Easing lockdown is right way to go

By Idowu Akinlotan

In fact, the lockdown should never have happened in the first instance, even though, given its global seductiveness, it was all but inevitable. To argue against its imposition in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic was to court the wrath of those who equate its absence with encouraging genocide or mass suicide. Unlike other issues, the debate on whether the unalleviated spread of the coronavirus disease should persuade the government to continue or discontinue its lockdown measure is not as confused as the origins of the virus itself.

Five weeks ago, only two states and Abuja came under lockdown. Today, virtually all the 36 states are under one degree of lockdown or the other, with interstate movements of persons and non-essential goods prohibited. But just as fast as the lockdown measure beguiled Nigeria’s policy makers in the first few panicky and frenetic weeks of the virus, easing the lockdown has now also become a global and irresistible catchphrase.

The arguments of both the proponents and opponents of the measure are fairly straightforward. Those who support lockdown acknowledge that the measure has its expiry date, but warn that easing the measure now is premature because the disease could flare up again and continue its relentless and destructive march. They cite examples of countries, including Ghana, which they argue has prematurely eased the lockdown and is confronted by flare-ups, adding that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has cautioned against prematurely lifting the lockdown.

They also liken the disease to war, inundating everybody with the apocalyptic histories of savage epidemics, particularly the 1918 Spanish flu, and suggesting that it is better to stay quarantined and hungry, than to face the dangerous and irrevocable finality of dropping dead in the streets like flies, with the surviving unenthusiastic about burying their dead. For Nigeria, the advocates add, the country is yet to see the peak of the disease, let alone witness the so-called flattening of the curve or its irreversible abatement.

Opponents of the measure are ironically not united in their reasons for opposing the lockdown. One group agrees with the initial lockdown, which they say was necessary, but argues that the country could not bear more than a few weeks of the harsh measure. They rest their advocacy mainly on the unworkable structure of the Nigerian economy and the society’s lack of advancement or sophistication, thus making it hard for the government to palliate the sufferings of the vulnerable.

The second group of opponents insist that a lockdown, as attractive as it may seem, and with all the pictorial quietness and drama it paints and presents, is fundamentally and theoretically flawed. A lockdown, they commonsensically declared, destroys the economy and livelihood of the largest section of the society, whether that society is advanced or underdeveloped. They also point at the industrialised West which has eased the lockdown despite still grappling with the mountainous impact of the disease.

By last weekend, following the decision by President Muhammadu Buhari to ease the lockdown in Lagos, Ogun and Abuja after five weeks, and despite the rising number of infections in those areas and the flare ups in a number of other states, including Kano, the debate on the appropriateness of the lockdown measure had intensified. The debate coalesced principally into two broad categories: those in favour of the measure and those against it.

The supporters of the measure paint a scary picture of the disease spreading more ominously and recording bigger harvests of deaths. It is not clear how the Buhari presidency came to its conclusions; but if the deaths from COVID-19 were to intensify on a scale that shakes their confidence and alarms the populace, another regime of lockdown could be imposed in a matter of weeks, maybe even sooner than later. Opponents of lockdown, however, tentatively won this round of debate. Not willing to provoke anyone but eager to let bad enough alone, they have kept their peace and spoken very little, hoping that they had presented enough sensible security and economic arguments to persuade the government to seek other means of reining in the disease.

It seems, overall, that the government reluctantly reached its conclusions, perhaps swayed by security and economic reasons. But they have continued to cast wary eyes on the rising death figures, not to say the community spread of the disease, of which Kano is tragically the exemplification of both. In presenting his position to the nation last Monday on easing the lockdown, just as when he announced both the first lockdown and the extension, President Buhari was neither convincing nor inspiring. Indeed on none of the three occasions did the president present resounding arguments for or against lockdown.

He did not substantially acknowledge the security arguments, nor did he indicate a full grasp of the economic arguments for and against the measure. He tried to empathise with the people, more than 75 percent of whom operate in the informal/ small scale enterprises sector, and claimed to appreciate their anguish and losses. But even that appreciation, like his three national broadcasts in their entirety, was too mechanical, officious and unconvincing. There is, therefore, really nothing persuasive about the president’s statements since the virus made landfall to warrant an ironclad belief that the government knows its onions and cannot be tossed around by the exigencies of the disease or stupefied by the short to medium run increase in casualty figures. In short, the president is not immune to being swayed one way or the other in the weeks or days ahead.

Kano embodies that presidential vacillation. If the reasons for easing the lockdown in Lagos, Ogun and Abuja have anything to do with security threats and, more crucially, the loss of livelihoods by a majority of Nigerians, the president would not have imposed a lockdown on Kano, regardless of the panic displayed by the leaders of that populous and generally temperamental northern state. Even though supporters of lockdown argue that the measure helped Lagos, Ogun and Abuja to limit the spread of the disease and keep the gradient of the casualty figures fairly gentle, there is absolutely no proof that without a lockdown, the casualty figures would have been significantly higher.

