By FIDELIS EGUGBO
What if COVID-19 has come to stay? What if Nigeria starts to witness the number of deaths as witnessed in other countries like Italy, United States of America, Britain, Russia and others as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic?
What if Governor Ifeanyi Okowa decides to pretend that Covid-19 does not exist and allows Deltans to live as they were living during pre-COVID-19 era?
These were some of the questions that bugged my mind last Saturday morning on our way to the Stephen Keshi Stadium, Asaba for the inauguration and handover ceremony of a 70-bed space hospital that has been mounted in anticipation of increased number of cases of COVID-19 in the state.
The last question, "What if Governor Ifeanyi Okowa decides to pretend that COVID-19 does not exist and allows Deltans to live as they were living during pre-COVID-19 era?" kept reverberating in my head. Was it wrong that Governor Okowa took proactive steps to safeguard the lives of Deltans? In the face of adversity, what sterner stuff is a good leader made of?
These are certainly not the best of times; and, there is no Deltan that is not aware of the ravaging global disease. Yes, every Deltan knows about the pandemic! A situation that has kept children out of school for more than three months, kept families and citizens indoors for more than two months and still counting, a situation that also kept majority of civil servants at home cannot be a child's play; and, certainly no one can claim ignorance about its existence.
The fact that most people on the streets can be seen with masks leaves no one in doubt that there is a new norm.
As a colleague of mine, Dantes Odogwu had wondered aloud recently: "Assuming you could see COVID-19 on the street, would you go out still?" If it is a government scam as being speculated in some quarters, what does the government stand to benefit from that? If you should wash your hands regularly, wear facemask for your own safety, go out only when it is absolutely necessary and engage in actions that will safeguard your life, why is government so committed to your being healthy?
Deltans are lucky to have a Governor who is not just educated, but one who is intelligent, smart and a true democrat. He saw what the pandemic was doing in other nations, swiftly took actions and brain-stormed with his working team on the best ways to contain the novel Coronavirus.
Though described as World War III that began in China's industrial city of Wuhan, the governor was not deterred, nor did he hesitate or wait for the dreaded disease to get to our doorsteps in Delta before dusting his battle armour. As an experienced political General who consults widely as a democrat, he promptly asked: "What if it enters Nigeria, what should we do?"
Expectedly, the COVID-19 crept into Nigeria through Lagos, the country's busiest international gateway, and snowballed as the influx of people in and out of Lagos across the country continued. True to expectation, it was only a matter of time before the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) would announce steadily climbing cases in other states outside Lagos. Rivers State locked its borders with other states. The situation became dicey. Bearing in mind the socio-economic impact of locking down a state such as Delta, Governor Okowa and his team were apparently on the edge watching as events unfolded. Cases were reported in neighboring Edo State, but the state government would not close its boundaries to contain the spread. Delta was left with no other option than to close its borders with other states and followed it up with the lockdown of the entire state.
The Federal Government followed suit by placing a ban on inter-state movement and also, imposed curfew. The lockdown subsisted while the people cried out that what has come to be known as "hunger virus" was capable of killing faster than COVID-19.
Governor Okowa as a true democrat who believes that his major interest was to safeguard the lives of the people, as the people's servant, heeded the cries of the people to lift the ban on the lockdown. However, that was done but with strict warning that people obeyed health and social distancing protocols put in place for their safety.
As I write this piece, most people still doubt the existence of COVID-19 despite all that is going on; and, because of that, many have continued to throw caution to the wind. Facemask that was made compulsory has become chin mask. Most people hold face masks not because of their safety, but because they are afraid that security officials may apprehend them without their masks, even if it means having such in their travelling bags.
The axiom, "Unease lies the head that wears a crown" as noted in William Shakespeare's King Henry the Fourth, is very applicable when one considers what the governor, as the General, is doing to deflect the new Coronavirus bullets from touching Deltans.
From the date the lockdown was eased off, the number has jumped from less than 20 cases to more than 300 cases. These cases are not just computer-generated figures; they are our fathers, mothers, relations and friends.
That same fateful Saturday that the 70-bed hospital at the Stephen Keshi Stadium Asaba was inaugurated and handed over to the Delta State Government, one question that came to mind was, "Who will these patients be?" Governor Okowa is in a vantage position to know and in an emotion-laden voice, observed that the spread of COVID-19 was yet to reach its peak. Yet, there was no adequate community testing to contain the virus.
Okowa said, "We are happy with the interventions of the operators of the oil and gas sector with Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) and wish that there is an interface with the Nigerian Governors Forum for the states to be given what they need to fight COVID-19.
"As a state, we have no fewer than 30 ventilators and so far, it is only one case that we have had to use ventilators. The earlier we are able to get test kits in all the states of the federation, the better; because if you watch the trend, some states are no longer testing for the virus and by the time they resume testing, the cases must have skyrocketed.
"Early and continuous testing makes it easy to identify those affected and also ensure quick contact-tracing. The earlier we get enough test kits across the country, the better for the management of COVID-19".
With the speech of the governor, free movement across the state and the very likelihood that interstate lockdown will soon be lifted, more of such isolation centres as donated last weekend is urgently needed. If Delta could get more than 300 cases of COVID-19 with all the strident measures put in place by Governor Okowa and his team, imagine what will happen when there will be free movement across the country. Those states that have "I don't-care" attitude towards COVID-19 will no doubt make a mess of those states that have invested so much funds, time and otherwise to contain the disease and keep their people safe. This is one reason there should be true federalism in place to check the activities of those who are not committed to the welfare of their people. Without true federalism in practice, I envisage a situation where people in those states that are not carrying out tests at the moment will rush to other, safer states, thereby putting more people at risk.
