By Sola Ogundipe
For the first time in recent memory, Christians spent Good Friday in lockdown and they will also be marking the Easter in lockdown.
Amidst all these, there is a general mixture of unease and palpable anger as Nigerians face the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic lockdown.
President Mohammadu Buhari ordered the “cessation of all movements” for two weeks in Lagos, the Federal Capital Territory, FCT, and Ogun state, as part of measures to stop the spread of coronavirus.
All citizens in the areas were directed to stay in their homes, from 2200 GMT on Monday, 31st March, 2020. Travel to or from other states were put off. All businesses and offices within the locations are to be fully closed during the period.
The lockdown officially kicked off as scheduled but full compliance barely lasted 24 hours. A large number of Nigerians have since thrown caution to the wind and breached the lockdown in search of “survival” as many described it.
Today, its 12 days into the 14-day lockdown and millions of Nigerians are fatigued. Agitations for lifting the stay at home directive have been on since. Tensions are rising. Barely 48 hours into the mandatory stay-at-home order , millions of residents in the locked down areas and other states appear to have had enough.
In the highly populated regions of Lagos metropolis visited by Saturday Vanguard such as Mushin, Sabo, Amukoko, Agege, Badiya, Ajegunle, Alapere, Oshodi, Alimosho, etc., residents did not hide their displeasure. The initial solidarity that heralded the presidential announcement of the lockdown, had faded like the morning dew in the late morning sunshine as the residents bemoaned effects of the restrictions on their daily life. Their initial enthusiasm rapidly gave way to frustration and anger. Most of the complaints in Lagos and environs are around the effects of the lockdown and distribution of the palliatives promised by the Lagos state government.
Poor awareness about social distancing
The Lagos state government initially issued a partial lockdown, directing public servants to work from home as a step to effect social distancing and check the spread of the coronavirus. Authorities in Lagos also shut schools, religious houses, and closed non-food shops and restricted gatherings to limit movement. The federal government followed suit a short while later. The Head of Service of the Federation, issued a memo that directed all public servants from levels 1 through 12 to work from home effective Tuesday, March 24.
Those exempted are to limit the number of visitors they to avoid gatherings. The work-from-home order would last indefinitely until a review. A number of state governments declared full or partial lockdowns in a bid to check the spread of the virus, and to greatly reduce movement around the country. Although the stay at home is essentially a strategy to limit contact among persons and break the chain of transmission even as undetected cases begin to rise as community transmission kicks in, many Nigerians missed the essence of this message. The manner of communication of the real message of the importance of “social distancing” and “staying at home” to the people was poor on the part of the government.
The World Health Organisation, WHO, and other health watchers have routinely warned that Nigeria risks seeing an “exponential” rise in COVID-19 cases except the contacts of suspected carriers are quickly tracked down. Enforcing a total lockdown is a mammoth challenge in a country where much of the population live in dire poverty and subsist on daily earnings to survive.
“We are fully aware that such measures will cause much hardship and inconvenience to many citizens. But this is a matter of life and death,” the president had stated, assuring that the authorities would “deploy relief materials” to assist people in towns around Lagos and Abuja whose livelihoods were hit. The Lagos state governor also announced a programme to supply two weeks of basic foodstuffs to an initial 200,000 households in the city. But Lagosians and other state residents roundly faulted the arrangements for the lockdown and distribution of palliatives.
“These methods are Draconian,” a Lagos businessman retorted. ”First the lockdown notice was too short. People did not have time to prepare, or to stock up. There are no provisions of advance payment of salary or bonus, and the arrangement for distribution of the food and other cushioning effects are grossly inadequate. A public servant who also confided in Saturday Vanguard stated: “The whole idea of providing palliative measure against the COVID-19 lockdown is welcome, but the implementation is all wrong. Expecting the people to stay at home without help from government is a mere wish. Our leaders and the well-to-do in society should come up with better ways to rescue the masses.”
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The total shutdown of business, economic and social activities in Lagos, Ogun and Abuja , primarily to slow down the exposure of Nigerians to the coronavirus disease quickly led to open confrontation of sorts. Saturday Vanguard came across a video clip of a heated argument that ensued between residents and officials of the Lagos state Neighbourhood Safety Corps, LNSC, who are members of the Lagos Special Taskforce on COVID-19, and monitoring compliance of the stay at home order. “You cannot lock down people, cut them off from their means of survival, ban them from interacting among themselves in the interest of social distancing and expect them to be compliant. It will not work.”
