At the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, while Italian leaders scurried to contain the rising cases of infections and urged citizens to self-isolate and avoid social gatherings, Nicola Zingaretti, the leader of Italy’s ruling party posted a picture of himself clinking glasses on 27 February, and urged Italians not to change their habits. Nine (9) days later, he posted another video in which he informed the world that he has been infected by the virus. Sadly, Nigerian political and religious leaders have followed and are still following in his exact footsteps. As the days drag by, and the virus spreads across Nigeria, we are beginning to realize how dangerously close we are to total disaster.
It is no longer news that the coronavirus pandemic has hit Nigeria at the heart of its political class. The Presidency is on lockdown. Abba Kyari, arguably the most powerful man in Aso Rock is in quarantine and undergoing treatment after he tested positive to the virus. The tragedy in the villa, however, is that Kyari, having been exposed to – and contracted the virus – socialized unmitigated with the high and mighty political brass of the country. Similarly parallel and tragic cases transpired across the nation. Oyo State Governor, Seyi Makinde held a mega rally in the state against all reason, better judgment and counsel. The annual Africa Magic Viewers Award (AMVCA), bringing together all celebrities in Nigeria was convened, exposing all attendees to a now confirmed coronavirus case. Just a few days ago, the Lagos State government issued a warning to all attendees to self-quarantine. Churches and mosques have continued to congregate – openly and secretly till date. Alhaji Atiku Abubakar’s son, who is currently undergoing treatment for the virus, is alleged to have socialized with worshipers and club patrons right before he was tested positive and quarantined. A number of other such worrisome gatherings have been recorded and condemned unanimously by majority of Nigerians. These individuals and mass events ignored all precautionary measures recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC). The cost of these actions and the reality of their consequences will unfold over the next coming months.
However, the actual impending calamity looming over Nigeria trumps the effects of the cases enumerated above by orders of astronomical magnitude. The careless and clueless manner in which the Nigerian government is responding (or rather, not responding) to this impending epidemic will prove to be by far, the greatest error for which we shall all regret in the coming months.
We Saw the Catastrophe Coming
The outbreak of the coronavirus in Hubei province of China in late 2019 was a turning point in the history of the 21st Century. In January 2020, the epidemic hit global headlines owing to its wildfire spread. Many governments leaped into crisis modes. China, on its part, took drastic measures which were criticized on the outset, but later praised. The Chinese authorities realized early the necessity to enforce a lockdown in Wuhan, which they did and brutally enforced. Following the lockdown, everyone who broke quarantine rules was arrested and detained. These drastic and harsh measures eventually paid off – the spread of the disease locally ground to slow and painful halt – but not before the disease was exported to other countries of the world.
Proactive governments constituted national response committees and teams to respond to the epidemic, forestall its spread and find a cure. But these desperate, feverish attempts mostly yielded less than desired results owing to the blunders of national governments. On 11 March, 2020, WHO declared the coronavirus as a global pandemic, and the world went into flames. Events from Iran and Italy are particularly instructive to the rest of the world – that is, if these lessons are not already too late to learn for those gaffes to be avoided.
Lessons from Iran and Italy
On 24 February, a coughing and sweaty Iraj Harirchi – Iran’s Deputy Minister of Health – told reporters in a press conference that the spread of the coronavirus in Iran has been contained. He refuted an allegation from an Iranian lawmaker that 50 people had died of the virus at that point. In his own words Harirchi said “I will resign if the numbers are even half or a quarter of this…” The next day, Harirchi was diagnosed with the virus and placed on quarantine. He had, in that same press conference, opposed quarantines to be taken by Iran. He argued that measures such as those were for stuff like the plaque and cholera, and are not acceptable in this post-World War 2 era. He was soon to find that out personally. But that was just one part of the story. Authorities in Iran goofed on another level.
The epidemic in Iran broke out from the city of Qom. It is recorded that a merchant had travelled from Wuhan to Qom, bringing the virus with him to the Shiite shrine in Qom. Instead of closing the shrine to pilgrims and locking down the city, Mohammad Saeedi, the head of the shrine encouraged more pilgrims to come and visit. In his words “We consider this holy shrine to be a place of healing. That means people should come here to heal from spiritual and physical diseases.” Authorities in Iran hesitated to bring Saeedi to order, and soon thereafter Iran became the new global epicenter of the virus outside of China. The rest is now a painful history of mass infections, hundreds of deaths and a national lockdown. But national leaders were yet to learn lessons from the sad and avoidable epidemic in Iran.
Italy, which soon overtook Iran in confirmed cases and became the new global epicenter of the virus made precisely the same costly errors Iran made. Italian authorities failed to both acknowledged the enormity of the impending catastrophe, nor to take necessary commonsense precautionary measures. According to the New York Times, “In the critical early days of the outbreak, Mr. Conte and other top officials sought to down play the threat, creating confusion and a false sense of security that allowed the virus to spread. Even when the Italian government considered a universal lockdown necessary to defeat the virus, it failed to communicate the threat powerfully enough to persuade Italians to abide by the rules, which seemed riddled with loopholes.” Today, Italy has recorded 31,506 confirmed cases and 2,503 deaths, and the scourge continues with no end in sight.
