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Virulent Virus And Public Mistrust: The Nigerian State And The Management Of COVID-19 Pandemic

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By Luqman Saka

COVID-19 virus (SARS-CoV-2) has taken on the traits of a virus that is not only virulent but also actively mobile, even though it is not the first of its kind to manifest as a global threat. Indeed, the 1918-1919 Spanish Influenza was a precursor of COVID-19 in terms of ease of human-to-human transmission, global spread and/or contagion and high fatality. However, COVID-19’s high fatality rate compared to other recent diseases has forced nations and their population to adopt drastic measures directed at curtailing the spread and managing its deadly mortality. 

The index case for the coronavirus disease was recorded on 1st December 2019 in Wuhan, China. Given its rapid human transmission and the ease at which it crossed national borders in Asia while at its early stage, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the virus a Public Health Emergency of International concern in January.

Less than two months after the Public Health Emergency declaration, COVID-19 was labelled a pandemic by the global health body as it had spread to over 100 countries, overwhelmed the best of public health care system, forced the shutdown of businesses and national economies, leading to an inevitable global economic recession and hundreds of thousands in mortality rate across all continents. 

As of mid-May, COVID-19 incidence and community transmission had reached 187 countries and territories, amounting to about five million confirmed cases, with active cases wobbling at 2.6 million people, nearly 2 million people have recovered from the virus while the world had lost over 315,000 of its entire population. The swift spread of COVID-19 across the globe has surpassed all scientific projections, forcing research scientists, epidemiologists and data experts to continually modify their projections about the virus incidence and mortality.

The foundational epicentre of the virus remains the city of Wuhan, in the Hubei Province of China but the mortality epicentre or what can be referred to as ‘ground zero’ continues to shift from country to country. Three months after the virus was first discovered, China as the ground zero for mortality rate but by early March, the WHO considered Europe as the new ground zero for its transmission and mortality, especially Italy, which had the highest numbers of infection, hospitalization and deaths at that period. In a swift move, COVID-19 epicentre shifted to the USA around late March with the state of New York recording the highest number of infections and fatality. In time, the statistics of infections, hospitalisation and deaths in New York declined but the overall national statistics in the United States kept rising.

The spread of COVID-19 as a global pandemic has also brought to the fore, the good, the bad and the worst as it relates to state management of the pandemic across the world. Like a bad egg which continues to rot, the world had to deal with controversies, conspiracy theories, false news, information overload, ethno-national and religious phobia and overt nationalistic posture of many national leaders which has compounded global management of the virus.

In the conspiracy circles, the allegations that 5G network -which China’s Huawei telecom leads globally- caused the virus and its spread was the talk of the town. Also, there are conspiracy theories that revolve around the release of the virus as a method for reducing global population and billionaire, Bill Gates, has been accused of pushing the agenda through his foundation’s heavy investment in vaccine discovery for the virus amongst other global health initiative of his philanthropic gestures. 

The info-demic is also another case in point, as there are numerous fake and false narrations circulating in the media about the virus. The exaggerated severity of the virus, among other news has worsened the rate of infections, hospitalisation and mortality. The push to re-open the economy especially in the United States is another continued attempt at pushing a narration that questions the veracity of information from medical experts. All of these shows the politics played with the pandemic and obvious politicisation of its management, a situation that is not limited to the United States.

Public Mistrust and the Management of Covid19 Pandemic in Nigeria

In Nigeria, the crisis of public mistrust of governmental actions, policies and programmes is deeply ingrained and stems from years of lack of accountability and transparency in the governance process, which has inevitably come to the fore in the management of COVID-19. From the time the country’s first index case (the Italian staff of Lafarge) was discovered in late February, up to when the government ordered the closure of Nigeria’s land borders; ceased access to the country through its territorial waters; ordered suspension of international flights into the country; and the declaration of a national emergency,  controversies trailed the management of the pandemic in Nigeria. Reports have shown that there is some glimmer of hope in relation to transparency and accountability in the governance and management of the pandemic, even though, there have been few grey areas.

