Nigeria and Covid-19 Challenges: Need for Voluntary Service Initiatives

By Salihu Moh. Lukman
Progressive Governors Forum
Asokoro, Abuja

Dr. Maurizio Cecconi, head of department of anesthesia at Humanitas Hospital, Milan, Italy advised the United States government not to think that they can win the battle against Covid-19 by “increasing capacity” as according to him “it’ll take government and citizens helping out as well. That includes taking drastic steps like canceling major events, having employees work from home, and other moves to limit the spread of the virus.’

Underlying this advice from someone experienced and knowledgeable enough to authoritatively counselled the US government, which has now become the world epicenter of Covid-19 with over 85,000 confirmed citizens infected by the virus cannot be underestimated. Just few days ago, China with estimated 81,292 was the epicenter followed by Italy with slightly above 80,000 were ranked more than the US. Although the US is now the epicenter with the highest number of Covid-19 cases, its record of death of 1,308 is far below that of Italy that has so far recorded 8,215 death.

If death is the yardstick for determining the epicenter, certainly Italy will be the epicenter. But given that death is a function of number of cases, the US is today the epicenter with higher risks of more death than Italy. This highlight the weight of Dr. Cecconi’s cautious advice, which although to the US government but it applies to all nations, including Nigeria.

For us in Nigeria, it is far more serious given citizen’s mindset that the Covid-19 challenge is a problem that government must address. Most commentaries in our media is largely about evaluating what government is doing or not doing. where government is able to respond positively based on what may appear to be agitating the minds of Nigerians as is the case with social distancing and lockdown, efforts by government to enforce compliance gets heavily criticised.

We need to appeal to every person resident in Nigeria, both Nigerians and non-Nigerians, that tackling the challenge of Covid-19 require very good synergy of initiatives between government and citizens. If advanced countries like US, Italy, France, Spain, UK, etc. are battling the virus with devasting consequences, it should be clear to us that the challenge is beyond infrastructural capacities such as hospitals, doctors, medical personnel, drugs, equipment, etc. Yes, capacity is very much required but given the speed with which Covid-19 spread across the population, ability of governments to develop the needed capacity will be overwhelming. Therefore, the current attitude of many Nigerians focusing on lamenting the state of health sector and what could appear to be the inhuman disposition that celebrate the unfortunate high-profile cases of Covid-19 positive cases in the country is misplaced and dangerous.

By all means, we can criticise our governments and our leaders, but we need to do that by demonstrating our commitment to contribute to the fight against Covid-19 through clear actions, recommendations and initiatives to mobilise citizens to also play their roles. Noting for instance that the US government at the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis was reported to have mobilised $1 trillion, and yet this did not arrest the spread of Covid-19 in the US such that today it is the epicenter with 85,498 infected Americans and death of 1,308, the dangers facing us should be clear to all of us. Similarly, the UK government mobilised more than £300 billion. Yet, number of infected persons in UK is now 11,658, which Prince Charles and the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, with 578 deaths and still counting.

Just yesterday, Thursday, March 26, 2020, President Muhammadu Buhari announced the release of N10 billion to Lagos State, which is our national epicenter with 31 of the 65 reported cases, accounting for almost 50% of cases. The President also announced the release of additional N5 billion to Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC). any doubt, governments at all levels are clearly alert to the challenges that lie ahead and are doing the best they can in the circumstances within their limited capacity. Unfortunately, citizens have predominantly reduced their support or engagement towards tackling the challenges of Covid-19 to issuing statements either in response or expectation of what government should do.

As Nigerians, we need to appreciate the enormity of the Covid-19 challenge. NCDC, team of medical personnel, Federal and State governments are doing excellently well to have so far kept death arising from Covid-19 in Nigeria to 1 out of 65. This is quite commendable. The fact that reported cases is 65 should not be the basis for celebration. This is because since the discovery of the index case in Lagos about two weeks ago, less than 300 people have been tested. This is largely the case due to issues that may not be unconnected to availability of testing equipment, which the Minister of Health, Dr. Osagie Ehanire pointed out that it has to conform with the provided by World Health Organisation (WHO).

Problem of availability of testing equipment is not just a Nigerian issue. It is a problem all over the world, which has necessitated that patients with advanced symptoms in US and Europe have to go through some cuing to get tested. As a result, there are reported cases of deaths of infected persons waiting to be tested. It is possible that Alh. Aliko Dangote had this in mind when recently he appealed to Nigerian government to allow hospitals to conduct the tests.

