The extension by two weeks of the current ‘easing of the lockdown’ in Lagos, Abuja and Ogun States by two weeks has raised a number of fundamental issues. Speaking at the daily briefing of the Presidential Task Force, Secretary to the Government Boss Mustapha, said a lifting despite small gains would amount to a risk. “The measures, exemptions, advisories and scope of entities allowed to reopen under phase one of the eased locked down, shall be maintained across the federation for another two weeks effective from 12.00 midnight today (18th May, 2020 to 1st June, 2020)”, he was reported to have said.
As of May 2020, the NCDC reported 6,401 infections, out of which 192 have died and 1734 discharged.
The announcement raised a number of fundamental questions among Nigerians:
How effective were the restrictions in the first place? What were we supposed to achieve by them? Are we achieving them? If so, are they due to the restrictions or other factors? And when will people ‘regain’ their freedom for life to return to ‘normal’?
There are two extreme positions on the pandemic which makes the earnest search for answers to the above questions difficult. The first are those who wittingly or unwittingly purvey paranoia and unreasonable fear about the virus. For instance watching the World Health Organization, the CNN or our own National Centre for Disease Control reel out their figures of infections and casualties, it is difficult for one not to become paranoid and feel the end of the world is nigh. As an illustration, on March 3 2020, just before the rapid spread of cases prompted lockdowns around the U.S, the World Health Organization reported that “globally, about 3.4% of reported COVID-19 cases have died,” and “by comparison, seasonal flu generally kills far less than 1% of those infected.” By May 13, 2020, the WHO revised itself and said the COVID-19 death rate is twice what it reported in March — 7%. Other organizations tracking the virus such as Johns Hopkins University in the USA show a similarly high global case fatality rate. By comparison, the 1918-19 influenza pandemic, one of the most severe in history, which killed an estimated 50 million globally and 675,000 in the U.S., is generally estimated to have had a fatality rate of no more than 2.5%.
Perhaps because of the unwitting spread of paranoia by some media organizations, it is not unusual to see everyone in a family in their car wearing mask despite the fact that they have no intention of stopping anywhere before getting to their destination. A friend once cautioned me against jogging around Asokoro General Hospital in Abuja on grounds that “it has been designated an isolation centre and this virus is airborne and can circulate on the air for weeks.”
The other extreme position are those who are ‘recklessly’ sceptical about the existence of the virus. Apart from conspiracy theories about its origin, there are others who doubt whether the virus exists at all or is as fatal as it is being made out to be. For instance, Kogi State governor, Yahaya Bello and his Cross Rivers State counterpart Ben Ayade have repeatedly accused Nigerian leaders of shifting priorities in their response to the outbreak of t COVID-19 in the country. Bello was quoted as saying that too much panic and fears have been spread about COVID-19 as if it was the end of the world.
“Is this the first time we’re having these kinds of symptoms in Nigeria? Haven’t we been living with it and teaching ourselves and moving on?”, he was quoted to have said. He accused the NCDC and the World Health Organisation (WHO) of verbally increasing the mortality rate of the coronavirus disease to create panic and said Nigeria has lost fewer people to COVID-19 than to other problems like Boko Haram terrorists, bandits, kidnappers, cattle rustlers, road accidents, hunger, malaria, heart attack, child mortality, and Lassa fever. He also reportedly claimed that Kogi state had been under pressure to declare cases of COVID-19.
In the same vein, Raymond Dokpesi, founder of DAAR Communications Plc, owners of Africa Independent Television and Raypower, who tested positive to the virus with some members of his family and went into an isolation centre, was quoted as saying: “A number of persons who tested positive were checked in reputable labs, hospitals in Abuja and were found to have malaria parasites in their bloodstreams. When did malaria become synonymous with COVID-19?” It was later reported that he had “settled with the Nigerian Government and Nigeria Centre for Disease Control over the issue”.
Apart from dealing with the tension between paranoia and being ‘recklessly sceptical’, is also the question of whether the whole lockdown even worked.
Here again, opinions are divided. For instance, the Financial Times of London recently used a flow chart to show that countries that locked down earlier have had better health outcomes than those who did not. In the same vein, a 2007 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which examined what happened in 43 United States cities during the 1918-19 Spanish Flu pandemic, found that measures such as school closures and bans on public gatherings were statistically associated with fewer deaths. Another study found that Wuhan’s restrictions prevented tens of thousands of infections throughout the Hubei province. Yet another study which simulated what could have happened if Italy had relaxed its restrictions in March 2020 found that the country’s lockdown prevented around 200,000 hospitalizations between February 21 (when Italy’s first case was reported) and March 25.
There are however counterfactual research findings on the impact of lock-downs: For instance, TJ Rodgers, the founder of the US manufacturing company Cypress Semiconductor recently said the US lockdowns were a mistake because his analysis found a minimal correlation between states that closed businesses early and their overall death count (adjusted for population size). Again an Op-ed in the Wall Street Journal of May 20, 2020, had this caption: “Do Lockdowns Save Many Lives? In Most Places, the Data Say No”. In this piece the authors said they set out to quantify the number of deaths that were caused by delayed lockdown in the USA on a state-by-state basis but found that data did not support the assumption that they did so
There are a number of deductions from the above:
One, there is no unanimity of views, even from ‘reasonable’ people, on how dangerous COVID-19 is. With two extreme positions – the sceptics and those living in the paranoia of the virus – it is extremely difficult to define what constitutes ‘reasonableness’ or ‘personal responsibility’.
Two, the disagreement even among health professionals on how effective lockdowns are in combating the virus means we cannot afford to leave decisions about COVID-19 to health professionals alone – as much as we respect their professional opinions. This is made worse by the fact that in our type of low-trust society, suspicions of vested class and pecuniary interests in perpetuating the paranoia around the virus make it difficult to fully trust them – even when they act without any ulterior motive.
Three, even if lockdowns work as they are touted, what happens when they are lifted and a few people with the virus starts re-infecting others? In any case, what is the point of lockdowns when they are observed in the breach in many places – because the socio-economic and cultural conditions make their observance almost impossible? Also, is the possibility of infections completely removed during the period of the ‘gradual easing’?
Four, the health versus economy argument must not be downplayed. While supporters of lockdown argue that combating the virus is akin to a war where people should worry more about life than livelihood, opponents counter that ‘hunger virus’ is deadlier than coronavirus because it is better for people to die fighting than to die for lack of energy to fight. Additionally, the lack of transparency in the distribution of the palliatives (including alleged billions spent in feeding school children during the lockdown) angers many and brings to the fore the politics of social divide, social class enemies and our traditional fault lines. People also need their freedom to get on with their lives and daily struggles.
Five, based on the above, I feel that extending this gradual lockdown again at the end of this month will be very unwise. Rather than another lockdown, the government should prepare to use the facilities it has to more speedily treat people who get ill. It should focus on promoting ‘personal responsibility’, including physical distancing and observing basic hygiene.