By Chido Nwakanma
Eight months later, the arteries of the economy are pumping once again. Airports have reopened, bringing in 5,000 to 7,000 passengers daily. Schools have resumed, as have formal and informal markets. Machines are humming again in hitherto shut factories.
The full reopening of the economy after months of a lockdown that required careful management and phasing to reopen has brought relief. Nigerians are eager to get on with their lives. For the managers of the system, it was a delicate balancing act between health and economics. At times, it was akin to the famed chicken and egg scenario.
Caution governed the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 in the management of the closing and opening of the Nigerian economy in the wake of the global pandemic. It has involved monitoring of local incident statistics and case numbers, international comparison, and trend analysis. It has been sequential and systematic and, importantly, data driven.
Many factors inform this extra caution. COVID-19 came into our shores through a visiting Italian businessman. It came against the backdrop of well-founded fears that Nigeria and other African countries could not cope with any widespread infection. Experts are currently trying to unravel how and why Africa escaped the feared doom.
Across the country, citizens now move freely to do their businesses. It was not so beginning 29 March 2020 when the PTF led the health authorities to announce the first lockdown. It lasted 14 days during which the country banned interstate movements and imposed a curfew on Lagos and Ogun States as well as the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). The Federal Government ordered the full closure of all land borders and banned all large gatherings.
The ban on large gatherings affected many sectors of the economy from entertainment to religion and others in-between. Schools shut down with the more technically proficient turning to online lessons. Cinemas, restaurants, event centres and stadia all shut down. The clampdown affected Lagos and Abuja the most for the simple reason that they had the most significant number of infections. Lagos has remained an epicentre of the incidence and spread of COVID19.
PTF then followed with two other shutdowns of less severity. At each stage, it eased the measures for each shutdown in line with what the figures and trends stated. For instance, while Europe and America are currently in the throes of a second round of the COVID-19, Nigeria’s incident numbers have remained low. Health authorities in Nigeria worry about returnees for the Christmas period importing new cases into the country and the disregard of counsel on best practices to prevent infection by citizens in many cities across the country.
Opening of the economy followed even more caution and recommendations in the thematic areas the PTF established as a guide. These are movement, industry, labour, and community activities. Schools reopened, followed by the NYSC Orientation Camps. It was a significant test of its caution on mass gatherings. As such, it followed the template of care and caution. Officials went round the states to certify the camps COVID-19 compliant. They then established COVID-19 testing facilities in each of the centres as well as the management of possible cases. It then lifted restrictions on outdoor sporting activities, including football, in consultation with the Ministry of Sports and Youth Development.
In recent times, PTF has increased the volume of its messaging on prevention practices. They include mandatory wearing of face masks in public settings, hand washing and sanitising routines, observing social distances of at least two metres between persons and limitations to the size of gatherings. No more than 20 people can stay together. The PTF has since relaxed the restrictions on worship places. Worship places were a particular concern because of sensitivities around religion, but the intervention agency walked the tightrope skilfully.
Which comes first? The right to earn a living or the opportunity to stay alive in the first place?. Many a citizen fretted about the denial of the right to work, worship and gather during the restrictions. Even in those periods, PTF allowed a window for the operations of banks, graduated opening of markets and shopping centres while exempting agricultural produce, petroleum products, manufactured goods, and essential services from the restrictions on movements. Logistics plays a central role in the chain of goods and services in the country.
With the international gateways now re-opened in select airports, Nigeria’s mandatory dual tests for incoming travellers is one of the strictest in the world. Courtesy of the PTF, the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and the Federal Ministry of Health, persons arriving Nigeria via the airport gateways must do a COVID-19 CPR test five days before boarding their flight. They then do a confirmation test in Nigeria on Day 7 after arrival. The test represents one of the mitigation measures Nigeria has implemented to checkmate the spread (and importation) of COVID-19. Additionally, a recent travel advisory by NCDC has urged international travelers to suspend holiday plans to Nigeria unless deemed essential.
Even so, records on 2 December 2020 showed Nigeria had 67, 960 cases of COVID-19. Deaths stood at 1,177 persons. Hospitals had discharged 63,839 COVID survivors. By that date, Nigeria had done 779,708 tests.
The PTF has gradually unsealed the taps to allow the full blossoming of the economy. National Coordinator Dr Aliyu and the Chairman and Secretary to the Government of the Federation Mr Boss Mustapha continue to tread with caution even as they open up more and more of the economy.