Whole-of-government and Whole-of-society collaboration in combating COVID-19

On March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic after the virus had made landfall in 110 countries, with recorded infection cases exceeding 117,000.

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus- WHO Director-General at a media briefing said “COVID-19 is not just a public health crisis, it is a crisis that will touch every sector; so every sector and every individual must be involved in the fight”.

Prior to Nigeria’s index case on February 27, 13 days before the WHO declared COVID-19 a global pandemic and over two (2) months since the virus started it’s International tour from Wuhan in China, our government particularly our health ministry had claimed to be prepared and ready to combat the virus in case of any eventuality, this boasting perhaps contributed to why it took public pressure before the federal government decided to close our airports to international airlines from COVID-19 hotspots countries.

While our health Minister assured Nigerians of her preparedness and allayed any form of public panic nothing was done backstage to bring all relevant stakeholders on board to draw up a national response strategy.

Our index case was discovered two days after he had arrived the country and later became symptomatic, it was at this point reality dawn on us on how unprepared we were as a nation to the global pandemic. While kudos must be given to the Lagos State government for it’s swift response and show of leadership since the outbreak, the Federal government who ordinarily should take the lead on coordination fell short of expectations.

In our reactionary culture, the federal government made efforts to douse tension; however the gravity of the situation exposed the frailty and fault lines in our public health sector; with early COVID-19 positive patients complaining of inhumane nature of our isolation centres, other current challenges are insufficient medical equipments such as ventilators, personal protective equipment (PPE) for health workers, insufficient testing kits, stigmatization of patients who exhibit similar symptoms of COVID-19 by many hospitals etc.

In the wake of the crisis before us, the federal government has (still) not clearly provided response framework and it’s actions and decisions are both esoteric and reactionary.

To curb the spread of COVID-19 in the three most hit States, the FG ordered a 2 weeks shutdown of all activities in the States and ordered a stay at home for all, without thinking through the implications; days after, it came back to relax the order to allow markets to be open for few hours daily for individuals selling food items, again there are inherent flaws, how does the old woman who sells in the market identify herself when accosted by security agents mandated to enforce the sit-at-home order.

The stimulus package introduced by the FG also has it’s flaws as currently being handled as evidence from the media shows the process defying social distancing culture and also the inherent risks of moving huge sums of cash, issues of accountability, criteria for selection of beneficiaries etc.

While this is not a time to push blames, our current response mechanisms has gaps that needs to be plugged immediately to forestall future risks.

The Federal government must as a matter of urgency release a national response Strategy (NRS) showing a coherent strategy how Nigeria intends to curb the spread of COVID-19 relying on available research findings, knowledge of the virus root cause, mobility, Nigeria’s peculiarities, socio-economic lifestyle, global good practices and public perception, transparency and accountability frameworks in the discharge of response.

The National Response Strategy (NRS) must adopt a whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach where government efforts are well-coordinated, carried out in a collaborative and integrated manner by all relevant Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDA) of government while a whole-of-society approach is one which government recognizes that it cannot address the full range of desired results needed to fight the pandemic hence requires individuals, families, communities, Civil Society organizations, voluntary organizations, media, academia, and the private sector to play a role in a very transparent and accountable manner.

The lack of NRS bridging the whole-of-government and whole-of-society is the reason why the majority of Nigerians are unaware and also unbelieving that COVID-19 is real and affects everyone.

The lack of the NRS viz-a-viz whole-of-government, whole-of-society collaboration is the reason for the resistance to social distancing and the growing cases of human rights abuses by some security agents on civilians.

The lack of a national response strategy and whole-of-society buy-in is the reason why there are a lot of misinformation, rumours, conspiracy theories spreading across online and offline space across the population.

The lack of transparency, accountability and inconsistency in government directives will further exacerbate the health crisis which may metamorphose into civil unrest, increase in crime and other forms of violence if not addressed urgently.

It is imperative that government especially the Federal government (and the State governments) begin the harmonisation of all relevant Ministries Departments and Agencies (whole-of-government) in joint planning and program implementation while also activating and including stakeholders representing whole-of-society in these program planning, decision making and implementation to reduce friction and promote collectivism in fighting this crisis before us.

COVID-19 crisis is not a Federal Ministry of Health show neither is it that of the Presidential Taskforce on COVID-19, we must desist from politicizing the process, state and non state actors must come together to fight the faceless virus that has no regard for class, religion, ethnicity, gender or age demography.

We need a National Response Strategy now before it is too late.

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