Following weeks of intense verbal attacks on the Presidency by a cross section of Nigerians over President Buhari’s delay in addressing the nation on the Coronavirus otherwise known as COVID 19 ravaging the world and Nigeria, the President finally yielded to the pressure. When it finally came, the long awaited Presidential speech on coronavirus was however received with mixed reactions by Nigerians. KENNETH DAKOP writes…

THE global public health challenge posed by the endemic Coronavirus is threatening the very core of humanity. Discovered last December in the city of Wuhan in one of the provinces of China, the virus has spread widely and rapidly second only to the wild bush fires that ravaged most parts of Australia in the twilight of 2019. Like the fiery tongues of an untamed wild fire, the Coronavirus is licking the surface of the earth and exhibiting little or no sign of abetting any time soon.

Countries that were hitherto considered to have made considerable in-roads as far as technological advancements in the health care delivery services are concerned appear to be worst hit by the pandemic. This makes the so-called third world countries appear most gullible to the disease.

Countries in Europe, Asia, Middle East and the United States of America, USA are daily counting their losses in terms of human and material capital. On the global scale, the pandemic has arm-twisted powerful economies into recession. Human and vehicular activities have been grounded while scores have been dispatched to the great beyond by the virus. To say the least, the world is in a bowl of mess even to this very moment.

For Nigeria, the story is not different as the fallen prices of crude oil in the international market owing to the problem is taking a dangerous toll on the mono economy. The 2020 budget is hard hit. Revenue sources are shrinking or forced to shut down. Monthly allocation to states are already feeling the pinch and in the coming months may further dwindle. The picture seems gloomy. Government seems helpless in mitigating the economic challenges that is accompanying the pandemic.

It is against this backdrop that Nigerians yearned for the leadership of the country, like in other climes, to inspire hope in them. It is at such a time that citizens crave to hear messages of hope and see their leaders take proactive steps to provide succor or even ameliorate such harsh situations.

Therefore, what President Buhari did on March 29 was to inspire hope in Nigerians. In his broadcast to the nation, he said “From the first signs that Coronavirus, or COVID 19 was turning into an epidemic and was officially declared a world-wide emergency, the Federal Government started planning preventive containment and curative measures in the event the disease hits Nigeria”. He went further to say: “The whole instruments of government are now mobilized to confront what has now become both a health emergency and an economic crisis”. Evidently, so the daily press briefing to give update by the Presidential Task Force on COVID 19 (PTF C-19) has become a robust platform for information provisioning to Nigerians on the current status of the disease and the measures taken by government in real time to address the further spread of the disease.

For the avoidance of doubt, the frontline states in the fight against the pandemic in the country have been identified as Lagos, Ogun, Ekiti, Edo, Osun and Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory, FCT. As at the time this report was put together, the number of confirmed cases thus far in the country has risen to almost two hundred with only two fatalities recorded. According to health sources from the National Center for Disease Control, NCDC, the two fatalities were individuals who had underlying illnesses.

In Lagos State, the state with the highest number of COVID 19 cases, the good news coming out from there indicates that most of the reported cases were stable while a sizeable number of those quarantined and treated had been discharged having been certified free from the virus.

Rising from the index case reported in the country on February 27, the country has witnessed a slow increase in number of cases with many said to be recorded in the coming weeks according to health authorities. Although the federal government has adopted strategies used globally in the fight against COVID 19, Buhari said “our implementation programs have been tailored to reflect our local realities”.

Thus Mr. President disclosed that “In Nigeria, we are taking a two-step approach. First, to protect the lives of our fellow Nigerians and residents living here and second, to preserve the livelihoods of workers and business owners to ensure their families get through this very difficult time in dignity and with hope and peace of mind. To date, we have introduced healthcare measures, border security, fiscal and monetary policies in our response. We shall continue to do so as the situation unfolds.  Some of these measures will surely cause major inconveniences to many citizens. But these are sacrifices we should all be willing and ready to make for the greater good of our country. In Nigeria’s fight against COVID-19, there is no such thing as an overreaction or an under reaction. It is all about the right reaction by the right agencies and trained experts”.

Therefore, in marching words with action, the federal government announced a lockdown of Abuja, Lagos and Ogun states for an initial period of fourteen days. In the affected states, human and vehicular movements have been banned while all persons have been encouraged to stay at home while minimizing movements from one place to the other. These are deliberate measures adopted from China, Italy, France and other such countries that are battling with the spread of the deadly virus.

