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‘COVID-19 may reorder government priorities afterwards’

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A chieftain of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Chief Chekwas Okorie, believes the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the dearth of basic utilities in the country. As such, he states in this interview that when the pandemic is over, it might force the government to jerk up budgetary allocations to some sectors of the economy.

How would you assess the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country by both the federal and state governments so far?
I will give kudos to both the Federal Government and some state governments that have come up with certain directives that will help them to check the spread, including states that have not recorded any index case but are making preparations in the event that the virus arrives their state. That kind of proactive action is impressive. Also, the fact that up till now what has been recorded is two deaths even though the death of any person is painful is encouraging. The statistics is still low and I hope it’s maintained.

The only thing which I’m worried about is the fact some of the things people have been asked to do are not even available even if they want to do them. For example, they have been advocating that people should wash hands regularly in running water for at least 20 seconds. But there is no water not to talk of running water across the country; even stagnant water is not available. That is one aspect that I believe in the next budgets, especially the 2021 budget, more attention should be paid to. More allocations should also go to the health sector because we have seen how unprepared we are for this pandemic. Honestly, it is just God that has saved Nigeria so far. But God helps those who help themselves.

Government at all levels has for too long neglected areas that impact on the welfare of ordinary people. These types of palliative measures being taken now are grossly inadequate. The situation could have been better managed if certain utilities and amenities have been there before now. So, I guess what has happened may have a positive effect in redirecting government both at the national and state levels on priorities.

There appears to be a bit of loggerhead between the states and the Federal Government in the area of locking down some places. While the Federal Government says only Lagos and Ogun States and the Federal Capital Territory are on lockdown, maintaining that Nigerians are free to move around in other states, virtually all the states have closed their borders. What is your take on that?

That is why I said I’m impressed by some proactive measures being taken by states just like the Federal Government has taken actions, which I believe were done in good faith even though some people are arguing about the constitutionality of certain pronouncements of the President. I believe that in an emergency situation, the President has power to take measures to save the people. In the same manner, since we are running a federation, the states can also take certain steps to protect residents especially when it is obvious that the human capacity and the resources to handle the problem once it has arrived is grossly inadequate. So preventive measures by states cannot be faulted.

Therefore, there need not be any clash. It is only when states encroach in areas that are exclusive to the Federal Government that the measures may be considered unhealthy. For example, the Governor of Rivers State gave order that aircraft would not even land in their state and that people cannot come in and go out. But federal roads as well as airports are within the control of the Federal Government. Aside from that, inside the states, those on ground should be given benefit of the doubt that they are doing what they are doing in order to help prevent the spread of this very dangerous pandemic, like deciding whether markets should be closed or allowed to run. So, there shouldn’t be any clash really; everybody should be seen to be working to prevent the spread the pandemic.

How do you think the food items both the federal and some state governments pledged to distribute to cushion the effect of the lockdown can best be managed given some difficulties associated with the present arrangements?
It is worrisome really. The way some of our officials handle material things like that gives room for those who are supposed to be beneficiaries to believe that if they are not in front of the queue they may announce that the items have finished; so they rush. So, it is basically a management issue. I think security operatives should be around in such places to make sure that there is social distancing between people in a queue. But these are difficult things to handle.

But in terms of the cash palliatives, I think the money is transferred to the accounts of the beneficiaries. So, where we are having this rush is mainly where material items like foodstuffs and so on are distributed. But unfortunately, those who are benefitting from the cash palliatives are those who are already on their list of vulnerable citizens, which has never really been comprehensive.

There are millions of people who are not on their list and who live on daily income. These are the people that are worse hit by the lockdown. If care is not taken, and that has been my fear, people who will die out of hunger or become sick out of lack of nutrition as we witnessed during the civil war when many children suffered from such kwashiorkor and so on, may even out-number those who will die as a result of the virus itself.

So, the government must try to find an answer to this because you cannot begin to solve one problem and create even more. I’m so worried because I know how the lockdown is impacting on somebody like me as I try to take care of a few persons. And I can imagine millions of people out there whose situations are worse than can be imagined. So, something has to be done and it shouldn’t be left to the government alone.

You don’t have to be a billionaire before you can help out. You don’t have to make some donations to the national coffers to be announced so that you take some glory. Lending a helping hand to people especially those within your locality is to be encouraged because more people are suffering as we speak. If you don’t have a good nutrition that means that even ordinary fever can kill you because there is little resistance from your body. And when the proper statistics will be taken, you may discover that more people have died as a result of the lockdown than those killed by the virus.

You talked about Nigerians reaching out to their neighbours at this critical time. You must have observed how politicians have been donating to the fund established by the Federal Government to combat the virus irrespective of party affiliation. What does that tell you about this country?
The take away actually is that national unity is achievable if the leadership can do the right things. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced everybody to remember that he/she is his/her brother’s keeper. But before the pandemic, the leadership at all levels had not encouraged the spirit of patriotism, which in turn will engender national unity. And you cannot have unity where there is no justice. But now nobody is talking about justice anymore; it’s a question of survival. But what it has shown is that national unity is achievable.

Everybody knows that during football competitions especially on the global stage, Nigerians get easily united behind the national team. So, it is not an impossible task to bring Nigerians together. Nigerians are easy to govern the way I look at it from my position as an experienced politician. But when you don’t prioritise justice, equity and fair play, then you make people to begin to questions their citizenship rights or even their citizenship altogether.

So, I hope we will come out of this and begin to address national issues from the point of view of patriotism of the leadership, which in turn will engender patriotism from the governed.


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APCChekwas OkorieCOVID-19
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