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Shutdown beckons

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• Coronavirus cases hit 46
• Aso Rock in partial lockdown, more states tighten restrictions
• Aviation to lose over N180b, 22,000 jobs, airlines halt flights today
• PDP condemns barring of media houses from Presidency

Medical experts and the Nigerian Academy of Science (NAS), yesterday, joined the call by First Lady Aisha Buhari for a total shut down of the country.This was as a new study published yesterday in The Lancet Infectious Diseases journal, noted that a combination of quarantine, school closures, and work-from-home measures is the most effective way to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Aisha had on Monday said: “It is commendable that state governors have closed down schools. However, this could be counterproductive if parents are still going to work. We should not isolate students and expose their parents. Let us remember that they will meet at home.”

Already, various forms of restriction to movement and other activities have been put in place across the country. Should the pandemic worsen, a national lockdown appears imminent.

The Oyo State government, yesterday, warned that it could impose travel restrictions at the state’s entry points. The Nigerian Railway Corporation also announced the immediate suspension of the Lagos-Ogun Mass Transit Train Services (MTTS). On his part, Kogi State Governor Yahaya Bello ordered the speedy closure of all entry points into the state.

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Minister of Information Lai Mohammed had earlier in the week said the Federal Government was prepared to take far-reaching decisions to tackle the pandemic.“We are hoping for the best in our efforts to contain the disease, but we are prepared for the worst. The truth is that things may yet get worse than it is now, hence the need for all hands to be on deck. Tougher decisions may yet be on the way to contain this disease,” Mohammed said.

The new modelling study conducted in a simulated Singapore setting asserted that a combined approach of physical distancing interventions is most effective at reducing the number of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) Coronavirus type 2 (CoV-2)/SARS-CoV-2 or rather COVID-19 cases, compared with other intervention scenarios included in the study.

While less effective than the combined approach, quarantine plus workplace measures presented the next best option for reducing SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) cases, followed by quarantine plus school closure, and then quarantine only. All intervention scenarios were more effective at reducing cases than no intervention.

The study is the first of its kind to investigate using these options for early intervention. Despite heightened surveillance and isolation of individuals suspected to have COVID-19 and confirmed cases, the risk is ongoing, with the number of cases continuing to increase in Singapore. Schools have not been closed, and workplace distancing is recommended, but it is not national policy.

Also, NAS president, Prof. K. Mosto Onuoha, gave reasons why the country should be locked down immediately. He told journalists yesterday: “It is now time for a national lockdown, especially now that the disease has invaded the highest level of our governance, threatening our national security. While the effort of individual state governments is lauded, the lockdown should be national, with uniform regulations, and led by the Federal Government.

“With a lockdown, all citizens are required (as much as possible) to stay at home, leaving only for essential activities that allow for basic functions such as feeding and accessing healthcare. Only workers needed to provide essential services, such as health care and electricity, will be expected to go out. No social gatherings would be allowed. Details of this will have to be worked out conscientiously.”

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Why lockdown now? Onuoha said though most of the confirmed cases were imported, and with a few more being contacts of the imported cases, the country is beginning to have cases with unclear infection sources. This suggests the possible existence of community transmission, which needs to be curtailed early.

The NAS president said though the government and its agencies are working hard at containment, there are reports of people failing to self-isolate as advised. This is complicated by the VIP syndrome that seems to characterise the country, with some refusing to be checked or to self-isolate on arrival into the country. He said it is also complicated when the conditions that exist in many of our urban slums are considered.

The scientist said it is unclear how widespread the disease might be in the country, given the evolving number of cases at this point, and the difficulty in tracking their movements and those of their contacts.

Onuoha said a lockdown for four weeks would help to reduce the number of new importations and provide the environment and condition for clear thinking and planning. He said in four weeks, virtually all COVID-19 cases and contacts should have been discovered or should have recovered.He said Nigeria should use the lockdown period to re-strategise as the country provides answers to the following questions: What do we do about new importations when we re-open the borders? How do we enforce self-isolation and or quarantine across the nation? What treatment modalities should we adopt and standardise across the country?