Early in the epidemic, authorities in both Iran and Italy goofed in the many ways, the most costly being (a). Downplaying the seriousness of the threat posed by the coronavirus, (b). Failure to enforce rigorous quarantine measures and (c). Failure to lockdown cities and regions so as to curb the spread of the virus. The citizens of these countries, together with the citizens of dozens other countries which failed to learn from these mistakes, are paying the supreme price today with no foreseeable end.
Lessons for Nigeria
One will expect that lessons from Italy and Iran will prompt other nations which were yet to feel the brunt of pandemic to immediately take all necessary actions to keep the virus at bay, alas, not all national leaders are endowed with this rudimentary commonsense. Nigeria, which seems to lead the pack in this dearth of commonsense, appears poised to not only repeat the mistakes of Iran and Italy, but to take them altogether to new, never-before-imagined heights.
While the scourge ravished countries and laid developed nations with advanced healthcare systems to waste, Nigeria leaders shrugged off the calamity sweeping across the globe with careless indifference. Some citizens raised alarms, some media outfits turned their attentions and budgets on covering the pandemic in the hope that the government will listen and take proactive measures, regrettably, all pleas and entreats fell on deaf ears. After an eternity of reluctance and indifferent, on 2 February, the Minister of Health, Dr. Osagie Ehanire informed Nigerians that the government will not place any travel restrictions on travelers from any of the virus-prone countries. Nigerians were horrified and shocked with disbelief! He stated, to quote, that “We have no plan to ban passengers from China coming into Nigeria. The protocol is that everybody will be screened as they arrive.” By this and many other such statements of inaction, the federal government casually downplayed the seriousness of the threat and left the gates of Nigeria open to asymptomatic careers which were to later import and spread the scourge.
During the same period, the Lagos State government took over the mantle of the battle against the pandemic from the federal government. In its efforts to curb the spread of the virus in the state, the government of Lagos advised all travelers returning from China or other high risk countries to observe a 14 day self-quarantine.
It is pointless to state that Nigerians habitually flout government laws – more so by top government officials and the privileged than by the masses. Needless to say, majority of travelers from these high risk countries ignored this 14 day “mandatory” self-quarantine rule and traveled and mingled with the rest of Nigerians as they wished. The federal government, Lagos State government and indeed all Nigerians knew from the onset that this “mandatory” self-quarantine was just empty rhetoric and hallow blabbing. Nothing was done by the government to enforce it or punish defaulters. We just carried on living our lives.
Fast-forward 3 weeks to today – from the Italian index case, to the case of the AMVCA attendee, to Mohammad Atiku Abubakar, to Abba Kyari – the mandatory self-quarantine injunction was thoughtlessly flouted, and the virus spread.
Today, the virus has reached most (if not all of) the states in Nigeria and many Nigerians suspect that there are far many more cases than the so-called “confirmed” cases. Just this morning, a long list of “who is who” in Nigeria is reported to have come in contact with the Chief of Staff, Alhaji Abba Kyari and the other confirmed cases. The retinue of the AMVCA event currently lives in apprehension, suspension and fear while awaiting the results of their respective tests – or for the disease to set in, and for the coughing to start. They and their families and all the other people they have come in contact with are in dread and intense anxiety. Presently many state governors across Nigeria are in self-quarantine. It is only left to the imagination the number of state officials and other contacts these highly placed government officials have met and interacted with and spread the virus to, unabated.
The panic is spreading, the nation is in intense fear, but as at today, no city in Nigeria is on lockdown! Intercity and interstate movement continues unrestricted. Markets and malls across the country are fully operational. Civil servants are still mandated to work across many states in country. Employees of private corporations are still going about their daily jobs – making an already precarious situation edge closer and closer to the precipice of a national disaster. Every hour that passes brings us closer to tragedy. Nigerians are looking up to the government to act decisively and swiftly, but this does not seem likely.
I am calling on the government of President Muhammadu Buhari to rise up to its duty and act fast, before this smoldering ray of light and hope in Nigeria is snuffed out. The government may yet avert a national disaster if it acts now before this darkness envelops us.
The Situation is Salvageable – Partially
For the rest of Nigerians who are yet to be infected by this plague, there is yet a slim chance of salvation – lying all and squarely on the shoulders of the federal government of Nigeria. Our only hope as a nation may be dashed within the next few days by how the government responds today.
It is only commonsense that the simple measure below be immediately instituted and enforced by the government.
- All interstate travels between Lagos – the epicenter of the epidemic in Nigeria – and neighboring states must be restricted immediately. All citizens – except those offering essential services – must be mandated to stay at home forthwith. The government must deploy its security infrastructure to enforce this lockdown. This same lockdown must be implemented without further delay in the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja.
- The federal and state governments should pay all March and other outstanding salaries immediately so that citizens can acquire the necessities they need for this lockdown.
- The federal government must use all the security apparatuses in its disposal to track down and quarantine all suspected cases which have defied the self-quarantine order.
- All state governments must shut down all nonessential services and businesses with immediate effect. The government must however, make it possible for citizens to purchase necessities such as foodstuff and medications at designated and monitored locations across each town and city.
These measures are only to mitigate the immediate spread of this scourge in the country. Other medium term and long term measures must be taken to checkmate both further spread and the eventual and long term effects of the virus. However, in the short term, this outbreak must be halted at once. History will record and remember President Mohammadu Buhari’s response to this scourge. Let us pray there will be a Nigeria to which this history shall be reckoned after this scourge is passed. A stitch in time saves nine, but Nigerians will be happy even if this stitch saves only five.