Different Shades of A Lockdown

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Poor planning by government and growing defiance by citizens threaten to undo the gains of a lockdown in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, writes Demola Ojo

Recently, images showing hundreds of people in sports wear jogging on the Gbagada expressway, Lagos State, went viral on the social media. On the face of it, it was something to be proud of; a citizenry committed to fitness.

The next day, similar images emanated from Ikorodu, also in Lagos. Unfortunately, the pictures were taken while the state was in a lockdown, a restriction of movement to help curb the COVID-19 disease caused by a very contagious coronavirus.

Just as bad as these images of citizens, who should know better, were pictures from the Lekki-Epe expressway, showing heavy traffic. It was like this part of the state failed to get the memo about a restriction of movement declared by President Muhammadu Buhari, three weeks ago.

To their understanding, this was little more than an extended public holiday. The story was the same at Eko Bridge, which was also gridlocked. Residents of Ketu and Mile 12 in the state were also culpable in flouting the no-movement order.

It is three weeks since President Buhari, in response to the raging COVID-19 pandemic, which has swept across the world, and after incessant cries and prodding by a concerned populace, ordered the restriction of movement in Lagos, Ogun and Abuja. Initially for a two-week period, it was extended by another 14 days.

In the initial televised broadcast at 7pm Sunday, March 29, the president gave a little more than 24 hours for the public to prepare, with the lockdown effective 11pm of Monday, March 30. Despite the fact that Lagos State was already considering the same action, it caught the public unawares as residents scrambled to return to base and stock up on supplies to last the period of the lockdown.

Unfortunately, these same citizens are to endure an extra two weeks with little effort to address initial concerns on how to survive in the absence of commercial activity. Even worse, they now have to contend with the menace of hoodlums and armed robbers as a result of the social upheaval precipitated by the lockdown.
While it is fair to say that a restriction of movement was (and still is) the best line of action in containing the spread of the coronavirus, the federal government has shown little capacity in ensuring its success.

Lead-up to the Lockdown
The lead-up to the President declaring a lockdown is instructive in understanding what at best could be described as a kneejerk reaction. The President’s Chief of Staff, Abba Kyari, had become the latest of a growing list of high profile public officials to test positive for the coronavirus. His closeness to the President and the latter’s silence prior to the March 29 broadcast, led to unfounded rumours on social media about the president’s health and whereabouts. Meanwhile, governors like those of Rivers and Kano States had placed restrictions on the movement of citizens without stating the laws empowering them to do so. Lagos followed suit but later rescinded its decision.

The President’s address on March 29 served the purpose of debunking swirling rumours, soothing frayed nerves and serving as a reminder of who was in charge.
The legality of the President’s orders was questioned although later backed up by a Quarantine Act. This was after public figures including Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka and legal luminaries like Femi Falana and Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa challenged the president’s powers to restrict movement without declaring a state of emergency backed by the National Assembly.

The issue of effecting compliance using the military also seemed to have failed the legality test. Already, there have been casualties from soldiers being put on the streets, including threats to civilians by some officers, who – in fairness to the army top brass – are now facing sanctions.

The haphazard approach by the federal government in waging war against the coronavirus is also evident in the deployment of relief measures. The blurring of lines between COVID-19 palliatives and an existing Conditional Cash Transfer initiative has left citizens puzzled amid accusations of favouring some states over others.

For example, while residents of Lagos, Ogun and Abuja are the ones restricted from movement and commercial activity by the federal government, the ministry of humanitarian affairs, disaster management and social development, trumpeted cash transfers to the indigent and vulnerable residents of Katsina, Nasarawa and Anambra States among others, as evidence of government’s relief measures.

Enforcement and Communication
Inadequate messaging and insufficient relief measures are largely responsible for the poor adherence to restriction of movement. In Lagos, for example, security operatives enforcing the lockdown have been arbitrary in their classification of who is an essential worker, amid allegation of bribe-for-passage.
Residents in many parts of Lagos were out on the streets after the first few days of the lockdown, and driving to other parts of the city was met with little hindrance apart from running into traffic. In truth, enforcement of the lockdown has been lax. The Lagos State government has had to fine hundreds of citizens for flouting the lockdown but preventive measures may have to be escalated.

However, government isn’t the only one responsible for this. While there has been an outcry over the sustainability of these rules as they affect the many Nigerians, who live from hand to mouth, it is unfortunate that citizens, who should know better and lead by example, are also sabotaging government’s efforts.

Those jogging on the streets in Gbagada are not economically vulnerable Nigerians, neither are those who can afford to be caught in vehicular traffic. If the actions and comments of the elite and many middle class Nigerians are not curbed, the country runs the risk of an explosion in the numbers of COVID-19 carriers.
Funke Akindele, a famous actress and movie producer, who is also a brand ambassador for an organisation that promotes hygienic habits and social distancing, was charged to court (and pleaded guilty) for flouting social distancing rules by throwing a party.

Also, Naira Marley, an artiste with a large grassroots following, who was present at the said party, had previously implied on twitter that the virus was a hoax.
Chris Oyakhilome, a popular preacher touted conspiracy theories, accusing the government of a cover-up to enable it install 5G technology. Little wonder, that a large segment of the populace sees the lockdown as an unnecessary interruption of freedom and commerce.

Going Forward
For the extended lockdown to bear fruit, amendments must be made to how it has been carried out so far. Most important is effective communication. It should be repeatedly stated why the lockdown is necessary, while those considered essential workers should be defined for the benefit of both security operatives and citizens. Penalties for flouting the lockdown need to be clearly spelt out through different mediums.

Also, the strategy for helping vulnerable Nigerians should be modified. There should be other ways beyond the CCT for Nigerians to benefit directly from cash transfers. Already, there have been suggestions, amplified by APC leader Bola Tinubu, for the net to be cast wider by transferring money directly to bank accounts of Nigerians not captured in the CCT database through their Bank Verification Numbers (BVN).

Security operatives also need to up their game and be proactive in protecting citizens. The concept of physical distancing is defeated if residents have to form vigilante groups to protect themselves from armed robbers as is the case in parts of Lagos and Ogun States.
Pix: Lagosians working out on the Gbagada Expressway.jpg