Coronavirus: Faulty Premises that Marred Nigeria’s Response.

By: Ismaila Y Kana Onzonu

A lot has happened since Nigeria’s index case of COVID-19 was confirmed. The realities of our response to the virus have been shaded by so many dark spots that need to be situated in their proper perspective. For instance, aside from the closure of our land and air borders, it is very hard to find one decision that has worked seamlessly. This is why this backward glancing eye will take a critical look at all the assumptions that guided our response to the virus and the outcome so far.

  1. THE SELF ISOLATION PROTOCOL FOR NIGERIANS RETURNING FROM HIGH RISK COUNTRIES. This was our first big mistake and I called it then. Our assumption, that
    Nigerians, especially big men notorious for constantly disregarding instructions, especially those coming from government will automatically change their ways and do as they were told, dealt our chances of a swift containment a huge blow. Not only did this group fail to adhere to instructions, many of them gave bogus addresses to prevent authorities from locating them after the 14 incubation period to collect samples for testing. I am happy even the PTF have acknowledged that as a fatal error. But isn’t it too late?
  2. HONESTY FROM EXPOSED NIGERIANS SEEKING MEDICAL ATTENTION. Again, Nigerian authorities assumed that exposed Nigerians, many of them big men, that were asked to self isolate will be honest to adhere to the rules of their isolation, or be honest with healthcare workers when they present themselves for treatment. Needless to say, that also failed. In place of honesty, this class junketted from hospital to hospital mindless of the risks. The Kano index case and several others typified this behaviour that unfortunately exposed not just countless health workers and their families to the virus, but a great many Nigerians as well.
  3. THE ASSUMPTION THAT NIGERIANS WILL SIMPLY BELIEVE IN THE EXISTENCE AND LETHALITY OF COVID-19. This turned out to be our greatest undoing. I am very the decision by Mr President to Lock Down Lagos, Ogun and FCT was premised on the assumption that Nigerian have accepted the existence and dangers of the virus and so would behave themselves. Unfortunately, that was not the case. Many Nigerians adamantly refused to believe in the existence of the virus all through the periods of the initial lock down. This class of people went about their business as usual and even travelled out of risk areas without any second thoughts. The truth is, authorities failed when they did nothing to check the dangerous activities of many naysayers including some highly placed opportunists and clerics who misled Nigerians into believing COVID-19 was a hoax. By not prosecuting one or two of these peddlers of falsehood to serve as deterrent to other doubting Thomas wannabes, we confirmed, albeit subtly, that there was room for doubt in the whole thing. Sadly, many of the folks, including highly placed individuals are still spreading doubts unchallenged.
  4. ASSUMPTION THAT SECURITY AGENTS WILL ENFORCE THE PRESIDENTIAL DIRECTIVE RELIGIOUSLY. Another gap in our response is the assumption that security agents on our roads, legendary for turning every new directive into a money making venture will automatically turn a new leaf and diligently enforce the presidential directive. That was a very dangerous mistake that cost us dearly. Motorists understand the language of our security forces and they spoke it to the joy of the highway security men’s pockets. The truth is, even the security operatives themselves didn’t believe in the existence of Coronavirus. Like most Nigerians, they dismissed COVID-19 as a ploy by some individuals to make money. They won’t want to be left out of the COVID-19 largesse and how best to collect theirs than by charging high premiums from Nigerians trying to flee high risk, locked down cities?
  5. THE ASSUMPTION THAT PALLIATIVES COULD REACH MOST PEOPLE IN NEED. Lock Downs worked among developed nations because governments were able to deliver necessities to the doorsteps of those who need them. Nigeria believed it could do the same despite not having a comprehensive data base of its citizens which could have helped in identifying those truly in need of the palliatives. For instance, many states dumped the responsibility and cost of distributing the palliatives on LGA’s. LG Chairmen of course complained of paucity of funds and devised means of shirking the responsibility, giving room for sharp practices. Stories of how officials charged with distributing the palliatives diverted them to their homes, family and friends, and even markets didn’t go down well with the poor folks. I dare say that beyond hunger, stories of diverted stimulus in humongous sums meant for indigent Nigerians may have fed oxygen to fire of civil disobedience leading to the clamour for an end to the Lock down.
  6. SUNDRY DECISIONS ON BUSINESSES AND LIMITATIONS. This is another area that I feared was not in the best interest of our economy. Take Kano for instance, and I suspect Lagos and Abuja also, branches of many Banks remained closed even on days that Lock Downs were relaxed to enable people stock up on necessities. Because of this, many customers besieged the few that were opened leading to pushing and shoving in clear breach of the Social distancing protocol. Need I say that this contributed in no small measure to the spread of the virus in populous cities like Kano and Lagos? A better model would have been to simply allow banks to operate in full capacity as long as they agree to adhere strictly to specific operational protocols.
  7. TRUSTING FOREIGN APPROACHES TOO MUCH. Again, this didn’t do us a great deal of good. While other African nations including Senegal and Madagascar were working assiduously to find local solutions to beat the virus, we were comfortable with borrowed approaches. It didn’t matter that the prospects are limited by contrasting structures. Our situation is in dire need of creativity, innovation and indigenous solutions; and, fast.

In restrospect however, our greatest focus from the moment we learnt of this pandemic, to the day we confirmed our first case should have been on sensitisation – getting the people sufficiently informed about the virus to bring them aboard the COVID-19 belief-train. Sadly, we failed nor was it surprising. Such failures have been a recurring decimal in the Nigerian polity for too long. On the bright side – or should I say – on the fraud side, it has presented opportunities to governments at national and subnational levels to reward kangaroo groups with bumper and bogus contracts in the name of sensitization or as ambassadors. It doesn’t matter whether these groups have the template or even the ethical knowhow to go about disseminating the information to those who need. No! This is just another opportunity to reward friends and allies with a bite of the cake.

Going forward, government needs to carry out extensive research on how Nigerians will react to certain directives before they are issued. We can do this by factoring in past behavioral patterns of Nigerians to similar directives into equation before reaching critical decisions.

For instance, some African nations where there still exist some level of trust between government and the governed, allowed their infected citizens to self medicate at home. We can also look for what will work for us and use it instead of the copy and paste approach that has not really worked for us.

In addition to mounting a robust sensitization campaign and prosecuting naysayers falsifying the existence of Coronavirus and working on finding indigenous approaches, we could engage tailors to produce face mask in numbers for free distribution to Nigerians going about their business; or, even fund the mass production of automatic hand washing machines to be situated in strategic locations etc. NYSC has done this to great effect and it can be replicated nationwide. This would sustain some small scale businesses and keep the economy ticking, albeit slowly.

FINALLY, as the number of confirmed cases continue to rise at an alarming rate, coupled with the sad reality that our rate of mortality is said to be the highest in Africa, the time to do something different is now. I must add that, if we hope to beat this virus, whatever we do from now onwards must be different in both depth and nuances from all our past approaches.

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