COVID-19: How Safe Is It To Relax Lockdown In Nigeria?

Five weeks of strict lockdown, especially in Lagos and Ogun states as well as the Federal Capital Territory FCT) will end on Sunday, May 3.

According to President Muhammadu Buhari, from Monday, May 4, Nigerians will experience a gradual easing of the lockdown imposed to check the spread of COVID-19.

The aim is to ensure that the economy “continues to function while [we are] still maintaining our aggressive response to the COVID-19 pandemic”, the president explained.

Non-essential inter-state travels remain banned, the use of face masks and social distancing in public places will be compulsory, and curfews will remain in place at night. But state governments are expected to give instructions based on their unique circumstances, except in Kano where community transmission is at a record high, Buhari directed.

The announcement was greeted with scepticism with many Nigerians wondering if the decision was not hasty considering that Nigeria’s number of confirmed cases has continued to rise daily.

On April 27, the number of new cases was 64 , on April 28, it was 195 , on April 29, 196 , on April 30, 204 , May 1, 238 and May 2, 220.

No going back

The Lagos State government announced on Wednesday, April 29, that public service workers ranking above Grade Level 12 should resume work based on a flexible roster.

The Governor, Mr Babajide Sanwo-Olu, said corporate organisations, banks, malls, and local markets could operate between 9a.m. and 3p.m. with 60 per cent of their workforce.

Federal government workers as well as civil servants in Anambra, Cross River, Ogun, Oyo, and other states, have been given similar directives, despite warnings from health experts.

Towards the end of the second leg of the lockdown, the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) urged the government to extend the measure to save lives.

The NMA President, Dr Francis Faduyile, said, “We are just getting to the peak and the spread is still ascending the slope. You can only ease the lockdown when you are seeing fewer numbers of new cases.

“Things that are unfolding show that we need to enforce even more. However, if we want to enforce the lockdown, then we should do things that would make life easier for people. That is to call on the government to do the needful in the fair distribution of the palliatives so that people can stay at home.”

Faduyile said that not extending the lockdown would cause people harbouring the virus to mix freely with others and spread it to uninflected persons.

Earlier, an advocacy group, Health Sector Reform Coalition, had asked various state governments not to succumb to pressure in relaxing the lockdown.

“Our containment is still in the nascent stage, this is not the time to relax our guard. The next couple of weeks are very critical in containing an upsurge in the number of confirmed cases … Nothing is more important than staying alive,” the group said.

It is unlikely every Nigerian will be able to adhere to the mandatory use of face masks in public spaces considering how scarce and expensive the item has become.

As of February, the price of disposable surgical masks had quadrupled with one going for N200 as against the pre-pandemic price of N50. Listings on Jumia, an e-commerce website, show that a piece costs between N300 and N350.

There has been a surge in the manufacture of home-made cloth face masks to fill the supply gap but these are even more expensive although reusable. One piece costs an average of N1,000.

The Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) has warned that while these masks can act as a barrier to respiratory droplets, they “cannot completely protect you from COVID-19” and those wearing them must continue to obey rules of social distancing.

An Ibadan-based lawyer, who asked not to be named, told HumAngle that following the government’s announcement, his law firm, which also has an office in Lagos, had asked employees to resume at work for a two-week trial period.

“I am actually eager to go back to the workplace,” the lawyer, who has been working from home since March 23, said.

He said he did not think the relaxation should apply to hard-hit states such as Lagos because of the risk of increasing infection.

His company has decided to come up with a roster to reduce the number of people who go to the office daily and also to digitise its physical files to ease remote access. The firm also encourages employees who own cars to convey colleagues living along their routes to work.

Akinleye Segun, a resident of Lagos and editor of Allnews Nigeria, an online news platform, said his organisation had asked a third of its employees to resume work in order to “keep the company running and at the same time try and stay safe”.

But he does not consider the relaxation of the lockdown the right move. Some of his coworkers are anxious too because of the increased risk of contracting the coronavirus, he said.

“We have people who live very far and have to take multiple buses to work,” he noted.

Segun said relaxing the lockdown was the government’s way of hiding its failure in providing sufficient palliatives for the people. “If they had done better with the palliative measures, people would not have clamoured to go back to the streets or complained about hunger,” he said.

He added that he would like to see how the government would enforce social distancing in the public transportation system and regulate fares against the background of the government asking drivers not to fill their vehicles to capacity.

Many are worried about the reasons for relaxing the lockdown, especially with the experiences in some African countries that have taken similar steps.

Ghana, for example, relaxed its lockdown in major cities from Monday, April 20, and the rate of infection nearly doubled. While it reported 193 new cases on April 18, it recorded 403 cases on April 30.

In Tanzania, while schools were closed and international flights suspended, public and religious gatherings were not prohibited and the World Health Organization (WHO) said this might have come at a cost.

Tedros Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of WHO, has urged countries to make sure they have capacity to test, isolate and care for any confirmed cases as they relax restrictions on movements.

“Lifting so-called lockdown restrictions is not the end of the epidemic in any country,” he warned, “it’s just the beginning of the next phase.”

A coalition of 407 Civil Society Organisations, which released a joint memo on the COVID-19 pandemic on Monday, said that a total lockdown was not what Nigeria needed.

They instead proposed what they called a smart lockdown that is “a hybrid or partial approach that creates a balance between curbing the spread of the virus and easing the economic pain on the people”.

The approach will require “enforcing preventive measures such as the continuous and compulsory wearing of facemasks in public, provision of handwashing facilities and alcohol-rich hand sanitisers in public places, the group explained.

The group further explained that the approach would involve people observing social distancing, regular disinfection of open spaces (public transport, public gatherings, such as markets, religious houses, schools, etc), and observance of basic hygiene with trained Public Health Monitors as Compliance Officers.

They also advised the government to make public transportation significantly safer and encourage market associations to set up handwashing facilities.

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'Kunle Adebajo

Head of Investigations at HumAngle. ‘Kunle covers conflict alongside its many intricacies and fallouts. He also writes about disinformation, the environment, and human rights. He's won a couple of journalism awards, including the 2021 Wole Soyinka Award for Investigative Journalism, the 2022 African Fact-checking Award, and the 2023 Michael Elliott Award for Excellence in African Storytelling.

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