COVID-19 Response: The Niger State Model, By Aliyu Ardo

NEWS DIGEST – When in 1907, Baden-Powell, an English Soldier, devised the Scout motto: ‘Be Prepared’, he had no inkling of what was to come 11 years later. Nor did he and the entire world at the time anticipate/prepare for the great catastrophe that befell humanity in the spring of 1918. Lasting more than a year and infecting an estimated 500 million people worldwide (about a third of the world’s population at the time), the Spanish Flu killed around 10 to 50 million people, and possibly more. In Nigeria, about 500,000 people lost their lives within 6 months, out of an estimated population of 18 million, with the infection affecting 50-80% of the population.

The emergence and outbreak of the Coronavirus from the Chinese city of Wuhan in late December 2019 has put to task the responsiveness and preparedness capacity of Nations, Corporations, Entities and the entire human race. Nay, it has put it in question. Though one can argue that no one could have seen it coming, but if humanity and the world should have been taught anything and learnt one thing, it should be to ‘learn from history’ and not repeat the mistakes and errors of those long gone.

Nigeria recorded its index case, an Italian National, on the 27th February 2020 in Lagos. The 2nd case, a Nigerian National, was recorded 11 days later in Ogun State. Since then, Nigeria has so far recorded over 5000 cases, with 171 deaths and 1320 recoveries (as at 16th May). Lagos tops the list so far, followed by Kano and the FCT Abuja.

Preparing for a viral pandemic was not something expected as part of the Leadership training manual and induction process, but readiness and alertness has so far served some places and Nigerian States very well in forestalling a massive outbreak that could spell doom for the populace. The ability to smell danger and quickly put measures in place to avert same is not hidden in any leadership manual or coursework. It is common sense, guided by the overwhelming instinct for survival and self-preservation. It is against this background that the efforts and responsiveness of the Niger State Governor, Alhaji Abubakar Sani Bello, must be highlighted and carefully examined.

Niger State recorded its first case on April 10th 2020. The patient (who has since tested negative twice and has been duly discharged) was a returnee from Lagos who sneaked into the State days before exhibiting symptoms. In the days preceding this unfortunate event and even beyond, the State Government had taken, and has continued to take, measures that even if tough, difficult and stifling, could be excused and understood on the altar of public safety and preservation.

CURFEW, LOCKDOWN AND BAN

Preceding the index case announcement and subsequent lockdown measures was the State-wide Curfew imposed on the 25th March. This was also preceded by the order to close all Schools (both Public and Private) and all other non-essential services in the State, as well as limiting and reducing movement. With Niger State sharing a border with FCT Abuja (then second to Lagos on the number of cases being recorded), the curfew was a brilliant move in ensuring the State does not become another vector point for the spread of the dreaded virus. Though not fully complied with, as there were several reported instances of people and public transport vehicles flouting the order and sneaking in, the curfew has no doubt served as a mitigating factor in limiting a wide spread of the disease.

In response to the index case discovery and announcement, the State Government issued a blanket order to lockdown the State for a period of two weeks and the patient’s residential area (Limawa Area) put under two weeks quarantine. This lockdown order has been renewed on a consistent basis since then and subjected to minor modifications on the time and ease of movement. The first window had Monday and Thursday 6am-6pm daily, with Friday and Sunday enjoying special lay-offs, for the Muslim Juma’at Prayers and Sunday Christian Church Services.  Currently, the State operates a 3-day window for movement (Tuesday, Friday and Sunday, 7am-12am daily). However, the inclusion of the two Worship days to this new window is seen and has been described as a subtle and naive attempt by the State Government to pander to and satisfy the interests and incessant clamour by the adherents and leaders of the two major religions for congregational worship to be allowed.

Additionally, and at several times, the State Government has issued orders banning inter-state travel, even before the Federal Government announcement of the same order. This was ostensibly to stop the State from recording any case or reduce that possibility to its barest minimum. Ironically, and despite best efforts, the state’s index case was someone who sneaked in days after the announcement of the curfew and presented with symptoms two weeks after arrival. The efficacy of the ban could be challenged though, as there have been several instances of travelling in and out of the state by people who are neither on essential service nor any emergency movement. This calls to question the extensive coverage of this ban, and the State’s ability and capacity to monitor all border and entry points in order to properly and fully enforce the ban. Though there have been successes recorded in the area of arresting intending entrants into the State, the most recent being a truckload of 59 travellers from Kano to Lagos and vice versa amongst other incidences, there is an urgent and present need to plug these obscure and remote entry routes and ensure maximum compliance to the inter-state travel ban.

INTRA-STATE MOVEMENT AND SOCIO-ECONOMIC ACTIVITIES

As earlier noted, the State proactively imposed a curfew that invariably ensured movement was limited to its barest minimum, closure of schools, government as well as private offices and businesses. These measures, in hindsight, could be seen to be one of the chief reasons for the State’s “low” Covid-19 positive cases so far. Taking into account the location of the second, third and fourth cases in the State (Tegina, Suleja and Suleja respectively), it is not hard to see how the curfew and subsequent ban on movement within the State has greatly slowed down the possible escalation and spread of the deadly virus.

