By Tonnie Iredia
When the Covid 19 pandemic broke a little over a year ago, many had feared the spread would be hard to contain especially in developing societies such as Nigeria with weak public enlightenment arrangements. Activities which followed the outbreak confirmed such fears as many citizens behaved as though they neither heard nor understood various admonitions for people to avoid the risk of being infected.
There are still many households and individuals in Nigeria today who have remained cynical of the declarations of scientists and relevant organizations about the pandemic. The posture of disbelief in Nigeria and perhaps elsewhere in Africa was greatly increased by the fact that infections and deaths in the continent were relatively low compared to the devastating effects the pandemic has had on Europe and America. Perhaps it was indeed, a white-man’s disease, some analysts imagined.
In addition, reports of many casualties that were reported showed that it was at best a disease of the elderly. Nothing till date has in essence properly countered theseerroneous beliefs thereby creating a fertile ground for many to flout directives and rules made by government to contain the spread of the pandemic. Yet, Covid 19 infections have continued to be on the increase even in urban centres where our so-called educated elites live.
In Nigeria, where Lagos has become the unbeaten epic centre, people are prepared to give it to her numerical strength but the same argument does not easily hold for Abuja which has quite often behaved like a location in competition with Lagos as far as covid infections are concerned. Last Thursday for instance, the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) reported an infection figure of 275 for Lagos while Abuja secured 45infection more than Lagos making hers 320 for that day.
Instructively, these figures are recorded at a time when clearly stipulated sanctions have been put in place to check infections arising from breaches to the rules. It has thus become clear that the old argument of poor public enlightenment is no longer persuasive especially for Abuja which has a plethora of media platforms that daily inform and educate the people.
In fact,some weeks back, FCT Minister, Muhammad Musa Bello had appealed to Abuja Market Management Limited and other market associations to assist government in carrying out sensitisation campaigns. This he had hoped would ensure compliance to health protocols and regulations, as conditions for the full re-opening of worship centres and other places. Certainly, we are now in the era of deliberate refusal by people to obey lawful orders which ought to be swiftly penalized.
In doing so, government must change its old strategy of breathing heavily on onlythe poor and minor offenders. It is surely time to deal decisively with government officials and corporate organizations which cannot lay claim to the excuse of lack of awareness of the rules.
Here, we refer to the reported offensive behaviour of the Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF)which assembled in Abuja, a large number of its staff to undertake promotion examinations. In attendance at the single venue organized for the event, were no less than one thousand two hundred (1200) members of staff of the organization drawn from its offices in the North Central Zone including Kogi state whose covid 19 status has remained a mystery since the inception of the pandemic.
Apart from the large assembly in which many were said to be without face masks, NSITF did not also in line with extant rules seek authorization for the gathering. But for the timely intervention of the (FCTA) Taskforce on Enforcement of COVID-19 Protocols, the officers would have been left endangered for the duration of the examination – an exercise which we hear had been due for over two years.
While commending the task force for stopping the event from holding, we are not convinced that such an action was the only option available to the task force as a commensurate reaction. Why was the NSITF not prosecuted? The Fund is a corporate body established by law to maintain a solvent compensation fund managed in the interest of employees and employers in Nigeria.
Apart from pension, the NSITF is mandated to manage all social security insurance schemes. It is therefore a body which has an obligation to lead by example. Its ill-fated promotion examination scheduled for Abuja last week was organized in bad fate by reckless officials who are liable to be penalized in addition to vicarious liability of the Fund’s management. Indeed, the Fund ought to have been immediately prosecuted.
In addition, the management of the venue –the New M & M Event Centre located in Garki, Abuja can also not be left off the hook because she is also liable to the sanctions clearly stipulated as punishment for breaching the relevant guidelines. Except such bodies are penalized it would be difficult to convince ordinary folks that the rules governing conduct during the pandemic are meant to be obeyed and not experimented upon. Such well placed bodies should be prosecuted forthwith.
This is particularly important for a location such as Abuja where the FCT Administration (FCTA) has been super active in apprehending and punishing low income and poor individuals who in the search for livelihood breach any of the rules on Covid 19.
The week before,the FCTA had disclosed that its task force had arrested, arraigned, prosecuted and convicted no fewer than 100 persons over violation of the COVID-19 protocols. Last Monday,the taskforce went around strategic places in the city to arrest violators.
Following the arrests, an Abuja Mobile Court, was reported to have ordered the immediate closure of Wuse and UTC markets over flagrant disregard to the COVID-19 rules made pursuant to the Health Protection Regulations Act, 2021 by President Muhammadu Buhari. According to the media, most of the people prosecuted were fined N2000 each because they were first-time offenders while those who couldn’t afford to pay the fine were sentenced to two weeks of community service. So, when is NSITF’s prosecution?
The Abuja task force needs to provide an answer to this poser because we are in a democracy which presupposes equality of all before the law. With no prosecutions recorded for the Nigerian Identity Management Commission NIMC and her massive crowds seeking to obtain national identity numbers, it would be hard to convince ordinary citizens that they are not the only targets of Nigerian law.
Although there had been several speeches by the Presidential Task Force on the readiness of government to sanction many prominent citizens who had flouted covid 19 protocols, none of such VIPs has been so penalized.
Last year, the task force at its 51st briefing did name one governor, one immediate past governor and a prominent publisher among those who disregarded Aviation protocols to ensure safe air travel, and about which the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria FAAN tweeted that it would “do the needful” – a threat that seemed to have evaporated thereafter.
Government must find the courage to name our opinion moulders who appear unaware that examples are better than precepts by publishing names of big offenders to convince all of us that Covid 19 is not a big man’s disease for which only the small manis punished.