COVID-19: Deconstructing the president’s speech
On Sunday, March 29, 2020, His Excellency, President Muhammadu Buhari, Commander-in-Chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces addressed the nation on preparations and policy actions on the ravaging effects of the pandemic COVID-19, the virus, which has humiliated the healthcare system of most countries in the last three months. His speech was a welcome development because Nigerians had been very anxious about hearing from the Number One Citizen in line with international best practices. His long silence on a disease that caught world attention in December 2019, took its first Nigerian victim on February 27 and increased its rate of infection to 97 by March 29, once again raised the question on how psychologically connected Buhari is to the realities of his environment and the plight of the people who elected him into office.
Nigerians felt that the disease had given Nigeria enough time to prepare for its onslaught or prevention and that nothing visible was happening. Tension increased when high-profile persons in government started testing positive for the disease and making a public show of it like a status symbol. These were the high and mighty who travelled outside the county, returned but refused to follow prescribed protocols on self-isolation on account of their ‘‘power.’’ The question on the lips of ordinary Nigerians was: if this disease were to spread to the ordinary people, what would be the chance of survival considering the parlous state of our healthcare system? The answer gives cold comfort!
During this period of presidential silence, some of his aides (including ministers) uttered shameful inanities typical of extreme and provocative sycophancy in the face of a dire situation confronting the people of Nigeria. Apart from vacuously stating that it was ‘‘not the president’s style to address the people,’’ one other aide opined that because the president’s aides were already working, ‘‘there was no need for the president to speak to the citizens of Nigeria. ‘‘How did such officials find their way into public office? If we must defend the president or a boss, let us do so with finesse and intelligence. Sadly, these characteristics though much in abundance in Nigeria, are short in supply among those who manage the nation’s affairs. A president is the leader of the country. He is often a father-figure from whom the people draw inspiration and sense of direction. If the president’s handlers are obtuse on this subject, they should seek and heed advice from experienced protocol officials.
The president’s speech can be divided into three main areas of interest – a review of existing conditions, steps taken so far and what the government plans to do to contain the potential surge of infections. These were hinged on health matters, economic decisions and political (administrative) directives. In essence, the president repeated what his officials had been doing since the outbreak of COVID-19 by reinforcing social distancing and quarantine efforts. He then directed that Lagos, Ogun states and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) be shut down for 14 days. Already, military officers are enforcing the order, often with brutal consequences. This newspaper has always insisted on the police being deployed for internal order. It is just sad that there were reports yesterday of “how police, military extort at COVID-19 checkpoints.” The report revealed that travellers and violators were paying security operatives at checkpoints. This is sad but not surprising.
In recognition of the hardship which the shutdown could cause, the president announced that in the coming weeks, relief materials would be deployed to “satellite and commuter towns and communities around Lagos and Abuja whose livelihoods will surely be affected by some of these restrictive measures.” This is being proactive. The informal sector dominates the nation’s economy. Any prolonged truncation of their lives would have devastating consequences. In desperation, some of them have ignorantly declared that while the “virus is far away hunger is real.” As a result, they are prepared to risk their lives and go out to eke a living to feed their families.
Therefore, the presidency should as a matter of national urgency meet these millions of Nigerians with life-saving economic measures. There is life after COVID-19. Nigerians have not been informed of the yardstick being used to distribute emergency relief to poor families. We hope it is not a situation where only acolytes and supporters of the ruling party are favoured.
On the economy, the president “directed that a three-month repayment moratorium for all ‘‘TraderMoni,’’ ‘‘MarketMoni’’ and ‘‘FarmerMoni’’ loans be implemented with immediate effect.” This is a tepid response to the overwhelming crisis, which the private sector is facing at this time and what will happen post-COVID-19. What about workers who have not been paid salaries because they are daily paid? What about manufacturing companies whose factories are shut in obedience to the government directive? Are there bridging facilities for investors? Elsewhere in the advanced world, governments are pumping huge funds into the economy in the form of a stimulus package to cushion the effect of COVID-19. Our government should think in that direction too. The directive to “Bank of Industry, Bank of Agriculture and the Nigeria Export Import Bank” on loans is commendable. We hope this will be properly followed up with documentation and authorisation.
One aspect of the president’s message, which appears out of sync with the nation’s current timetable, is the instruction to “the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development to work with state governments in developing a strategy on how to sustain the school feeding programme during this period without compromising our social distancing policy.” All schools are currently shut down. We are therefore at a loss on how this directive fits into the narrative, which the president’s message conveys. The president’s aides need to explain the context of that directive, which seems dubious.
There ought to have been some definite pronouncements on procuring face masks, ventilators, the future of our healthcare system and other items required to combat the disease if push comes to shove. The very nature of our social and cultural systems poses a serious threat to social distancing. High density areas in our big cities are potential time-bombs if COVID-19 descends into those areas. These need to be addressed in the days and weeks ahead.
While we commend the president for providing hope in an atmosphere of gloom, we urge him to be more proactive in future. COVID-19 is a threat to humanity and the survival of our dear country. No effort should be spared in tackling it. Reaching to Nigerians is both a moral and constitutional obligation. It should not be dependent on which side of the bed the president wakes up from. The psychology of physical presence is accentuated by constant and direct dialogue with the people. With all the gadgets and multimedia resources available to Mr. President the least he can do in a time like this, is to reassure the people that he is on top of the situation. Buhari should please take charge of the country and dance to the tune of the music required for national healing and survival at this critical time.