COVID-19 and Nigeria’s fight at the Sub-national levels (2), By Isaac N. Obasi




Late Malam Abba Kyari

We recall that at the end of the first part of this article, three questions were identified for discussion. The first was on how serious the various state governments initially took the fight against COVID-19 after the index case was reported in Nigeria on 27 February 2020. The second was whether the verve existing at the federal level in the fight against the virus, exists also at the sub-national levels particularly at the state government level. And the last question was on how far the states and local governments are cooperating with the Federal Government in the fight against COVID-19.

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First, historical facts reveal that many of the state governors did not react (after the index was announced) with the expected sense of urgency. Many continued their activities with business-as-usual mentality. This mindset demonstrated a complete lack of seriousness in understanding the devastating nature of the virus. In some other states, the governors displayed a brazen attitude of living in denial of the virus. And in one or two states, a combination of these behavioural reactions subsisted even for a long time.  

Starting with the lack of a sense of urgency and a continuation of a business-as-usual mentality, it is necessary to recall that the first three weeks in the month of March 2020, were very critical in the efforts to stop the early and further spread of the virus in Nigeria. But the month was a missed and painful opportunity at the sub-national levels. With the index case in Nigeria on 27 February and the establishment of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 (PTF on COVID-19) on March 9, 2020, the danger of the coronavirus was brought home to everyone. In actual fact, the PTF through its regular national briefings went straight into action by creating the awareness needed for all the states to begin to take preventive measures. Again, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) commenced aggressive public enlightenment campaigns in print, electronic and on social media platforms. But a good number of state governors failed to fully appreciate the seriousness of the situation during that month of March. 

In Oyo State for instance, Governor Seyi Makinde on 18 March  organised a mega rally of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in Ibadan. This was at a time the World Health Organization (WHO) had earlier on 31 January 2020 listed Nigeria (among 13 other African countries) as high-risk areas for the spread of COVID-19. It was not surprising that the same governor later tested positive for the virus. However, he later apologised for hosting the mega rally and described his action as a product of bad judgment. And also two days earlier, on 16 March 2020, 16 governors from the All Progressive Congress (APC) held a meeting in Abuja.

 All these were happening at a time when more cases of infection were being recorded in Lagos. On March 18 for example, five new cases were recorded. Yet, there was no indication that the governors had come to terms with the reality of the situation even though they were the ones expected to lead the fight against the spread of the virus in their various states. Many still operated as if the coronavirus pandemic was not a public health emergency

Unfortunately, perhaps unknown to many of them, it was within this period that certain unpleasant developments started unfolding. On 24 March, the Chief of Staff to President Muhammad Buhari, Malam Abba Kyari tested positive the same day that Bauchi State governor Malam Bala Mohammed also tested positive for the virus. 

Yet again, another of lack of seriousness was exhibited by many of the governors. By this time, it was expected that all governors who interacted with Malam Abba Kyari should have self-isolated as required by the safety protocols of the WHO and the NCDC. But only few of them did, and also presented themselves for testing. 

This was a very big mistake by such governors who interacted with the late Chief of staff. It was much later that they started presenting themselves for testing but then it was already late. 

Also, it was a big mistake because the month of March was critical in containing the spread of the virus because Nigeria was yet to enter the stage of community transmission of the virus, which is usually most difficult to contain. The dreaded community transmission however came, as was announced by the Minister of Health Dr. Osagie Ehanire on April 14, 2020, at the briefing of the PTF on COVID-19.

It is heartening, however, that some governors showed seriousness in responding earlier to the demands of the situation. For instance, governors in North-west geo-political zone took good proactive measure of shutting down schools with effect from 23 March 2020. Many other governors also ordered that their junior public servants should stay at home and work from there until further notice. This directive was equally given around this critical period in March. Another good proactive measure taken by some state governors around the same month of March was the lockdown of their states. Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State, Governor Nasir el-rufai of Kaduna State and Governor Ben Ayade of Cross River State, among some others did this as early as 23 March. Regrettably, by this date governor Nasir el-rufai had not gone into self-isolation given his high profile interactions in Abuja. But unfortunately, by 28 March he tested positive for the coronavirus and then announced that he had gone into self-isolation in line with the guidelines of the NCDC for an asymptomatic person. It was a good action though but it was taken too late.

With respect to the issue of denial, a handful of governors by their words and actions lived in denial of this dreaded virus in that crucial month of March. First, Kogi State to this date has lived in denial even after the NCDC recorded few cases of infection in the state. This was in spite of the alleged COVID-19-related deaths at the Federal Medical Centre (FMC), Logoja, for which doctors and nurses working there drew the attention of the Federal Government. Again, the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) openly complained to the Federal Government about how the uncooperative attitude of the Kogi State Government towards the management of the virus posed a grave risk to health personnel in the state. The NMA then asked the Federal Government to call the Kogi State governor to order. 

The second issue of denial relates to the high number of unexplained deaths that occurred in some of the states. Although, informed opinion linked these deaths to COVID-19, the official positions in the affected states differed. The deaths were therefore described as mysterious deaths and this complicated and delayed efforts to contain the spread of the virus. Such mysterious or unexplained deaths occurred in Kano, Jigawa and Yobe states, among other places, but the case of Kano State was terrifically disturbing. Fortunately now, the PTF on COVID-19 has put the controversy surrounding the mysterious deaths in Kano State to rest. The Minister of Health Dr.Ehanire at the PTF briefing on Monday, 8 June 2020, revealed that 50-60% of the 979 deaths that occurred in Kano state during the months of April and May, 2020 may have been triggered by or due to COVID-19.  

We shall in the next installment (by the special grace of God) address the remaining questions. 

Prof. Isaac N. Obasi, a public policy expert (& former columnist in the Daily Trust, Abuja, March 2003 to October 2006, & Daily Champion, Lagos, April 2005 to December 2008), is of the Department of Public Administration, University of Abuja. Email: nnamdizik@gmail.com      

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