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CORONAVIRUS: How slow response landed us in a mess — Hon. Igbakpa

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By Levinus Nwabughiogu

Hon. Ben Igbakpa represents Ethiope East and Ethiope West Federal Constituency of Delta State in the House of Representatives. In this interview, the lawmaker speaks on coronavirus, saying Nigeria was too late in issuing travel ban on 13 highly affected countries.

How do you react to the travel ban imposed on 13 countries by the Federal Government following the outbreak of coronavirus?

We didn’t act on time because when we had just one case, it was enough for us to have shut our borders, stopped flights coming into Nigeria because there were reports of persons leaving heavily affected countries for Nigeria. I think we didn’t act on time but it is always better late than never. We have taken the decision.

We can see the way it has gone from one case to what we now have. We have five cases today. But I think it is a step in the right direction though not taken on time. Again, I think it is time for Mr. President to talk to Nigerians.

This will send a strong message. It will show commitment. He should at this stage talk to Nigerians. Once there is an issue and the C-in-C talks to the people, it shows the issue is serious. People will take it serious. I know the Minister of Health has been doing quite a lot in conjunction with Lagos State government and the CDC but I believe it is time for Mr. President to speak to us having been armed with enough statistics globally to talk to our people. The issue here now is that there is panic. People are afraid.

Yes, it’s worth being afraid of but it is not a kind of death sentence from all we have heard. It is an ailment, very dangerous; yes, but I think our people need to know what exactly is happening. The rumour mill is doing a lot of harm.

Do you think we are prepared as a nation and our medical systems well equipped to contain this virus?

We can’t contain it. We don’t have what it takes to contain it. That’s why I said we are acting too late. We are being reactive here. We ought to have taken precautions when it first happened and stop people from coming in. But now, we have allowed some persons. They are already with us. We allowed them. They are in. The number is growing by the day. For every flight that brings in one person that is infected, you know the number of persons that will come in contact with the person! But like I said, it is not that bad. Since we don’t have what it takes to contain it, the best way is to prevent them from coming in. Those ones that are in with us, we pray God to help us.

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But from all that we have seen, we are only being lucky. Nigeria is a very lucky nation. We are a nation very close to the heart of God that when things happen, God always gives us that cover. Just like what happened in the Ebola case, I believe it should just end this way. Thank God we have not really lost anybody, not because our medical practitioners are good or that we have the expertise to deal with it. Like in some places, in the US now, testing is a matter of few hours. Here, testing still takes days.

I read about the Enugu case where a mother was quarantined and before the result could come to show that the result was negative, the woman had died and nobody is talking about the woman. The daughter now had to write on the social media; yes, she is not asking for compensation but that the Nigerian government and the Enugu State government should do what is right, put the necessary infrastructures in place so that what happened to her mother will not happen to others. So, I think we should be proactive. We don’t allow things to happen before we start jumping around. The coronavirus issue came up some weeks ago. Even the United States of America didn’t take it serious because I remember President Trump saying that nobody will die in America but, today, they have lost over one hundred.

But let’s look at the population. We are talking about Iran. Iran has a huge population. They have lost a few percentage of it. Is it Italy? They have lost not less than one thousand. China, they have equally lost thousands. So, they have people but one death means a lot to a family that is losing the person. So, we are lucky in Nigeria that we have not recorded any death. Our government needs to wake up very fast and take precaution which is what Mr. President has done today by closing our borders.

I think our people should heed the advice. This is not time to pursue money and bring problems to the country. Whatever business you are doing, whatever journey that is unnecessary, shelve it. We are asking for two weeks, one month, I pray and I believe that everything will be fine so that people can live their normal lives

The House of Representatives has asked the Federal Government to ban open worships and gatherings. Does that suffice or will you advocate for total lockdown?

You don’t even need the House of Representatives or the National Assembly to come up with a resolution. Government should have locked down the entire country. We don’t know why our children should still be in school because if you look at the global tactics being applied by everybody, it is about people gathering in the place and one person getting infected and pushing it around for everybody. We ought of have taken these measures. The House had waited this long because we had thought that the executive arm of government will take the decision.

But the decisions were not coming, that’s why we had to do our own bit to tell the world: shut down places of worship, shutdown schools, shut down where there is gathering. We have people abroad that are in school. A lot of them are going into online education because of the pandemic. Schools are coming up with online learning capacity. So, classes are now being done in your house by just picking up your tab. If you have questions, send emails. We are getting feedback.

So, I think we wasted too much time, that’s why the House had to wade in. Really, the House was not supposed to come up with such cries before the executive arm could take action. I think it is a good one. Our voice must be heard. What we can do as legislators is to speak. The best we can do as legislators is to speak.

When we speak, it is left for the executive arm to carry out what we have observed but, like we have always said, they are persuasive which is not supposed to be so, but in Nigeria, it is highly persuasive. They do the ones they want to do. Nigeria is actually one country that reels out statistics that favor them and that should stop.

People think because of the past and how things are done, when we roll out these things, even the figures that CDC is giving, the Minister of Finance is giving us, some people are saying, are you sure? Are they not telling us what they want us to hear because we have governments overtime where people cannot trust what is coming out from them as the truth.

Have you considered the economic implications, the drastic fall of oil prices and the effect of shutting down the system globally?

Well, the system works with human beings. When the people are not there, when everybody dies, who is the system going to protect? Health is wealth. When we are healthy, the wealth will come no matter what we may lose today in terms of revenue. Again, this is an opportunity, it is a wake-up call that we should think about diversifying into other areas of the economy.

We cannot continue to live on mono economy. Once anything happens globally, it affects oil prices and we are running helter-skelter. By the grace of God, the President has set up a committee to look into the effect of coronavirus and how it is affecting the 2020 budget.

It means that the budget has to be scaled down to deal with the present reality. So, it’s a wake-up call that a mono economy is not an economy. Nigerians should think of looking at other ways, especially those ones that are local to us like agriculture and taking it seriously. Other areas like tourism, those are the areas we should look at. But, really, talking about coronavirus affecting our economy as it is now is just something that nobody envisaged. It is a bad one. I don’t expect the President to implement the budget the way it is meant to be.

Most countries are coming up with stimulus bills and packages. Now, outside scaling down the 2020 budget, do you think Nigeria should also contemplate a stimulus package?

I think it is something that we need to do. The central bank came out two days ago to reduce its interest rate. But when you reduce that, what about the final lending banks, the commercial banks that actually give out money? Their interest rate is still there because central bank does not give any businessman loan. It is the commercial banks that give out loan.

So, when the central bank is reducing interest rate, what happens to the commercial banks who are the actual lenders? What happens to the businessman who cannot travel now for his business? What happens to the market woman who borrowed money and now the market is shut down?  I think government should look at that side.


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