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Physical distancing still a mirage as Rivers resumes lockdown

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From 8:00p.m. today, Rivers State government will resume lockdown in the two local government of Port Harcourt and Obio/Akpor till further notice. The Guardian observed that during the recent ease of lockdown in the state from May 12 to yesterday, there was gross lack of adherence to social and physical distancing protocols by passengers in commercial vehicles and shoppers in different markets, as well as among general residents of the state.

The same scenario played out in banking halls and some supermarkets in Port Harcourt, the state capital, Obio/Akpor and Ikwere local councils, as residents paid scant heed to the safety guidelines. Worried by the situation, chairman of Ikwere Local Council, Samuel Wanosike, who monitored compliance in his local council, expressed displeasure at the huge crowd of customers that had poured into a commercial bank to do business. The crowd, which he dispersed, returned to the bank’s premises minutes after he took his leave.

Some residents told The Guardian that much as they try to keep safe with nose masks, they have to earn a living rather than just sit back at home and be killed by hunger. They also lamented the inability of the state government to reach a large number of the populace with palliatives, saying doing so would have helped in cushioning the effects of the pandemic in the state.

In the Diobu area of Port Harcourt, where a good number of the residents are artisans, who live on daily-earned pay, they said that they would gladly obey social distancing rules, as well as adhere to the lockdown restrictions if only they had food in their homes.

A human rights activist in the state, Mr. Ken Henshaw, contended that if the state government had provided alternative places for people to buy what to eat, the widespread flouting of the social distancing would have been reduced.

Henshaw said: “The attitude and policies of the government are what have forced honest citizens to violate restrictions orders and social distancing. What is worse is that the task force that is put in place to ensure compliance is arresting and extorting members of the public.”

Curiously, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP)-led state government, which has ensured the secret arraignment of over 200 people in court for violating lockdown rules, did not obey its own rules on social distancing. On May 13, PDP chieftains and party stalwarts defied the order and clustered together in a photo-taking session after its new party leadership was inaugurated in Port Harcourt.

Expectedly, the action of the ruling party elicited scathing criticism from residents, civil society organisations, opposition political parties in the state and other stakeholders within and outside the state. Disturbed by the development, concerned residents have called on the Nigeria Centre For Disease Control (NCDC) to quarantine all that attended the inauguration ceremony, including the party’s executive and its members.

They regretted that the party inauguration observed in the breach, the social distancing rule, adding that contact tracing and testing of all those who came in contact with the members should be carried out to avoid further spread of the deadly virus across the State.

Two days before the PDP executives’ inauguration, precisely on May 11, Governor Nyesom Wike disclosed that more 17 cases of COVID-19 were recorded in the state in one day, just as he decried lamented that the pandemic was gradually spreading in the state.

Even though Wike ensured that social distancing was maintained in the course of the inauguration to ensure the containment and prevention of the spread of the virus, most of his party faithful ensured that the rule was grossly flouted as soon as he left.

Until last Thursday, the total lockdown in Obio/Akpor and Port Harcourt local councils, many said amounted to a shutdown of the entire state as the two councils represent the state’s business hub. While the lock-down lasted, there was no single shop that opened, except pharmaceutical stores. This forced many residents to query how drugs can be administered without food.

However, in a sudden turnaround, the State’s Security Council last Wednesday decided to suspend the total lockdown on Obio/Akpor and Port Harcourt Local councils for six days, with effect from Thursday, May 21, 2020.

In effecting the lock-down suspension, Wike said: “We reinstated the total lockdown on Obio/Akporand Port Harcourt local government areas as part of measures to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in our state.

“We also indicated our readiness to review the lockdown from time to time as occasion demands, with the interest of our people as the central basis.

“Although we are only three days into the ongoing lock-down, it has become necessary, once again, to relax the restrictions. Residents and visitors of these local government areas can therefore go out of their homes for their lawful businesses from … Thursday May 21 until 8.00p.m, Tuesday May 26, 2020, when the lockdown will be restored and maintained until further notice.

“It is important to emphasise that the relaxation only allows for free human and vehicular movements and the opening of limited businesses, such as banks, supermarkets, shopping malls and grocery shops.

All land, sea and air exit and entry borders and routes into Rivers State shall remain closed. Similarly, all open markets, motor parks, hotels, bars, nightclubs, in-service restaurants and barbers’ shops must remain shut. Religious gatherings of more than 50 persons remain prohibited, and all public weddings, burials and other social gathering also remain prohibited.

“Private and commercial vehicles, including tricycles must continue to limit the number of passengers to two persons only.

“The wearing of face masks or coverings in public spaces, including commercial and private vehicles remains compulsory, as contraveners would be arrested and summarily dealt with as the law demands,” the governor stated.

But as far as some residents of the state are concerned, the government’s approach to the lock-down is confusing and lacking direction.

They argued that the six-day lockdown ease would not make any impact in their lives as markets were still closed. They, therefore called on the government to come up with a systematic approach and clearer strategy to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic so as to avoid punishing the residents 

The United Nations Emergency Fund (UNICEF), recently warned that lockdowns could kill more people.

The Chief of Health at UNICEF, Dr. Stefan Peterson, noted that blanket lockdowns imposed in many low and middle-income countries were not an effective way to control COVID-19, and could have deadly repercussions.

The UNICEF chief who spoke ahead of the 73 World Health Assembly said: “Indiscriminate lockdown measures do not have an optimal effect on the virus,” he said, adding, “if you are asking families to stay at home in one room in a slum, without food or water, that won’t limit virus transmission.”

Peterson continued: “I am concerned that lockdown measures have been copied between countries for lack of knowing what to do, rarely with any contextualisation for the local situation.”

“One size fits one. The objective is to slow the virus, not to lockdown people. We need to lift our eyes and look at the total picture of public health,” he added.

This report is facilitated by the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ) COVID-19 Reality Check Project.


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