IDEAS Radio 10 July 2020

Impact of COVID-19 and IDEAS issues

Aghogho Oboh: Hey, shaku maku everybody!  A fine, fine afternoon in the city of Lagos!  One of the afternoons that the rain hasn’t fallen.  Remember that on Public Square we talk about the big and significant development in the country.  Remember, you can follow us on Twitter @NigeriaInfoFM, @ideasradiong, @naijama also too. @RotimiSankore @AghoghoOboh.  Follow us on any of these handles and we’ll be glad to hear what you think about what we’re doing here.  Remember that Public Square, you can also join the conversation, 08095975807 that’s our WhatsApp number, only send text messages.

And as usual, we begin the Public Square with IDEAS and then we launch into an omnibus of the COVID-19 impact on society.  Very importantly, as we come to the last of our special COVID-19 programmes on Public Square, which is being supported by OSIWA, the Open Society Initiative for West Africa, we’ll be taking a look at the impact of the Corona virus on all aspects of our lives, and that’s in the main programme.  But let’s kick us off with IDEAS where Ayo Obe is looking at any aspects of the COVID-19 and its progression in the country.  And we’re going to be looking at the IDEAS element, which is the Integrity, Democracy, Ethics and Accountability issues.  Good afternoon Ayo!

Ayo Obe: Good afternoon Aghogho.  Hope all is well with you?

AgO: Excellent, we’re very well.  How … and I hope you … you’re getting the Lagos groove back?

AO: Well I know you must be happy to call this first day without rain falling on us a “fine fine afternoon” but anyway …

AgO: I guess we just have a couple of hours, like there’s some conspiracy theory  going on that it’s only falling at weekends, Saturdays and Sundays.

AO: Well as I said, if you send Majek ‘Send down the rain’ Fashek upstairs, then you must expect this sort of thing.  

Aghogho: Alright, …  So let’s begin Ayo.  We’re looking at the COVID-19 and its progression.  What would you say aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic we’re going through in the country and … well majorly in the country Nigeria, and also outside the shores of the country, which deal with the IDEAS element?

Ayo: Well Aghogho, I would say that actually the Coronavirus pandemic has been almost like a case study as regards the IDEAS components that you mentioned.  And … in some of those sectors, the government did meet the IDEAS standards, or at least, it didn’t fall completely short, so that I wouldn’t say that it’s a uniformly bad picture, but it certainly doesn’t qualify as a uniformly good one.  I mean, if I look at about a few areas, the first is obviously our preparedness for the disease.  Were we really as prepared as the government claimed?  Then the data.  Even now we’re still having problems about the integrity of the figures which are affecting us both at home and in the world.

Then the issue of social distancing; when the government introduced lockdowns and other measures, they introduced … they … we began to see serious issues as regards Integrity, Ethics and Accountability about the way it was formed … enforced.

Then fourthly, with the lockdown we had this huge economic hit.  IDEAS issues arose  with regard to the palliatives.  And then lastly I would say that that issue of raising donations and other special funds, it again raised the old IDEAS hardy perennial: Accountability.

AgO: Mmmm, mmmm.  So if we dig down a little with the lockdown in what you would consider whether there was Integrity in the enforcement, especially what people called double standards in how this was done.  What are your thoughts?  Because I’m looking at some of the stories we’re getting from outside the shores of the country where people …  some state actors are beginning to think of relocking their cities because of the new wave of the virus, and whether there will be any lessons for us to learn if those numbers … fifty-fifty they start to go up, and then we decide to resume lockdown because it’s something they’ve talked about, the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 that if things don’t improve, we could be looking at another lockdown.  What would you think they should be doing differently?

AO: Well I would say that the real problem about the lockdown is that the government did not raise the lockdown because it felt that it had achieved its ends in … or that the lockdown was effective, but simply because Nigerians were voting with their feet.  You know, I’ve said before, it’s a Democracy.  If we can’t stick to the rules, then the government risks provoking massive social unrest.  And … I think also, that … it was … it’s difficult enough to get the Nigerian people to observe social distancing and to submit to lockdown, but I think that the government itself made that task harder, because those people who were supposed to be enforcing the measures for the lockdown, they turned it into an avenue for collecting bribes!  And there’s no getting around it: people … even when the government says there’s a ban on interstate travels, people don’t consider themselves unduly inconvenienced: they just plan to pay their way through. 

