IDEAS Radio 3 July 2020

COVID-19 Lockdown Easing and IDEAS issues

Aghogho Oboh: Shaku maku!  Fine hot afternoon, if you ask me, in the city of Lagos and everywhere you go, it’s a fine, fine day.  On the Public Square today we will be taking you through significant developments in the country.  The Public Square opens with IDEAS and the Public Square will be looking at the raging controversy over the reopening of public places of worship.  You remember you can join the Public Square on Twitter @PublicSquareNG, @NigeriaInfoFM, @ideasradiong  @RotimiSankore @AghoghoOboh.  There’s WhatsApp to send the messages on08095975805, only send messages, and you’re welcome once again to the Public Square, I’m Aghogho Oboh.  So we will go to begin with IDEAS.  IDEAS with Ayo Obe is focusing on revised COVID guidelines and the need for shared responsibility between government and citizens.  Good evening Ayo!

Ayo Obe: Good evening Aghogho.

AgO: Excellent, always great.  And let’s kick off straight away Ayo, because Wednesday the 1st of July new guidelines on the easing of the anti-COVID19 measures by the government came into effect.  So I guess the first question is that: In view of the fact that the number of COVID-19 cases are not reducing, does the decision by the Government to further ease the lockdown raise any IDEAS issues?  Even though we know states where they’ve had more high profile cases like in Ondo State where the Governor has tested positive and the Commissioner of Health is said to have died from COVID complications, they’re still easing restrictions Ayo?

AO: Well …  I’m actually reminded Aghogho of that ironic quotation, you know, the one that says: “I’m their leader, so I must follow where they go.”  Because if we’re honest, there doesn’t really seem to be any … anything behind the government’s decision to further ease the anti-Corona virus restrictions other than the reality, which is that people are voting with their feet!  In short, it looks to an impartial observer as though the government is giving in to as much of what it thinks the people want, as it can, rather than because it’s convinced about the trajectory of the COVID-19 disease in Nigeria.  I mean, if we look at the official COVID-19 figures that were released by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, we can see that with just over 141,000 samples tested, we had more than 27,000 confirmed cases, of which 15,000 are active cases – that is to say that 10,000 have been discharged.  Now if we compare that to the 22,000 plus … cases that we had, which I mentioned at this time last week, it’s just five thousand … we can see that the trajectory is still upwards.  

AgO: Right.

AO: And by the way Aghogho, we also shouldn’t delude ourselves about our numbers.  I mean, I was reading my … the news, and seeing that people are expressing shock and concern at the American State of Texas having 6,900 new cases in just one day, but you can understand how widespread the testing for the virus has to be, if they’re getting those kind of numbers.  Our own testing figures across the whole country for the whole week – they show an increase of barely 20,000.  I mean, in April, the NCDC said that it had the capacity to conduct 2,500 tests a day, and was aiming to be able to do 3,000 per day by the end of May.  It talked about moving to mass testing between May and September, about being able to do 6,000 tests a day within 6-8 weeks – that is, by mid-June (because that’s the … the report came out in mid-April).  And so we’re at the half-way point between that April report and the September date.  Now, can we really say that we are anywhere near mass testing?  So even though – yes, I agree that the NCDC can pat itself on the back a little bit because it has been invited to serve as a co-lead of the Africa Centre for Disease Control’s COVID-19 Infection Prevention and Control Working Group (which tends to make us think that we are doing something right) I think it’s impossible to say that this lockdown easing (although they are calling it an “extension”, everywhere it’s being reported as ‘easing’) … that this easing is because we are defeating the disease.

And I should also point out Aghogho, that when they were announcing these new measures, the Presidential Task force on COVID-19’s Chairman, that’s Boss Mustafa, the Secretary to the Federal Government, he said (and I’m quoting him): “​One significant observation the PTF wishes to make is that the new rise in cases is to be expected as nations start to ease restrictions.”