Which research areas and activities – drugs, equipment, containment measures, socio-economic recovery, etc. – should we fund? And what innovative socio-economic safety nets can be provided for the citizens to ameliorate the current and coming effects of this pandemic?

Onuoha said the Academy stands by the government of Nigeria, and all Nigerians at this trying time. He urged people to understand that the measures that need to be taken are challenging but necessary.

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A former senator, Dino Melaye, also urged Buhari to issue an executive order to lock down the nation’s capital, Abuja, and the nation’s commercial nerve centre, Lagos. He said the order would further prevent the spread of the virus.

As at yesterday, the update by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) was: “Two new confirmed cases of COVID-19 recorded in Nigeria. Forty-six cases have been confirmed, two cases have been discharged and one death from COVID-19 recorded. Of the two new cases reported on the 25th of March, one is in Lagos State, one is in Osun State.”

Why we cancelled FEC meeting, by Presidency
THE presidency yesterday shed light on its decision to suspend this week’s Federal Executive Council (FEC) meeting, even as it hinted that it is in a partial lockdown. Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, Femi Adesina, said the meeting was cancelled because the number of participants would exceed the recommended population.

He said: “The Council was suspended because of the size. You have over 50 people seated in the Council Chambers whenever the meeting holds. That is not advisable at a time like this.“But if there would be a very important decision to be taken, you can always summon the relevant people, three, four or five and hold a small meeting and arrive at a decision.

“It does not mean that one man is going to be taking all the decisions. Of course, yes, there are executive decisions but the ones that must pass through consultations, which must have a buy in of the Federal Executive Council, can always be discussed at a smaller meeting.”

On the current situation in the Villa, in relation to the pandemic, the spokesman said: “Things are a bit on a low key. It doesn’t mean that the State House is shut down; it’s just that things are a bit on the low key, just like the rest of the country. The rest of the country is also on a low key; there is partial lockdown in most parts of the country. So, what is happening at the State House can also be called a partial lockdown but not a complete lockdown.”

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Adesina said further that the result of Buhari’s test for COVID-19 was heartening. “Anybody that does the test and test comes out negative, we will rejoice with that person. And anybody that does it and tests positive, it’s not a death sentence.

“We also would pray along with the person, give the person our good will and best wishes, and they will surely come out of it. Even the index case in Nigeria recovered and has been discharged.”

…Trimmed number of State House journalists
ON the reported ban on the media by the State House, the spokesman said: “Ban is a wrong word. Anybody that uses that word ban is just operating from a mindset, and you know that Nigerians love conspiracy theories. But this is no conspiracy at all. There is no ban.

“What happened is that in the press gallery, you have about 108 journalists in that single hall. And it goes contrary to the spirit of the times. The times dictate that you don’t have too many people congregated in one place.

“Imagine 108 journalists, if one of them happens to catch the virus, he spreads it among all the journalists. So, we said, for now, let them stay away, not much is happening for now.

“But we picked a certain number, representative of the media. They will come in, if there is anything, they will cover. And those outside will also not miss because there would be a system in which they can share reports. So, ban will be a wrong word.”

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Adesina also disclosed measures adopted by the Presidency to curtail the spread of COVID-19. He said: “When you come into the State House, you have about three, four, five spots in which your temperature is tested and you have to sanitise your hand. And if you come in and your temperature is way above a certain figure, then you will be advised to go for a test and take care of yourself.

“Before you go into the general area, you will meet about three areas of test. And before you get into the President’s area, you will meet another two. I believe that a lot has been done to ensure that those who operate in the Presidency are taken care of.”

The spokesman added: “Panicking will not be the right thing to do because when you panic you are bound to make mistakes. When you panic, you get agitated and the situation does not call for that, rather it calls for cooperation with government.

“When they give instructions, let’s abide by those instructions. A number of things have been put in place to ensure the well being of Nigerians is taken care of.”
BUT the opposition Peoples Democratic Party described as utterly condemnable “the unjustified banning of some media houses from covering activities of the presidency.”

It said the development is a “most heinous form of official victimisation executed in bad faith”
The party also described the action as “highly detestable, undemocratic and totally against the provisions of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act, as well as the tenets and guiding principles of rule of law.”