And what’s more, it’s not just that the people who were supposed to enforce were not properly enforcing, but if you look at the people at the top, people who are supposed to set the example, they also seem to find it extraordinarily difficult to abide by the guidelines themselves.  I mean, we saw it at the funeral of late Chief of Staff, Mallam Abba Kyari, when top government functionaries disregarded social distancing and well, we were told that as a result they were obliged to self-isolate for a fortnight.  But even more recently, I mean the Ondo State Governor is only one of several people who, even though he was apparently having COVID-19 type symptoms, that is sneezing (because it’s one of the ones we’ve been told about, sneezing), yet he was out mixing in public and he was not wearing a mask.  … So apparently when it came to a choice between the guidelines and his political quest for re-election, the guidelines went by the way.  But the point is Aghogho, that when ordinary members of the public see that, what then are the prospects that they are going to agree to observe social distancing or to remain locked down when their own livelihoods are at stake?

AgO: Absolutely, plenty to think about.  What about general trust and health governance issues?

AO: Well …  the fact is that our government said: We are ready for the … for the disease.  But if you look at what actually happened, you will find that even though our … the Director General of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, Dr. Chike Ihekweazu, he spoke about the precautions that the country was taking to prepare for COVID-19, and this was as far back as January this year.  He talked about assistance given to states response teams, that all 36 states have a team ready to be deployed, and he said that we had actually used the lessons from the Ebola outbreak to strengthen our risk communications capacity, and he spoke of “the critical importance of ensuring that members of the public are equipped with the right information.”  So he did all this, but he also made an observation which should have been a real wake up call.  He said:

“The Ebola outbreak taught us a lot of lessons, including the urgent need for overall health system strengthening.  This has improved in many countries, but with a lot of room for improvement.”

Now that was when … he was talking about matters … issues within his remit.  But when the Senate reviewed the situation at the end of February (that’s at the same time we got our first confirmed COVID-19 case) they felt that the Federal Ministry of Health and other relevant agencies were taking things for granted, and they were warning that Nigeria could not afford to be caught unawares.  

But the point is Aghogho, is that if you look at the issue of our overall health strengthening, it’s 2001 that the African Union – all the countries in the African Union – got together and they pledged that we were going to spend 15% of our budget, our national income on health.  That was 2001.  Nineteen years later, we don’t even come close to that.  And quite frankly, even if we pay attention to the fact that yes, States are responsible for primary and secondary care, so they are going to be… they are going to be responsible for a large part of the spend on health in Nigeria.  But even if you were to combine the state budgets and the federal budget, we don’t … we are just laughing at the pledge that we made nineteen years ago!   

… So I think that in terms of preparedness, even when it comes to communications and the public health message, if you remember the Oyo State Governor Seyi Makinde, I mean he’s since said that his statements were a joke and quite frankly that since he’s had the virus, he knows that it’s not a joke at all.  But the fact is that when he was apologising, he was giving this message of “I didn’t know”!  So it leaves us wondering if there’s supposed to be importance attached to communications and the public health message, how is it that the Oyo State government didn’t know?  So all of those things, they leave that issue of the Integrity of … the response to the warning … 

I mean, we’re not as bad as some countries where, quite frankly, their leaders have been coming out to make even more irresponsible statements … 

AgO: Very true.

AO: … than … but we certainly … in terms of our being ready, I think that while it was good for the NCDC to prevent us from panicking, the truth is that we were not ready and we are still not ready, particularly if you look at our testing regime.

AgO: Absolutely, great point, and I mean if you look at a country like the United States for example, where the COVID-19 pandemic and its handling has become such a major issue with together with race relations, that if anyone hasn’t been able to handle it well, he will have to face the ballot  to know what the people think about the handling or not.

But you know Ayo, fortunately or unfortunately, it isn’t just government palliatives that Nigerians have been able to fall back on as we battle the pandemic, because wealthy and not-so-wealthy Nigerians have risen to the occasion with donations and contributions in cash and in kind.  Now, you mentioned this earlier, as an Accountability issue.  What are your thoughts on this one?

