The Insight by Lateef Adewole
“Social distancing is a privilege. It means you live in a house large enough to practise it. Hand washing is a privilege too. It means you have access to running water. Hand sanitisers are a privilege. It means you have money to buy them. Lockdowns are a privilege. It means you can afford to be at home. Most of the ways to ward the Corona off are accessible only to the affluent. In essence, a disease that was spread by the rich as they flew around the globe will now kill millions of the poor” – Jayshre Shukal, India.
I have kept the above quotation for some time since coming across it but did not find it expedient until now, despite its relevance to the immediate past as far as lockdown in Nigeria was concerned.
It’s been two weeks since the government allowed phased easing of the lockdown, the daily briefings of the PTF and that of Lagos State by Governor Sanwo-Olu are full of complaints about how people were not adhering to the conditions attached to the easing, and on several instances, made veiled threats of another round of lockdown as if it is a punitive measure against the citizens, rather than something that is supposed to be a collective approach to solving a collective problem.
Like I was recently accused of having changed my position on the issue of the ravaging coronavirus, based on my support for the easing of the lockdown after the initial five weeks. I called for the lockdown at the early stage, wholy supported its declaration, and criticised those who flouted it for whatever reason, be it religious, social or economic. Now, it is not that I have changed my position on the reality of the virus but I believe the approach to its management should continously evolve as more scenarios play out like we have seen since the index case on 27th of February, 2020. Government is not supposed to simply take the “lazy” route of locking people indoor without end.
I premised my stand on the fact that, “he who ties a goat must provide what it will eat”. And since government has failed woefully in supporting the locked-in citizens, majority of whom live on daily earnings from hand to mouth, with such basic needs as food, the only reasonable thing to do at that moment was to free the people to go out and make a living for themselves before hunger virus kills them. Hence, why I supported it.
Moreso, after almost three months that the virus landed in Nigeria, and a locking down for almost six weeks, the virus continued to spread but people were not dying as speculated by the western world that Africans will be dying like chicken if the virus gets here. It can only means that “benevolent spirits” (Things fall apart) came to our rescue. “Maalu ti ko n’iru, Oluwa lo n ba l’esinsin” (it is God who drives away the flies harrassing a tail-less cow). God knows we are completely incapacitated, unprepared and incapable of handling the pandemic in the proportions of what happened across Europe, Asia and America. We would have been done for.
So, with these factors in our favour and the failure on the part of government to meet the citizens’ needs, why should the lockdown be continued endlessly? When the phased easing was announced in the broadcast of President Buhari on April 30th 2020, it was a welcome development. Many guidelines to be observed by the people as they go out were also rolled out.
Therefore, on May 4th, the outpouring of people that was seen in many parts like Lagos, and Abuja was not unexpected. People besieged different locations like flies. It was like hungry lions that were released after preys. However, this came with its anticipated challenges as well.
On that very morning, pictures and video clips of how people behaved surfaced on social media. Some showed how hundreds of people were clustered together, struggling and fighting to gain access to some banks. The least concern of many involved was physical distancing. It was completely “murdered” (literally). Commentators blamed the people for their carelessness and the banks for their mismanagement of the crowds.
Other pictures and videos of bus stops in different locations in Lagos and Abuja appeared. One contained that of BRT bus stop in Lagos. The way people were crowded made those of the banks look like child’s play. There was restrictions on the number of passengers that the busses and tricycles can carry on a trip. It was about 50-60% of their full capacity. By implication, it will take twice the number of trips it normally took the buses or tricycles to clear a crowd. By extension, there will be stiffer competition for seats, hence the struggles to get into the buses.
In addition, the commercial motorcycles were completely banned in Lagos during this easing, understandably so, since it is impossible to maintain any serious physical distance between the rider and passenger as dictated by the protocol of 2 meters distancing.
That puts further pressure on the existing buses and tricycles which were not increased in number. So, what does the government expect people to do? Stay at the bus stops forever because they want to maintain physical distancing for fear of coronavirus or start trekking many kilometres in hot sun or rain? I do not think that makes sense. The restriction by curfew is also another. It is from 8pm in the evening to 6am in the morning in Lagos, a state that never sleeps in the past!
While I am not giving excuses for people’s misbehaviours or irresponsible actions with the carelessness in their approach to curbing the spread of coronavirus, the blame can actually go round. My concern is that, where government have not made adequate provisions for all these compulsory and essential public infrastructures and services, just as represented in the opening quotation, there is limit to the extent they can complain. Only who pays the piper can dictate the tune. Have governments done their parts?
Unfurtunately, some people are just stubborn and recalcitrant. What are they looking for, traveling, often not compulsory or essential, from one location in a state to another location in other state(s)? In this process, they jeopardise all the efforts of the government at controlling the spread of Covid-19 and preventing escalation in the country, by their irresponsible actions.
In the past two weeks, we were awashed with the news of arrests of tens of vehicles transporting hundreds of people from one state to another, often traversing many states. The small buses and the big trucks alike. Across the southern part of Nigeria, many trucks were reportedly arrested after discovering they were carrying hundreds of people who hid inside them using other food items as cover and or decoy.
There were those who hid inside trucks transporting cows from the north to south. Others are food items like rice, beans, yams, even pepper and tomatoes trucks. What is with the desperation?