READ ALSO: Minister Faces Harsh Criticism For Comparing Wives To COVID-19 

One of the first controversies relating to the management of COVID-19 pandemic in Nigeria is the position pushed by people offline and online that President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration was lethargic and slow in its response to the crisis in the early stage of its spread in Nigeria, the reigning argument remains that had the Federal Government ordered the closure of Nigeria’s airspace to foreign flights, the country might have been spared the harrowing experience of mass introduction of the virus into the country through returning citizens and foreigners like the country’s index case. Pushing this narration further, critics have argued that if pro-active containment measures especially; temperature gauging, isolation and testing of returnees had been taken as priority, the country might have been able to stem the spread of the virus, premised on the fact that the index case was recorded on 27th February, 2020 and up till March 17th, the country recorded only three cases.

When the virus was in its early stages, Nigerians on social media platforms called for strict measures including closure of the nation’s airspace to international flights and aggressive measures at monitoring the land and sea borders, turning deaf ears to these pleas, the Federal Government and most states governments (with the exception of Lagos State) took the relax mode while claiming that the country was in control of the situation. All through the month of March, Nigeria’s nouveau-riche and those in government were all over the world attending to their businesses (important and mundane) inclusive of attending parties in countries that were already getting overwhelmed with the virus (Italy, Germany and the United Kingdom), when the nation’s airspace was eventually closed to international flights by March 30 with Lagos, Ogun and the FCT placed on total lockdown, few big men and women (entrepreneurs, showbiz personalities and government officials) were still sauntering into the country via chartered flights.

The lethargy that characterised the early stage of the medical management of the virus continued after executive directive for the lockdown of Lagos and Ogun States and the FCT was issued. Though, the Presidential Taskforce (PTF) headed by Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Boss Mustapha had been empowered, yet the nation’s lack of preparedness manifested in the poor coordination between federal government, leadership of the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and officials at the sub-national levels especially Lagos that was at the front-line. The crisis of preparedness also manifested in sluggishness at contact tracing, poor record of public testing to stem the tide of community transmission and lack of data base on national health care facilities. 

In the midst of all these negativities, Lagos State government’s (LASG) pro-active response in all facets of the pandemic policy planning and management response was the bright spot in Nigeria’s states management of the pandemic, making Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu become the country’s ‘star-boy’ and gold standard material for what state officials’ preparedness and response management ought to look like. The LASG’s team was apt in the provision of isolation centres, procurement of protective personal equipment, expanding hospital beds dedicated to management of patient hospitalisation and in communication to the citizens of the state and Nigeria at large. Also, the consistent public briefings by Sanwo-Olu and the state’s health commissioner, Prof Akin Abayomi, became the most authoritative information source amid complete information blackout, as the President did not address the nation until March 30, more than a month after Nigeria recorded its first case. Before the PTF national briefing started too, the NCDC was another source of information update on infection data, safety measures and health information on the virus.

As the country’s overall infection data continues to rise, economic considerations seem to have forced the Federal Government to announce easing of the total lockdown imposed on Lagos, Ogun and the FCT. As at mid-May, Nigeria’s statistics of infection, stands at 5959 for confirmed cases, 1594 for recoveries and 182 deaths, while Lagos state leads in all the statistics, it also has the best policy and planning on management and provision of the best health care facilities for COVID-19, and accounts for one-third of the national recovery figures.

Another major issue that has tainted the management of the virus remains the lack of accountability and transparency, more at the federal level. There have been reports of billions of naira released by the federal government but little information on how the resources are expended. In clear categorical term, the crisis of accountability and transparency that has been the hallmark of governance in Nigeria has manifested in the management of the pandemic in Nigeria. There are increasing concerns that the pandemic has become another avenue for corrupt officials to enrichment themselves, for instance, the insistence of the handler of the Federal Ministry for Humanitarian Affairs to continue the ‘School Feeding Programme’, even though schools are closed nation-wide, more gulling is the fact that there is no convincing mapped-out strategy on how to proceed on the policy by the Ministry.  

