BY VICTORIA N. IKEANO
This is not the first time President Muhammadu Buhari is speaking to Nigerians on the raging corona virus disease (COVID-19). He had done so using his verified twitter handle. But this is the first time he is addressing Nigerians live on the new epidemic on radio and television. The full text of his speech was also reproduced by newspapers, magazines and the social media. Thus, it was widely disseminated by the mass media. Mr. President’s speech was as good as it could be with regard to updating us on Nigeria’s fight against the disease and steps being contemplated to mitigate some of its effects on especially vulnerable populations. However, the headline news from the broadcast was the presidential order to lock down Lagos state, Ogun state and the federal capital territory (FCT), Abuja for an initial period of 14 days beginning from 11p.m. on Monday.
Lagos and Abuja have the highest cases of COVID-19 in Nigeria. President Buhari stated that Ogun state is included in the Lock down “due to its close proximity to Lagos and the high traffic between the two states.”. And I ask, does this not also apply to Nasarawa state vis-à-vis the FCT? Nasarawa state is the most contiguous to Abuja. In fact, majority of low and middle level income earners working in the FCT live in the Karu axis of Nasarawa state. So, there is a high volume of traffic between the two especially during peak working and closing hours. Perhaps, population and commerce are the prime factors that discountenance Nasarawa in this regard. Both Lagos and its neighbor Ogun are highly industrialized, populous states unlike Nasarawa and the FCT which are essentially civil service enclaves and not as populated as Lagos and Ogun combined. Nevertheless, Governor Abdullahi Sule had also imposed restrictions on the state, including closure of Nasarawa state’s land borders. The level of compliance to this directive is however, disappointing to say the least.
President Buhari speaks of plans to cushion the economic effects on especially vulnerable segment of our society who would be hardest hit by the stay at home order nationwide. These are marginalized persons who invariably are children, the unemployed/underemployed, those living below subsistence level in general and of course women. On children, President Buhari announced, “I have instructed the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development to work with the state governments in developing a strategy on how to sustain the school feeding programme during this period without compromising our social distancing policies.” The school feeding programme is yet to cover all 36 states. Besides, it is doubtful if this proposal can be really effective because many parents had travelled to their home towns with their children/wards following premature closure of schools and the ‘work from home’ directive by governments.
“For residents of satellite and commuter towns and communities around Lagos and Abuja whose livelihoods will surely be affected by some of these restrictive measures, we shall deploy relief materials to ease their pains in the coming weeks”, stated Buhari. I make bold to say that their pains should be eased in the coming days not weeks because staying indoors without food for one day is like a week of torture for those who have experienced real hunger. One acknowledges though that the usual government bureaucracy and paperwork could cause delays. One can only urge our bureaucrats to especially speed up matters in this circumstance, particularly as many kind-hearted Nigerians and corporate organizations have been donating generously to the Coronavirus relief fund. Also, the relief materials should not be limited to aforementioned annex communities in Lagos and Abuja but should be extended to all parts of the country; there are millions of poor persons across the length and breadth of Nigeria in dire need of help, not least in this trying, abnormal times.
Mr. President’s other relief measures such as immediate release of two-month conditional cash transfer to beneficiaries, a three-month repayment moratorium for all tradermoni, marketmoni, farmermoni loans as well as loans given by the Bank of Agriculture, Bank of Industry and the Nigeria Export/Import bank are commendable; ditto the continuous catering to the needs of displaced persons in IDP camps. Still all of government’s relief packages target only a small percentage of those in need. There are as yet, millions and millions of unemployed people that are now a burden as dependents, to the relatively few that are working full time. There is need for government to increase purchasing power of working-class people by scrapping or reducing some of the diverse taxes imposed on them such as the value added tax (VAT). All proposed tariff hikes such as those of electricity should be put on hold, suspended for now.
By publicly stating that heads of security and intelligence agencies have been briefed about the restrictions on movements, the president is giving hint that the stay at home order would be enforced. This is noteworthy because many, many Nigerians are not taking the outlined precautions to curtail spread of this pandemic serious enough as they continue to go about their normal duties without let or hindrance, not adhering to the stay at home order, not obeying social distancing nor even washing their hands thoroughly with soap every now and then. The president and other experts cannot overstate the importance of keeping to these rules.
One of the best quotes of President Buhari’s 65-paragraph address particularly for a ‘religious’ country as ours is, “As we pray for the best possible outcome, we shall continue planning for all eventualities”. This is a reminder that Heaven helps those who help themselves. And he urges us to be our brother’s and sister’s keeper, to give a helping hand to especially, our vulnerable neighbour(s). That, is one of the enduring lessons that this Coronavirus pandemic may yet teach us: to love our neighbours as we love ourselves.