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Coronavirus diary – Part 2

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But, again, the threat posed by COVID-19 crisis is far more immediate and palpable.
Surreptitious wiretapping is one thing; restricted freedom of movement is quite another.
So far, lockdowns, quarantines, and border controls have been broadly accepted as necessary, but the longer they endure, the more they will erode the foundations of free liberal societies.
—Ana Palacio.

Last week, we took a look at efforts at finding a solution to the coronavirus from both local and international perspectives thereby setting an agenda. Today, this diary veers off to look at the law and the exercise of discretion. It is somewhat a way of responding to two fundamentally related questions. One, the question posed by some researchers in ResearchGate, a scholarly network, namely, Coronavirus and politics: what does the epidemic tell us about democracy and other regimes? Two, Wole Soyinka: what does government response to his statement tell us about the Nigerian government? The above statement of Ana Palacio, former Spanish Foreign Affairs Minister fairly answers the question of whether liberal democracy can survive Covid-19.

In the wake of the index case of an anonymous Italian who had corona virus on February 27, Lagos state government swung into action in an effort to avoid a spike. In contrast to the latter, the federal government on autopilot responded after promptings for a national response in the wider context of global proactive efforts to deal with the ravaging virus. The promptings had taken on some theatrics in which comedians were mimicking the uninspiring approach of the nation’s leadership. At last on March 29th, President Buhari invoking a 1926 Quarantine Act imposed a lockdown on Lagos, Ogun, and the Federal Capital Territory. No one was in the know of how much consultation took place in a putative federal state before the imposition of the restriction. The adjustment of the commencement of the lockdown by Ogun state government indicated the absence of it.

Professor Soyinka, an enduring barometer of national consciousness, critiqued the speech of the president and warned against backdoor authoritarian intrusion into the polity. His statement was clear enough except those who take the country as their colony. As he put it, “The universal imperative and urgency of this affliction should not become an opportunistic launch pad for a sneak RE CENTRALISATION, no matter how seemingly insignificant its appearance. I urge governors and legislators to be especially watchful. No epidemic is ever cured with constitutional piracy. It only lays down new political viruses for the future.” A Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Femi Falana taking a cue from Soyinka advised the government to engross measures that it “deemed fit to combat the dangerous disease but such measures have to be spelled out in a regulation made according to Section 305 of the Constitution or under the Quarantine Act. Otherwise, the presidential order on the restriction of movement in the affected areas cannot be enforced by the police”.

Although the government heeded the advice by signing formally a regulation in accordance with Sections 2, 3 and 4 of the Quarantine Act (CAP Q2 LFN 2004), its hireling and a snorting upstart, Shehu Garba cast aspersion on Soyinka whom he called a “fiction writer”.

Elsewhere in the UK, MPs had expressed concern at the possibility of sweeping emergency powers to tackle coronavirus being put into force for two years without a Commons vote. Yet the Coronavirus bill went through the committee stage up to the House of the Lords and became an Act of Parliament on Wednesday 25 March. That is the way of democracy, and the Lagos State house of Assembly followed the democratic path when it passed the emergency bill to fight Corona into law. As The Guardian has observed in a recent editorial, there is a need to be more vigilant in a country haunted by authoritarian past and its enduring presence.

As is well known, Covid-19 is a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC) and people are concerned about their liberty. Jonathan Cook has captured the growing fears of erosion of liberal values in the West. According to him, “there are many other dramatic changes being introduced, almost too many and too rapidly for us to follow them properly. Bans on movement. Intensified surveillance. Censorship. The transfer of Draconian powers to the police, and preparations for the deployment of soldiers on the streets. Detention without trial. Martial law. Measures that might have terrified us when Trump was our main worry, or Brexit, or Russia, may now seem a price worth paying for a ‘return to normalcy’. In Nigeria, Soyinka expressed our fears and anxiety.

There is a life after coronavirus. Nigeria government needs to wake up and discard its clannish approach and work with sub-national governments to win this current battle. This season calls for a concerted effort to save lives; without people, there can be no government. I recommend a SWOT analytic approach to ride on top of the wave of coronavirus and abort the spiralling human tragedy we see here and around the globe. What are our strengths? We have medical personnel, though not enough, who can rise to the occasion. The following statistics underline the qualification.

According to a 2015 report by African Centre For Global Health and Social Transformation, African Centre For Global Health and Social Transformation, as at 2006, “an inventory of health care personnel indicated 39 210 doctors (0.3 per 1000 population), 124 629 nurses (1.03 per 1000 population), 88 796 midwives (0.67 per 1000 population), 2482 dentists (0.02 per 1000 population) and 12 072 pharmacists (0.05 per 1000 population) for the year 2004, less than the minimum recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO)”.

In a similar but less comprehensive report by Premium Times online put the figure as at December 2017 as follows: “Nigeria had 42,845 registered doctors, dentists and alternative medicine practitioners working in the country. Of which 39,912 are medical doctors. Again weighted against World Health Organisation (WHO)’s standard, it is far behind its recommended ratio of one to 600 hundred patients. The reality that is often presented in government circles does not approximate the above reality.

Added to the brain drain which had drained the country of a large number of Nigerian doctors leave for abroad, the depth of the situation becomes more apparent. When Dr Olukoye Ransome-Kuti encountered about 5000 in Denver Colorado, United States, in the mid-1990s, he broke down in tears. There are researchers, orthodox and traditional, unveiling possibilities of a cure. But our weaknesses are frightening. The Presidential Taskforce on Covid-19 is being coordinated by a lawyer, not a scientist or a medical expert; Testing kits are short in supply (with 14 test laboratories and a paltry sum of 4000 people tested so far); the number of ventilators is embarrassingly not sufficient; Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for doctors in the frontline is not adequate; there is over-reliance on import, donors and credit facilities to meet the challenges of the times; social distancing is still epileptically observed; lack of a well-calibrated sequencing of lockdowns in ways devoid of a backlash on a weary population; no country-wide consciousness of the deadly micro-organism in our midst neither is there a sound blueprint on cushioning the effect of the lockdown apart from the sleaze-infested palliatives being touted.

However, opportunities abound. Nigerians can produce alcohol-based hand sanitisers, they can produce facemasks; they have the capacity to produce ventilators and its researchers if supported can produce a cure either in the form a vaccine or prophylactics. What are the threats? Lack of effective coordination of resources that include information, equipment, expertise; the scourge of corruption already dogging the process; plummeting national revenue that would mean a resort to borrowing and above all, the absence of a national master plan or strategy to roll back the virus. The logical recommendations of this reflection are ramping up of testing, purchase of testing kits, crash-programme to train paramedics to assist the mainstream medical doctors and health practitioners in the event of a spike and continual expansion of isolation facilities.

To come back to democracy discourse, it should be noted that the battlefield of the war against Coronavirus is deliberative and therefore democratic. All that those in authority need to do is to filter and run with the productive inputs. To try to limit that space will be counterproductive to search for solutions.

Akhaine is a Professor of Political Science, Lagos State University.


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