Catch-22

To lockdown or not to lockdown? It was a tough question for President Muhammadu Buhari.  He faced a most critical choice of life and death. He had to do what no Nigerian leader had done before: order fellow Nigerians in Lagos, Ogun and Abuja to stay indoors for two weeks in the first instance. Think of the boisterous Nigerians in family cages.

Anyone faced with the stark choice between life and death needs no one to advise him to choose life. Nor does a leader who has to make a similar choice to save the lives of his people have the luxury of hesitation. So, the president chose the lockdown option to try and save the precious lives of fellow Nigerians from the ravaging pandemic, COVID-19. He imposed the lockdown order on March 30 that eventually lasted for four weeks. The lockdown is the established global practice of containing the spread of the coronavirus, the strange killer disease no country has had the experience of containing or treating. COVID-19 has since imposed on the world its own rules of social relationship – no hugging or embracing, or hand shaking and no crowds. Everyone must maintain a safe distance from others, including families. Holy Moses!

The problem is that critical decisions taken by governments for the right reasons often bring with them the operation of an obscure law known as the law of unintended consequences. It brings out what was not intended in the decision-making process: pain, discomfort and tensions among the people. In this case, Nigerians, ever restless and always on the move, soon felt caged in their own homes. This then led to grumblings accompanied by criticisms aimed at making the lockdown decision look punitive. A leader in a democracy would naturally tremble at the possible high political consequences of such reactions from the people and would be forced to do what would please the people some of the time. He finds himself in a catch-22 situation.

It reminds me of the fate of President Ibrahim Babangida’s structural adjustment programme SAP. It was the first major national attempt by the managers of our national economy at restructuring and diversifying its base to gradually free the country from its near total dependence on crude oil and force its industries to look inwards for their raw materials. No one I knew then disagreed with this basic philosophy of the programme until the law of unintended consequences kicked in and the people began to feel the pains of the necessary personal adjustments they were forced to make to make SAP a success. SAP, the acronym of the policy, became its protest slogan.

Sometime in 1989, the people gave full effect to their disenchantment with the programme on account of they had lost the patience to flow with the slogan: no pain, no gain. The SAP riots in Lagos and some other major towns and cities told the government it would be a mistake for it to take the people’s patience with SAP for granted much longer. Chief Obasanjo weighed in on the side of the people when he advised the government to let SAP have a human face and the milk of human kindness.

The government panicked. It rolled back the policy and the gains it might have made rather than risk the anger of the people. It terminated SAP. Catch-22? Yes. With the end of SAP, we went back to the life we were used to as a people – wallowing in our faux luxury of an oil rich nation.

No one has advocated giving the lockdown a human face or for it to produce the milk of human kindness but after four weeks of the lockdown, we all knew the law of unintended consequences had set in. The pain had begun to bite. Staying at home had translated itself into the height of boredom and frustration. And the grumblings had begun.

Should the president continue with the lockdown or end it? He could not have been deaf or indifferent to the loud grumblings by the people, some of whom, clearly behave as if they either have a death wish or are indifferent to the reality of the killer virus. He decided to let us out from Monday, May 4, if only to let the people see that the lockdown was not a punitive measure but a necessity forced on him for their sake. If he had decided otherwise, the people’s pent up frustrations might have burst like an NNPC pipeline and spilled the ire of the people. His capacity to contain such a burst of anger would have been sorely tested.

Every government seeks to please the people some of the time. The Buhari administration could not be an exception to that rule. The problem is that like other world leaders facing the same coronavirus challenge, Buhari is in a catch-22 situation too. There are two pointers to this. One, he acted in the face of the continuing spread of the virus in the country. More states have reported new COVID-19 patients. There is just no let-up in Lagos. The state was briefly displaced by Kano as the new epicentre but it has since regained its unenviable number one position. This is a source of no small worry for the government and the people.

Two, the experts on health care fear that letting us out of our homes now would likely increase the spread of the virus. It takes us back to the square we have been struggling to escape from since the lockdown order took effect from March 30. Giving us back our freedom to engage in business and earn a living does not signal the defeat of the virus. Nigerians have responded to the easing of the restrictions like prisoners suddenly freed from prison.

It is no consolation that they have behaved a little better than Californians and New Yorkers who demonstrated against the restrictions. You would expect an enlightened society like the US to be an example to other struggling nations in the global war against the virus. I am afraid God’s own country has failed the basic test of global leadership in connection with its response to the coronavirus. Perhaps, the dilemma is that we are all wary about the possible loss of our freedom even when our safety and our lives are the primary considerations by governments in enacting and enforcing safety regulations.

The director-general of NCDC, Dr Chikwe Ihekweazu, the man whose lot it is to give us the bad news daily, was quoted by the Sunday Punch of  May 3 as saying: “We are faced with a difficult reality and we are not unique in this. Every country, right now, is looking at the same challenge and how to get us back to some level of normalcy. But the reality is that we are going to live with COVID-19 for the next year, at the very least.”

That is as bad news as it comes. I predicted in my column of April 24, A long COVID-19 war, that we are in for a prolonged war against the killer virus. No one can predict when it will end or how it will end. But everyone can see that whenever and however it ends, the post-COVID-19 world would be a different world. The problem is how to get through this to that post-COVID-19 world. As I see it, government may be forced sooner than later to lock the gates against us again to force us take the saving of our lives much more seriously.

My heart goes out to the world leaders, the COVID-19 warriors. May they conquer and return like triumphant Roman generals.

Dan Agbese

Email: [email protected]

SMS: 08055001912

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