Pandemic cases escalate to 12, Italian index now negative
FG, 16 states, FCT close schools
Kano, Enugu, Port Harcourt airports closed
Senate suspends public hearings, shuts public gallery
President’s wife locks office, daughter on self-isolation
WHO warns Nigeria, others of worst-case scenario
US approves chloroquine for treatment
By Our Correspondents
President Muhammadu Buhari yesterday called for calm among Nigerians as the scourge of COVID-19 is gradually spreading in the country, with four new cases discovered in Lagos State, bringing the toll to 12.
The president, in his first major intervention since the index case, caused by an Italian, was uncovered on February 27, said the federal government and the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) were competent to tame the pandemic, which has forced the First Lady, Mrs. Aisha Buhari, to shut her office.
The office shut down, for two weeks, came after some of her workers returned from a trip to the United Kingdom.
She also said her daughter, who returned from the UK, had gone into self-isolation despite not exhibiting any symptoms of COVID-19.
However, despite Buhari’s assurance, Nigeria may be heading for a total lockdown as the federal government, six more states and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) have shut down schools to curb the spread of the global pandemic.
The closure of schools by the six states– Enugu, Anambra, Benue, Niger, Ondo, Kano and the FCT- has brought the number of states that closed schools to 16.
Lagos, Kwara, Ogun and the North-west states of Jigawa, Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, Kebbi, Sokoto and Zamfara had earlier announced the closure of schools in their domain.
The federal government has also directed the heads of federal institutions and principals of Unity Colleges nationwide, to as a matter of urgency close them down in order to curtail the spread of the pandemic.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has also warned Nigeria and other African countries to prepare for the worst-case scenario as the virus continues to spread across continents.
But amid the gloomy situation, the president, in a statement by his Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, Malam Garba Shehu, urged Nigerians not to panic as the federal government is pulling all the stops to stop the spread of the disease.
He also took issues with the National Assembly, which accused him of complacency in tackling the pandemic, describing its stance as cheap and sensational.
He said: “In this regard, populist advocacies such as the one accusing the president of ‘complacency’ simply because he has not made a television address by ranking members of our respected parliament are cheap and sensational. These are not the times for populism and cheap politics.”
The president said Nigeria, like other countries of the world, was confronted with the challenge thrown up by the disease, adding that the government has already put some measures in place to whittle down its effects on Nigerians.
He listed some of the measures to include the travel ban placed on 13 countries where the scourge is prevalent as well as stringent measures put in place at entry points into the country.
In addition, some agencies of the government and the media have also engaged campaigns on the necessity to maintain personal hygiene.
The president urged Nigerians not to panic because measures put in place to combat the disease are effective.
“Nigeria like every other country around the world is dealing with the unexpected and the unprecedented impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Muhammadu Buhari administration has taken some steps to mitigate the effects on the Nigerian people.
“To prevent the spread of cases imported into Nigeria, the president has already ordered the restrictions of travel from 13 countries, each with more than 1,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19.
“Government has also suspended visas issued to nationals of these countries. The restriction will take effect from March 21 and will remain until further notice. While Nigeria delights in welcoming the world, the safety and protection of our citizens and land must take priority.
“The various agencies of government, including the media owned by the government, have embarked on vigorous campaigns promoting hygiene measures. There are, currently, very stringent regimes of checks at the points of air and sea entry into the country. The effort Nigeria is making as is well known, has already received the commendation of the World Health Organisation (WHO).
“The Presidency wishes to assure Nigerians that the government is on top of the situation. There is no cause for panic. So far measures put in place are working efficiently. What this country is doing has been recommended as a template.
“The President trusts the relevant ministers in his cabinet and the officials of the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), who are providing him with constant updates and professional counsel. These officials have a track record of competence,” the president said in the statement.
The statement, which highlighted the adverse effects of the disease on the economy, including the crash of the price of crude oil in the international market, said the president had consequently approved the reduction of the pump price of fuel by N20.
It also said the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) had announced a N1.1 trillion stimulus package for businesses affected by the disease, adding that interest rates for loans had been reduced from nine per cent to five per cent.
“The President instructed the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) to reduce the pump price of fuel. The Covid-19 pandemic has led to a crash in the global price of crude oil, and the President decided that every Nigerian should benefit from this. Subsequently, the NNPC announced a 20 naira deduction, and the pump price of fuel has now been reduced from N145 per litre to 125 naira per litre.
“The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) on Monday announced a credit relief of N1.1 trillion to businesses affected by the pandemic. The Bank has also established a facility for household, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and announced a reduction of interest rates for loans from nine per cent to five per cent,” the statement added.
Assuring Nigerians that the federal government would continue to update citizens with relevant information, the president said the government did not want to create fear in the minds of citizens as he rather pleaded for their cooperation with the government in the fight against the disease.
While pleading for obedience to instructions given by NCDC, Buhari said a high level presidential committee constituted over the pandemic should be allowed to function effectively.
The president also appealed to Nigerians not to politicise the situation and called for the collaboration of all and sundry with the government irrespective of political, ethnic and religious leanings.
