AVERTING A LOOMING COVID-19 TRAGEDY

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The authorities could do more to stem the spread of the deadly disease

Yesterday, the first day of the gradual easing of the lockdown imposed on Lagos, Ogun and the Federal Capital Territory, was a testimony to disorder. Almost every safety measure put in place to tame the spread of Covid-19 was breached. In Lagos as well as in Abuja, buses were packed with no room for social distancing, just as many apparently did not care about face masks. Business owners who rushed out to catch the “breath of fresh air” did so without observing any of the protocols that were meant to contain the spread of the virus. In markets that were closed, hundreds of traders milled around the premises, haggling with prospective customers and once they were able to strike a bargain, they ran into their shops and later emerged with the goods.

While everything points to a bleak affront to the new guidelines released by the federal government towards the containment of COVID-19, the worst places of disorder and anarchy were in the banking premises, especially in Lagos and the FCT. Theirs were darkly crowds that could have degenerated into hunger mobs. Their unruly behaviour was accentuated by the fact that the banks were operating, not as they are used to, but for some few hours. Many of the banks deliberately opened only few branches. One the major new generation banks, for instance, opened only four of its branches for customers in Abuja, some of whom had not been able to access their accounts for more than a month. The security men had hectic time in controlling the gates as a sea of humanity pressed, pushed, shoved and cursed in an attempt to gain entrance to the banking halls. It was the same situation in Lagos.

The federal government had in the guidelines signed by the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Boss Mustapha, stated that anyone without a face mask in public would be prosecuted. The advisory also prohibited mass gathering of more than 20 people outside of a workplace while there would be controlled access to markets and locations of economic activities. It was evident yesterday that the advisory was not well thought-out. More worrying is that the country started the gradual opening of the Covid-19 lockdowns at a time cases of infected people are hitting the roof, with an average of more than a hundred people daily for the first time since the index case was recorded on 27 February.

If the presidential task force took into account our peculiar circumstance before coming out with its guidelines, the anarchy of yesterday would not have happened. If anything, the wisdom of restricting hours for which banking transactions can be done or markets can be open is now called to serious question. It is a recipe for disaster because it only encourages crowds to gather.

The current situation in the country is particularly worsened with the outbreak of the viral disease in Kano, and further burdened by some “mysterious” deaths of many its prominent sons and daughters in the past two weeks. Preliminary investigations have narrowed the cause to Covid-19. These and the rising cases of infections across the country have made many, including the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), the Nigeria Healthcare Providers Association of Nigeria and others to raise concerns. Since the nation cannot provide enough for the citizens, particularly the poor and the vulnerable to stay at home, the government hearkened to pressure to open up some economic activities. But the fear is that in doing so, it must be ensured that safety measures are enforced.

For now, they are not doing that. What we witnessed yesterday gives plenty room for anxiety.