Naturally, during a war situation, people are inclined to run to safer areas, and if COVID-19 is yet to reach its peak in the country, bearing in mind our careless attitude towards it and the prevalence of the rainy season with its attendant cold, in which coronavirus thrives, Nigeria as a country should brace up for the worst. The "expert" permutation of at least 300,000 deaths from the disease should not be allowed to come to pass.
That Governor Okowa and his team are doing their best cannot be over-emphasised. However, what can they do without the people? COVID-19 is all about the people. If you play safe, you will not contact the virus; you will not be putting your life and the lives of others at risk. Already, the state government has set up isolation centres at the Federal Medical Centre, Asaba, the Asaba Specialist Hospital, Delta State University Teaching Hospital Oghara, the NYSC Orientation Camp, Issele-Uku and at the Warri Central Hospital. Despite the cheering news about victims of the virus recovering at the isolation centres, is it not better for one not to be locked up for a period of two weeks or more without physical contact with family members or any other person?
Yes! Deaths have been recorded too but it has been stressed that when it is detected early, when the patients report early at government approved facilities for the treatment of COVID-19, there are greater chances of surviving from the ailment. So, is it a death sentence? The answer is, No! But there must be early detection for commencement of treatment.
Again, the greatest solution is obeying government-set health protocols. This is because, while government is battling to save lives, it is impossible for givernment to arrest all those who are flouting the instructions. As you are reading this piece, you are aware that a lot of persons are not washing their hands regularly or making use of facemasks, not to talk about social distancing.
On Sunday, June 7, 2020, yours sincerely was in the team of the Secretary to the Delta State Government (SSG), Mr Chiedu Ebie, when he went to monitor the level of compliance with the regulations on COVID-19. One thing that no one can take away from Asaba is that the city has a lot of fun-spots. Asaba is a city where there is no dull moment; drinking joints dot the ancient city by the River Niger and, of course, it plays host to several hotels of international standards. And, in all, they were all getting deserved patronage till the advent of COVID-19.
Thus, it was no surprise that some persons still clustered to take drinks at the bars despite the restrictions. That Sunday evening, the SSG and members of his team visited some major hotels in Asaba - Hampton Towers, Golden Tulip, Vienna International, Toscana Villa, Top Rank Galaxy, and Elomas Hotels. Apart from few of the hotels, the bars in others were filled to capacity by fun-loving Deltans without regards for safety measures and laid down rules for hotels to serve food and drinks to their guests in their individual rooms.
What else should government do to save Deltans or help the people to save themselves? If the state is locked down again, it will not be in the best interest of all. Governor Okowa, his Deputy, Barr. Kingsley Burutu Otuaro, the SSG and other concerned Deltans have been on the road monitoring compliance to government directives. Most of us are adults who know what is right, but as Nigerians, is it not right for us to do the right thing? If COVID-19 has been likened to a war situation, could you venture into the battlefield stripped of protection, and without being armed?
Mr Ebie's statement to the fun-seekers at those hotels elicited sober reactions from those he addressed as he said, "You have come here to drink, you don't know who is positive and, to you, it doesn't matter; but to us as a government it is not a joke. It is our duty to enforce the protocols because, these are unusual times.
"We cannot compromise the lives of our people, the people should buy the drinks and go to their rooms. If one person is discovered to have COVID-19, this hotel will be shut down and you can imagine what it will cost to engage in contact tracing of everyone who is here. Don't encourage people from outside to come in here to drink.
"We got information that people were coming from outside the hotels to drink and we are committed to ensuring full compliance for the safety of our people. Deltans should help us by staying safe. For those that flouted the directives, we sealed some parts of their hotel. Help us contain the virus as any hotel found to be flouting the directives will be shut down."
On Monday preceding the visit to the hotels, a Warri-based lawyer, Ofure Okhifo, who was infected with the COVID-19, was discharged from isolation and treatment centre of the Asaba Specialist Hospital. Ofure was among the lucky ones like Barr. Jerry Azinge of Asaba and Chief Austin Eruotor.
To the discharged patients, who were bold to recount their experiences, COVID-19 comes with different symptoms and the victims were also treated based on the symptoms manifested. Of course, the state has recorded some deaths, which the State Commissioner for Health, Dr Mordi Ononye, attributed to the fact that the deceased had prevailing health conditions before their infection with Covid-19.
That government is commiting so much human, financial and material resources in treating numerous patients and generally containing the novel Coronavirus would be an understatement. However, for the moment, it is hardly about cost implications as nothing can equate with life. All over the world, businesses are crumbling, many people are losing their jobs, but, what is most important for now is survival.
Consequently, implementation of the 2020 budget was endangered, which led to the review in the budget especially in Delta State, as the governor believes in practicable and realistic budget.
With all the isolation centres being established, what are you doing to ensure you are not a guest at those centres?
May God continue to guide and guard all of us through Christ our Lord. Amen.
*EGUGBO, SPECIAL ASSISTANT, MEDIA, TO DELTA STATE GOVERNOR WROTE FROM ASABA.