“We do not want to create panic. But we will continue to update the Nigerian public with relevant information. We plead with every Nigerian to cooperate with the government in the fight against Covid-19 and obey all instructions from the NCDC. We have a high-level Presidential Coordination Committee chaired by the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF). This body should be allowed to carry out its duties.
“We also plead with Nigerians not to see this most peculiar of times as one to be politicised or seen as an opportunity to regurgitate grudges against the government or the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC). North, South, East, and West – all Nigerians must unite to fight this plague, irrespective of religious or ideological affiliation,” he submitted.
FG, States, FCT Shut Schools
More states yesterday also teamed up with the federal government to battle the virus by rolling out measures to promote social distancing.
In Niger, the state government ordered the closure of all educational institutions in the state, including tertiary schools. The closure, which starts from Monday, will last for 30 days.
A statement by the Secretary to the State Government, Alhaji Ahmed Matane, also suspended all public gatherings.
The Anambra State Government has also banned all public gatherings and directed tertiary institutions to go on compulsory vacation.
According to a statement signed by the Governor, Chief Willie Obiano, the ban on public gatherings will commence from Monday while the closure of tertiary institutions will commence from today.
He said: “Primary and secondary schools are mandated to go on compulsory break from March 27, 2020, while inter-house sports competitions are suspended till further notice.”
The FCT Administration has also directed the indefinite closure of all schools in the territory as a precaution against the spread of the virus.
The FCT Minister of State, Dr. Ramatu Aliyu, gave the directive in Abuja yesterday during a meeting with heads of Secretariats, Departments and Agencies (SDAs) under her supervision.
Also, the Chairman of Abuja Municipal Area Council (AMAC), Hon. Abdullahi Candido, has directed all council’s workers, except those on essential services, to remain at home for two weeks.
The Benue State Government has also directed the closure of all schools in the state as part of measures to prevent the spread of the virus to the state.
Briefing journalists after the state Executive Council meeting yesterday, the Commissioner for Education, Prof. Dennis Ityavyar, said all schools had been directed to conclude examinations on or before Friday next week and proceed on holiday.
The Enugu State Government has also directed public and private primary and secondary schools in the state to conclude all activities in their various schools and shut down on or before March 27.
Governor Abdullahi Umar Ganduje of Kano State has also directed the closure of public and private schools across the state as part of precautionary measures against the threat posed by the virus.
A statement signed by the Commissioner for Education, Mr. Muhammad Kiru, said the indefinite vacation became effective from Monday.
The Ondo State Governor, Mr. Oluwarotimi Akeredolu, also yesterday directed the closure of all primary and secondary schools as well as tertiary institutions in the state as from today until further notice.
The federal government too caught the bug and directed heads of federal tertiary institutions and principals of Unity Colleges nationwide, to as a matter of urgency, close down the institutions.
The Permanent Secretary of the Federal Ministry of Education, Mr. Sonny Echonu, said the decision was to protect students and pupils from the deadly scourge.
FG shuts Kano, Enugu, Port Harcourt Airports
Besides the closure of schools, the federal government has also shut three international airports – Mallam Aminu Kano International Airport, Kano; Akanu Ibiam International Airport, Enugu; and the Port Harcourt International Airport, Omagwa.
A statement by the Director-General of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, Capt. Musa Nuhu, said the three airports would be closed till further notice effective tomorrow.
He said the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja and the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos would still be opened but no flight from the 13 COVID-19 high-risk countries would be allowed into the country.
Lagos Records Four New Cases
Meanwhile, the Lagos State Government has recorded four new cases of COVID-19, bringing the total number of confirmed cases in Nigeria to 12.
However, the Lagos State Commissioner for Health, Prof. Akin Abayomi, has said the Italian index case has tested negative and will be discharged after confirmation by a second test.
He said the virus in his system has regressed and has gone to zero.
The Italian was first confirmed February 27 after he flew into Lagos February 25, and then visited Lafarge Africa Plc, Ewekoro in Ogun State.
The second COVID-19 case was a Nigerian, who had contact with the Italian and was isolated in Ogun State.
He has since been discharged after testing negative.
The state government added that it has now commenced contact tracing for 1, 300 persons who have had contact with the new cases and the previously announced six.
Abayomi told reporters yesterday in Lagos that 19 people were tested for COVID-19 on Wednesday and that four of them had tested positive to the virus and had been isolated for treatment.
He said: “The first of the four new cases who tested positive to the disease was a woman who had contact with the female patient who came from United Kingdom some days ago.
“The second new case is a female who returned from France on March 14 on a Turkish airline, TK 1830.
“The third case is a Nigerian male in his 50s who had not travelled anywhere, but was tested positive to the disease.”
Abayomi stated that the fourth new case was a Nigerian male who arrived the country on March 13 from Frankfurt to Lagos on Lufthansa airline, flight number LH568.
The commissioner, however, said more tests were still being carried out, adding that it is clear that there is combination of imported cases and local transmission.
“The executive of Lagos State is meeting on the next stage on social distancing. The best way to slow the rate is to halt the movement of the virus from person to person,” he said.
He appealed to people on the two flights to self-isolate themselves and to reach the government.
