In an earlier write-up, this column described the transformation of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 to Presidential Steering Committee (PSC) on COVID-19 as a smart managerial move that removed the embarrassing burden of having the task force from over-staying, as it was by nature an ad hoc policy implementation contrivance. The simple difference we earlier pointed out, is that a steering committee by its own nature is a standing managerial contrivance tied to the existence and relevance of an assigned project. The PTF itself admitted this fact when it said that the PSC would “maintain the present constitution, functions and strategies of the PTF”.
Apart from financial matters on the running of PTF (which this column has no capacity to interrogate), the body throughout its existence performed (on balance) creditably well with zeal, energy and commitment. For example, it performed its risk communication function with precision and clarity. This PSC is expected to sustain this dogged spirit. In a brief assessment of its work since it began operation on April 1, 2021, we can say that the PSC had acted swiftly in such spirit with the issuance of the ‘travel advisory for passengers arriving Nigeria from Brazil, India and Turkey’. This policy action was a very wise proactive one, irrespective of a criticism that the action was not based on evidence. But what evidence does one really need again with the known facts of the things already happening in the three countries?
This is because as the PSC itself rightly noted, its “risk assessment took into consideration the epidemiology of cases, prevalence of variants of concern and average passenger volume between Nigeria and each country amongst other indicators…These precautionary measures are a necessary step to minimise the risk of a surge in COVID-19 cases introduced to Nigeria from other countries, while national response activities continue”. (See: https://covid19.ncdc.gov.ng/media/files/PRESIDENTIAL%20STEERING%20COMMITTEE%20ON%20COVID-19%20corrected.pdf).
Again, the travel advisory which was issued on 1 May 2021 and came into effect on Tuesday, 4 May 2021, was issued exactly one month of the existence of PSC. This swift national policy response by the PSC is commendable as it acted in a task-force-like manner devoid of lethargic reaction typical of conventional bureaucratic bodies.
However, the PSC made itself open to criticisms too early when on 11 May 2021 it had a national briefing. In that briefing, its communication competence was tested and it performed sub-optimally. After that briefing, the PSC was embroiled in a communication muddle when it inadvertently (perhaps) conveyed the impression that the existing Phase 3 lockdown guidelines which were rolled over to as Phase 4 guidelines, were entirely new.
As the media reported, (See THISDAY via https://allafrica.com/stories/202105110109.html), the federal government reintroduced COVID-19 restrictions across all 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), with effect from the midnight of Tuesday, 11 May 2021. Under the new restrictions, (emphasis added) the Federal Government shut bars, recreational centres, set limits to public gatherings and also introduced the nationwide curfew from 12 a.m. to 4 a.m. with effect from the midnight of May 11, 2021. The report continued that the National Incident Manager of the Presidential Steering Committee on COVID-19 (PSC), Dr. Mukhtar Muhammed announced the new measures as contained in the new guidelines (note this added emphasis also) on Phase Four of Ease of Lockdown. Speaking at the PSC media briefing in Abuja, he said the Federal Government embarked on the new measures (again note the emphasis added) as a response to the concern about the non-compliance to public health and social measures contained in the Health Protection Regulation of 2021.
The announcement ruffled the public. The reaction of some sections of the public was all about conspiracy theories among which was that the PSC has a hidden agenda. Some outrightly alleged that PSC wants to use one of the new lockdown measures (namely the curfew) to give opportunity for those terrorising Nigeria to move from one place to another. Some thought of the PSC having a ‘new mission’. The worst was that when some people were told that nothing was new in the so-called Phase 4 guidelines, they still did not believe. This goes to show that when information is inappropriately communicated, it can end up being a ruffling fake news item. It can also be very dangerous as this particular conspiracy theory generated by this particular announcement shows.
The clarification made later that the guidelines were not new but were only re-issued to remind Nigerians that COVID-19 was still very dangerous, was however very re-assuring, as it went a long way to douse rising apprehension. The purpose of the announcement itself which among other things was to create greater awareness and consciousness among Nigerians, who had completely relaxed with respect to obeying the safety protocols (as if COVID-19 was a thing of the past), was well-intentioned.
The essence of this piece is to raise concerns about the future modus operandi of the PSC. Will it be able for example to continuously perform effectively without lethargy like its predecessor task force? If not, there is then no need for its existence. This is because its assignment can be handled by conventional bureaucratic bodies like the Ministry of Health or its agency like the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC). In a task force or steering committee, there is no room for lethargy or sluggishness in the performance of duties. The PSC should always have this at the back of its mind, as it is expected to operate very swiftly and carefully in a task force-like manner regardless of its nomenclatural transformation which was merely cosmetic. No one (officials and non-officials alike) should be under any illusion that COVID-19 is no longer a serious health risk in Nigeria. This was the wisdom that guided the issuance of travel advisory for passengers arriving Nigeria from Brazil, India and Turkey.
•Prof. Isaac N. Obasi of the University of Abuja, is a Visiting (Adjunct) Research Professor at the Anti-Corruption Academy of Nigeria, (ACAN), ICPC, Email: [email protected].