But the fact is that with continuing doubts about the extent of testing, what is it that we’re measuring any new rise in cases against?  I mean, you remember I mentioned last week that some States appear to be suppressing their COVID-19 figures, and in fact this week, the SBM Monitor, commenting on the attack by gunmen at the Federal Medical Centre in Lokoja, Kogi State – and that attack disrupted a COVID-19 press conference – it had to label Kogi State a “state of denial”, because the State Governor is saying that the virus was created to “shorten the lifestyle of the people”, and complaining that Nigerians are being made to accept the reality of COVID-19 “by force”!  

I mean yeah, we’ve spoken about the issue of public awareness, and it’s really unfortunate I think, that a person in a position of public trust can speak in such an irresponsible manner, and continue to undermine public information messages, that we have already complained that those messages are not effective enough, so in a way … those high profile cases that you mentioned, actually tend to jolt people out of the complacency that Coronavirus isn’t ‘real’.

AgO: And when you throw in those numbers that the NCDC is giving, they’re sort of all – in fact they’re all lumped up.  And you don’t sort of get to understand the … people don’t get to understand the real picture in terms of the numbers state by state until they start to hear..  I mean early this week I spoke with the Chief Press Secretary to the Governor of Oyo State, this was before the Federal Government had said we’re going to have a phased reopening of the schools, and he said: We’re doing huge number of tests in the state which is the reason why we want to reopen the schools in the state.”  And I said What … how many tests are you doing daily?  And he said: Well, we’re doing 100 between 100 and 200 tests.”  It just was ludicrous.  And he said:  Well, if you compare my state to the other states, we’re number four on the table.  And I said: “You can’t compare bad with bad in this instance”, but you know.

AO: Yeah, this is the point.  And in fact, those high profile cases, they tend to reinforce this idea that (as I said, that it’s not real), but at the same time, that there’s a class of people who are affected by Corona virus, so that when the Commissioner feels that they’re doing a lot by testing … by doing a hundred, he’s thinking about a select group of people who are all being tested.  And … it’s really sad that Ondo State has lost its Commissioner for Health, because I mean even if he was not performing clinical duties while he was the Health Commissioner, yeah I know that sounds strange for Nigeria, but … you should remember that in other countries like the Republic of Ireland, the Prime Minister re-registered as a doctor and returned to duty, so … it might … even if he hadn’t, it’s a reminder that our medical personnel are on the front line, and we don’t have enough medical personnel.

But … at the end of the day Aghogho I say, because as you know, the ‘D’ in IDEAS stands for Democracy – the country’s anti … anti-Corona virus response has always involved balancing keeping citizens safe against the demands of the same citizens, because citizens are faced with the reality that their government cannot in fact make up the financial losses that they’re suffering because of the lockdown.  So, every decision, apart from the same questions of … about Integrity and Ethics … if the government decided to disregard the trajectory that the figures that we do have show, then that’s an issue of Ethics and Integrity; there’s always going to be that Democracy component about the wishes of the people.  

AgO: Absolutely.

AO: That’s why I say that yes, this ‘eased lockdown’ does indeed raise serious corona … IDEAS issues.

AgO: A stands for Accountability, and against the background of the health of Nigerians in the face of the continued spread of the virus … where lies the Accountability Ayo?

AO: Well in order to answer that, I think we should always remember that distinction that I mentioned a couple of weeks ago when we were discussing Sexual and Gender-Based Violence and that is the difference between Responsibility and Accountability.  It’s the same thing here, because Accountability will always lie on the government, but Responsibility – I would say – is shared between individual members of the public, and government.  But unfortunately, if the government is  signalling one thing, it then becomes harder for individuals to make … take up their own responsibility to protect themselves against COVID-19.  I mean, you can have guidelines that say: We’re maintaining restrictions on mass gatherings and sporting activities, restrictions on gathering more than twenty people, but that doesn’t apply to “the workplace”.  So if your workplace means that more than twenty people are going to be gathered together – can you take responsibility for your own health if that means you have to work in that place?