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The party, in a statement by its national publicity secretary, Kola Ologbondiyan, said the presidency had no justification for the move.

“This is not the time for unnecessary pettiness, victimisation and barring of media houses, a development which has sparked off suspicion in the public space as being designed to conceal certain facts from the public.

“It is indeed instructive for the Buhari Presidency to note that our nation is in dire need of hope and direction contained in timely information, especially from the government,” the party said.

A PRESIDENCY source yesterday confirmed that President Muhammadu Buhari has resumed work in his office at the Presidential Villa, Abuja.The source however said that the State House was quiet as no guests visited the Villa or the President.

The Presidency had on Tuesday witnessed an upset as Chief of Staff Abba Kyari tested positive for coronavirus. Buhari tested negative. Vice President Yemi Osinbajo went into self-isolation but has since been confirmed negative.

Laolu Akande, Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Office of the Vice President, told State House correspondents: “I have been inundated with calls on whether indeed the vice president had undergone a COVID-19 test and the outcome. Yes, he has done the test and the results is negative.”

Consequent upon the directive by the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19, the Federal Executive Council (FEC) meeting did not hold. Secretary to the Government of the Federation/Chairman PTF-COVID-19, Boss Mustapha, had on Monday announced additional measures by government to curb the spread of the pandemic.

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The Presidency had also on Tuesday scaled down the number of personnel working in the State House, saying the decision was in line with the need for social distancing.The security department was seen yesterday enforcing restrictions at the Presidency. Persons whose names were not on the list of those cleared to enter the State House were politely turned back.

Nationwide shutdown imminent
A GRADUAL nationwide shutdown has begun in the local aviation industry, with some airlines expressing plans to stop all scheduled services from tomorrow.Though only Air Peace, Aero Contractors and Arik Airlines confirmed operational shutdown, the massive disruption will cost the entire sector at least N180 billion in passenger revenue.

The Federal Government, early this week, closed all international airports for the next four weeks, as part of measures to slow down the spread of COVID-19.The move meanwhile has partially crashed the entire air travel market. Travel agencies yesterday confirmed the market crash to The Guardian, saying many have been forced to lay off their workers to cut the huge losses.

The leading carrier in the country, Air Peace, yesterday announced the suspension of all its flight services, beginning from midnight Friday, as part of efforts to stop the COVID-19 pandemic.

The chief operating officer of the airline, Toyin Olajide, said it was with a great sense of responsibility that they decided, in the best interest of the nation, passengers and workforce, to temporarily suspend scheduled flights until April 20, 2020.The airline reckoned that passenger traffic has slumped drastically in the last three weeks as a result of the pandemic, “so it is, therefore, very unwise to continue raking up avoidable costs that the airline could not afford.”

Olajide said: “Continuation of flight operations, in the present circumstances we find ourselves as airlines, could lead to the total collapse of any airline, hence the need to quickly stem the rising financial burden and costs of operations.

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“While the suspension is on, we are, however, willing to do special flights both for the government and our people. Normal scheduled flight operations shall resume on April 20, 2020,” she said.

Similarly, Aero Contractors hinted on plans to temporarily suspend flight services effective midnight today, in line with the Lagos State government’s prohibition on more than 20-person gatherings.

In the interim, the airline has offered its aircraft, both fixed wing and helicopters, to the Federal Government for the airlift of relief materials, medical equipment and personnel.

The CEO of the company, Captain Ado Sanusi, described the move as the airline’s contribution to the government’s fight against the pandemic.He said that the aircraft would, henceforth, be at the disposal of the Presidential Task Force for the Control of Coronavirus in Nigeria, headed by the Secretary to the Federal Government of Nigeria (SGF), Boss Mustapha.
  
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) had warned that Nigeria risked losing 2.2 million overseas-bound passengers, $434 million (N156.24 billion) in revenue, and over 22,200 jobs, if the impact of the virus escalates. The association, which represents some 290 airlines, said the gloomy outlook is not peculiar to Nigeria.
  
President of the National Association of Nigeria Travel Agencies (NANTA), Bernard Bankole, said the loss could be more than N156.2 billion or at least N180 billion, if the crisis and its after-effects last till June.

