The President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), was unequivocal in his April 27 nationwide address announcing the end of the five-week cumulative lockdown in the Federal Capital Territory, Lagos and Ogun states.
Coming about two months after the index coronavirus case was recorded in the country, Buhari’s order signified a critical moment in the national response to the pandemic.
Reopening the economy was a matter of life and death for Nigeria and its hard-hit working class, despite the risk of a surge in infections across the country.
Approving a phased and gradual easing of lockdown measures in Lagos, Ogun and the FCT, commencing on May 4, while ordering new measures nationwide.
Buhari said, “There will be an overnight curfew from 8pm to 6am. This means that all movements will be prohibited during this period except for essential services. There will be a ban on non-essential inter-state passenger travel until further notice.
Partial and controlled interstate movement of goods and services will be allowed for the movement of goods and services from producers to consumers. We shall strictly ensure the mandatory use of face masks or coverings in public, in addition to maintaining physical distancing and personal hygiene.
Furthermore, the restrictions on social and religious gatherings shall remain in place. State governments, corporate organisations and philanthropists are encouraged to support the production of cloth masks for citizens.”
In spite of the President’s directives, which followed several weeks of counselling by the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19, viral videos from different parts of the country seemed to confirm the worst fears of the Federal Government.
From the onset, thousands of Nigerians threw caution to the wind. Customers swarmed commercial banks in droves, ignoring guidelines on physical distancing; bus stations were crowded and smugglers hid people in trucks loaded with livestock while travelling interstate.
On May 2, only five days after Buhari’s announcement, hikers in Abuja trooped out in their hundreds.
A 23-second video by @Instablog9ja on Twitter, which showed countless fitness enthusiasts spread out across the vast landscape of hilltops, was captioned, “This happened this morning (May 2) at Arab Road, Kubwa, Abuja. SS people gathered to hike, despite the lockdown enforced by the Federal Government.”
Two days later, many violations were recorded just as the newly introduced lockdown measures were about to take effect. Members of the PTF were indignant and they criticised the widespread disregard for its protocols.
The Director General of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, Dr Chikwe Ihekweazu, who reviewed compliance with the guidelines across the country, concluded that it was not satisfactory.
The NCDC Guideline on Social Distancing stipulates “strict adherence to physical greetings (avoiding hand-shaking or hugs, (and) maintaining at least two metres (six feet) physical distance between yourself and individuals.”
Although the NCDC Advisory on the Use of Masks by Members of the Public without Respiratory Symptoms had hitherto prescribed optional use of face masks for the general public alongside regular hand-washing, the PTF, on April 29, announced that the use of face masks in public had become mandatory.
Nevertheless, several images and videos widely circulated on social media showed thousands of customers queuing up at the branches of various commercial banks across.
A video posted on Twitter by @Iamkeshk, for example, shows a branch of the Guaranty Trust Bank in Garki, Abuja, crammed full of customers, with part of the crowd spilling into the parking lot and beyond. Although many of the customers can be seen wearing face masks, they are standing barely a few centimetres apart.
In another video posted by @Tife_fabunmi, a group of customers try to force the gate of an unidentified bank open. From the inside, about five security personnel push back with all the strength they can muster. One of the guards is armed with an AK47 rifle.
For a brief moment, early in the 10-second clip, the security officer seems to use his firearm as a barrier before letting one middle-aged man through the slightly open gateway. As the pot-bellied, mask-wearing customer struggles through the narrow space, he staggers onto the bank premises with a victorious twinkle in his eye.
One Richie Emeke also posted a picture showing scores of customers standing in clusters at the main entrances to two commercial banks in Plateau State, with only a handful of them wearing face masks.
A 17-second video, which was shared by Mary Lateef-Yusuf, shows some customers crammed into another unidentified bank with light-blue gates and window frames. The customers, many of who did not wear face masks, pushed and shoved with reckless abandon.