I should say, by the way Aghogho, that I’ve actually been out every day this week.  On Monday I had to go to a bank and I can tell you that we were a lot more than 20 people, and the queues outside did not answer the demands of social distancing at all.  We were just left trusting in the alleged efficacy of fresh air to prevent the spread of the virus.  Then I had to be in court for three days running.  Now, the courts have taken the responsibility of managing their case loads and restricting the number of cases each day, so that you can observe social distancing – once you are inside the courtroom – but outside, they provide a couple of benches and everybody waiting is either going to stand up, or they’re going to manage on the benches.  But … I think that at least there’s some effort.  But … I think that quite frankly, lawyers are not the only professionals who are affected, and, once flights resume, if you have a case in a different part of the country or you have to work in a different part of the country,  you have  to put yourself in the fate of those managing the spread of the virus once you get into an airplane.  And … you can say yes, I’ll decide not to go, but if your workplace is open, you are is playing with your own future in a market that is not going to get easier when it comes to jobs, if you say I think I’d better stay home.

AgO: So– from an IDEAS perspective – what should government be doing to enable people meet up with their own end of the bargain?

AO: Again, looking at the bargain … at the guidelines, I think it’s clear that if people are going to be able to take responsibility for themselves, there are things that government has to do to make it possible.  Because actually, the measures that government recommends for us have not changed.  They still talk about washing your hands in running water, and … you know, well we thank God for the buckets with the taps  – they call …  in Ghana, they call them ‘Veronica Buckets’ … because running water is not part of what government  has provided for us to wash our hands in running water.  Now, I know you’re going to be discussing the guidelines on general issues later in the Public Square, so I’m just going to highlight a few of what the Presidential Task Force released as it extended the second phase of the lockdown.  I’ve mentioned the domestic flights service.  Then they talk about maintaining the current nationwide curfew from ten to four … from 10pm to 4am, but lifting the existing ban on interstate travel, outside … only outside curfew hours.  Now I’ve tried to understand this Aghogho, but from what I can see, it means that interstate travel has to take place at night.  I kept on hoping I was misinterpreting it, because it seems that to me, that quite apart from the condition of some of these roads, which means that driving at night is already a hazardous enterprise, there are bound to be security concerns.  What’s government doing to reassure citizens about their safety if they are expected to travel around at night?  I mean, you can just imagine it … you come across what looks like a police check point … in the dark.  I’m sure I don’t need to draw a picture.  Suffice to say that if that’s the alternative, I think people would prefer the kind of … quote and unquote ‘ban’ that you can buy your way through. 

Now, and even things like mandatory use of non-medical facemasks … you say: “No mask, no entry.”  But if this is going to be a thing, disposable non-medical facemasks should not be selling at N15,000 a pack.  And as to re-usable masks, yes, employers … some employers are providing them, but – let me just say that if your … if you work in a place where you have to wear the mask all the time, eventually you will drag it under your chin, that means that the elastic goes and by the time you want to hitch it back up over your nose …  it only underlines that the whole thing is not just that you provide one mask and expect your employees to continue washing it and using it.  You have to provide fresh masks from time to time because they become less … they’re just hanging under people’s noses, and it’s not necessarily their fault.  So I’m not at all convinced that …  even if we say that we are going to take responsibility for ourselves as government reopens or relaxes the guidelines, that it’s actually within our capacity to do so.  So the Accountability will still rest with the government, particularly when it’s not providing the financial incentive that makes people stay home.

AgO: Alright Ayo, to bring the segment to a close, what are your final thoughts … on this?

AO: Well, I think that my thoughts remain that yes it’s … we have to do what we can.  As you know Aghogho, I’m speaking as an over-65 year old who has to be going out and about and so on, but there’s a limit to what I can do, and I know that it’s the same for other people, that in the end, we do what we can, but I think we are entitled to expect a lot more from government … 

AgO: Alright.

AO: … particularly when it comes to the testing regime which needs to be a lot more extensive than it is.

AgO: Right, to reframe the maxim: To whom much is given, I usually say, much is taken away!  Thank you very much Ayo Obe, host of IDEAS.

AO: Thank you Aghogho.  Bye bye.