With the partial lockdown of the country to combat the COVID-19 pandemic midway into its second week, major events reflect modest successes, missteps, rare displays of mettle and the usual infernal intrusion of politics in serious national issues. Despite the lateness in taking charge by the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), closure or partial closure of many parts of the country, steady rise in the number of infected persons and weak national coordination, the country has won praise from the World Health Organisation.
But it is very early in the day to be definitive on the success of any containment strategy. The most powerful tool to curtail the spread of the pandemic that has claimed thousands of lives and sickened tens of thousands others globally remains basic preventative measures by individuals and communities. Latest reports say 209 countries had by Monday reported a total of 1,356,380 confirmed cases of coronavirus that originated from Wuhan, China, and a death toll of 75,762 persons.
Though the spread has been modest locally compared to the grim toll the virus has been taking on the developed countries, the penchant for mismanagement has surfaced in the Federal Government’s response so far. Nigeria is paying dearly for the failure of the Buhari regime to respond swiftly and pre-emptively through the early closure of borders and imposition of air travel restrictions.
Experts assert that if in-bound travel from coronavirus-hit countries had been swiftly restricted and strong quarantine rules imposed on returning Nigerians, the country might have escaped the pandemic or at least, severely curtailed its spread. But it took Buhari almost five weeks to address the nation and impose a lockdown on the Federal Capital Territory, Lagos and Ogun states after the first reported infection. Worse; senior government figures, including lawmakers, governors and influential individuals returned from overseas trips without self-isolating and along with ordinary returnees, became vectors of the virus.
Nevertheless, led by Lagos, the epicentre of the pandemic in Nigeria on account of its being the nation’s hub of commerce and international travel, many states have taken charge, imposing lockdowns, border closures and curfews. By a mixture of luck and the measures taken, the pandemic has not run out of control as feared by some, winning rare commendation from the WHO. By Monday, 238 cases had been recorded in 15 states, five deaths and 35 treated and discharged. This is considered a good result when compared to the rate of infections elsewhere like Italy, Spain and the United States. The affliction has hit other developed countries too, including Britain, whose Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, was admitted in intensive care on Monday.
While the government has rolled out a flurry of measures, it should learn from others more severely hit by the pandemic to avoid a disaster; the country has very poor health facilities, a dysfunctional public service and heavily populated slums.
Buhari should first, review the composition of the task force: his proclivity for exclusionary politics and cronyism is already playing out. Even in this moment of national danger, he persists in sidelining his capable deputy, who would have been a natural choice for chair of the 12-member Presidential Task Force, now headed by Boss Mustapha, the Secretary to the Government of the Federation. This is not the time for politics; Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, as statutory chair of the National Economic Council that includes the 36 state governors, would have been better placed to facilitate effective coordination between the centre and the states. Instead, there have been parallel, sometimes contradictory, directives from the federal and the state authorities. Osinbajo’s appointment as chairman of the Economic Sustainability Committee on the sidelines of the main anti-COVID-19 committee does not mitigate his distance from the war front. As governor of Lagos State, the Minister of Works and Housing, Babatunde Fashola, installed an effective institutional capacity to combat the 2014 Ebola epidemic, coordinating with Onyebuchi Chukwu, who as Minister of Health, activated the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control; both men would have been valuable as members of the national task force.
The task force and the Health Minister, Osagie Ehanire, advertise their arrogance by failing to mobilise all health professionals; instead, they are sparring with them. Ehanire’s complaint that the Nigeria Medical Association has not come forward to offer assistance is capricious: it is his responsibility to muster doctors, nurses and all health professionals and bodies for this national emergency. The country need not wait for the numbers to rise to the levels being witnessed in Italy, Spain, the US and the United Kingdom, before rallying all serving and retired health professionals. Italy fast-tracked the graduation of 10,000 student doctors; Spain in March, mobilised 52,000 additional health workers among them 14,000 retired doctors and nurses. South Africa is calling for more health care workers, while the US has relaxed entry visa requirements for doctors and nurses from around the world.
While the committee on the economic impact gets on with its job, politicians need to give way to more professionals and technocrats to lead in scientific containment efforts. In the US, while Vice-President Mike Pence communicates direction from the White House, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Jerome Adams, the Surgeon-General, take the lead in the scientific nitty-gritty. Nigeria needs to include more experts in medicine, virology and epidemiology to join Chikwe Ihekweazu and Sani Aliyu, the coordinator on the presidential committee, while the politicians recede to the background.