Ayo: Well, yeah, I think that Nigerians need to see full details of the amounts that have been raised, and full details of how the money that has been raised is being spent or has been spent.  Because I think it’s not right for us to continue with a situation where generous-hearted people contribute, only for the money to vanish with very little of it having an impact on the ground.  Now where the … there have been some better responses, is that where there are private sector groups that are raising funds and deploying them, they are accounting themselves, they are accounting for the money that they collect and they are … also showing how … what they got and how they spent it.  But … and also of course, where you see contributions made in kind.  But even where a contribution is made in kind, for example, if masks are donated, or treatment centres … are erected and so on, we are still entitled to know how are these being used.  Because some people may be given a big donation of masks, and then ordinary people cannot get them and they …  because when we say we’re going to fine people for not wearing a mask in public, the … we haven’t had a situation where the government has been going around and handing masks out to people and warning them: You’d better wear this mask because as from this day there’s going to be a fine and imprisonment for not wearing a mask,  So … I think that we want to see how donations in kind …

But I think the good thing about it is that a lot of NGOs are on the case.  You know you have TrackaNG following up on the distribution of palliatives and the Social Investment Policy payments.  And then you have SERAC, that’s the Social and Economic Rights Action Centre, which has sued the government for an account of the money that it has collected in the name of COVID-19 relief.  And I may actually say Aghogho, that you know the Central Bank set up a fund, and they said that everybody can contribute to the fund and there will be full accounting.  So, I may say that in order to put myself in a position where I would be able to demand an account … just the way that  … I don’t know if you’ve seen that abroad, some activists, they may buy one or two shares in a company … maybe it’s had some controversy, so that they can attend their annual general meetings and ask questions.  So me too, I put in my small amount for the Central Bank fund, but I’m afraid that so far – we haven’t had any … we haven’t received any statements of account from them. 

But I think that also … you have to look at the way that even the government …  there are Accountability and Integrity issues in the way that the government was spending its own money on palliatives and so on …

AgO: Very true.

AO: … because … it… it means something when the hashtag #hungervirus is trending, and I know that people like to say: Well, if you can afford to be on Twitter, it means you’re not really starving.  But I think that’s a very negative approach.  Why should people have to be so poor that they can’t afford data to register their displeasure?  Because in fact, in its most recent assessment of our COVID-19 response, the Brookings Institute said (and I’m quoting them): “The government has not been able to provide food support to everyone who needs it, as the distribution system is marred by corruption and opaque accountability.” 

AgO: Right.

AO: “The government has to improve transparency and accountability in the food ration distribution system.  It should also make sure that middlemen do not have excessive control.”  And they didn’t just criticise, they also went on to suggest ways in which the government could improve accountability and reduce corruption; house marking, using Ward Development committees, using technology and so on.  So there are ways of tackling these things.

And I also think Aghogho, that the fact that the government’s Social Investment Policies are under scrutiny is a good thing.  You know, there was a time when people said: There’s nothing like that, or it’s only when we heard the Vice President was going around in the pre-election period.  

AgO: Very true, very true.

AO: But now people are aware of it and so they are saying: Well how is it actually being run?  And … even though the politicians are trying to get their sticky fingers on it and start preparing their infamous lists again, I think that the fact that the Nigerian people are now aware, and they are saying: Yes, it’s something that we should have and we want it done properly.  I think that’s a plus, because in the end, no matter how badly the government does, eventually they will have to improve it, or their successors will have to improve it.

AgO: Having gone in one full circle Ayo, what are your closing thoughts?

Ayo: On the … I think that the main thing Aghogho, is that the disease is very much with us still.  And it’s true, yes, if 10% of people over the age of 50 who have caught the disease have not survived, obviously that demographic group should not need to be told that it needs to take particular care.  But I think it’s also important that we realise that the data coming in from other parts of the world give the lie to the idea that young people are immune to the disease, or that they are likely to recover quickly or even completely.  There have in fact been many deaths among the under 50s – including people who could have been described as very healthy – and we are getting a lot more information about the havoc that the virus wreaks on the human body, even when a person thinks that they’ve just had mild symptoms or that they have recovered.  So I think that even if the Public Square specific COVID-19 directed programmes are going to be coming to an end, I don’t think it’s an issue that we are going to go away from … we’re going to keep on coming back to it because we all know, we all need to remain cautious.  And we will be looking for the IDEAS issues in our response.  Not just the government, but the way we too … I mean I again got this thing about Chinese secret method of inhaling hot water as the cure and all the rest of it, … we need to be careful ourselves, we also need to take some responsibility and be accountable for the way we spread the messages about Corona virus.  But the main one is that it’s still there with us, and it’s not a joke.

AgO: Absolutely.  Thank you very much Ayo Obe.  

AO: You’re welcome, bye bye.

AgO: Bye bye.  Alright. And Ayo regular with us on Public Square, this time every Friday.