Covid-19: Counsel to Buhari et al


So, May 29 went with a whimper, and whom do we thank if not Covid-19, at least it helped spare us moderately of the lies of Mazi, Ogbeni, and Aboki. Nigeria’s ramshackled approach has led to poor results all around—frozen economy, depression-level rates of unemployment.

 When the Covid-19 pandemic erupted, some countries were reasonably well prepared to meet the challenge, but Nigeria was not. We lacked everything required of a normal nation, all of our capacity to produce drugs and protective equipment was nowhere, everywhere and in China, from zobo, to flip-flops we depended on everyone but ourselves. Madagascar was even selling agbo to us. We had no clear division of responsibilities between the federal government and the states, or between the public and private sectors.

Many of our public institutions were unprepared as well. Years of underfunding and personnel cutbacks had weakened our public health infrastructure at every level of government. Agencies, which bore the brunt of the initial response to Covid-19, were forced to function with antiquated information technology, lack of personnel and that dude called the Nigerian factor.

When a commission (as it is with everything Nigerian) is convened, to examine the handling of this crisis and to draw lessons for the future, there will be ample time to determine why we were so unready for it. Right now, however, affixing blame for past mistakes is a counterproductive diversion from the essential task our leaders confront—to chart and implement a viable path to recovery.

The Covid-19 pandemic is what planning experts call a “wicked problem”—one that is difficult to solve because of radically incomplete information, rapidly changing requirements and multiple, sometimes contradictory objectives coupled with interdependent social complexities.

Since the pandemic erupted, not surprisingly, our Mazis and Abokis have struggled to strike a sustainable balance between public health and economic production, scientific facts and social psychology, the need for clarity and the shortage of reliable metrics. This is so because we had no template, 21 years of democracy and 60 years of dependent independence we possess no system, no structure.

Recent public opinion surveys show that Nigerians are grappling with conflicting imperatives. Many don’t believe in the Covid-19 pandemic, others say it is the disease of the rich, others believe it is a total scam, at least the Nigerian variant. No one wants to contract Covid-19, but many want to get back to work and resume a more normal existence. Still, most people understand that the new normal will be different, and our wicked leaders pretend otherwise.

Leadership requires leveling with the people about the uncertainties and trade-offs we face. Although recent scientific advances are encouraging, we do not know when we will have truly effective treatments for Covid-19, let alone a vaccine against it. In an ideal Nigeria, we could delay reopening our economy and society but we do not have the luxury of time and in our case our economy has not be closed neither was it open.

Our current fiscal policies are transfusing blood into a bleeding patient, a process that cannot continue indefinitely. And there are signs that for states’ with any form of lockdown, patience for sheltering in place is wearing thin. The need for effective leadership at every level has never been greater, and the margin for error has rarely been lower. But our wicked leaders cannot see this!

In this context, leaders have an obligation to tell the public the truth; leaders are expected to deliver clear, consistent, and credible communication. Optimistic talk that contradicts people’s daily experience only raises the level of cynicism and distrust. So do premature announcements of progress—medical or economic.

It is far better to under-promise and over-perform than the reverse. Assuming office during the darkest days of World War II, Winston Churchill promised his people only “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” while conveying his unswerving confidence in eventual victory—the perfect combination for effective leadership in a democracy.

Consistency is a precondition for public trust. In an unprecedented crisis, divergent views about the way forward are inevitable and productive—within limits. But these disagreements must be resolved before public communication begins. To turn public fear into sober resolve, leadership must speak with a single voice.

Good leaders take responsibility for what happens on their watch, good or bad. They do not try to claim all credit for what goes right while blaming subordinates for failures. At the same time, they set up clear lines of authority for specific aspects of the problem and empower others to act creatively.

This task is challenging, even in highly centralized and hierarchical organizations. It is especially difficult in our complex feeding bottle fiscal federal system, where the states enjoy next to no sovereign powers. Ongoing coordination coupled with a sensible division of labor is the only route to success. For example, while the states are best positioned to implement a mass testing regime, we cannot expect to achieve the level of testing we will need unless the federal government accepts responsibility for ensuring supply chains and allocating resources to where they are most needed.

There is no playbook for what comes next, but there are some guidelines. Because no one knows what will happen as restrictions are eased, public officials would be well advised to move cautiously, monitoring results at each step. Mistakes are inevitable. The people will accept imperfection— but only if leaders are willing to acknowledge error and change course.

Nigeria is large and diverse, and some areas will be able to move faster than others. Demography makes a big difference as well. It would be sensible to allow the least vulnerable groups to move toward their normal activities—school and work—while encouraging the most vulnerable to protect themselves, at least until we find effective treatments or a vaccine. At the same time, we will need to institute measures that prevent the less vulnerable from infecting the more vulnerable—not an easy task.

Finally, some sectors of our economy and society will be able to reopen faster than others. Construction and manufacturing will likely come back earlier than most services. Restaurants will be among the slowest to do so, as will food-processing factories where workers are jammed together on assembly lines. Workers will need protection against employers who place profits and efficiency above health and safety; employers who do everything right will need protection against litigation.

Removing restrictions will not be a magic option that restores us to health. The early evidence from polls and surveys of public behavior suggest that “field of dreams” economics will yield mixed results. Even when we reopen shops and restaurants, many customers will not return fast enough to produce the much-discussed “V-shaped” recovery. The less vulnerable will move first while the risk-averse hang back. Confidence is easier to destroy than to restore.

Our circumstances today are more challenging than those the PDP faced. The threat from the novel coronavirus is real, and while the terror may be exaggerated, it is far from unreasoning or unjustified. To restore public confidence, today’s leaders will have to balance economics with epidemiology, facts with social psychology, and individual liberty with the common good. History will judge them kindly if they rise to this occasion. If they do not, Nigeria will suffer a blow from which it will be difficult to recover. Only time will tell.

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