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The many gaps in Buhari’s Covid-19 address

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While many had given up hope about President Muhammadu Buhari addressing Nigerians as other world leaders are doing daily on the COVID-19 pandemic to reassure their citizens, his outing would turn out what many have described as just an address. For many, it merely fulfilled all righteousness about speechmaking, which they say is lacking in substance. This is apart from the unconstitutionally of his declaration of lockdown of Lagos and Ogun States and the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja. The president would later sign the Quarantine Act retroactively following outcry from Nigerians some three days after the address.

First among the obvious gaps in Buhari’s address is its obvious non-reference to the poor state of health facilities in the country for which budgets perennially fall far below recommended 15 per cent of national budgets. As the foremost culprit in medical tourism, many had expected that the situation would energise Buhari to address that critical but neglected sector. His wife Aisha had cried herself hoarse over the health facility in Aso Rock Villa Buhari occupies without results. Now that everyone including Mr. President and politicians who easily jet out for medical tourism are ‘stranded’ at home by the incidence of coronavirus, with some already testing positive to it, many had expected that it would be time for Buhari to save face and announce whooping changes that would reposition the sector for good, both for the poor and the rich. But it would seem Buhari and his political class are sold to their medical tourism addiction and would do nothing to change the situation from its parlous state to a better one.

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The Minister of Health, Dr. Osagie Ehanire, had told reporters in Abuja last week that lessons learnt from Covid-19 would help government build a formidable health system.

According to him, “Every country that is in this situation is discovering the weakness in their health system. Most health systems have been overwhelmed and every country is thinking of rebuilding their health systems. We are also learning our lessons and will rebuild our health system at all levels from primary to tertiary, knowing that if you have a weak health system you will pay a very huge price.”

While Ehanire seemed upbeat about the pandemic providing enough incentive to rebuilding the country’s health system, Buhari did not give indication to such optimism in his addresss. It was clear from the address that such notion is far from the reality in the thinking of President Buhari, who did not even hint at the idea in the 19-minute nationwide address. What this effectively means is that once the pandemic is effectively contained and normalcy returned to society, his government would carry on as before, Buhari and the political class would resume their medical tourism pastime and forget the rest of society to make do with the usual inadequacy until perhaps another pandemic sticks and another round of lamentations starts.

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Another area of immense lack is how data is mined and utilised in Nigeria. This lapse is inextricably tied to the yearnings of Nigerians that Buhari would announce palliative measures to cushion the lockdown he imposed on parts of he country. He failed to do so, but merely stated that the school feeding and N-Power programmes would be activated. Many have described this announcement as meaningless to the situation on ground. Had Buhari announced any such palliatives, however, the question that would have arisen is, how to disburse the palliatives to citizens when the country lacks basic data. Were there a reliable data, the about 5,000 cases of index contacts who arrived the country and filled wrong details make it difficult for National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) to trace them would have been a non-issue. Their identity would be known on their arrival if there were reliable data and social security number for every citizen.

So from the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) to Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS) to the telecommunication companies to Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC), and the banks, government remains clueless how to harvest accurate data of Nigerians into a pool for ready use. The result is chaotic information management even at crucial moments like these when coronavirus is ravaging the world. Whereas what is required would have been for NIMC to simply harvest existing data (details and biometrics) the other agencies and bodies have gathered and then sieve through these and allocate identification number to Nigerians and warehouse such data in a pool for ease of use. Instead, billions of public funds are expended every year in fruitless data mining that leads nowhere. Buhari therefore missed a great opportunity to rally the aforementioned bodies to synergise and give the country accurate data. Many have since suggested that perhaps entrenched primitive political consideration is at play for the chaotic data situation, and that leaders were not in a hurry to get accurate data for the country as it would expose their dirty flanks.

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While the Director-General of Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI), Mr. Muda Yusuf, wasn’t sure whether government would provide any form of palliative, he, however, said the absence of data would also hinder the possibility of such efforts from being implemented if endorsed. Yusuf lamented in a radio programme monitored in Lagos that lack of data was a major bane to planning in the country and that its absence would render any palliatives impossible in the face of Covid-19.

Another serious flaw in the broadcast in Buhari’s speech is his failure to task religious leaders on the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic. Two unflattering incidents, one in Zamfara State and the other in Plateau State, make addressing religious leaders imperative. In both cases, the Islamic clerics told their followers that there was nothing like COVID-19, that it was a scam. In Zamfara, the cleric was arrested for holding prayer session in his mosque. His followers promptly went on rampage and set a police state ablaze. An officer on duty was said to have been killed. In Jos, the cleric instigated his followers to loudly chant to the effect that there was no coronavirus. Some have argued that perhaps it was time Buhari made a radio or video broadcast in Hausa to specifically address incidents such as these as further measures to create awareness about the virus. Perhaps, now is the time to engage traditional leaders as well.

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Meanwhile, the intervention of the Sultan of Sokoto, Muhammadu Sa’ad Abubakar III, a few days later, impressing it on Muslim faithful all over the country that coronavirus is real is timely and welcome development that could save lives and liberate many from ignorance. Other traditional and religious leaders could take a cue from the sultan and make similar appeals to those in their domains so as to stop the spread of the virus.

Jama’atu Nasril Islam’s Secretary-General, Dr. Khalid Abubakar Aliyu, on behalf of the Sultan, called on Muslims to observe strict adherence to personal hygiene to halt the spread of the disease.

“Apart from China where the infection of the virus started, it spreads geometrically to other countries in the world, ranging from Europe, America, Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, Nigeria inclusive. Each country is taking measures in curbing the plague of the Coronavirus by quarantining the suspiciously infected in order to avoid its spread, while the infected are being treated in special medical facilities.

“All Juma’ah (Friday prayers) and five daily congregational prayers’ Imams should mount strong advocacy and enlightenment campaign against the scourge and the epidemic nature of Coronavirus. They should include in their sermons and preaching the imperatives of taking serious precautionary measures of personal hygiene.”

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