he called on the federal government not to extend the lockdown. Hear him “This is very dicey. As much as it is important to keep many Nigerians from dying in the hands of corona virus, loss of income and the accompanying destitution can also be a pathfinder for numerous other sicknesses and deaths”.

The issues raised by the NLC chief are in line with the major thrust of this article But we differ with his position if the call on the federal government not extend the lockdown is meant to remove all restrictions to prevent the disease spread. There is no indication now to support that position as it is bound to prove counterproductive. There are still obstacles created by citizens in the current restrictive measures that a wholesale removal will definitely spell doom for the country.

We are all living witnesses to the scant regard for extant protocols during the burial of late Chief of Staff to the president, Abba Kyari, by key officials of the Presidential Task Force PTF on the pandemic, ministers and the media. Though PTF members have apologized, the message of that act of indiscretion should not be lost on us. And it is that our people are yet to properly internalize the relevant preventive measures to warrant total lifting of the lockdown.

The way to go is a gradual re-opening of aspects of the national economy such as government offices, banks, industries and some businesses that can maintain the hygiene of the times. But before that is done, preventive kits such as face masks and sanitizers should be produced in large and affordable quantities. The transport system and the general organization of our markets must align with the new protocols for the situation not to relapse with catastrophic consequences.


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