Even when Nigeria is nowhere close to getting out of the wood in its battle against the novel coronavirus, the nation’s governors appeared to have let down their guards just so soon because of religious considerations, thereby putting the lives of thousands of citizens at risk.
Because of the Easter Celebration, a host of Nigerian states have ordered partial or absolute relaxation of weeks-long restriction of non-essential movements by residents, a controversial directive that could spell doom for Nigeria’s containment efforts against the pandemic.
This development coincides with a reported plan by the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 to advise President Muhammed Buhari on the possibility of having a nationwide lockdown.
Since its importation into the country, the confirmed cases of coronavirus have been on the increase in Nigeria. The number stood at 288 as of April 9, according to the data released by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC).
Nigeria has few COVID-19 testing laboratories and inadequate, even decrepit, medical facilities to manage infected persons, compared with the country’s over 200 million population.
Many believe that if larger sizes of sample are tested rapidly across Nigeria, the country could see an increase in the number of confirmed cases.
Akwa Ibom, Rivers, Bayelsa, Katsina, Kogi, Ondo, are some of the Nigerian states that have asked their residents to feel free to go to church for this weekend’s Easter celebration or to the mosque for today’s Muslim Friday prayers.
Cross River, Imo, Ebonyi, Abia, Taraba and several others are said to have or planning to lift the restriction orders in their states.
“In the Spirit of Easter and after a careful review of the state of COVID-19 situation in our State, we have decided to temporarily relax the restriction on large religious gathering,” the Rivers state governor, Nyesom Wike, announced in a statewide broadcast on Thursday.
“Friday 10th April 2020 – all Moslem faithful should observe Juma’at prayers in their mosques or prayer grounds throughout the State and pray for the peace, forgiveness and the blessings of Allah upon the State.
“Sunday 12th April 2020 – all Christians should have Easter Church Services with their full congregation and pray to God to forgive us of our sins, continue to intervene in our affairs and protect the State and our people from the Coronavirus,” Mr Wike said in the broadcast.
Mr Wike in his message to Rivers State’s residents ironically said, “We have no other choice but to fight this mass killer virus with all of our might and every weapon and resource at our disposal, less we all perish, for our inactions and indiscretions.”
The Rivers governor has been in the news lately because of the controversial arrest, arraignment, and detention of two pilots working with a logistics company, Caverton Helicopters, whom he accused of flying “illegally” into Rivers against an order barring vehicles and flights from entering the state because of the pandemic.
The Caverton flight was approved by federal authorities.
Aside from the pilots, 10 of the aircraft passengers have been remanded in Port Harcourt prison after they were charged before a chief magistrate on Tuesday.
Mr Wike, who likened the coronavirus to a “war situation” has been insisting that people flying into Rivers must subject themselves to health check to ascertain if they are positive or not to the virus.
There are two confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Rivers.
The relaxation of restriction in the oil-rich state is an apparent contradiction of Governor Wike’s posturing in his fight against the spread of the virus, and could reverse whatever achievement the state may have recorded so far.
Akwa Ibom, another state in Nigeria’s South-South, has been battling to halt the spread of the deadly virus since five index cases were confirmed in the state a few days ago.
Despite the difficulty the state is experiencing getting residents to obey its stay-at-home order, the state government, Thursday, lifted its restriction order so residents could go to church for Easter celebrations. A top government source said Governor Udom Emmanuel approved the relaxation of the restrictions in deference to religious leaders who piled pressure on him.
In Kogi State, Governor Yahaya Bello, Thursday, said residents were now free to go to mosques and churches for their prayers.
“Sitting arrangements in mosques and churches should be done to ensure social distancing.
“We also urge churches and mosques to make their services as brief as possible in order not to keep a large crowd of worshipers within enclosed confinement,” Mr Bello was quoted to have said.
Governor Douye Diri of Bayelsa said his administration was relaxing the restriction order in the state because of “appeal” from Christian leaders in the state.
Mr Diri said the state would be locked down again once the Easter celebration was over.
In Katsina, Governor Bello Masari lifted the suspension the state had earlier placed on Friday congregational prayers, but advised that prayers should be conducted under some stipulated health and security guidelines.
“The Jumu’at Imams should avoid prolonged sermons in order to discharge their followers within the shortest period.
“People are also strongly advised to maintain social distancing and adhere strictly to all the rules and regulations provided by the health experts in fighting the contagious disease,” the state government said in a statement issued by the Secretary to the State Government, Mustapha Inuwa.
In Bauchi, the state governor, Bala Mohammed, and other government officials were among Muslim faithful who attended Friday prayers at the Bauchi Central mosque. The governor came out from a 14-day isolation about 24 hours ago after recovering from the virus.
Federal authorities are said to be alarmed by the development, and are said to be making frantic efforts to reach out to the state governors to abandon actions that could worsen the nation’s health crisis, PREMIUM TIMES learnt.
One group with a focus on health reforms in Nigeria issued a statement on Friday, warning the governors that it was not yet time to lift the ban on public gathering.
The group, the Health Sector Reform Coalition, said it was shocked that some states were lifting the ban on public gathering because of the Muslim Friday prayers and the Christian Easter celebration.
“The lockdown in the FCT, Lagos and similar decision by some governors across the country was a welcome development. It is important for containing the spread of COVID-19, avoiding the high number of deaths that might follow and the disastrous effects on the health system and economy, as we are seeing with countries like US, Italy, Spain, UK, amongst others,” the group said.
The coalition said it recognise and respect the importance of worship and religious celebrations to Nigerians. But that scientific evidence and experience from developed and developing countries have shown that avoiding crowds, physical distancing, handwashing and respiratory hygiene remained the best ways to prevent the spread of the virus and halt associated deaths.
The coalition appealed to the governors to cancel the directives to lift the ban on religious and other gatherings in their states until the NCDC and Federal Ministry of Health advise otherwise.
“With the high number of people living in poverty, high prevalence of chronic diseases such as hypertension and diabetes (underlying diseases) and very weak health systems, it will be catastrophic if the virus spreads widely in Nigeria,” it said.
The Catholic Diocese of Port Harcourt, in response to the relaxation of restriction in Rivers state, issued a statement saying it preferred to have its members stay isolated at home, instead of congregating in churches for Easter.
The Bishop of the diocese, Camillus Etokudoh, in a statement, Thursday, therefore, directed priests and faithful in the diocese to continue to pray from home.
In the wake of the lockdown in the states, some churches in Nigeria began running online services for their members, using Facebook, YouTube, and other internet platforms.