Allowing hospitals to conduct the tests could be helpful to the extent that they are able to procure the right equipment. Beyond procuring the right equipment, there are , which the hospitals should meet to be able to carryout the test. This will having all the spaces and facilities required to treat positive cases. How do we ensure all these are mobilised within a very short time, in fact in matters of hours given the urgency Covid-19 challenges require? This will be a function of how citizens and government are able to work together.

So far, the corporate community and wealthy Nigerians are impressively rising to this challenge. We hear of UBA contributing N5 billion, NNPC $30 million (more than N11 billion), Alh. Abdulsamad Rabiu, Chairman of BUA Group N1 billion, Alh. Aliko Dangote N200 million, Alh. Atiku Abubakar N50 million, to mention just few. In addition, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) has just set up a Covid-19 Committee to mobilise funds and members of the Committee are asked to contribute N1 billion each. How all these donations are directed and coordinated to tackle Covid-19 in the country is not that of government and our political leaders alone.

Maybe it needs to be stated unambiguously, the fight against Covid-19, from all the evidences will only be won by combinations governments’ and citizens’ initiatives. Where are our civil society leaders with all the claimed selfless services and international networks around issues of health and welfare services? This is the time to showcase those competencies and networks by joining all the taskforces setup by the federal and state governments to mobilise complimentary initiatives.

Those complimentary initiatives are needed to strengthen capacity of governments to regulate provisions in our hospitals to meet WHO starting with procuring the right equipment to the provision of spaces for treating patients who have tested positive. Take the case of contact tracing, which the Minister of Health announced that efforts are still being to trace more than 4,000 contacts. Imagine our leaders of non-governmetal organisations government in the effort for contact tracing. Certainly, there could more success and speed in tracing the contacts and therefore minimising the spread of the virus in the country. This is what will be required to strengthen national capacity to control spread of the virus and cure positive cases.

Perhaps, this is already taking place, but in the same spirit of accountability during elections when we have civil society organisations setting up situation rooms and issuing out daily or periodic reports around initiatives to guarantee free and fair elections, is it not possible to also have civil society Covid-19 situation rooms located across the country and releasing reports about initiatives and progress towards our governments in this direction? This way, it will not just be the voices of government officials on what is being done to combat Covid-19 in Nigeria but also that of citizens. This is one area where the leadership of National Orientation Agency (NOA) should demonstrate some competence and capabilities to mobilise Nigeria’s non-state actors to commit themselves to the national effort to combat Covid-19.

The other issue is the question of enforcing social distancing and lockdown. With a very active movement that is very good and efficient in organising strikes, most times against very hostile security operatives, one would have thought this is one area that our NLC, and all union and civil society leaders could volunteer their support. This is hardly the case. Our union leaders should join government to work out strategies to enforce social distancing and lockdowns. This should be in the strategic interest of workers because during and after the Covid-19 battle, there will be the issue of how employers including governments are able to mobilise financial resources to pay salaries. Workers and their union leadership need to make some strategic social and moral investments ahead of the post Covid-19 challenges already brewing.

It is quite disturbing that our public conversation around Covid-19 tend to miss out on a number of these issues. Otherwise, why should our university lecturers be on strike at this critical moment. Even some sections of medical doctors were on strike in parts of the country until Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) directed them to call off the strike some few days ago. If university lecturers are on strike at this time, including lecturers in faculties of medicine and possibly university teaching hospitals, it simply means our universities and teaching hospitals are not part of efforts by governments’ initiatives to fight Covid-19. This is quite scandalous and to say the least disturbing.

We may also decide to ignore the fact that ASUU is an affiliate of NLC and at least two other affiliates of NLC operate in the health sector. These are Medical and Health Workers and Nurses and Midwives. In fact, the President of NLC, Comrade Ayuba Wabba is a Medical worker. How is NLC and its leadership, given their vantage influences in the nation’s health sector applying themselves to engage Nigerian government to ensure strong capacity to win the Covid-19 battle? It may be too early to say whether it is a question of volunteering initiatives or that of evaluating government’s initiative.

Covid-19 require that we all come back to our senses by coming up with voluntary initiatives. We don’t have the luxury we think we have to just sit down and condemn our governments. The earlier we appreciate that it is either we support government to win the Covid-19 battle now or we simply just create a situation where government initiative remain weak and to the extent of such weakness, we all become endangered indiscriminately. Governments, civil society and union leaders and members will be as vulnerable as any ordinary citizen. The time to act is now. We don’t have the luxury of imagining that this is a problem for government. It is a problem for everyone!

This does not represent the view of any APC Governor or the Progressive Governors Forum