The Federal Government is speaking the language of war as it meets different fractions of the power elite on COVID-19 in Nigeria. The language of war always implies the offensive-defensive logic, carrying with it the few merits and many demerits of that binary coupling in fighting pandemics.
No pronouncement that could be considered a game changer came out of the different meetings immediately but it would be difficult to disregard as tectonic, the admission by Boss Mustapha, Secretary to the Federal Government (SGF) and Chairman of the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19 that Nigeria’s health system is in tatters and that the pandemic “has provided the unique opportunity to x-ray the state of the national health care systems which is in dire need of reforms and funding”. He also said “the weaknesses in our health systems became more glaring given the way more established health systems in Europe and America collapsed under pressure”.
Notwithstanding this commendable public admission of what everyone knows, the chief scribe of FG is still talking of plan “to lay a legacy foundation for the immediate, medium- and long-term development of the health system” and for which he said the PTF headed by him has proposed to utilise the resources being mobilised in the following strategic manner: Direct development and delivery of critical infrastructure to states by donors; Direct procurement and delivery of PPEs and other critical equipment by donors; Deployment of Rapid Response Teams to states for capacity building and support and Expansion of the testing capacity in the country.
These comments were all in a statement at a meeting earlier today with leaders of the National Assembly from where there have been statements that is feared to have unsettled the Executive arm. Earlier on Wednesday, April 8th, 2020, the SGF met with the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria, (CBCN), led by Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama, the Archbishop of Abuja.
Archbishop Kaigama had told Mr Mustapha that, in consideration of the grave danger posed by COVID-19 pandemic the world over and Nigeria, in particular, the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria (CBCN), decided to grant the Presidential Task Force Committee full access to 435 Catholic hospitals and clinics in Nigeria, declaring that “the Catholic Church has the structures, track record, and the reach in terms of public mobilisation and the expression of solidarity with those under the burden occasioned by COVID-19”
He further presented Dr Emmanuel Okechukwu, the National Health Secretary of the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria and whom he described as a veteran public health specialist to the government, indicating his availability if needed as well as serving as the liaison person to the Catholic Health facilities in the country. Copies of a booklet cataloguing the addresses of the health facilities were submitted to the SGF.
Framing the gestures in terms of solidarity “with the people of Nigeria and the Government”, the CBCN leader brings in the symbolic aspect, the Catholic Church being a formidable constituency which goes beyond faithfuls to other religious groups and the civil society at large on the spirit of closing gaps at a time of adversity. Instructively, the Secretary to the Government of the Federation took note of the message while also urging the Church to help in disseminating the message of personal hygiene and compliance with Government directives.
The stormier meeting appears to be the one between the leaders of the National Assembly and the FG and where Mr Mustapha confessed that “given the relentless exponential growth rate witnessed in other countries, the spread of the virus in the continent and in particular in Nigeria should be expected”. According to him, many African countries are beginning to see a rapid rise in the number of cases, with 52 African countries now affected and reporting 10,659 cases of infection and 533 of deaths.
By his statistics, Nigeria has still just six deaths officially as at yesterday but with the spread reaching nearly half of the States of the Federation and Lagos, the nation’s economic heartbeat, as the epicenter, with 145 cases – more than half of the total.
The SGF argues that with countries with more advanced and sophisticated health systems than Nigeria’s struggling to deal with the cases in their own lands, there can be no illusion that this COVID-19 “is on all of us to play our part in solving this”.
Returning to the language of war, Mustapha said all hands must be on deck to successfully prosecute the war, a process he credits the leadership of the National Assembly with being able to Develop a legislative framework to prepare Nigeria for any future pandemic; Develop a legislative framework for reforming and transforming our healthcare systems; Strengthen the legislative framework for economic growth through domestic manufacturing; Deepen the legislative oversight during this pandemic and beyond; Pass legislations that will further ease the ability of the executive to cushion the impact of the economic decline and being part of community mobilization and enlightenment efforts.
Charging COVID-19 pandemic with stealing “both our health and our wealth”, he said the impact of that would not only be on the national economy but on the poor, the aged, the sick and the vulnerable, following this with a long list of committees or teams he credits President Buhari for having set up. His list stretches from a team Headed by the Minister of Finance to examine the impact on the economy; an Economic Sustainability Committee headed by the Vice President; Approval of a stimulus package of over NGN500billion; authorizing the employment of 774,000 Nigerians; authorizing the payment of Conditional Cash Transfer under the Social Safety Net Programmes.