A photo of a branch of Ecobank, which was shared online by @beautifulng, also captures a large group of weary-looking customers huddled together outside its gate.
Ihekweazu, however, lamented that many commercial banks had reduced the number of branches that opened for business.
The NCDC boss said, “When we say take responsibility, we are addressing individuals; but we really need to address corporate Nigeria.
There is the benefit of the doubt, but when you limit the number of branches opened for business, everyone goes to that particular branch and that becomes counterproductive.”
He stated that organisations must support the implementation of the preventive measures, help manage the risk and focus on a risk-based approach.
Commercial transportation was not left out in the disregard for physical distancing.
The Lagos State Government had issued new transport operational guidelines, which included observance of physical distancing in vehicles, compulsory use of face masks and others to prevent the spread of the virus.
However, a photo tweeted by @RedTatshe shows a crowded scene at a Bus Rapid Transit station in Ikorodu, Lagos.
It could easily be mistaken as a pre-pandemic scene, but for the presence of passengers donning face masks. In the photo, commuters can be seen standing shoulder-to-shoulder as far as the eye can see.
Similarly, @Gbems_ posted a 13-second video showing a fully seated BRT bus, which also accommodated standing commuters.
The tweet, which had been viewed 20,200 times as of Monday evening, said, “(Governor) Jide Sanwo-Olu, I just boarded this blue BRT at Agric, Ikorodu and they refused to follow the rules and regulations because I didn’t allow anyone to sit beside me, as you can see in the video. Instead of them to stop selling tickets, they are overloading.
The governor and NCDC are doing all they can to ensure that we contain the spread of this COVID-19, but we the citizens won’t keep to our end of the bargain. LSR251XS, that’s the bus’ number plate.”
Reports, which claim that some Nigerians have been patronising street hawkers selling face masks and trying the products on before purchasing, are just as disturbing.
A shocking 30-second video posted by @Tweetgad1 shows a young woman, in what appears to be a roadside market, selecting at least three face masks and trying them on.
With each selection, she casually drops the previous one back on the other unsold items with a wry smile.
Also, a self-professed digital financial service expert, Tunde Kelani, tweeted, “I beg you in the name of God. Don’t buy a face mask from roadside sellers. I saw my driver testing a face mask from a roadside seller at Apo (Abuja). We still have a long way to go.”
There have been reports about taxi drivers lending face masks to passengers. Edward Agbasimelo took to Facebook to share the photo of a commercial driver, who himself did not bother to cover his nose or mouth, but had an assortment of face masks hanging conspicuously from his rear-view mirror.
Agbasimelo said, “This taxi driver gives you a face mask as you enter his taxi, collects it back as you alight from his taxi and still gives it to another passenger. (It’s a) sure way to spread more virus.”
An image tweeted by @The_Seeker76 on May 1 shows about 14 northerners in the back of a truck loaded with rams. The post read, “I don’t understand why my Kano Arewa brothers are doing anything possible to beat the interstate lockdown, even travelling with animals being transported to markets? What if the virus crosses to the animals like it did by infecting a zoo tiger abroad?”
According to the NCDC boss, failure on the part of many Nigerians to observe the guidelines to curb the spread of COVID-19 may trigger more infections.
While assessing observance on May 4, Ihekweazu warned that continued violations would lead to another lockdown.
He said, “Today, some of the measures are being eased. Initial reports are not too pleasing across the country. Now that we have seen the sunlight again, the challenge for us as a society is how to organise ourselves to mitigate these risks and limit transmissions from each other.
Today, we might forgive a little bit because it was the first day. We will have infections because of what happened today, no doubt about that.
Everybody here (on the PTF) knew today would be a problem because, for the first time, people were let out of their homes.
Although we might have a few extra infections, what we don’t want is an explosion of new infections. If we do have that explosion, there will be almost no choice left for the leadership of the country but to ask all of us to go back to our homes.”