COVID-19 lockdown exit plan of the Buhari Administration, By Isaac N. Obasi

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President Muhammadu Buhari

A consideration now to lift or not to lift the COVID-19 lockdown restrictions by any government around the world is analogous to a choice between the devil and the deep (blue) sea. And again, it is what the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said few days ago is like ‘weighing lives against livelihood’ (see https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/19/… In Nigeria (as in elsewhere), it has been a big struggle saving lives simultaneously from both corona-virus and hunger-virus. These two separate eleven letter words are giving governments everywhere serious headache, simply because the strategies attacking the two-pronged problems are increasingly becoming mutually-exclusive (ie. contradictory). For example, on the one hand, prolonged lockdown period (to stop the spread of the virus), prevents informal sector workers  from engaging in their livelihood activities, and on the other hand, a premature easing of the lockdown restrictions by the government exposes more people to the infection. What a dilemma?

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Indeed, President Muhammadu Buhari has a big decision to announce next week after the lockdown extension order ends in Lagos and Ogun states, as well as FCT, Abuja. The dire situation in Kano State, the rapid community spreading of the virus, might also be taken into consideration in the lockdown exit strategy review. It is important to point out that there is no ready-made text book solutions on the lockdown exit strategy because this road (as pointed out by Scott Morrison once again), is completely ‘an uncharted territory’, and also a ‘long and winding’ one according to Ben Doherty of The Guardian newspaper (of London). 

One factor that complicates the decision dilemma regarding how to ease the lockdown order is the widespread discontent and agitation against the order among a cross-section of the people including the old and the young, men and women, people of different political and religious persuasions etc. For example, Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) of organisations in Nigeria are pushing for an early restart of the economy, reports the Daily Trust newspaper (Thursday, April 23, 2020), while the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) warms that extension of lockdown will fuel unrest (THISDAY newspaper, Thursday, April 23, 2020).  

Again, Governor Ben Ayade of Cross River State also warmed, that any further extension of the lockdown ‘will spell doom for the nation’, as it ‘will give rise to uncontrollable youth restiveness’ (see https://dailypost.ng/2020/04/22/…). Indeed, some agitations that happened recently went violent with loss of lives and this led the Human Rights Commission to reveal and complain then that security personnel have killed more people than the COVID-19 itself.  

A related and disturbing dimension has been the flagrant disobedience to the lockdown order by many people who move around in a business-as-usual mentality. This and other restive behaviour makes decisions about how to ease the restrictions a bit more difficult. If the government succumbs to the demands of this group of people by easing out restrictions prematurely, the gains achieved during the lockdown may be lost, and yet if the government extends the lockdown without accommodating the feelings of the people, more social crisis (unrests) may result. Yet, as at 11.30pm on Thursday, April 23, 2020, the total number of COVID-19 reported cases were 981.         

Nigeria right now has entered a dangerous trajectory of COVID-19 community infections. This is a state we all prayed hard not to reach but here we are with it. The Nigeria Governors’ Forum (NGF) has commendably adopted a decision to implement a two-week lockdown on inter-state movements. This is in essence a nation-wide lockdown with exception of people on essential services such as movement of agricultural goods, pharmaceuticals, security personnel etc. Many agitated citizens may be disappointed to hear this. Ideally, nations do not lift lockdown restrictions when the infections are spreading and the number rising dangerously as it is the case with Nigeria right now. The NGF’s decision appears to have taken into cognizance the WHO guidance on how nations should proceed in handling this problem. The World Health Organisation (WHO) issued six conditions for relaxing the lockdown restrictions as follows:

Nigeria is currently very far from fulfilling these conditions, as detecting and testing capacity is very low, new hot spots are still emerging (e.g. Kano State), and schools are still closed because effective preventive measures are not yet in place, etc.

But if life must go on, and it should, what are the middle-point solutions to this decision dilemma? An overview of how some countries are reacting to the lockdown review shows that many are adopting a step-by-step precautionary approach with some doses of trial and error to see what the outcome would be, as Australia is cautiously doing. In Germany also, businesses dealing on cars, bike shops and bookshops are to open, while restaurants, bars, gyms, large stores are to remain closed. In the same manner, the United States of America announced a phased exit strategy that allows states to reopen the economy based on local conditions with respect to the containment of the virus. Norway is allowing partial reopening of high schools, universities, hair, massage and beauty salons. Again in Denmark, Daycare centres and primary schools have already reopened, while restaurants, and other related businesses remain closed (see for example https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/19). Spain following a different approach allowed some construction and factory workers to open, while keeping schools, restaurants and other related businesses closed. On her part, Italy kept factories closed while some other businesses such as bookshops, laundries, stores dealing on children’s clothes are to open (see for example: https://inews.co.uk/news/world/how-spain-italy-easing-lockdown-restrictions-2537041. These country-specific examples reveal a mixed-bag of approaches and solutions based on how each country weighs its strategic economic interests vis-à-vis the efficacy of containment measures.

For Nigeria, the NGR’s adoption of a two-week of inter-state lockdown of movements should form part of President Buhari’s lockdown national exit strategy. Secondly, since many states are at different stages of implementing the lockdown order, those that have already completed their lockdown, can relax some restrictions within their states, while strictly observing lockdown of inter-state movements. However, the rest should be directed by Mr. President to impose a state-wide lockdown immediately. Thirdly, plumbers, electricians, other technicians and artisans should be allowed to resume work as many homes would need their services, and as for commercial transporters conveying these people, social distancing rules should be strictly enforced. Wearing of masks should also be made compulsory for everyone leaving their homes. 

Fourthly, nursery and primary schools should be opened across the states where it is considered safe to do so. States should be allowed the power to assess the local conditions and decide as appropriate. As for secondary and tertiary institutions, preventive measures and guidelines should be put in place before reopening them accross the country. It is my considered view that the federal government should develop such standard guidelines to guarantee certain national minimum requirements. 

Fifthly, small businesses, hair salons, barbing shops, etc in all neighborhoods should be allowed to open. Sixthly, crowd-pulling places (entertainment houses, worship centres, football activities etc) should continue to be closed while markets should be strictly regulated. Seventhly, people whose banks are located outside their districts or neighbourhood should be given one or two days in a week to visit their banks (like the regulation of going to markets in Abuja).      

All the measures recommended above may involve a phased-approach or they may be simultaneously enforced. Again, they require a mix-bag of total and partial lockdown policy measures depending on the lockdown experience of each state. But inter-state lockdown of movements as adopted by NGF, should be part of a national lockdown policy of Mr. President. 

Finally, this time around, the president needs to adopt a full national perspective (beyond Lagos, Ogun and FCT) in his COVID-19 lockdown strategy review.

Prof. Obasi, a public policy expert teaches in the Department of Public Administration at the University of Abuja. Email: nnamdizik@gmail.com      


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