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A disaster emporium

How Nigeria’s lockdown failed as much as it succeeded and how it did not prepare enough to open for business. In November 1918, just as…

How Nigeria’s lockdown failed as much as it succeeded and how it did not prepare enough to open for business.

In November 1918, just as World War I was ending in Europe, after claiming 40 million lives in nearly five years of fighting, the Spanish Flu, a respiratory infection very much like COVID-19, surfaced and was spreading rapidly across the world.

Within months spread between 1918 and 1919, it would claim 50 million lives globally, including 199, 325 in Nigeria, according to data from the Public Records Office.

The Spanish Flu, caused by a virus with avian origins, killed indiscriminately, with most casualties being between ages 20 and 40, someone of whom exhibited no symptoms in the morning yet were dead by nightfall.

In the US city of San Francisco, authorities imposed a lockdown and made wearing facemasks mandatory, like most cities and countries in the world had done at the time. With cases dropping, San Francisco decided to end its lockdown, and on November 21, 1918, hundreds of San Franciscans without facemasks trooped to the streets to celebrate the end of four weeks of “muzzling.” They held street parties, flocked to theatres and sports centres, in the manner people in Kano attended the final of the infamous Corona Cup recently, defied medical advice and revelled to their hearts’ content. Two weeks later, there was a spike in new cases and by the time the Spanish Flu had burnt itself out, thousands of lives had been lost.

Today, after five weeks, Nigerians in Lagos, Abuja and Ogun are being un-muzzled, freed from a lockdown that has been as effective as it has been a manual on how not contain a pandemic.

Coming after three consecutive days of recording over 200 daily COVID-19 new cases-a national high-and ample evidence of community spread, there are valid reasons to ask if this is the right time to end the lockdown.

The reality is that extending the lockdown any further might have led to civil unrest, as we are already seeing even in parts of the US. There is no greater motivation for recklessness than hunger and majority of Nigerians, without savings and food reserves, are at their wits end. Further extension of the lockdown would most likely have seen a rise in criminality, mass protest, looting and attacks on lawmen and women enforcing the lockdown. There was a viral video of an armed mob in a southern town chasing away officers enforcing lockdown.

Nigeria cannot afford this breakdown of order. As much as it cannot afford a full-scale outbreak of the virus. With over 2, 000 cases already, our flimsy healthcare system is struggling and deaths, unrelated to coronavirus, are spiking as a result, as is being witnessed in Kano.

At the end of a five-week lockdown, I suppose the question to ask is has the lockdown been effective in curbing the spread?

Those who passed by the Dutse Market in Abuja especially in the last week, might have witnessed a small crowd of people, hemmed in by a battery of security officials, huddling around a tent by the roadside.

Apparently, that is a mobile court to try lockdown defaulters. The very characteristic of this court, the way the people clustered without regards to social distancing is inimical to the reason of its existence. If this irony occurred to any of the officials, none of them did anything to alter the situation.

This seems to suggest that violations of social distancing rules are intolerable only if done outside the court premises.

Such scenes have played out in most courts that have tried defaulters of the lockdown.

When actor Funke Akindele Bello was tried in Lagos for hosting a party during lockdown, the crowd that jostled against each other at court left many wondering if the courthouse itself should not be tried for allowing such violations within its premises. What the court succeeded in doing by handing out an exemplary punishment to Mrs. Bello-community service and imposed isolation-was undone by the circumstances in which it was handed out.

It was also undone by the manner in which the late Chief of Staff of the president, Abba Kyari, was buried in the presence of members of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19, who subsequently refused to go into isolation. It was also undone when the FCT minister of state, Dr. Ramatu Tijjani Aliyu, took a horde of government officials, aides and whatnots to fumigate some Abuja streets. It is being undone by the faceless security personnel who, for five hundred naira bribes, allowed passage on the Abuja-Jos Road, or that notorious female police officer who, for a fee, personally escorted travellers through checkpoints in and out of Kaduna State. Or the decision of various state governments to “repatriate” hundreds of almajiri children across state lines in the midst of a pandemic that has reached community spread. Or the throng of people in Kano this weekend who jostled to touch the corpse of the late Emir of Rano, Dr Tafida Abubakar Ila ll, whose palace had to deny rumours that he had COVID-19 just before his death.


This same Kano which in 1919 recorded 52, 978 deaths during the Spanish Flu pandemic, the second highest in the country at the time, seems still primed to toe the same path.

The disaster emporium that Kano is turning out to be is a coming together of the various infringements seen in different parts of the country. The mindless defiance of social distancing, lockdown, the viral daylight video of people looting food supplies in the market and tragically, the mass deaths being recorded. All of this will, in the post-pandemic world, require a special study to understand a people whose leadership and followership seem keen to court tragedy and a manual on how not to impose a lockdown on a country.

No one ever said it was going to be easy to lockdown a country like Nigeria with failed systems, a weak economy and a corruption pandemic. It is this corruption pandemic that has undermined our lockdown in the acts of those policemen and soldiers, and the government officials who expended billions in palliatives and still failed to provide sustenance for less than one percent of the population, not to mention lifting them out of poverty.

Now we are easing the lockdown without the appropriate sensitization that the responsibility of preventing the virus spread is squarely placed in the court of average Nigerians who would swarm the streets from today in search of daily bread, without capacitating law enforcement to, in a firm and civil way, ensure compliance with social distancing. God knows our law enforcement sorely needs this sensitization. After all, these was the same law enforcement that in the early weeks of the pandemic, killed more Nigerians than the virus they were trying to keep them safe from. About 20 Nigerians have so lost their lives.

However, one of the heart-warming images of the last weeks has been that of a female police officer handing out free facemasks to people. Of course, considering the police’s reputation, it was no surprise that several people hesitated when presented with the gift.

But the action by that officer has done a lot for the image of our much-maligned police. It is also a reminder that as this lockdown eases, it is important Nigerians remember that we are responsible, now more than ever, for our personal safety and those of others around us and the people with whom we might have the briefest of interactions.

Hopefully-and this is a strong hope-the San Francisco disaster of 1918 would not reoccur a hundred years on, halfway across the world in a country like Nigeria that is in desperate need of a break.

Our inclination at this time is to pray for God’s grace. However, we must remember that irresponsible leadership coupled with irresponsible followership is a formidable force against the grace of God Nigeria is counting on to save it.

May God save us all.

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