The rising challenges of COVID-19

I am surprised that the state governors would elect to engage in a puerile and unhelpful argument about the legality of President Buhari’s lockdown order on Lagos and Ogun states and Abuja, as if they were blind and deaf to the existential threat to our country and its people by the globally rampaging COVID-19. Under the aegis of the Nigeria Governors’ Forum, the governors decided to take up the issue with Buhari as well as the secretary to the government of the federation, Boss Mustapha. Their chairman, Dr Kayode Fayemi, governor of Ekiti, would undertake that unnecessary mission.

I do not know what this is meant to achieve. Is it to roll back the order or to show that the president has gone beyond his constitutional brief? I find the posture of the governors disappointing because it is clearly a red herring across the path of what should unarguably be a collective national effort to save the lives of the voters who put the governors in their exalted offices. No one needs to be told that these are perilous, trying and tough times for the country.

COVID-19 cases are rising here, as indeed, they are throughout the world. As of this writing, the new official figure of those infected in our country is 184. Africa now has 6,213 cases with over two hundred deaths. Globally, the figure is even more frightening: one million cases so far – and climbing. The situation is dire. To play infantile politics of legality and illegality is to undermine the commitment of those who are using their personal resources to help a helpless nation in dire straits. It is unfair.

Buhari has a duty, both morally and constitutionally, to save the lives of his fellow Nigerians. His constitutional right to take whatever steps he deems necessary to save lives is not, and should not, be open to debate. Some of us thought the president was too slow in reacting to the global threat of the virus as it affects our country. Those who asked him to declare a state of emergency did so out of a genuine concern for how best to deal with the situation; a situation for which Nigeria, like other African countries, was not prepared.

A state of emergency would arm Buhari with emergency powers to suspend certain human rights and act solely in the overall interest of the country. He chose not to take that route because its implications would be enormous for him, his administration and the country. The steps he has taken so far do not undermine the letter or the spirit of our unique form of federalism – centralised federalism, also known as military federalism. Nothing in them should worry the governors.

On the same day, April 2, that the governors issued their teleconference communique, Mustapha, chairman of the presidential task force on  COVID-19, addressed a news conference in Abuja and gave the nation the bad news, to wit, the worst is not yet over with the coronavirus. He advised the governors to prepare for the possible spike in the COVID-19 cases. Mustapha further advised them to prepare facilities to accommodate at least 300 patients. He said “It is important for states, whether in the frontline, where cases have been reported or where cases not been reported, to intensify the preparation of facilities that will help, in the event of a surge.”

The news is not just bad; it is also frightening. So far, we have been lucky. All the cases so far are confined to our major towns and cities. But we must do much more than hope and pray that it does not affect our rural areas. I think Mustapha’s advice to the governors to prepare was based on a realistic reading of the situation. Coronavirus does not respect boundaries between cities and rural areas. The day it hits a single rural area in the country would be the day our nation is confronted with the rather heart stopping challenge of this killer virus.

Perhaps, the state governors seem not to realise that they bear the greater responsibilities for containing the spread of the virus and responding to those who contract it. Those who have problems with this may care to see how Babajide Sanwo-Olu, governor of Lagos State, is responding to the containment of the virus. The federal government cannot do much beyond setting the broad policy guidelines for slowing or stopping COVID-19 in its tracks. The states must take it from there and implement such policies to achieve the desired results guided by their individual and peculiar conditions and circumstances.

There are at least two obvious threats to the containment policy of the federal and state governments. One obvious threat comes from the religious community and is posed dangerously by those who believe that a regular contact with whatever deity they believe in would contain the virus and cure the sick. They continue to gather in worship places, naively believing that by taking refuge in the house of their particular deity, they have shut the door in the face of the virus. Nonsense.

If prayers could  contain the spread of the virus and cure the sick, no one could have done a better job of it than the pope who lives in Rome, Italy. Yet, Italy is the worst affected country in the world. If prayers were the solution, the Saudis too would not have placed their places of worship under lock and key. This is not about prayers and, for the commercial Christian leaders, the collection of tithes to persuade God to make short work of medical science and research with a miraculous end to the virus. These so-called religious leaders are misleading people towards the road to Golgotha. Stopping them is a task the state governors would shirk at the people’s peril.

Nigerians believe in prayers even when they see that the solution to this devastating health challenge lies in medical science and research. It is a faux belief borne out of a lethal combination of fear and ignorance. It is not a small threat to the containment policy. This is not about the freedom of worship. It is about staying alive.

The second threat to the containment policy arises from what is loosely described as strong head. This is the rather casual attitude of Nigerians to government policies intended to protect them. Those who live in Lagos daily witness a demonstration of this attitude towards traffic regulations by those who could not care less for their own safety.

These threats to the broad policies of restricted movement within and between states are best dealt with at the local level. This responsibility lies squarely on the shoulders of the state governors. A policy, no matter how well-intentioned, is not of much use unless and until it is properly policed. It is in our national interests for state and local governments to fully take on this responsibility now, even in places where infections have not been reported. If the state governors take the proactive steps suggested by Mustapha, every state would be ready for the possible surge. It is the only sensible option we have to help save our country and us.



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