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“The N180 billion is half of what we made in 2019. It’s already wiped off due to this crisis. Whatever happens, the high patronage during Easter and summer periods is already endangered. That is a great loss to the industry,” Bankole said.

He said the shutdown of local airlines was expected, given the restriction on international airlines. With about 50 per cent loss in traffic already, “it is just a matter of time before they start shutting down too.”
  
The industry risks a total collapse, he said, except the Federal Government and the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) intervene with bailouts for travel agencies to avoid default in the remittance of funds to IATA.
  
He explained that travel agencies are in a dilemma as the money for the sale of tickets is tied down with various clients, who are yet to pay. The tickets had been purchased from airlines, but due to travel restrictions, the clients could not travel.
  
“Even those that have paid are putting in for refund. Yet, no foreign airline is doing cash refund. This disruption has already cost the industry half of the $1 billion (N360 billion) sales made in 2019.
  
“That explains why members are laying off their staff or placing them on half salary. When the staff come to the office and they are not issuing tickets, it means there is no need keeping them and there is no support coming from anywhere to augment your cost.
 
“We need a bailout from the government. It will enable us to access interest-free loans to augment our liabilities at this period. We are not asking anybody to come and dash us money. The circumstance has created a cash flow shortage whereby we cannot fulfill our obligations to the airlines through IATA when due. This puts everyone under a lot of pressure,” Bankole said.

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Govt to support industries, says minister
THIS came as the Federal Ministry of Industry, Trade and Investment, after series of meetings with the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN) and the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Group (PMG) of MAN (PMG-MAN) and other key stakeholders, said measures would be taken to address challenges, potential threats and the impact of COVID-19 on the nation’s economy.

Minister of Trade and Investment, Otunba Richard Adeniyi Adebayo, told journalists yesterday that the measures include: management of all industrial sites should sensitise and educate their workers on compliance with COVID-19 guidelines of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC); all industries shall provide requisite facilities and supplies for the prevention of COVID-19, in line with extant guidelines of the NCDC.

All industries are encouraged to do their best to sustain ongoing operations in order to avoid the shutdown of production activities; manufacturers are encouraged to scale up their production, especially of essential commodities such as pharmaceuticals, consumables, sanitary and hygiene products needed to curtail the spread of the virus.

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Adebayo said government will continue to do everything possible to support industries to sustain their operations, and where necessary, even stimulate a surge in the production of essential commodities especially medicines and sanitary products.

He advised all Nigerians not to indulge in any fear-induced behaviour such as panic buying, adulteration, hoarding or price hiking, as government, manufacturers and other stakeholders are working closely to minimise the impact of COVID-19 on the populace.

“It is my sincere prayer that the COVID-19 pandemic will soon come to an end in Nigeria and world over, and that Nigerians will not suffer any hardships in its wake. We shall overcome,” the minister added.

In a related development, the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria (PSN) commended the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and the Bankers’ Committee for the recent decision to provide a N100 billion loan package to the health sector with focus on local manufacturing.

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PSN president, Mazi Sam Ohuabunwa, told journalists yesterday: “This is a long-awaited development because for many years we have drawn attention to the dangers of total dependence on importation for our local drug needs. We have complained that this creates a real national security exposure, yet not much attention was paid to us.

“We had argued that pharmaceuticals should get part of the attention paid to agriculture, as to all intents and purposes, medicines come next to food. And to be truthful, for some of our people, medicines have become food. Again, some people thought we were talking of protecting the pharmaceutical industry from a commercial point of view.

“That is why our joy knows no end to see the Central Bank Governor, leading the Bankers’ Committee, come to the conclusion that, as aforementioned, global supply chains have been disrupted, including dominant drug supply channels from China and India. In fact, many countries have or are planning to ban export of drugs and medical supplies from their countries.

“Clearly, we have no choice but to produce these items locally. As a result, the Committee has identified a few key local pharmaceutical companies who shall be granted naira and FX funding facilities to support the procurement of raw materials and equipment required to exponentially increase local drug production in Nigeria. These loans would be granted at single- digit interest rate and for long tenures, including granting necessary moratorium.”

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In this article:
COVID-19Lai Mohammed
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