Coronavirus broke out in Wuhan, the capital city of Hubei Province in China in November 2019, but the world did not know about this unwelcomed visitor that has changed our world and way of living, till early 2020. This visitor did not only come with its disease christened COVID-19, which has become the most popular and most frequently used word today, it brought to the surface a plethora of other words and phrases that by virtue of their importance now and frequency of use, should all earn a place in a special coronavirus dictionary.
Apart from the virus itself, called SARS-CoV2 and its disease called COVID-19, other words and phrases that should have a place in this special dictionary will be: social distancing, infected, tested positive, tested negative, lockdown, self- isolation, quarantine, isolation centre, hand sanitizer, face mask, ventilator and hand washing.
The relaxing of the lockdown by the government last week has introduced a new phrase that may make it to that special dictionary – SOCIAL INDISCIPLINE.
Social indiscipline which to an extent in this case, is the antonym of social distancing, will be defined in that special dictionary as: the act of disregarding every rule of reason given by experts to keep you away from the deadly Covid-19 for your own good and safety. The special dictionary will also let us know that the word social indiscipline has its origin in Africa and more precisely Nigeria and that it has severe consequences.
But let us consider why the lockdown and the social distancing rule in the first place. Lockdown and social distancing were put in place to contain the spread of covid-19 because its transmission is human to human. Each person with the virus can go on to infect around 2.5 people. If each of those people go about their day as normal, and infect another 2.5 people, within a month, 406 people would be infected just from that index case. So, the ability of individuals who are asymptomatic or have mild symptoms, to spread the disease, explains why social distancing and lockdown are part of the protocol.
That was why the government gave the lockdown order for Lagos, Abuja and Ogun as these were the epicentres of the pandemic. Businesses were shut down, people could not go out, a lot of people that depended on daily earnings to feed and cater for their families were in a fix and more than a few families were starving. The most vulnerable sect in society, the poor, decried great torture in the face of a seemingly tougher virus, hunger. Last week the government decided to relax the lockdown in these cities and others and I suspect they must have taken this decision more for citizens’ economic survival than for successfully reaching key progress benchmark in the fight to contain the virus.
However, with the relaxing of the lockdown came a new problem – social indiscipline. Typically, one will expect that the outpour of information on confirmed cases of infected persons across the country should elicit some sort of “Corona-phobia” among people but regrettably, this seemed not to be the case. The ordinary assumption is that during the period of lockdown, the people should have been sensitised enough and prepared for socially responsible conduct which would be the new normal. Those who assumed so were dead wrong. We have gone back to our old ways as if we are in normal times. It was shocking to see mammoth crowds in Lagos and Abuja, scrambling to gain access into banking halls to carry out one transaction or the other while the banks’ security officials struggled to contain them, and very few wore face masks.
In some other scenarios, people had returned in droves to drinking bars, social gathering arenas and other areas of public activities. Some persons even hosted meetings and parties with several others in their private homes. Commuters who boarded buses may have just made things worse as they packed themselves full without observing any form of social distancing. And it seemed like the institutions that were enforcing the lockdown, had relaxed alongside the lockdown. The apparent paradox here was that relaxing the lockdown may have shifted the war front from Covid-19, to one that threatened all efforts exerted on the fight against the virus by both the government, and indeed the people, and made a sheer mockery of the sacrifices being made for the cause.
Social indiscipline cuts across all classes as if indiscipline is the major DNA of our gene and it is one misdemeanour that could ruin the gains we have had in the past months. It is my belief that whatever strategies the government adopts in tackling the virus, it would have guessed that the immediate reaction of the citizens wouldn’t have been any different from what had been playing out throughout this week. The belief that massive sensitisation about the life threatening capacity of Covid-19 would engender socially responsible conducts in the people proved not to be correct. Perhaps we did not envisage this, or we just took the advice with a pinch of salt? Whatever be the reason for this flagrant disregard for safety precautionary measures, we must wake up to the reality of the present climes and understand that social indiscipline corrupts any progress made so far, it would have been better we never attempted the war against the virus in the first place. A relaxed lockdown in the three pilot states may have triggered other states that were on partial lockdown to lift bans but the message of social distancing should never be silenced by social indiscipline. Without a doubt, it will derail efforts being made by various tiers of government to contain the deadly virus.
Before the lockdown was relaxed in these states, the active cases in these states were below a thousand and we hoped it had run its course. Some said the figures were understated because of limited testing. But without sounding like a messenger of doom, the coming days will likely witness a surge in the number of confirmed cases, partly due to increased sample testing capacities across COVID-19-stricken states, and partly due to a resurgence of the virus especially in areas where citizens have refused to unlearn their old habits and learn and consciously practise new social conduct. While there is need to loosen restrictions and slowly restart the economy in the COVID-19 endemic era on the one hand, there is a more pressing need to continuously sensitise the people or else the looming second wave of the virus may be more difficult to suppress. In abnormal times like this, normal behaviour becomes an aberration. And if we continue to live our lives like its business as usual, our indiscipline will spike up the numbers of infection and mortality rates and this will not be a failure of leadership, but of followership.
We can glean some lessons from the Spanish Flu pandemic of the last century. Resisting social distancing, mass gathering and quarantine restrictions made the flu to grow and spread widely and in no distant time, there was a second wave of the Spanish flu which was deadlier with a spike in mortality rate across different age groups. We do not need to make similar mistakes. We certainly do not have the wherewithal to fund a state of emergency.
Presently, there has been no certified vaccines against the virus so preventive measures remain the key action to avert a resurgence of infections. So if social indiscipline is allowed to thrive, if people disregard the concept of social distancing, if people continue to entertain mass gatherings, if people forget the sacrifices we made to shut down our livelihoods, if people disregard the future we deferred for a virus that caught us unawares, then forecasting a re-confinement plan may not be out of place. The distinctive factor will be the substance of the plan in so far as it is a proper Plan B and its implications do not bite as hard as this lockdown did. So there is no better time to rid ourselves of the evil of social indiscipline than now.
We must be deliberate about recovering from this pandemic. In all, the government holds all the aces to deploy all the apparatus in ensuring total citizens’ compliance or risk going back to square one through the alternative route. As an unrepentant optimist, I am certain that we will get it right and this too shall pass.
•Dr Peterside is the immediate past Director-General of NIMASA. Readers’ reactions can be sent via firstname.lastname@example.org