COVID-19: The strong are not that strong without good governance, By Jibrin Ibrahim

According to a recent report from the Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs at Brown University, the American Government has spent $6.4 trillion on post-9/11 wars and military action in the Middle East and Asia. This amount is $2 trillion more than the entire federal government spending during the recently completed 2019 fiscal year. The U.S. government spent $4.4 trillion during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. The report shows that more than 801,000 people have died as a direct result of fighting. Of those, more than 335,000 have been civilians. Another 21 million people have been displaced due to violence. For the American Government, projecting their strength at the world level is the clearest evidence that they are the strongest country in the world that could do as they wish and the rest of the world must accept that they are subalterns.

Today the world is waking up to the reality that the United States is very weak in catering to the interests of its own people. The country runs the most expensive health care system in the world with two key characteristics, over 30% of the people are not covered and costs compared to other industrialised countries are artificially spiked to produce super profits for “health care” companies. For the sake of profits, the American Government has rejected the facts presented to it that with a lower budget, all Americans can have access to adequate healthcare. Currently, the country is facing the risk of almost two million of its citizens dying from the on-going Coronavirus disease and imminent collapse of the health care system, and indeed of its economy is on-going. Outside the US, Europe has become the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic and health care professionals are daily facing terrible situations of deciding who they will allow to die so that others can be saved. For the first time in centuries, the narrative about Europe and the US is one we in Africa have become accustomed to through the ages.

It’s about weak systems, low production capacity, poor organizational skills, lack of strategic planning, indiscipline, and finally we are there, too much corruption and profiteering. There is no time for us to express glee at this terrible narrative, ours is coming and might very well be worse if we do not govern the crisis well.
In Nigeria, it took President, Muhammadu Buhari five weeks to address the Nation on the COVID-19 pandemic we are facing, but we are glad he finally did it on Monday. We are all aware that this pandemic is a serious threat to the lives and livelihood of Nigerians and therefore requires that the highest political authority engages with citizens regularly to calm their fears and provide a clear sense of direction in these trying times. In addition, the President needs to show empathy and compassion to the people affected in different ways by the disease, and even more important, the fear of the disease. Nigerians have been concerned by the announcement the week before the address that the meeting of the Federal Executive Council and the National Council of State had been postponed indefinitely at a time when the implications of the pandemic imposed the opposite – the urgency for Government to meet, even if it had to be done electronically, to address the challenges faced by the country. The President therefore needed to reassure citizens that governance had not stopped and that in spite of the economic crisis facing the country the government has the wherewithal to deal with the crisis.

I believe that the President’s address achieved some of these objectives. First, it put paid to a series of fake news and rumours that the President had fled the country and gone abroad to seek medical attention for his own health challenges. Secondly, he was able to show that the Federal Government had been active in planning preventive, containment and curative measures to counter the spread of the disease in Nigeria. The President made it clear that since the confirmation of the first case on 27th February 2020, the entire instruments of government have been mobilized to confront both the health emergency and economic crisis we are experiencing.

The President’s call on all of us as individuals to play our role in combatting the pandemic by washing our hands regularly with clean water and soap, disinfecting frequently used surfaces and areas, coughing into a tissue or our elbow bend and strictly adhering to infection prevention control measures is appropriate. Finally, the President took time to explain Nigeria’s two-step approach to addressing the pandemic. First, to protect the lives of Nigerians and residents living here and second, to preserve the livelihoods of workers and business owners to ensure their families get through this very difficult time in dignity and with hope and peace of mind.

The steps taken so far have also been significant. They include the introduction of healthcare measures, border security, fiscal and monetary policies. Given the data from the Ministry of Health and the NCDC that Lagos and Abuja have the majority of confirmed cases in Nigeria, the President has directed the cessation of all movements in Lagos and the FCT for an initial period of 14 days with effect from 11pm on Monday, 30th March 2020. This restriction will also apply to Ogun State due to its close proximity to Lagos and the high traffic between the two States. All citizens in these areas are to stay in their homes. Travel to or from other states are to be postponed and all businesses and offices within these locations should be fully closed during this period. These measures are difficult to sustain for a long period and there should be a review in line with success stories from Asia showing that extensive tests and contact tracing might be more effective than total lockdown. Currently, over 5,000 people who might have been exposed to the disease are yet to be traced. I hope the containment period would be used to identify, trace and isolate all individuals that have come into contact with confirmed cases.

The President however did not provide enough specifics to completely reassure Nigerians that all that needs to be done are actually being done. For example, the Minister of Health announced some days ago that Nigeria had only 26,000 test kits for a country of over 200 million  inhabitants – how would people be traced and tested in all thirty-six States with such few kits available. Have we ordered new kits, how many, from where and when will they be arriving are pertinent questions to ask the President. I am also concerned that so far, the test centres in the country are only based in Lagos, Edo, Osun and Abuja with no centres catering for the North West, North East and South South – this is completely unacceptable and must be addressed speedily. The announcement that new centres would be opened in Kaduna, Kano, Sokoto, Borno, Plateau, Rivers and Ebonyi is not enough, each State must have a centre opened after which local government centres should also be opened. South Korea with just over 50 million inhabitants for example has 600 test centres operating currently.

In terms of care for infected people, the President also needs to brief Nigerians on current availability of and arrangements for procurement of ventilators, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), face masks and preparation of isolation and treatment centres. In other words, the President should not take the attitude that he has spoken and can therefore withdraw into his cocoon, he must continue to brief Nigerians and the world on a regular basis. The President must continue to play the leadership role required for us to plan, act and govern our survival out of the crisis. As I have argued previously, the real governance issue is that we are in crisis today because we have allowed our health system to collapse as our elite became completely reliant on foreign systems and now they cannot go abroad as everyone is in crisis. We must plan our way out of this crisis with a renewed commitment to rebuild our health and educational systems so that we can survive the uncertain future that is arriving.