Martins Hile, Editor, Financial Nigeria magazine

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The Covid-19 reality in Nigeria needs to change 08 Jul 2020

The Director-General of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), Chikwe Ihekweazu, said at a briefing last month that there is no state in Nigeria that is COVID-19-free, notwithstanding the agency’s standoff with the governors of Kogi and Cross River states who continue to dispute the existence of the virus within their boundaries, while denying access to NCDC's officials to conduct tests.
Regardless of the shenanigans of sceptics like Governors Yahaya Bello and Ben Ayade as well as many others who deny the virus' existence in the country, President Muhammadu Buhari administration is unable to enforce some of the containment measures it put in place. For instance, reports abound of people who have travelled across states, including via public transport, despite an existing travel restriction. All they need do is have enough money to bribe security officials who are supposed to enforce the restriction and they are given passage.

After five weeks of strict lockdown in Lagos State and Abuja – the early infection hotspots – as well as Ogun State, the federal government allowed a gradual reopening in these states and the FCT even though cases were still on the rise. What has happened thereafter as regards the case counts was always predictable. Between May 4 when the partial reopening began and June ending, a snapshot of the virus situation, based on NCDC's data, shows the total number of cases increased around 8-fold from 2,802 to 25,694.

At the time of the reopening, only Lagos had crossed the 1,000-case mark. In less than 60 days, Edo, Rivers and Oyo – which had less than 100 cases as of May 4 – recorded more than 1,000 cases, while Lagos crossed 10,000 case count. In terms of the rate of increase, Rivers had the highest at 7,442.9 per cent (about 75-fold the figure on May 4). At 38, the state also had the fourth highest number of Covid-19 deaths last month, after Lagos (128), Kano (52) and Edo (39).  

According to National Coordinator of the Presidential Task Force on Covid-19, Sani Aliyu, the number of coronavirus cases in Nigeria is far more than what has been reported. This is certainly the case because the official figures provided by the NCDC are based on limited testing and inability to determine the causes of some deaths that could be attributed to Covid-19.

But more worrisome is that Aliyu’s statement is a tacit admission of the government's failure to significantly ramp-up its testing capacity. South Africa, with less than a third of Nigeria's population, had conducted nearly 1.7 million tests as of the end of June, compared to Nigeria's 134,257 tests. Nigeria does not only lack the ability to understand the spread of the pandemic in the country, there is also a deplorable incapacity to execute effective measures to control the spread of the virus.

The PTF's National Coordinator lamented the public's noncompliance with face mask and physical distancing protocols. Going by the admissions of Aliyu and Ihekweazu, Covid-19 is spreading unmitigated in the country. As health officials, they may be doing their best in communicating with the public based on data available to them. But what is also troubling is Buhari’s refusal to wear a face mask when he’s meeting with people in public. Without wearing a mask, the president is not only putting himself and others around him at risk; he also cannot encourage others to follow the safety protocol.         
As more people are being infected by Covid-19, the disease's impact is ripping through an already fragile socio-economic fabric. The Nigerian economy will experience it's second recession in four years in 2020, with this year's negative output gap expected to be much bigger that it was in 2016. The International Monetary Fund puts the rate of Nigeria’s economic contraction this year at 5.4 per cent, the worst performance the country has seen since Buhari overthrew a democratically-elected government in 1983 in a military coup.
Nigerians are now at the centre of a perfect storm. A new World Bank report shows that over 40 per cent of people employed in non-farm enterprises in the country reported a loss of income in April-May 2020. According to the bank, the pandemic would disproportionately affect the poorest and most vulnerable. Indeed, seven million more Nigerians would slip into poverty in 2020 due to the pandemic and population growth, according to World Bank’s forecast.

Either due to inaction or incompetence, this administration is responsible for impoverishing millions of Nigerians. The far-reaching implication of this massive poverty is destruction of human capital and the depredation of economic output in Nigeria. Without investment in expanding the skills, education and health outcomes of the people, they cannot contribute to delivering higher economic growth that is necessary to generate opportunities.

Many people who are not denying Covid-19 are faced with a challenge that psychologists refer to as cognitive dissonance. The disharmony between these people’s belief and behaviour – their willingness to go out with little or no protective gear to eke their daily living – is very much a matter of survival. Some others are now fatigued in their observation of lockdowns that have crippled social life for months and is causing incomes to decline. Many don’t know how to deal with the uncertainty of what might become of their livelihoods. Then, there are those who just can't wait for things to return to normal, thereby increasing their risk-taking.

Nigeria is at a critical juncture that requires the government to strengthen its Covid-19 responses. The pandemic response needs to be much more robust than it currently is at different levels. But a token gesture like wearing a mask by the president can go a long way in changing people's attitudes towards the disease and blunting the spread of the virus. But more fundamentally, Covid-19 presents a unique opportunity to stir the moral imagination of policymakers, businesses and social sector actors to support the vulnerable and reduce the long-term effects of the pandemic.