But for the vigilance of the taskforce in some of these states who discovered these plots, acted promptly, and turned the trucks back with the “runaways”, after discharging the food items and their owners. Those with only human content were turned back immediately. There were cases of that in Cross River, Enugu, Oyo, Kwara and so on. Many came from as far as Kano, Katsina, Sokoto, etc. How did they travel past all these states on their way successfully despite a national order by Mr. President on ban on interstate movements of non essential services?
My question did not have to linger for too long before I got my answer. It was due to the complicity on the parts of the security agents deployed on the roads to prevent such movements. It happened that “a ti f’eran so olongbo” (we have kept the fried meat with the cat). “A fi aparo sabe, a n gbinka”. The same people who were supposed to prevent the crime are the people aiding and albieting it for personal financial gains. They have turned the roads to their “work-chop”. How did I know this?
Just last week, a former colleague of mine who works in Abuja has been in Lagos since the beginning of lockdown. The easing was in both locations, but with restrictions on interstate travels. Working in a sector that is exempted from the ban and well-armed with his cover letter, he hit the road and drove all the way from Lagos back to Abuja. According to him, there truly were countless number of roadblocks, and stop and search spots mounted by the security agents on the roads throughout his journey, but unfortunately, most of them are their to do their “PP” (personal project).
They are there to extort money from unauthorised travellers and allowing them free passage as against the standing order to prevent such. That explained how those big trailers full of people were able to travel all the way from north to south, before being arrested and turned back. What an unfortunate situation with “official” compromise. He narrated that they hardly pay much attention to him to scrutising his pass. They just quickly dispatched him so that they could attend to the real culprits that will bring money.
What about the official movements involving redistribution of “Almajiris” among the northern states? This is what has been trending in the past weeks with each northern governor gathering as many Almajiris as they could find in their state and “deporting” them back to their states of origin. This was said to be an agreement among the members of the Northern Governors Forum sometimes ago.
The question then is: is this the appropriate time to implement such unconstitutional policy? This is a time where the campaign is to “stay at home” (in one location) and not be moving up and down to avoid spreading the virus. And sadly too, many of these kids were said to have tested positive to coronavirus. In some extremely inhuman cases, the recipient states rejected them and turned them back to the states from where they came. All these could be without foods and sufficient care for them. Of what essence is a government even?
This brings me to another disturbing story that I consider financial recklessness. Weeks ago, we saw sharing of physical cash by agents of federal government in the name of conditional cash transfers. Outrage followed such misguided, disorganised arrangement prone to fraudulent practices. Government justified it.
Later, we heard that children who are on “forced” holidays due to coronavirus will start to be fed under the school feeding program. I read a report where many concerned stakeholders objected to it, given its non feasibility. How can government feed school children in their homes? That’s ludicrous. Many simply saw it as another avenue to siphon scarce public funds. And to say that most of the available money to the federal government now are borrowed funds that have skyrocketed our national debt. How much more insensitive and irresponsible can a government be?
The National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS), National Union of Teachers (NUT), and Concerned Parents and Educators (CPE), were all against this strange “home-school feeding program”. One then wonders in whose interests is it being done? Yet, the same most vulnerable like the case of these Almajiris that are being tossed around like football are glaring to the Minister for Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development and her employer, the FG, without doing anything about it.
What the taskforce and state governments are supposed to focus on is being neglected but they continue to grandstand about locking down the citizens who circumstances forced to behave in the way they are doing with respect to many disregards to expected physical distancing by them. At least, majority now use face masks in many parts of Lagos that I have been to. That should count for something.
So, rather than threaten citizens with lockdown, governments at all levels should get the buy-ins of the people and administer reasonable sanctions on erring citizens, in accordance with the laws, rather than threats or resulting to the “agbero-style” of self help, as seen in the brigandage exhibited in Rivers State by Governor Wike when he demolished his citizens’ properties for mere violation of lockdown. His action has attracted wide condemnations across the country and beyond, even from many people who were his supporters. That was tyranny. That action was a culmination of series of other missteps and misdemeanours by him since the beginning of this pandemic.
Governments should provide more buses in Lagos and other places with high congestion of people and high demand for public transport. The private sector should be more sensitised as to improve their crowd management within and around their business premises. The government should be commended for the awareness. They have done very well, but they should do more. Banks should improve their online services in line with the cashless policy of the CBN. Markets should be further decentralised. Erring security agents should be punished. Mass mobilisation to find indegineous cure should be a serious focus of the government right now, as it looks like the virus might be with us for quite some time. We cannot lockdown the country forever as a solution.
Unfortunately, many people still doubt the realness of the virus or are sceptical about its virulence, especially the poor people. They either completely disbelieve it or see it as a “rich man’s disease”. That doubt is still prevalent. But can they be blamed? Governors Yahaya Bello of Kogi and Professor Ben Ayade of Cross River states seem to be “demystifying” the virus. The two states are yet to record any infection. Though, NCDC said it was because tests have not being carried out in those states. On counter claims, no massive sickness or deaths have been seen in both states. That leaves people in dillema.
The bottomline is that, government must come clean at all times, carry along the people, whose public funds they are spending, to avoid this suspicion and insinuation that the people in charge are more interested in the financial accruals from Covid-19 than genuine concern for the welfare of the people.
May God continue to protect us and guide us aright.
God Bless Nigeria.