The closure of markets, businesses, offices, schools, and many other day-to-day human and socio-economic activities has boosted the fight against this pandemic. Per the NCDC’s guidelines on limiting physical contact and adhering to Social distancing directives, the State Government’s insistence and enforcement of the closure is impressive and has complimented the Health authorities’ efforts in limiting spread and ensuring there is no community transmission. More than anything, the greatest and biggest plus of all these measures is the absence, so far, of community transmission. When compared with other States that recorded cases after Niger State and the daily tally being released by the NCDC, it’s clear that the State is doing something right. The closure and intermittent opening of markets, however, should come under a little more scrutiny. Markets by their very nature are always crowdy and could be the perfect ‘distribution points’ for this sinister virus. The closure days therefore translate to zero economic activity for both the seller and the buyer. It therefore follows that on the open days, these markets are flooded by people looking to replenish their food supply, and by owners of goods looking to sell their wares and produce. The predictable attendant logjam is better imagined than experienced. Already, there have been pictures and videos circulating of these rowdy market days. To any keen observer, this scenario alone defeats whatever gains and successes that have been and are being recorded in the fight against this pandemic.

The existing ban on public gathering of more than 20 people at a time is another vital component of the ‘Slow the Spread’ strategy of the State Government. Though compliance and adherence has not been total, as several weddings, ceremonies and celebratory gatherings have taken place in the nooks and crannies of residential areas, this measure has succeeded to a large extent in discouraging social gatherings in bars, clubs, recreational centres and other social spaces that could serve as a potential vector point for the spread of the virus. In this regard, the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu about eternal vigilance being the price for freedom certainly rings true for both Government and the governed.

SUPPORTING THE NATIONAL RESPONSE

For any concerted National strategy to succeed, it must enjoy the buy-in of the constituent units. It becomes imperative for the States therefore to fully support and compliment the efforts of the central Government. In this regard, Niger State has done considerably well in marshalling its human and material resources, as well as its private sector, in achieving a united, sustained support system in the battle against Covid-19.

One of the first of such measures taken is the directive from the Governor for the set up of Emergency Centres across key LGAs in the State as early as February 29th, two days after the Nigerian index case was announced in Lagos. This has been followed by setting up quarantine and isolation centres in Minna, the state capital; collaboration with the NCDC and WHO on Information management and sharing strategies; mass awareness on safety and prevention methods, amongst others.

The private sector in their own capacity have also chipped in. Mainstream Energy Solutions Ltd has donated medical supplies worth over N500 million to the State; El-Amin Foundation donated a 50-bed capacity isolation centre, as well as the donation of another set of medical supplies by the Kere Ahmed Foundation, amongst others.

On plans to set up a molecular laboratory and testing centre to boost the National testing capacity, the Governor recently announced that 457 health workers have been trained and 20 ad-hoc staff recruited to effectively man the laboratory and equipment. The State had previously announced the procurement of Ventilator machines to boost its Covid-19 response and management capacity.

A CALL FOR TOTAL ADHERENCE AND COMPLIANCE 

In managing an unprecedented crisis of this nature, where even advanced countries are struggling with containment and response strategies, where the margin between success and failure becomes thinner every day, premium must be placed on compliance to and enforcement of health advisory and safety measures.

The State Government must come down tough on violators of the curfew, lockdown and travel ban orders. Defaulters who have devised a devious strategy of sneaking into the State through villages and border communities on motorcycles must be apprehended and prosecuted. Already, the Governor has announced a ban on Okada operations in the State. This is commendable but must be accompanied by solid surveillance and monitoring. Where the terrain is difficult and remote, Government should collaborate and liaise with local and traditional authorities to apprehend these violators before they gain access into the State. Casual travellers who take advantage of the movement days to enter the State must continue to be turned back and/or quarantined for the recommended two weeks before they can mix in with the local population. The despicable acts of offering and receiving bribe at checkpoints to allow vehicles passage into the State must be rooted out and the perpetrators sanctioned for endangering the lives of others.

The Friday and Sunday prayer and worship window should also be carefully monitored, and all safety measures put in place strictly adhered to. There is need to ensure all mosques and churches that open on these days are strictly adhering to the measures on social distancing, hand washing, and proper ventilation. Failure to enforce this could transform these holy places into Covid-19 hotspots, which will massively set the State on a track to escalation of positive cases.

While the mandatory use of facemask is commendable and the directive to only allow people with facemasks access into the markets, the periodic opening of market days should be reviewed considering the previous concerns raised. It would be counterproductive to limit physical contact and promote social distancing, only to open market days on specific days and have people throng them in massive numbers, mingling recklessly, in a rush and hurry and with careless abandon.

CONCLUSION 

Governments worldwide are a product of the Social Contract. And there is no greater form of fulfilment of the social contract than the protection and preservation of life. Man’s basic instinct is survival, while the basic function and purpose of Government and all constituted authority is the protection of life and property. The guarantee of safety and health, even if at the cost of the people’s comfort and leisure. It is the living and healthy that gets to enjoy the niceties of life.

Consequently, leadership requires tough choices. Choices difficult to make and tough to explain. Leaders therefore must be courageous in taking those choices when called upon by fate and circumstances to do so, and firm enough to resolutely stand by them. For the greater good of all.

Covid-19 has tested leaders and their capacity for quick response. In this instance and in the case of Niger State, Governor Abubakar Sani Bello and his Government has done well in rising to the occasion and forestalling a massive outbreak of cases, especially considering the State’s proximity to the FCT Abuja. Though there are numerous areas to improve upon as highlighted above and by several other commentaries and contributions.

The people must also see this as their own personal battles and contribute in keeping the numbers low for as long as possible by observing and adhering to all safety measures and directives. There is no vaccine nor cure for the Covid-19 in sight yet, all measures and strategies must be on prevention and ensuring the curve is flattened for as long as possible. It has been a long way from December 2019, and the road ahead looks even longer, barring any miraculous breakthrough. People must soldier on and come what may, ‘Be Prepared’.

By Aliyu Ardo Ibrahim.

Tweets on @ArdoAliyu.