Across much of the world, COVID-19 pandemic is no longer seen as the most dangerous life-threatening disease facing society today, as was the case two years ago. This is because the pandemic is gradually receding into an epidemic. Although the war against this hitherto ravaging virus is not yet completely over, there is however palpable relief in many countries over its retreating trend. Many countries across the world are lifting the restrictions previously imposed in order to reduce the spread of the virus.
In Nigeria, public policy response to the devastating effects of COVID-19 pandemic has gone through a full circle namely (a) lockdown stage (most dangerous period) when restrictions were fully imposed, (b) lifting of lockdown and relaxation of restriction stage (imposition of mask mandate and other Non-pharmaceutical interventions), (c) vaccination stage (combined with the observance of Non-pharmaceutical interventions), (d) present stage of near full lifting of many of the hitherto imposed restrictions, and (e) the return to normalcy stage.
These stages witnessed a plethora of policy responses aimed at controlling the further spread of the virus, and treatment of victims to mitigate its severity and devastating impact such as increased hospitalisation and death. Now that the pandemic is gradually retreating, many countries have started reversing some of their existing policy responses through the lifting of the restrictions. Some of these policy reversals positively affect citizens of these countries, while some others also positively affect international travelers entering their countries. Whichever way one looks at these policy reversals, one thing is clear and that is the near possibility that the world is inching closer to a complete victory of COVID-19 as a pandemic. It may continue to exist, but it would no longer threaten public health in a devastating scale across the world.
In Nigeria, the Presidential Steering Committee (PSC) on COVID-19 is not left out in this reversal of COVID-19 containment polices. First, the PSC had announced that the wearing of face masks in public places is no longer mandatory. It further announced that the wearing of face masks in open spaces is now discretionary. It was in this regard that the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) clarified that the rules on face mask have not been completely abolished because wearing of face mask is still recommended in high risk places such as in crowded indoor events. Broadly seen, this policy reversal on mask mandate and its associated practices, can be regarded as the first step in the gradual return to normalcy.
It would be recalled that COVID-19 Disease Health Protection 2021 (which itself derived from Section 4 of the Quarantine Act, Cap. Q2 Laws of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 2010) made the wearing of face masks mandatory in public spaces. The law empowered the president to protect the health and wellbeing of Nigerians against the rising number of COVID-19 cases. Specifically, apart from government offices, the regulation stipulates that no person shall be allowed within the premises of a market, mall, supermarket, shop, restaurants, hotels, event centres, gardens, leisure parks, recreation centres, motor parks, fitness centres, or any other similar establishment except he or she is wearing a face mask covering the nose and mouth. The person is also required to wash his or her hands or clean the hands using sanitizers approved by the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC). The person’s body temperature should also be checked and any body found to have a body temperature above 38 degrees Celsius shall be denied entry and advised to immediately seek medical attention.
The second step in the gradual return to normalcy was the issuing of international travel guidelines for international passengers which took effect on 4 April 2022. The guidelines removed the mandatory Polymerase Chain Reaction Test (popularly called the PCR Test) for fully vaccinated returning passengers. It then prescribed stiff penalties for (a) unvaccinated travelers who violate the new rules, and (b) for airlines that bring in passengers that violate the new rules. The Guideline which was titled ‘Provisional Travel Protocol for Travelers Arriving Nigeria’ and released by the PSC Chairman Mr. Boss Mustapha, on Sunday, 3 April 2022 was a revised version of the November 29th. 2021 Interim Travel Guidelines for Passengers Arriving in Nigeria (See Vanguard, April 3, 2022 in its report titled ‘COVID-19: New travel guideline takes effect from April 4 – PSC’, for details).
Other provisions of the revised 3 April 2022 Guideline include: (a) Fully vaccinated passengers arriving Nigeria will not also be required to carry out Post-arrival PCR test or a Rapid Antigen Test upon arrival in Nigeria; (b) Children below the age of 18 years will be accorded the same privileges as person who are fully vaccinated; (c) In-bound passengers who are unvaccinated or partially-vaccinated for COVID-19 shall take the PCR test 48 hours before departure and undergo Days 2 and 7 post-arrival PCR tests at their own cost; and (d) All in-bound passengers must register via the online Nigeria International Travel Portal (NITP).
The third step so far in the gradual return to normalcy was the announcement by the PSC of the revised social restriction recommendations in line with three established thematic areas namely movement, industry and labour, as well as community activities (See The Guardian, April 6, 2022 in its report titled ‘Nigeria lifts COVID-19 restrictions on party, gatherings, curfew’, among others for details). With respect to the reversal of policy in these areas, the PSC announced among other things that (a) there are no more formal restrictions on movement within the country as the nationwide curfew imposed from 12 midnight to 4 am has been lifted; (b) all categories of workers should resume work fully in their offices as against working from home; and (c) the ban on social and religious gatherings has been lifted.
These three broad areas of policy reversals (lifting of restrictions) became necessary (according to the PSC) “following the reduced risk of importation of new variants and the availability of vaccines and the increasing number of people vaccinated in Nigeria and globally”. Critically seen, these revised measures are quite in order but one important point worth underscoring is that the war against COVID-19 is not completely over. The implication of this is that we all have the personal responsibility to manage our gradual return to normalcy. The PSC and NCDC should not be left alone with this responsibility. People should therefore allow part of the new normal behaviour (wearing of mask in crowded places, and observance of other non-pharmaceutical interventions which displaced our old way of life) to still be part of their behaviour in public places as we gradually move into our old way of life.
•Prof. Obasi, a public policy expert is of the Department of Public Administration, University of Abuja. Email: [email protected]