Dodging spectre of another lockdown
Against the background of an increase in the number of COVID-19 infections and a near apathy of citizens to observing all the protocols for the prevention of the scourge, the Lagos State government, which last week threatened to re-impose a lockdown on Lagos yesterday mulled a strategic re-opening of the economy and faith-based organisations. At the weekend, Lagos alone added 179 new cases to infection cases while the whole country recorded 193 cases. The Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) reported that the country’s total number of infections stood at 5,959, with 1,594 discharged and 182 dead. This was the situation last night when there was a news lead that President Muhammadu Buhari would address the nation, which was later denied by the President’s spokesperson. What was clear last night was that the Federal Government extended the gradual easing of the shutdown for two more weeks while promising stricter enforcement.
But if the current reality continues, the temptation to re-lock down Lagos will be very attractive. The four-week lockdown, which FCT, Lagos and Ogun states endured took a toll on the people and the economy; yet it could be said that infection rates and deaths were not as high as the world had expected. But we need to proceed with caution if Lagos must be locked down again. There has been too much hunger and anger among the poor and vulnerable in our country. Any attempt to re-lock the city down must take certain factors into consideration.
First, we need to approach COVID-19 methodically, that is, with an entry and exit strategy. Across the world, governments are worried about the effect of a prolonged lockdown. Paradoxically, they are also concerned about the danger of a peremptory and hasty reopening of cities. There are fears about a spike in infections once the space is open and the rules relaxed. There are fears too about a second or third wave of infections as happened in previous pandemics. China and South Korea are already facing that reality. In Nigeria, a prolonged lockdown without a stimulus on the economy or for palliative measures for the most vulnerable members of society is severely problematic. We are therefore faced by a complex and complicated situation that requires dexterity, compassion and strategic thinking.
Besides, the Lagos State government has cause to worry about the economic capital of the country. The level of compliance with physical distancing is suspect. We still witness crowds at bus stops, marketplaces, banks and other public places. Churches and mosques have largely complied with official protocols. The same cannot be said for the majority of citizens who have managed to obey the rules only in the breach. Too many persons go about without masks. Taxi and bus drivers subvert the rule by carrying more passengers than allowed. The rule on washing hands as often as possible is impeded by poor access to water in areas of Lagos where citizens buy water to carry out routine domestic tasks. By far the greatest threat to citizens is the continuous flow of persons from other states into Lagos. There have been reports of trailer loads of youths coming in from the north despite the official ban on inter-state movements. This is unacceptable and any conscientious government must exercise its right to secure the people. The risk is that persons who have been exposed to the virus are likely to spread the disease. Also, there are worries whether we carry out enough testing across the state.
The situation is grave. It demands serious attention. Enforcement of physical distancing rules is crucial. Yet, we are aware of how impractical it is to achieve full compliance. Our lifestyle and the nature of Lagos make full compliance near impossible. How do you enforce social distancing in an area or facility where families share common facilities and live in semi-closed buildings? What about the petty traders whose survival is dependent on going out to interact with customers? The truth is that we have not fully captured the social and cultural lifestyles in drawing up an anti-COVID-19 strategy. In some areas, there are still doubts in the minds of the ignorant that the disease is a ‘‘big man’s’’ scourge that government is using to scam the people. So, there is the need for public enlightenment.
Before locking down Lagos again, let the government become more aggressive in enforcement of protocols. The washing of hands, use of masks, avoidance of crowded spaces, minimised socialisation and physical distancing should be etched in the minds of the people. Close monitoring of transport vehicles should be priority. Apparently, vehicles, which purportedly ferry goods squeeze in passengers into the bargain. These passengers pay more than the usual fare. The security officials along the highway are deeply compromised. All they are interested in is what comes to them in the form of gratification. In a sense, this is not totally within the control of Lagos State government. Therefore, a synergised approach to COVID-19 is imperative. The different state governors should secure their borders and ensure that human traffic is curtailed to the barest minimum.
Beyond this, Lagos State government should consider how to sustain the economy of the state and the wellbeing of the people. Workers in the informal private sector have been hard hit by the lockdown. While some have been quietly laid off, others have received little or no income. One can hardly fault owners of businesses for some drastic actions, which they have taken. When there is no inflow it is difficult to pay workers their entitlements. This is where government support is needed. Small and medium scale entrepreneurs need the support of government as we have witnessed in the western world, especially U.S., Germany and England. This is apart from cheques paid out to the unemployed and the elderly.
Whatever decision Lagos State finally takes as it mulls on cautious lifting of the ban on even churches and mosques, among others, the economy and the overall welfare of the people should be factored in. A lockdown is not a panacea to virus spread. It could fuel the spread of hunger virus, which the poor people perceive as a greater threat than coronavirus. There is life after COVID-19. What is the life going to be like? Surely, life as we knew it has changed completely. But government should ensure that the quality of life and living is not fatally affected by any policy implementation. So, government should concentrate on enforcing all accepted rules of social engagement to reduce community infections, a very dangerous stage of COVID-19. When this fails a total lockdown could be considered. As a people, we overcame Ebola, much to the admiration of the world. With the right spirit and policies, we shall overcome COVID-19.