When Nigeria announced a lockdown of parts of the country in late March, people rightly questioned the possibility of surviving a lockdown in a country where the most basic infrastructure was missing. How do you remain indoors without a guaranteed supply of electricity, food, security, and even WI-FI? At least in the countries where the scientific concepts of “shelter at home,” “social distancing,” and “flatten the curve” emanated from, there are amusements to keep people from going crazy from the tedium of remaining within their homes. The Nigeria realities are not as glossy, and that is why many folk are defying the lockdown. They do not want to “hunger down” in the name of locking down.
On Sunday, the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), announced he was extending the ongoing restriction of movement in Lagos and Ogun states, as well as the Federal Capital Territory by another 14 days. That must be a tough choice for Nigeria to make, but it is also a responsible move to mitigate the rate of person-to-person transmission. However, for how long can they successfully hold people back from resuming their daily hustle?
Each day, as the news of a flattened curve eludes us, people look longingly at the world they left behind outside, ready to resume their regular life. Those plagued with the fate of multi-dimensional poverty cannot afford to mind the laws of science. Even worse, people do not have a sense of how and when all of these issues end. Scientists have repeatedly informed us that there are no easy answers, and we should be prepared for a long wait until either vaccine is produced (and in large quantities) or our bodies build immunity against the virus.
Considering that about 113 of those that tested negative in places like South Korea (and even China) have been re-infected, we will not be out of the woods for a long time. If those re-infected did not develop immunity against COVID-19, then there is no end in sight. Even if the worst-hit places in Nigeria like Lagos manages to flatten its disease curve, there could be setbacks to the efforts if COVID-19 breaks elsewhere around the country and transfers to Lagos once again.
Thus, the indeterminable wait for the vaccine as the only reliable solution to COVID-19 also means that the hold currently placed on people’s movements will eventually slacken. Soon, people will observe the lockdown but only in the breach. Of what use, therefore, is the restriction when people cannot stay indoors because they have to eat? That means we will be defeated twice—the first time if the nation’s economy becomes grounded, and second, if we still fail to break the transmission chain. While the lockdown extension is premised on scientific principles, those regulations are unsustainable in a fickle economy like Nigeria. Even the strong economies of the world are feeling the pangs. Their people too are angling for the lifting of the various restrictions, so they do not die of either hunger or the fatigue of inactivity.
For Nigeria, lifting the various restrictions is even more urgent. Already, the rate of insecurity is shooting up in places in Lagos as hungry youths get instant employment in the devil’s workshop. In the coming weeks, they will get harder to control and might even begin to invade the neighbouring states. If people in urban centres defy the lockdown to scavenge for resources, those in rural areas will do far much more. The options for everyone have come to either remaining at home, bored and hungry, or risking the uncertainties of COVID-19. It is hard to blame people when their “choices” boil down to only one: survival.
This pandemic too is also unprecedented. Nobody tasked with confronting it had a ready blueprint of the best way the world should respond to minimise the scale of its damage. The disease itself is a new one, and nobody is wholly informed about its operations yet. While we can be thankful that we have history as a guide, along with many years of scientific research carried out by those who have dedicated their lives to studying diseases, the experience of living through history is a different reality. The answers do not come as easily, and the questions are getting impatient.
Everywhere that countries have had to seal up themselves over the COVID-19 pandemic, people are asking the same question of how this disaster that has upended our lives ends. COVID-19 has left every one of us—from public officials to every kind of expert—bewildered at the spate of events. We did not see this problem coming. Now that we have receded into the supposed safety of our interior spaces, there is a second vision that is as shrouded as the first: how and when this will be over. Nobody is certain.
In Nigeria, our already precarious economic state exacerbated the deleterious effect of the fallout of COVID-19. Before the pandemic, Nigeria was already doing poorly. Now that we face a difficult disease, millions of people are trapped between facing an intangible enemy—the virus—that they are told is currently ravaging the streets, and the reality of hunger that they must bear if they stay at home. In a country where data is always a problem to collect, we cannot be certain about the number of casualties we have racked up and how many more will be imperiled in the coming weeks.
So, can Nigeria sustain a prolonged lockdown at this rate? The omens say it is doubtable that the restrictions will stand. In fact, after this round that Buhari announced, Nigeria should not bother with another extension. It is highly unlikely that people will adhere to it. And if they do not, what is the point? After about a whole month of lockdown, I hope they have a handle on the disease outbreak enough to start taking calculated risks about how to lift the restrictions and also carefully manage the inevitable fallout.
It is quite a good development that Nigeria is planning to ramp up tests to 4,000 per day. South Korea has managed to keep its numbers low through a similar method of aggressive testing. Through the 3Ts of tracing, testing, and treating, they were able to rein in the spread of the disease without shutting down either their country or the entire economy at once. Their strategy has been to place some restrictions on certain places, actively contain the disease spread, lift those restrictions, and watch to see if there is a resurgence of infection. While we do not have an organised society like South Korea (and which is also relatively smaller), we can adopt a similar model after this round of lockdown.
Nigeria should consider letting people resume their routine, but with guided constraints. Rather than the government getting involved in the time-consuming task of buying food supplies and giving them to people (and thereby usurping the channels of production for food retailers), it is more helpful if they limit their activities to coordination and enforcement of social distancing in public places. Activities that involve crowds such as religious and political gatherings should remain proscribed for now, but more mundane activities can resume. Lagos’ idea of using public schools as neighbourhood markets is a useful one because those spaces can be set up with social distancing in mind. We can work out other strategies that allow fewer people to be clustered in a place at a time such as extended work hours, shift-taking, and rotational work periods.
There will definitely be problems with letting people loose already. Our marketplaces, for instance, are not designed for the distancing of human bodies. On a good day, the manner our regular public transport packs people closely together is a veritable breeding ground for diseases. How much more at this time? All this means there will be considerable setbacks to lifting the restrictions, but as long as people do not overwhelmingly besiege the hospitals, these can be managed. If things get worse, we can always re-impose the restrictions to suppress another outbreak, but we cannot retreat inside our home shelters forever.
Written by Abimbola Adelakun