By Olu Fasan
THIS week, President Muhammadu Buhari extended again the lockdown of Lagos, Ogun and Abuja. He first imposed a two-week lockdown on March 30 and extended it for another two weeks on April 13. This time, the extension is for one week, until Monday, May 4, when “a phased and gradual easing” of the lockdown will start, albeit with an overnight curfew and indefinite ban on “non-essential” inter-state passenger travel.
Meanwhile, the president has imposed a two-week lockdown on Kano, where there have been “mysterious deaths”!
All this sounds familiar. Lockdowns are the textbook response to COVID-19 globally. Yet, two things are wrong about Nigeria’s coronavirus lockdown. First, the decision-making process is opaque, utterly devoid of transparency; second, the science and evidence behind the lockdown and its “phased and gradual easing” are unconvincing, probably even flawed.
These two issues – process and evidence – are important because they are central to the legitimacy of public policy and to voluntary – not forced – compliance. Truth is, if citizens are asked to bear unjustifiable burden and are not sufficiently carried along in the decision-making, they will question the reasonableness and legitimacy of the decision.
So, what is wrong with Nigeria’s lockdown process? Well, it is too top-down. The president should be the “explainer-in-chief” in times of crisis, but President Buhari explains nothing; he simply presents his edicts to Nigerians as a fait accompli. I mean, why is it that all the three times President Buhari announced a lockdown, he did so through a broadcast? What is wrong, in a democracy, with a president engaging in dialogue with his people?
President Trump is about the same age as President Buhari, yet, leaving aside his mannerisms, he engages with Americans on COVID-19 through a daily press conference, fielding questions from the media. As Dr. Oby Ezekwesili tweeted recently: “This method of the President reading speeches to citizens without opportunity given to journalists to probe the ideas conveyed is frankly unacceptable”. Indeed! And if there is any time such scrutiny is needed, it is now.
Which brings me to the second problem: doubtful science and evidence. President Buhari said that “initial models predicted that Nigeria would record an estimated 2000 confirmed cases in the first month after the index case”. Note: 2000 cases, not deaths! So, why should Nigeria shut down its economic hubs for weeks because of that projection? The UK, US, German and France did not impose lockdowns until Professor Neil Fergusson of Imperial College London published a modelling showing that COVID-19 could lead to 250,000 deaths in the UK and up to 1.2 million in the US, if not suppressed.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not opposed to a coronavirus lockdown in Nigeria. My point is that, given the huge adverse economic and social consequences, it makes no sense to shut down the economy and further pauperise already impoverished Nigerians because of a projection of 2000 COVID-19 cases – not deaths – in a country of 200 million people.
What the 2000 figure suggests is that COVID-19’s Reproduction value, “Ro”, is below 1 in Nigeria. Epidemiologists say that if the Ro is below 1, it means that every infected person passes the disease to less than one person, meaning the virus is containable. Surely, if the 2000 cases were an accurate estimate, what the government needed to do was, to use the mantra, “test, treat, trace and isolate” the 2000 and the few people that may have infected.
Clearly, with the decision to end lockdown during the day, usually a beehive of activity, when social distancing will be hard to enforce, except heavy-handedly, President Buhari implies that the coronavirus has peaked in Nigeria. So, no tough restrictions are required. But if COVID-19 has peaked at 1,273 cases and 40 deaths – to which I say Amen! – isn’t that evidence that a lockdown wasn’t appropriate in the first place? The president credits the lockdown for the apparent peak. But despite the West’s lockdowns, there are currently 56,175 deaths in the US, 22,856 in France and 21,092 in the UK.
Truth be told, the science and evidence behind Nigeria’s COVID-19 lockdown and the proposed relaxation are questionable. Few people believe Africa’s 33,273 cases, which is just one per cent of global caseload, is realistic, and the idea of the virus peaking at 2,000 or so cases in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, flies in the face of the World Health Organisation’s warning that “we are at the beginning in Africa”! As someone rightly said: “Africa isn’t testing enough to give us the full story”. And, indeed, with just 10,000 tests so far, the true extent of COVID-19 in Nigeria is probably unknown.
Sadly, whatever the case may be, ordinary Nigerians are experiencing unbearable pain. President Buhari himself said in his last broadcast: “Many of our citizens have lost their means of livelihood; many businesses have shut down”! But while the UK gives every worker or self-employed person who stays at home up to £2,500 every month, Nigeria takes away the dignity of its locked-down citizens by giving them so-called “palliatives”, including, as reported, poor-quality rice, and many don’t even get them!
The informal sector accounts for 65 per cent of Nigeria’s economy. This involves people who literally cannot survive by staying indoors. In a recent speech, Professor Charles Soludo, former Central Bank governor, referred to a study showing that only two per cent of bank accounts had N500,000 (about $1,300) and above. So, how do you quarantine people in those circumstances, stopping them from earning a living? President Buhari announced a ban on “non-essential” inter-state passenger travel “until further notice”.
So, how will the drivers survive? And none of this mentions the scourge of domestic abuse, which has risen worldwide as a result of the lockdowns but will be exacerbated in Nigeria by poverty.
There are many silent victims of Nigeria’s coronavirus lockdown. Sadly, they are bearing unjustifiably heavy costs for what is arguably an unwarranted confinement!