Lagos for instance was already executing varying and graduated degrees of lockdown before the president’s brusque intervention. There is evidence to show that Lagos factored in the security and medical factors in implementing its own strategies, and had achieved some measure of success which it needed to build on. The federal government factored in nothing, but believed, without research and evidence, that a lockdown, the global Cinderella thought to be the magic bullet, would halt the slide to chaos. As everyone now knows, neither the deaths from coronavirus nor its spread has abated or responded positively to the lockdown measure.

By locking down Kano, despite experience not supporting the efficacy of that measure, the federal government somehow thinks they can put a lid on the unexplained deaths in the state and control the other more visible and explicable deaths probably triggered by the pandemic. But Governor Abdullahi Ganduje has remonstrated with the federal government to ease the lockdown on account of the hunger ravaging the populace and the stifling of small businesses threatened by lack of production and patronage. Did he and the president not know this before oiling their weapons and firing their guns? The state is a lethal brew of poverty, unregulated and poorly structured small businesses, ignorant masses and exploding population.

Kano, like other states which refused to anticipate a crisis like COVID-19, nor prepared for the future in terms of town planning, healthcare facilities, population control, harnessing their large population by giving them the skills needed to thrive in this modern era, and emplacement of frugal and visionary governance, has been thrust savagely into the fiery claws of reckoning. The governor is right to suggest that Kano can’t endure a lockdown for as long and as stoically as Lagos and others managed. But the state has an unforgiving disease to fight, and despite Abuja pouring money and resources into the state, the situation will get out of hand if the federal government does not in fact double and intensify its help. Like other states and cities in Nigeria, time has caught up with Kano, and they are discovering, again like Lagos and others before them, that a lockdown is not as easy to administer nor as magically rewarding as the government has romanticised.

Given the political health of Nigeria, the structure of the economy, the level of poverty, and the global downturn certain to impact negatively on Nigeria’s main revenue source, a lockdown is a recipe for chaos. Global recession, which COVID-19 is predisposing the world economy to, is bad enough. Having a feeble and trammelled economy like that of Nigeria which derives its sustenance from fuelling the world’s industrial engines and subordinating its existence to the breath in the nostrils of others is obviously courting disaster every time a crisis from outside strikes. The only way to mitigate the instant and traumatising effect of the looming economic disaster is to keep the country’s informal sector revving for as long as possible, hoping that it will help cushion and weaken the coming tsunami before it makes landfall.

Nigerian leaders have now begun to see that the world is moving away from lockdown, and have embraced this move, probably without fully knowing why, or even if they know, without being fully convinced. They adopted lockdown when others did; now, almost by rote, they are easing up as others are doing, with the arguments for both positions hard to rationalise. It is not only important for Nigerian leaders to know why they must ape the big powers, they must also appraise the new measures presented before them, and see which ones can be adopted or adapted.

More importantly, it is a tragic reflection of the poverty of governance and lack of national self-confidence that when COVID-19 berthed in Lagos and Ogun states, Nigeria immediately began to look outside rather than inwards, to the West and the Chinese instead of Nigerian scientists, as the virus began to panic and plague the country. They should have looked inwards to develop their own unique methods and apparatuses of fighting the disease, as a few other African countries are doing, pool their scientists together to find a cure, as they are now just persuading themselves to do, and repose confidence in restructuring and fine-tuning their administrative systems to enable them respond adequately and confidently to crises of this kind and all kinds, particularly a health crisis that has embarrassed and enfeebled the world’s leading economies.

It is evident that many world leaders, from Donald Trump of the United States to Boris Johnson of Britain, and from Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil to Vladimir Putin of Russia, are ill-equipped to respond to this kind of existential crisis partly because they are made of false and hesitant mettle than first imagined, and have surrendered to all forms of hysteria, self-doubt, coarseness, propaganda and histrionics. This crisis has exposed them all.

Unfortunately for Nigeria, the coronavirus crisis has coincided with the tremors convulsing the country’s leadership since the past few weeks. To be able to respond forcefully and sensibly to the COVID-19 crisis and the inexorable economic woes looming in the horizon, Nigeria would require the best brains in the highest office in the land, and still have the option of calling upon the services of other great brains at short notice.

Partly because of the country’s leadership culture, which floats on ethnic and religious ballasts, there has been no scientific or structured attempt to respond to the virus beyond empanelling a few teams of admittedly hard working public officials whose activities however manifest a certain lack of adroitness. It would be a tragedy to respond to the coming economic woes in the same shambolic manner as they have faced and demeaned other salient national issues.

One step Nigerian leaders must not take is to shut down the economy in the guise of fighting the virus even before the inescapable global economic downturn hits the country like a hurricane. They must be wary of the dubious argument that suggests that lockdown presupposes fewer deaths. Not only have previous lockdowns not proved this hypothesis, the argument is itself unhelpful, insensitive and elitist. Other measures, which are gradually being emphasised and administered by Lagos and the federal government itself, should be encouraged and given time to work.

These measures will take cognisance of the nature and course of the pandemic and mitigate its social and economic effects, even in the face of rising death figures in the short to medium run. It requires courage, tenacity and intellect. Officials should not be of double mind in confronting the ogre. The government is right to ease the lockdown since it cannot obviously alleviate the sufferings of the vulnerable as everyone hoped; it should therefore stay the course because the alternative is too grim to contemplate, not to talk of endure.

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