Coronavirus: Maintain social distance, please

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The global community has reached a critical stage in the fight against COVID-19. In the absence of a cure or vaccine, the best weapon still remains prevention. Social distancing to stop the disease from spreading holds the key until research comes up with effective protection. But the Nigerian government has largely remained vague about optimal safety; at so important a time, we need firm rules and guidelines as so many state governments and public health agencies have been doing.

Several authorities were swift to close schools and recreation areas and set an example by having civil servants work from home. Rules have been put in place for home isolation and quarantining. Most recently, private clubs have been advised to close and bars and restaurants have been banned. But there have been none of the tough conditions imposed by many other governments. For good reason, the coronavirus pandemic is socially distancing us, but public officials must be careful that it doesn’t disenfranchise us, too.

Despite all the confusion, it is still relevant to appeal to people that in managing this pandemic, this is not a time to blame government or agencies or even neighbours. It is more important to adhere to certain rules for personal safety. First, reduce social contact to protect others and ourselves and stay at home as far as possible. Stay away from crowded places. Work from home if feasible. Avoid social gatherings. When meeting other people, don’t shake hands. Avoid meal gatherings. These are the most important rules to be safe at this time.

This rule forcing bars and entertainment venues, including cinemas, to close and limiting the number of people gathering socially to 10 or less is in global context. Germany does not allow groups of more than two in public except for family members. Elsewhere, measures range from bans on mass gatherings to forced shutdowns of non-essential shops to one-metre distancing in supermarkets to strict home isolation for all citizens. With the daily number of new infections Nigeria having of late dramatically increased, authorities dealing with national orientation and public information should step up actions on maintaining social distance.

The authorities need to urge more. They need to warn more because evidently for a lot of people, especially in the rural areas, the message still haven’t got through.

There are already credible voices in the medical community asking for the government to enforce much more draconian measures. And if we don’t double down and commit to staying home unless absolutely necessary, we may find ourselves without the choice.
It means saying no to that beer run or trip to the corner store for a therapeutic dose of chocolate. If it doesn’t feel like sacrifice, it’s not helping.

Thankfully, practising social distancing doesn’t mean being anti-social. We are heartened to learn at this time of an effort to encourage everyone to step out onto their balconies at 7:00 p.m. nightly and give a round of applause for the workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis. Whether they are running ventilators or stocking shelves, we want them to know how much we appreciate them.

No gesture of thanks is ever wasted. But if we really want to help them, we will lighten their load by doing everything in our power to keep ourselves out of the path of the virus. That means home sweet home, and plenty of it.

This newspaper has to encourage people at this time because for us in Nigeria, this past week has been the worst yet with respect to the global COVID-19 pandemic. It has been frightening that the number of infected persons has been slowly rising daily with disclosures that VIPs have been infected by the virus, and with the country steadily going into shutdown. We recorded our first COVID-19 death the other day in the former Managing Director of the Petroleum Products Marketing Company (PPMC), Sulaiman Achimugu.

All schools in Nigeria have been closed down. National Assembly has suspended sittings. Federal Executive Council (FEC) no longer meets. Civil servants in many states except those on essential services have been told to stay at home. Mosques and churches are closed to congregational prayers and services in some cases of not more than 20 members. International flights into Nigeria are suspended. Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) hurriedly concluded its matriculation examinations. West African Examinations Council (WAEC) suspended its school certificate exams. National Sports Festival was suspended. Markets in many cities have been closed. Many factories and private sector offices including some banks too are closed, though some are partially shut. Many people have also gone into seclusion either because they recently travelled abroad or because they mingled with infected persons.

As at yesterday, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) confirmed 65 cases of COVID-19 in Nigeria. Compared to the disastrous statistics in many countries, this figure is relatively low but it is rapidly rising.

Doubtless, given the state of our health services, even one confirmed case of COVID-19 in this country is very bad. This is especially true given the highly contagious nature of the novel coronavirus. It may not be the deadliest of infections but the rate at which it spreads through human populations like wildfire is such as mankind has not witnessed probably since the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 and before that, the bubonic plagues of the 17ttcentury.

NCDC has been quite active from day one when this disease first broke out in China. All thanks to its efforts and those of the Federal Ministry of Health and the media. Even though NCDC has been up and doing from the outset, the same cannot be said of the federal government and the state governments. Instead of taking a cue when countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia were taking stern measures to combat the pandemic from their soil, we smugly continued to do things as usual until the arrival of the infected Italian traveler into Lagos hit us hard. It was noticeable, for example, that Saudi Arabia took stern measures, including stopping the lesser pilgrimage and closing the two Holy Mosques before it had any COVID-19 case on its soil. Now that we have recovered from our initial slumber and our authorities at all levels are adopting even panicky measures to halt COVID-19, we urge them to take even more stern measures. Only yesterday, the Nigeria Academy of Science (NAS) called for a national lockdown “now that the disease has invaded the highest level of our government and is threatening our national security.” The Academy said in a statement by its President, Kalu Mosto Onuoha, that a four-week national lockdown, with uniform regulations and led by the federal government, “will help to reduce the number of new importations and provide the environment and condition for clear thinking and planning. Despite all these suggestions and given our level of development, the best armour against this fate is social distance. So our people, stay at home, wash your hands and stay safe. We do not need any agencies of government to urge us to follow this simple instruction anymore.

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