Fatigue sets in
“We are broke and hungry, our children are hungry. This is worse than death,” said Taiwo Adisa, a vulcaniser in Ketu, a Lagos suburb. “Many of us in this area are artisans who subsist on what we earn on a daily basis, but since this lockdown began, we have not earned a kobo. I do not have any money left and I could not remain at home with my hungry family so I trekked down here from Owode to see if I can make some money today.”
Taiwo is not alone. On the third day of commencement of the stay at home, Seyi, a panel beater who resides at Ijegun left home at 5am in effort to get to his workshop at Ladipo in Papa Ajao. “I am tired of staying home without money or food so I left home to fix a customer’s car and at least make a little money.” There were no commercial buses available and so Seyi trekked several kilometres before he obtained a ride from a policeman on a motorcycle.
“He dropped me at Ikeja Along and I trekked again till I got another ride to Oshodi. Then I trekked to my workshop. But it was a wasted effort as the customer did not show up. I phoned him and he said he wasn’t coming again because his area was locked down. I was very angry when I heard that. I was forced to wait till early evening for the sun’s intensity to go down before returning home. I trekked most of the way and got home around 11pm. What pained me most was that I went back without the money I was expecting to make. I wasted my time and the little money I had. It was really frustrating,” he lamented.
Many Nigerians like Taiwo and Seyi do not expect that they can last another week or two of the lockdown. State governments have been roundly castigated for failing the people by not properly arranging availability and distribution of the palliatives. At numerous road blocks set up to enforce the stay at home directive in Lagos, motorists and other commuters hurled insults at police and army officers accusing them of extortion and causing artificial road blocks. Long queues dotted the entrances of man banks on the Lagos Mainland.
“We don’t have any more food or money. My shop has been closed since the 1st of April, how am I supposed to survive?” a spare parts supplier at Ladipo spare parts market remarked. “Oga please help me with something, I have nothing left. My family needs to eat,” the man appealed.
Complaints, protests over palliatives
The Lagos State government’s promise to provide palliatives in the form of non-perishable food items to the vulnerable population in the state fell short. The distribution process has been widely criticised for inefficiency and sharp practices. The process is carried out in rowdy, crowded atmosphere, defeating the social distancing purpose. Residents readily and widely protested the shoddy and hurried arrangements. A nursing mother accosted around Isolo area of Lagos, angrily told Saturday Vanguard that “revolution will break out” if the government failed to provide adequate relief package for the masses.
“I am not happy with this government at all because I have not seen any relief package in my own area, but I heard that the government started the distribution last week. We do not know the sharing formula strategy or why it has not reached us here, yet they say it is for the masses. We can’t take this any more. We are starving.”
Another bystander remarked: “They said we should stay at home for what reason? I do not understand. We are hungry, no food, no money, no light, how do they expect someone to stay inside? What should we eat? “
Yet another angry response: “People are hungry and you say they should stay indoors and not go to work. You didn’t give us money or food, you didn’t give us anything and you want us to just sit down in the house, doing what? Do you want us to die at home?”
In February, a worst case scenario of 36,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases was projected for Lagos, with a best case scenario of around 12,000 cases if the principle of social distancing is adhered to. Staying at home, directing staff to work from home to limit physical contact.
This week, the Federal government declared Friday and Monday public holidays to mark the Easter, but was silent on the extension. However the Lagos state government reminded residents that the lockdown was still in place. The Presidential Task Force only hinted that the lockdown could only be extended by the President. On Friday 10th of April, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country rose to 288 with 7 deaths in 17 states. A total of 51 persons had been discharged. It is still unclear whether the few days of the lockdown have in anyway helped to “flatten” the curve. It may be too early to ask if the rate of new infections has slowed.
In the days ahead, indicators point that the restrictions placed on social and economic activity need to remain in place. Social distancing is non-negotiable to curtail the spread of the deadly virus, and lifting the measures too soon or not enforcing them adequately could be catastrophic.
The trick is to enforce restrictions and maintain public morale and social order without alienating the public. It is a balancing act, but the current situation in Nigeria needs it to prevent another emerging front in the battle against the COVID-19 menace. People are no longer serious about the lockdown or maintaining social distancing. Just a few are taking official guidelines seriously. There is no longer a shared sense of urgency and this is where danger lies. Nigeria cannot afford to be in any way complacent about the COVID-19 pandemic.