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COVID-19 safety protocols and the growing disdain by Nigerians, By Isaac N. Obasi

Yari, Akeredolu, Fintiri and Malami: ‘poster men’ for COVID-19 protocols violation?

It is becoming very worrisome these days to see many Nigerians on television and other public places jettisoning the required safety protocols (particularly social and physical distancing) for stopping the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19). There is indeed a growing disdain by both the privileged class especially the Very Important Persons (VIPs) and the masses who take a cue from them, in spite of the high volume of risk communication messages directed at all Nigerians on a daily basis through a multiplicity of media channels. 

Unfortunately, this flagrant disregard of the safety protocols is happening at a time when new cases of COVID-19 infections are steadily on the rise. It is as if many Nigerians want to return to their normal lives by force without following the existing safety guidelines that would make such desired normal lives safer and more meaningful. 

Not too long ago (precisely in this month of July), two governors (one former and the other still serving) flagrantly violated the COVID-19 safety protocols at two different airports. As Nairametrics (15 July 2020) reported (in one of the cases), “the management of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN)…strongly condemned the conduct of the former Governor of Zamfara State, Alh. Abdulaziz Yari, for blatantly violating the Public Health procedures (COVID-19) on travels at the Malam Aminu Kano International Airport”. The report also said that the former governor “reportedly refused to adhere to the protocols by forcefully pushing away an officer of the Environment Department when he (the officer) insisted that his (former governor’s) luggage must be disinfected”. Then in the true nature (acting with impunity) for which Nigerian public officers are well known for, FAAN reported that “the former governor said the officer should have known he is a VIP. This irresponsible act”, FAAN rightly concluded, “endangers all other airport users, it is unacceptable”. (See https://nairametrics.com/2020/07/15/faan-condemns-fmr-gov-yari-misconduct-at-kano-international-airport/). (Emphasis in bold italics ours).

In the second case, reported by Premium Times (16 July 2020) and titled ‘COVID-19: FAAN berates another Nigerian governor for violating airport protocols’, Premium Times reported the case vividly as follows: 

“The Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria, FAAN, has again condemned the conduct of a governor, this time, the Governor of Adamawa State, Ahmadu Fintiri.

“Mr Fintiri was alleged to have violated public health protocols on COVID-19 at the Port Harcourt Airport on Tuesday. The governor was said to have refused to have his temperature checked or be sanitised by health officials. FAAN noted that the governor’s entourage did exactly as the governor did as the team that came to receive them drove through the barricades up to the terminal building, ignoring traffic and aviation security instructions. The agency said such acts of irresponsibility displayed by the governor and his entourage endangers the lives of other airport users, adding that it is unacceptable. “FAAN called on airport users, especially VIPs, to adhere to the protocols and procedures on COVID-19 prevention”. (Emphasis in bold also ours). (See https://www.premiumtimesng.com/news/more-news/403250-covid-19-faan-berates-another-nigerian-governor-for-violating-airport-protocols.html

In the third case for our illustration, TheCable (2 July 2020) reported:

“On June 16, Akeredolu, who is seeking another term, submitted his expression of interest and nomination forms at the APC national secretariat in Abuja. Before heading to the headquarters of the ruling party, the governor was seen in the midst of the lawmakers who sang his praise. Neither the governor nor the lawmakers observed the safety protocols listed by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC). They did not wear face masks or maintain social distance in the video of the event which has since gone viral. “Shortly after, Akeredolu sneezed on his palm, one of the lawmakers reached for his hand which he raised high as others acknowledged the governor who beamed with smiles. Two weeks after the incident, the governor announced that he had tested positive for COVID-19 and directed members of his cabinet to self-isolate and also go for test”. (See https://www.thecable.ng/sources-four-lawmakers-in-video-where-akeredolu-sneezed-refuse-covid-19-test-despite-falling-ill

