Coronavirus: Nigeria, where attitude spreads disease

This piece has a hit-and-run texture to it, meaning I pick issues at random and discuss them. The trending coronavirus pandemic is the focus though. But I give the warning in order to notify the reader who may regard the write-up as “neither here nor there”. Such comment was made regarding one of my pieces in the past. It indicates there are readers who prefer write-ups that beat an issue to death, rather than write-ups that draw relevant illustrations from far afield and thereby enrich contents. Writers who beat an issue to death continue to write about a point even when they provide no new insights. After the first paragraph, they deploy different words to restate points already made, sometimes ending up with write-ups full of fire and fury but lacking in substance. For the reader who prefers such write-ups and who finds it difficult to follow the flurry of illustrations that I like to deploy to enrich my writing, I repeat the warning that this one won’t meet their taste.

Alright, a foreigner brought coronavirus to just as it happened during the Ebola disease crisis. The first thought was “here we go again”. It’s a natural reaction because just before the first case in was announced, lawmakers were complaining about inadequate preparation meant to stop any COVID-19 carrier from getting through at our airports. Well, one Italian did get through and many more had followed. Even weeks after the first case was recorded and shortly before our airports were closed, Nigerians returning home still talked about inadequate means of testing travellers. However, the outbreak has thrown up other issues and questions some of which I shall be pointing out here.

One is the decision-making process when there’s national emergency such as the COVID-19 outbreak. Whenever it is remarked that we have a weak health system, we all agree. But we don’t often look closely as the factors that make it weak. My observation is that our people who should be in the field to physically do the work of containment or treatment during disease outbreaks are less the problem. Rather it is the command chain responsible for giving directives as well as ensure intelligent responses involving the deployment of men and materials. One angle to this is attitudinal and it’s a major challenge in every aspect of our national life. For instance, at the time it happened we were aware that Ebola disease was in some West African countries. Yet, a carrier from the region brought it here before we witnessed serious efforts to curtail it. At the time, and like many Nigerians, I had questioned the manner those who were to take the decision to have our airports monitored didn’t provide effective preventive measures. Civil servants here often say the needed order to deploy to site isn’t given or resources aren’t released on time. Since civil servants are known for “I am directed to”, could anyone blame those at the lower levels for slow response in crisis situations? In that sense, the issue comes back to those who should take decision to mobilise and deploy. We’ve heard that during the Ebola crisis Nigerian health officials learnt useful lessons with regard to tackling infectious diseases. But have decision makers learnt valuable lessons in how to hear of outbreaks of infectious diseases in foreign countries and make timely preparation, the type which ensures field workers stand guard waiting to stop disease carriers at our borders?

Related to this is the role that our embassies play, how they give timely reports that would enable decision makers back home to enforce effective precautionary measures before diseases spread to from wherever they break out. This is important in our situation where government officials usually say they don’t respond to issues simply because it is in the media. Until an issue is officially brought to the notice of decision makers in written form and the paper moves across countless desks, nothing gets done. This angle is for detailed treatment on another day.

Equally related to what has been stated is the attitude of government at the lower tiers. Tiers of government below Abuja generally look on when threatening diseases break out. There’s this the-matter-is-far-off attitude they have and it’s a pattern. I think this isn’t unrelated to the low quality of governance that we have at these lower tiers of government over the years. It’s known that not much happens especially at these lower levels. My reading of the situation especially at the LGAs is that while officials have an attitude of not caring to provide services to people, they’re hyperactive when it comes to taking money from the people under the guise of generating revenue. Elected councillors are known to join in physical enforcement when it comes to collecting rates charged in markets and from road users in some LGAs. When one goes to the LGA headquarters to get any official document, members of staff in that section are generally available to collect TV and radio fees and the rest of it. But hardly does any LGA official who is actually paid a salary for the purpose goes out to, for instance, implement health-related laws. Rather, such workers come to the office, sit, chat, and return home. This angle has always made me wonder, and it’s to the extent that food items are displayed in unhygienic conditions in communities yet no LGA health official shows up to enforce simple rules such as covering the food items to prevent them from being infected.

It’s a common sight on roadsides and in market places. Houseflies play on meat and fish, and the common garri that most Nigerians eat is openly displayed even on roadsides where major road construction work is ongoing. Imagine the dust and other materials that get into what Nigerians consume. But there’s a law regarding these unhygienic practices which no LGA health would step out of their offices to enforce, and it doesn’t even take much to enforce. All that the LGA officials need to do is invite market officials to a meeting and state that no longer would display of food items in unhygienic situations be allowed. Such information is subsequently taken by market officials to their members. While one could pardon the LGAs in other states for lapses in ensuring hygienic practices in places where food items are displayed, it’s surprising that it happens in Lagos State. Why? Lagos State has higher quality of the LGA staff, at least going by their higher academic qualifications and training. Even elected officials in its LGAs are of much better quality. I imagine that with such quality better services such as enforcement of routine health measures would be provided in Lagos State which other states could emulate. This hasn’t happened.

This was the reason I took note of Agege LGA of Lagos State when it held a session with stakeholders few days ago over the outbreak of coronavirus. One speaker at the event mentioned the need to appropriately cover food items in buckets to make them safe for consumption. Cover food items? So the LGAs know this is important but food items are indiscriminately exposed in their communities; they don’t call attention to it until there’s coronavirus outbreak. Generally, the only time one hears LGA officials talk about these things is when there’s a crisis. It’s then they gather TV cameras and conduct themselves like soldiers going to war. The ridiculousness of the photo opportunity seized on such occasions is so apparent, and only our government officials don’t realise this is how they come across.

Broadly, there’s ever this attitudinal laidback approach to issues we should be proactive about. It calls attention to other lapses. One is that even though we recruit, we don’t recruit appropriate and qualified personnel to man posts which require specific expertise. The damage done eventually appears though when such recruits rise to decision-making cadres. Another is that we don’t get officials to do what they are recruited and paid salaries to do. Should we expect a different result if we continue on this same trajectory regarding decision-making and governance? I think these and many more issues ensure we are where we are in regard to the spread of coronavirus in the country.

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