Asides the fund earmarked by the federal and state governments, the organised private sector in Nigeria and the country’s big industrialists like Aliko Dangote, Abdul Samad Rabiu of BUA Group, Otedola, Adenuga and other big names have also contributed billions of naira to the national resource pool dedicated to the management of the pandemic under the Coalition Against COVID-19 in Nigeria (CACOVIDNG). As typical of Nigeria, people only hear of these funds but there have been no attempts at giving account on how they are spent and the vagueness in the process of expending the resource makes the populace view it as another white elephant initiative, drawing the conclusion that these monies are ‘audio money’ as they only hear about but know next to nothing on how it is spent.

Still on the management of COVID-19 in Nigeria, another issue is the politics over the number of infection in the country. People’s perception that the official statistics being given out by the NCDC is incorrect, gives credence to the abysmal national record keeping and poor data management as there is no affirmative official data on numbers of births, deaths, marriage and other socio-economics statistics in Nigeria. Also, the fact that there is no official population figure for its citizenry, rather than that, national planning are based on projection and estimated figures makes the accusations ring true. Critics have argued that for a nation of nearly 200 million (an estimated figure) that has unfortunately entered the stage of community transmission and with one of the lowest COVID-19 testing per capital to have only four thousand plus cases after more than a month of her exposure to the virus cannot be said to have accurate infections and death statistics. 

Albeit ridiculous to say the least, another dimension to the politicisation of number of infection data is the allegation by Governor Yahya Bello of Kogi State that the NCDC and PTF were trying to force the state to announce COVID-19 infections where there is none. This allegation was explained as part of the ploy to justify resource utilisation. Kogi and Cross River are the only two out of Nigeria’s 36 states with no official record of infection. While those that support the Governor’s position were lampooning the NCDC and PTF, those against are of the position that the Kogi Governor was just playing to the gallery and that the governor was suppressing medical personnel from calling for testing of those that have come down with symptoms of the virus in the state. This is another bizarre story of COVID-19 politics and information management in Nigeria.

Other controversies that have affected the national effort at managing the pandemic and created avenue for distrust includes the poor management of public communication by the federal government; the issue of 5G and spread of the virus peddled by influential christian clerics and controversial political figures; and the lack of robust education, enlightenment and public awareness on the nature of the virus, its transmission process, how to prevent transmission and personal hygiene and protection. A case in point on the lack of education and public enlightenment was seen when the pandemic outbreak hit Kano state, the main political and commercial heartland of Northern Nigeria. Also, the rate of infection among the Almajirai (street children) in Kano, the repatriation of these street kids across Northern states better highlights the lack of coherent national approach on planning for the virus and its management in Nigeria.

READ ALSO: COVID-19: NDDC Shuts Down Its Headquarters

The Public Mistrust Continues

Politics and governance in Nigeria under democratic rule has been enmeshed in a cesspool of corruption, associated with lack of transparency and accountability in the management of the commonwealth as the country’s media landscape is dotted with daily reports of corruption, corrupt acts and mismanagement of public fund and the attempts at reforms has been caught in another viscous cycle of official corruption in Nigeria. For instance, the much touted Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System IPPIS (platform for managing federal employees’ payroll data) being the most sophisticated of the attempts in recent time at curtailing graft in payroll data management is now under scrutiny given incidences of m that federal employees are reporting on the payment of their salary. 

Like all things Nigeria, public perception on the management of COVID-19 by the Nigerian state is poor. Many are of the opinion that the resources devoted to the management of the pandemic is opaque with little or no attempt at being accountable by those in charge of resource management and lack of transparency on how the funds are been expended. Nigerians are increasingly holding the view that the management of the pandemic is just another avenue for enrichment by corrupt politicians and bureaucrats at both the federal and constituent units of government in Nigeria.

Luqman SAKA Ph.D. is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science, University of Ilorin, Ilorin, Nigeria.   

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