This column had in the past decried the psychology behind the careless attitude of not following the safety guidelines against the spread of the COVID-19 by top government officials. The impunity with which they disregard the social and physical distancing protocols gave the false impression that such people have immunity against the virus. In one of the articles titled: ‘COVID-19 risk communication and Nigerians’ poor compliance with the guidelines’ (See Sundiata Post, 24 June 2020, via https://sundiatapost.com/covid-19-risk-communication-and-nigerians-poor-compliance-with-the-guidelines-by-isaac-n-obasi/), we argued that in spite of all the numerous risk communication efforts by the government, private sector organisations and international development partners in Nigeria, there are no significant changes in the attitude and behaviour of the people towards complying with the guidelines for containing the spread of the ravaging coronavirus (COVID-19). 

Consequently, we argued then that one major reason why many Nigerians are not complying with the COVID-19 safety guidelines is the low level of public trust in our governance system. And we also maintained that a key factor accounting for the low level of people’s trust in the government is lack of leadership-by-example, as exemplified by the wide abuse of powers by public officers. 

Put differently, those in power do not practise what they preach hence many people take a cue from that. For example, laws which are meant to be obeyed by everyone are not obeyed by many of those in power, as they see themselves being above the law. Another major reason for low level of compliance is weak enforcement of laws and the safety guidelines. 

Happenings in recent weeks suggest that both of these causal factors are becoming very pronounced. Both impunity of actions by those in power and their families, and weak enforcement of safety protocols in public places, have lowered the compliance level more, as people now show utmost and flagrant disdain without qualms. There are two areas of societal lives where these flagrant disdain are becoming more pronounced these. 

The first is in the organisation of, and attendance to, wedding ceremonies. Take the case of the son of the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, SAN, whose wedding activities violated the social gathering requirement of the guidelines which allows only 20 people to be in attendance. As the video of the ceremony circulated in the social media shows, this rule was very flagrantly violated, and unfortunately the large gathering remains a purveyor of the spread of COVID-19. 

Again, the physical distancing requirement of the guidelines, was also flagrantly violated, as the large crowd in attendance made such impossible to observe. So far, we have not heard of any sanction for this violation unless perhaps we missed hearing such. This singular act emanating from the home of such a highly placed public officer is capable of creating ripple effects thereby multiplying the virus more. 

We are aware that the government still expects religious bodies to keep to this aspect of the guidelines. In fact, many families have kept the wedding reception (social aspect) of their children’s wedding ceremony in abeyance after they had done the religious aspect in the Church in compliance with the guidelines. So why is it difficult for some others to do the same?   

The second area of societal life where there is increasing disdain for the safety protocols is with respect to burial ceremonies. Across the country, people have found it difficult to comply with the NCDC guidelines of allowing 20 people also in attendance during burial ceremonies. Starting with the burial of Malam Abba Kyari (Chief of Staff to President Muhammadu Buhari), the flagrant disdain and blatant violation has continued, through the burial of late Senator Abiola Ajimobi (former governor of Oyo State) which was smartly (or is it disguisedly)  managed, to the most recent (only few days ago), during the burial of Malam Isa Funtua. In these and many others not classifiable as VIPs, the story is the same about flagrant violation of NCDC safety protocols. Then who are these safety protocols meant for, (the masses perhaps)? This is not how to build a society of law and order.

As President Muhammadu Buhari rightly pointed out in his address on the extension of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown on Monday, 13 April 2020, “the irresponsibility of few can lead to the death of many”. It can also be very aptly said that the ‘freedom’ of these highly placed Nigerians ends where other people’s rights begin. 

The worrying question is: who will rescue Nigeria from the flagrant acts of impunity in high places since President Buhari has not been able to achieve this in his presidency? Just look at what is happening in the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) and at its investigations at the National Assembly? It is just the story of Nigeria’s governance system everywhere with probably no exception. Any where there is an investigation or probe, the same revelations are likely to be made.

•Prof. 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: [email protected]      

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