“Currently, we are following over 1,300 people right now to find information about the state of their health and the number is increasing,” he added.
Aisha Buhari Locks Office
First Lady has shut down her office for two weeks after some of her workers returned from a trip to the United Kingdom.
She also said her daughter, who returned from the United Kingdom is in self-isolation.
Aisha, who tweeted the developments through her personal handle, @aishambuhari, said she acted based on the advice of the Minister of Health and the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19.
She confirmed that her daughter is in self-isolation not because she is showing symptoms of COVID-19 but rather in compliance with the advice of the Ministry of Health and NCDC.
The first lady also said the decision to put her daughter, whose name was not revealed, in isolation had become imperative, because the UK is one of the countries with prevalent spread of the disease.
She advised all parents to encourage their returning children to also undertake similar action.
She advised Nigerians to embrace the principle of hygiene and to always use sanitiser, praying that the disease would be overcome.
Senate Suspends Public Hearings, Shuts Public Gallery
The Senate also took steps yesterday to prevent the spread of the virus by suspending public hearings and shutting down the public gallery.
Senators were, however, divided over whether the upper legislative chamber should be shut down with the recent return of 12 of them from the UK.
The senators, who are members of the Senate Committee on Petroleum (Upstream), led by the Chairman, Senator Albert Bassey, returned from an international oil seminar in London last weekend.
Disturbed by the effect of the continued presence of the 12 senators at the National Assembly, the Senate yesterday went into an executive session that lasted for about two hours.
Sources told THISDAY that there was a heated argument among the senators with some asking the leadership to shut down the Senate as a result of the possible spread of the epidemic with the return of the affected senators who had continued to mingle with their colleagues since they returned last Saturday.
Other senators were said to have canvassed for the restriction of visitors’ movements around the Senate.
THISDAY learnt that it took the intervention of the President of the Senate, Dr. Ahmad Lawan, for the arguments of the two parties not to degenerate as Lawan was said to have appealed to the two groups to allow peace to reign.
Eventually, he was said to have advised the returnee senators to isolate themselves and report to the authorities for necessary medical checks for the pandemic.
Chairman of the Senate Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Senator Godiya Akwashiki, confirmed the story as he told newsmen after yesterday’s plenary that Lawan advised the 12 senators to go for medical screening.
The Senate gallery will also be closed to the public till further notice, including excursions from schools and organisations from Tuesday.
INEC Postpones Senatorial Elections in Bayelsa, Imo, Plateau
Meanwhile, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) yesterday postponed senatorial by-elections in Bayelsa, Plateau and Imo states due to the pandemic
In a statement signed by INEC’s National Commissioner in charge of Voter Education and Publicity, Mr. Festus Okoye, the commission said that the by-elections would have taken place in the Bayelsa Central and Bayelsa West Senatorial Districts, Plateau South Senatorial District as well as in Imo North Senatorial District where vacancies occurred.
According to INEC, the vacancies occurred in the Bayelsa Central and Bayelsa West Senatorial Districts following the swearing into office of Senator Douye Diri and Senator Lawrence Ewhrudjakpo as governor and deputy governor of the state respectively.
The commission also said it received notice of vacancies for the Imo North Senatorial District following the death of Senator Benjamin Uwajumogu and for Plateau South Senatorial District following the death of Senator Longjan Datong.
“Given the health emergency occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic and the preventive measures put in place by the health authorities, federal and state governments, the commission has decided to postpone the four senatorial bye-elections until the situation normalizes.
“This is in line with Section 26 of the Electoral Act 2010 (as amended) which empowers the commission to postpone any election in the event of any emergency or natural disaster,” it said.
WHO Warns Nigeria, others of Worst Case Scenario
Meanwhile, WHO has warned Nigeria and other African countries to prepare for the worst-case scenario as COVID-19 continues to spread across the continent.
Figures show there is a growing number of cases of the virus in Africa with 633 persons said to be infected while 17 deaths have been recorded so far in 34 African nations.
The Director-General, WHO, Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus, in his daily press briefing, said Africa must ‘wake up’, adding that in other countries, the health body has seen how the virus accelerates after a certain tipping point.
The WHO said: “There are now 633 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Africa in 33 countries and 17 deaths. In the past 24 hours, The Gambia, Mauritius and Zambia have announced first cases. @WHO is supporting countries with surveillance, diagnostics & treatment.”
South Africa has become the continent’s new focus of concern as cases nearly doubled to 116 from two days before.
Although the pandemic is in its early days on the continent, health experts have warned that even facilities in Africa could be overwhelmed by the virus’ spread.
“I think Africa should wake up. My continent should wake up,” Ghebreyesus cautioned
No African country has so far instituted a total lockdown of their country despite the recent developments
US Approves Chloroquine for Treatment of Patients
However, the United States yesterday approved the use of an anti-malarial drug, chloroquine, to treat COVID-19.
President Donald Trump, while addressing reporters, yesterday, said: “We’re going to be able to make that drug available almost immediately, and that’s where the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), has been so great.
“They have gone through the approval process. It is been approved. They took it down from many, many months to immediate. So we’re going to be able to make that drug available by prescription.”