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It’s far from over, wear face mask!

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Many businesses in Lagos, Ogun and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja partially reopened this week after five weeks of lockdown and stay-at-home directive in an effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. However, the battle is still raging and the war far from over according to the WHO. Hence, the reopening of offices, businesses and intra-state movements, more than ever, demand extreme caution and collective responsibility.
 
President Muhammadu Buhari in his third national address on COVID-19 had announced the gradual easing of lockdown and attendant economic restart in major cities, except Kano State. The decision is a difficult one. Undoubtedly, a relaxed lockdown favours many Nigerians who are either cash-strapped, stuck and hungry, or still living in self-delusion of the lurking danger in town. For the former group than latter, an economy and means of livelihood on lockdown without any serious palliative measures will kill faster than any public health emergency. 
 
But on the flip side and in opposition of hurried reopening are a group led by health professionals. They are worried by the spread of the coronavirus pandemic in communities, uptick on COVID-19 dashboard, poor testing capability, overwhelmed National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and overstretched isolation centres in places like Lagos. If the number of positive cases could spike to 2400 and 85-plus deaths during lockdown, what new figures will attend the reopening of the economy in densely congested cities where many deadly yet asymptomatic positive cases, freely go about their businesses?

 
Clearly, a dilemma presents itself here – either the economy or public health? The decision that has been made will have its own consequences – human lives. The Federal Government has ruled in favour of the hungry and helpless masses. It, however, pushed the modus operandi to state governors to act in accordance with their capacity, while sustaining restrictions on inter-state movements. Most significant is the Federal Government’s directive and compulsion on the use of face masks by all across the country to forestall dire consequences of new infections.
 
The move is commendable. Face mask measure has scientifically proven to be effective. Like other copy-and-paste measures that Nigeria is adopting in this crisis, the compulsory use of face masks for those who must come out is believed to have drastically slowed down the rate of infections in global context. Following 76 days of total lockdown in Wuhan, China, for instance, it is now almost impossible to find anyone in the city without a face mask. The locals cooperated and trusted the authorities on measures to follow and the measures worked. In China, they never heard the discussion of choosing between saving lives or keeping the economy going; starvation or having the sick out of control. It was safety first and they are almost there. That can be our story too, even before it gets really bad.
 
Indeed, the face mask is an additional measure to physical distancing we generally call social distancing. The psyche behind the mask hinges on awareness of helping oneself and others. Self-preservation is the name of the game. Findings have shown that a coronavirus carrier without a face mask has a 70 per cent probability of infecting the unprotected public. The probability reduces to five per cent with face mask on the carrier alone. What if both carrier and the public use face masks? The possibility of transmission is 1.5 per cent. Because virus-carrying droplets that often travel when we talk, sneeze and cough are readily shielded or cupped in the mask to prevent transmission. It is with this understanding that the Federal Government has also mandated the use of non-medical face masks and coverings, with no exception. Therefore, it will be more than irresponsible not to wear a mask and put others and oneself at risk. That is to say, better stay at home than outside unmasked.
 
The Federal Government has vowed to punish violators of subsisting preventive measures and curfew orders. That is fair enough. However, the government must lead by example. This is not the period of ‘‘do as I say, not as I do.’’ Thus, President Buhari, members of his cabinet, state governors, security agencies and highly placed citizens must show good example of wearing the ‘‘life-saving’’ masks. Good conducts and hygienic habits should preach the much-needed awareness to the masses at this time of emergency. Only then would they have the moral ground to prosecute poor compliance and deviants in society. The authorities should as a matter of duty flood the states, city centres and domains with the right type of masks and promote their usage.

There should be good awareness on proper usage, disposal and reusability. Indeed, free and accessible face masks for all will be far cheaper and most sensible than a couple of ventilator machines that have no guarantee of saving anyone.
 
We all, including the doubting Thomases and those living in self-denial, should remember that we have on our hand a pandemic with higher likelihood of community transmission. Coronavirus kills an average of 5000 people every 24 hours – the majority from countries with the best of healthcare services.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that the hasty lifting of the lockdown could be most disastrous. And it is not far-fetched. Germany and Ghana lately lifted their lockdowns and the rate of new infections spiked. Nigeria, with a population of 200 million people, has not done as many coronavirus tests as Germany and Ghana to be able to measure how well or badly we are doing in and out of lockdown. May we not find out the hard way!
 
Therefore, the rule of enlightened self-interest and protection should apply to all: wear face mask, maintain personal hygiene, physical distancing, and get treated for ailments. These are unusual times and safety comes first to strike a balance between economic survival and sustainable public health. Common sense on hygiene and the law of self-preservation already commend the decision on compulsory wearing of face masks in public. We should never forget: life is infinite in its possibilities while death is final in its finality. The policy on face mask is spot-on and deserves acceptance by all to secure lives. We need to survive COVID-19 first before we can enjoy life after it!


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