Others are authorizing that the School feeding Programme should continue notwithstanding the closure of schools so as not to lose the nutritional essence of the programme; authorizing the release of 70MT of grains from the national Strategic Reserve for distribution in the Lagos, and Ogun States, the FCT as well as the thirteen frontline states; authorizing the Nigerian Customs Service to release over 150 trucks of rice and other commodities seized by that body for distribution to the poor and authorizing other palliatives for the states.
The distribution of the seized rice has been a subject of contention. Declared initially by Hammed Ali, the boss of Nigeria Customs as poisonous and unfit for consumption, the presidential directive has left many wondering if desperation is not coming into policy. The SGF who did not delve into this went on to list an even more dense dosage of bureaucratic speak which he subsumed under “High level political and multi-sectoral coordination mechanisms for preparedness and response to the COVID-19 pandemic”.
The list of consequent improvement, according to him, goes as follows: inter-ministerial and inter-agency coordination and collaboration across all areas of the pandemic response; Development of a National Multi-Sectorial Pandemic Response Plan; Engagement of all MDAs and extra-ministerial departments in the response; High level coordination of the United Nations Agencies and other bilateral and multilateral partners, foundations and international bodies involved in the response, resulting in : One UN Basket Fund; Accelerated procurement systems for good and services; attraction of donations from the global philanthropists including Jack Ma, corporate bodies operating in Nigeria, etc; High level engagement with the organized private sector with better coordination of their core competencies and expertise; CACOVID/CBN COVID19 Response Fund; Engagement with Nigerian Economic Summit Group; Mobilization of the States and Local Government areas resources in preparation for the possible spread of the disease into communities; State Needs Assessment and state of preparedness; Stimulating economic national interests to mitigate the negative effects of the pandemic i.e. engagement of local manufacturers across the board for the stimulation of local production of essential commodities to reduce dependence of imported commodities; Local production of face masks, hand sanitizers, protective gear etc; Critical Review of state of health systems in focal States and the FCT; Identification of available capacities for isolation and treatment of COVID-19 patients which has yielded over 1000 beds across facilities; Improved surveillance systems; Acquisition of intelligence data to guide strategic policy formulation and implementation of control measures such as may emanate from restrictions and or lockdowns of parts or all of the states.
He did not forget to make reference to what he calls the strategy adopted by the PTF working in conjunction with the states, include testing, detection, isolation, contact tracing and management. This strategy has, according to him, resulted in the following measures he said the legislators are already aware of and they are Restriction of travel to and from 15 high burden countries worldwide; Closure of the land, sea and air points of entry viz Restriction of movements in Lagos, Ogun and the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja; the introduction of Social Distancing and personal hygiene policies; increased the number of molecular laboratories from five to nine and this would rise to eleven by Friday 10th April, 2020; Expansion of the national capacity for testing from 500/pd to 1500/pd and Trained medical and health care personnel in the management of infectious diseases across the states and the services.
He equally did not forget to mention how, for transparency and accountability, the PTF will not be directly involved in the collection and disbursement of the cash donations for COVID-19 and for which the Accountant General of the Federation has already published the account details as well as the modalities for utilization. The PTF will only receive and document non-cash donations, acknowledge and deploy them.
It is not clear how the statement which tells the mind of the government is rated in global health governance circles, the civil society, the health sector, the intelligentsia, the politicians and even the civil servants. It will be interesting to see if it will escape the charge of lack of urgency and clarity. While some people will be asking what the 774,000 people to be employed would be doing, others would be keen to know if the statement coming from the helmsman differs from what most African countries are doing to hide their ineffectiveness. Lacking in sufficient test kits and capacity to track and quarantine those infected or to enforce total lockdowns such as providing food to the poor majority, for instance and lost in a nearly non-existent health care system that can be called so, it seems only the youthful nature of the Nigerian population might be the country’s saving grace. But that is Nigeria has a generally healthy youth population without underlying conditions that COVID-19 cannot molest.
Government in a deep state such as Nigeria can, however, be difficult to second guess. The Nigerian Government could still have a joker somewhere but the time might be running out.