“I also requested, through the Nigeria Governors Forum, for all state governments to nominate doctors and nurses who will be trained by the NCDC and Lagos State Government on tactical and operational response to the virus in case it spreads to other states. This training will also include medical representatives from our armed forces, paramilitary and security and intelligence agencies.  As a nation, our response must be guided, systematic and professional. There is a need for consistency across the nation. All inconsistencies in policy guidelines between Federal and State agencies will be eliminated”, President Buhari said.

However, experts and other public analysts flawed these moves by the federal government as contained in the foregoing statement of the President. Those who spoke against this maintained that the federal government should have been proactive in this regard. They contend that such training is belated and should have been done earlier than now. The analysts argued that rather than wait until the pandemic assumed a frightening proportion in the country, the government should have carried out this training beforehand. On the flip side however, some see the initiative as a belated one that  came late than never.

Intriguingly, Mr. President puzzled Nigerians when he said “Although schools are closed, I have instructed 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 policies. The Minister will be contacting the affected states and agree on detailed next steps”.

And again, Nigerians wondered how this School Feeding Programme could be sustained when all schools have been shut down and; in some extreme cases like the frontline states of Lagos, Ogun and the FCT were total shut down has been enforced. As if that is not enough, maintaining a social distance while dishing out such government largesse as directed by the President may prove a herculean task. This was made abundantly clear when few days ago, the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development went to downtown Abuja to distribute cash to vulnerable households affected by the lockdown. The sea of heads that swam out to be part of the exercise grossly compromised the social distancing advice of health experts. This in itself poses grave danger to not just the people but presents a clog in the fight against the disease.

Well, the President may not have intended it to be so because in his words, PMB categorically stated that: “For the most vulnerable in our society, I have directed that the conditional cash transfers for the next two months be paid immediately. Our Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) will also receive two months of food rations in the coming weeks”.

“Furthermore, I have directed that a three-month repayment moratorium for all TraderMoni, MarketMoni and FarmerMoni loans be implemented with immediate effect. I have also directed that a similar moratorium be given to all Federal Government funded loans issued by the Bank of Industry, Bank of Agriculture and the Nigeria Export Import Bank. For on-lending facilities using capital from international and multilateral development partners, I have directed our development financial institutions to engage these development partners and negotiate concessions to ease the pains of the borrowers…We also call on all Nigerians to take personal responsibility to support those who are vulnerable within their communities, helping them with whatever they may need”.

No doubt, the economic impact of the ravaging  Coronavirus may be devastating, the steps taken by the federal government to provide some palliatives to cushion the effects of the negative impact on especially the vulnerable in the society must be commended. But atypical of the workings of the “Nigerian system” caution must be exercised to ensure that these cash that the government so graciously earmarked for the poor suffering masses actually gets to them and do not end up in the pockets of some few privilege individuals. The Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed, some few days ago announced to the world that the federal government had distributed over 5 billion Naira to poor households to cushion the effects of the lockdown in the frontline states.

Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Boss Mustapha also announced the release of Seventy Thousand metric tonnes of grains from the Strategic Reserve for distribution to those hard hit by the lockdown. In the first instance, we are told that six thousand metric tonnes has been released for Lagos State alone.

All these initiatives cannot go without the mention of the cheering news that the private and public sectors in the country have all risen to the challenge of halting further spread of the disease. Religious bodies are not left out of this as we hear religious organisations making contributions towards this war. Mr. President also acknowledged this in his speech when he stated that “We are very grateful to see the emerging support of the private sector and individuals as well as our development partners. At this point, I will ask that all contributions and donations be coordinated and centralized to ensure efficient and impactful spending. The Presidential Task Force remains the central coordinating body on the COVID-19 response”.

The heartwarming news coming out from the country in the last few days shows that Nigeria appears to be winning the fight against the dreaded disease. The discharge of Coronavirus patients by the Lagos State health authorities gives a ray of hope in the horizon. And if the current tempo in this war is sustained in the coming weeks, Nigeria may witness a steady decline in new cases as conscious efforts are made to check community spread through strict supervision of laid down guidelines. It is a fight to finish. It is a fight that involves all and sundry. It is a fight that Nigerians must be seen to take ownership and responsibility for the common good of all.

 

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