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COVID-19: Nigeria can't afford another serious lockdown — Atedo Peterside

Interview Published in Vanguard Newspaper, 08 February, 2021.


Founder and Chairman of Anap Foundation COVID-19 Think Tank, and founder of Stanbic IBTC Bank Plc, Mr. Atedo Peterside, is not happy with the way a large chunk of the elite is undermining the war against COVID-19 and warns that Nigeria could self-destruct if the trajectory was not changed.

In this interview, he warns that another severe lockdown will hurt the country grievously and marshals reasons public office holders hurting the war must be named and shamed.

How do you see governments’ response and measures put in place to contain the COVID-19 pandemic in Nigeria?

There are three important Pillars in the COVID-19 fight globally: Healthcare; Governance; and Communications. Nigeria is weak in all three. Our governance and communications challenges are of greater vulnerability than our healthcare challenges.

Various arms of government such as the NCDC, some in the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19 and some Health Ministry officials have done well; same with our frontline health workers and a few private sector business leaders. But then, who would have imagined that, in early 2021, we would still have a juvenile governor spewing lies about the absence of the Coronavirus in his state and neither the Federal Government, PTF, nor his colleagues in the Governor’s Forum will call him to order? That singular failing sums up our governance and communications’ failings.

In the best of times, we communicate badly because our leaders want to emphasise “do as I say instead of do as I do.” We do not lead by example. Leaders make rules, believing those same rules must not apply to them. Meanwhile, the populace are quick to spot hypocrisy. Sycophants and praise-singers then complicate things further by hailing even an idiotic governor.

The same failure to lead by example manifests itself as a governance challenge. This is further exacerbated by our inability to set and agree upon priorities in a transparent manner. Procurement challenges then take centre-stage also because fighting COVID-19 entailed joining a global procurement race which cannot be won by a system that thrives on holding up procurement until some money is paid under the table by a “favoured” supplier.

In spite of the measures taken to curtail the first wave, Nigeria is recording more cases and deaths in the second wave of the pandemic. What do you think is responsible for this?

 I suspect one of the problems is caused by the fact that we stopped following the same safety protocols that helped us to curtail the first wave. Many Nigerians adopted the safety protocols in March, April and May 2020 partly because of their fear for the unknown. Now, the fear factor is gone. Many feel that they have not seen enough deaths to “justify” further efforts to keep down the infection rate. That is a dangerous mindset because it can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The ANAP Foundation COVID-19 Think Tank, of which you are chairman, is leading a crusade to “Name and Shame” leaders whose comments are detrimental to the COVID-19 pandemic battle for which Vanguard and many other media organizations have signed up. What informed this crusade?

My answers to your first two questions also help to explain what informed the launching of the “Name and Shame” initiative by the ANAP Foundation COVID-19 Think Tank and some very responsible media houses. If the elite were all behaving responsibly there would be no need for this kind of initiative. Some in the media were also culpable because they were pouring fuel unto the fire by glorifying and celebrating rich people and leaders who were violating COVID-19 safety protocols.

It would suffice to say that my colleagues and I were phenomenally impressed with the speed with which the owners of several quality media houses signed up to this initiative. Even where they don’t name and shame the initiative requires them to ignore and/or boycott. The decision to name and shame has to be a personal one and should be taken “case by case”. Our leaders must learn to live by example and the media holding their “feet to the fire” will help achieve that.

Within 24 hours, the following 12 media houses, Vanguard, Arise TV, Businessday, Channels TV, Classic FM, Daily Trust, Guardian, Punch, Premium Times, TheCable, The Nation, and This Day, had signed up to this Name and Shame Initiative.  Some call it a Hall of Shame Initiative: We thank these media houses and would like all other responsible media houses to speedily join this initiative. It is about saving lives; largely Nigerian lives.

Do you think the crusade will help in the battle against COVID-19?

It most certainly should. Our “Achilles heel” in this Coronavirus fight is our irresponsible elite. They will not stop their silly large indoor social gatherings unless the media stop glorifying such foolishness. This campaign or crusade is about getting the media to stop celebrating a rich and/or irresponsible fool and to instead call him out for what he is.

There are calls in some quarters for another lockdown in Lagos and a few states where new cases are rising. What is your take on this?

Nigeria cannot afford another severe lockdown. By itself a severe lockdown here will kill more people (through overzealous enforcement by trigger-happy Police and other security forces and hunger) than the Coronavirus will ever kill.   German Police can enforce a lockdown without killing Germans. The Nigerian Policy and/or the Nigerian Army are often trigger-happy and their leaders continue to “teach” them not to value the lives of poor Nigerians.

What is your take on the Government’s approach and actions on COVID-19 vaccines? 

I do not have the details but I know that there is a global race on vaccines and Nigeria will be among the laggards. However, demography is in our favour; I believe only five per cent of our population is aged above 65 years. If I were in government, I would prioritise vaccinating frontline health workers and those who are 65 years and above first and then those with proven vulnerabilities on account of underlying conditions. Sadly, we may not be able to achieve even this modest goal before the end of 2021 unless we get serious. I foresee an irresponsible governor or two struggling to vaccinate their teenage children before the elderly.

How best do you think Nigeria should wage the war against COVID-19?

We are a poor nation and so we do not have huge resources at our disposal. COVID-19 is not a money fight. If it was, the USA would win. This is a clever virus and so we have to be clever in our choice of affordable tools to deploy. By the special grace of God, some of the most effective tools in this fight cost very little viz emphasising use of face masks, social distancing, washing hands, discouraging large gatherings, etc.

Nigeria cannot win the vaccine war. We can only deploy cheap vaccines judiciously when they become readily available. Severe lockdowns, travel bans, curfews, etc are much too disruptive for our fragile economy and are unaffordable. We should take a cue from countries like Ethiopia and Senegal.

 Any other comment

The biggest area where we have lagged behind countries like Ethiopia and Senegal in the Coronavirus fight has to do with Nigeria having a large proportion of irresponsible elites. If we can stop large gatherings (especially indoors) we will slow down the infection rate. That is a proven fact. Hosting large indoor gatherings during a pandemic is irresponsible; they are generally Super-spreader events. It is sad that we make an exception for religious gatherings. Does the Coronavirus read the Bible or the Koran? A Super-spreader event is a super-spreader event irrespective of the motivation of the convener.

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