COVID-19: Abuja overtakes Lagos as VIPs, others shun safety protocols

A female trader clad in a pair of black trousers and blue T-shirt is seen being prevented by security guards from gaining entry into the ever-busy Wuse Market because she is not wearing a mask. Immediately, she dips her hand into her bag, puts on the mask and is quickly allowed inside. Once inside the market, she removes the mask and puts it back into her bag and begins to set up shop for the day.

Moments after, a middle aged man in kaftan with a cap to match puts on a mask, but drags it under his chin as he proceeds to his jewellery shop at the market, which welcomes thousands of customers on a daily basis and for seven days a week.

The market, like several others in the nation’s capital, had been closed down by the Federal Capital Territory Administration for several months to curb the spread of COVID-19 and was only re-opened under the strict condition that traders must not attend to customers not wearing masks and traders, who failed to comply with the necessary guidelines, risked having their shops closed and being arraigned before a mobile market situated in the market.

However, after a few weeks of compliance, it is now business as usual as there is no longer social distancing, while the enforcement stops at the gate.

While the Wuse Market, which is largely organised, has mild enforcement at the entrance, the story is worse in several other markets in Abuja. A visit by our correspondent to the Banex Plaza Shopping Complex, a semi-formal market known for the sale of computers, phones, electronics and accessories, shows zero compliance with the COVID-19 guidelines. At all the shops visited, both customers and traders failed to wear masks while and there was no social distancing.

The story was the same at the Garki Ultramodern Market, the Utako Ultramodern Market, Gudu Electrical Parts Market and the AMAC Market, Lugbe, when our correspondent visited them.

Abuja has highest active cases in Nigeria

With poor adherence to COVID-19 guidelines, Abuja now has the highest number of infected persons in the country, overtaking Lagos, according to statistics obtained from the website of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control on August 29. Abuja has more active cases than Lagos despite the fact that the former nation’s capital has more population than the FCT.

The PUNCH observed that the number of active COVID-19 cases in the FCT rose from 2,749 on August 1 to 3,458 on August 28, representing an increase of 25.7 per cent. Within the same time frame, the number of active cases in Lagos State dropped from 12,846 to 2,653, representing a a reduction of 79.3 per cent. Oyo has the third highest number of infected persons, while Plateau comes next with 1,084.

Weak enforcement, ineffective advocacy

The Chairman, FCT Ministerial Enforcement Task team on COVID-19 Restrictions, Mr Ikharo Attah, told The PUNCH that enforcement and arrests had indeed dropped, because the strategy was no longer working.

Attah, who supervised the closure of the popular Jabi Lake Mall, worship centres and the prosecution of hundreds of people, including popular musician, Naira Marley, for breaching the COVID-19 guidelines, said focus had shifted from enforcement to advocacy.

He said the main problem was that people no longer believed there was COVID-19. He stated that there was an urgent need for re-orientation, which enforcement would not be able to address.

Attah stated, “It is true, enforcement is not like before. For us, what we now do is to carry out intensive advocacy first and then appeal to the people to own the process. The other time, we did more of arrest; we went to the markets and mobile courts were crowded, but we then discovered that we have a system of disbelief, a strong disbelief in the existence of COVID-19.

“So, we said it is better to talk to the people and appeal to them that we have seen deaths in higher places and we shouldn’t believe that COVID-19 is not real. So, we now spend more time talking. Most times when you see our people going round, we do more of talking.”

The task force chairman said he observed that most people had masks either in their pockets or bags, but only wear them when they see his men in operation.

He said he would be meeting with market leaders and unions to ensure that they take the message to their members.

Attah said he would also meet with the Head of the Committee of Chairmen and Secretaries of the various markets associations within the FCT, Mr Raphael Okorie, who is also the Chairman of the Wuse Market Traders’ Association,

The task force chairman added, “Everyone has face masks but only wear them quickly when they see our task force members. Once we are not there, they remove them. We have spent time and talked and at some point, we got the market unions to sign.

“The unions headed by their chairman, Mr Raphael Okorie, and the Seriki Hausawa of the traders all signed to abide by the COVID-19 guidelines, but when they got to the markets and they were fully re-opened, they were overwhelmed.

“They even called us and we told them to engage in intensive advocacy because there is a strong disbelief.”

Also speaking with The PUNCH, the spokesman for the Abuja Markets Management Limited, Mr Innocent Amaechina, said advocacy remained the best strategy, while enforcement would be secondary.

Amaechina said the AMML, which manages all the 15 major markets in the Abuja metropolis, including the Wuse, Garki and Utako markets, would continue to meet with the unions to ensure that the COVID-19 guidelines are adhered to.

He said, “The traders and customers should take responsibility. So, we are concentrating on advocacy, because it will be more effective than enforcement. I am happy that you observed that people wear their masks at the entrance of the Wuse Market, but once they enter, they remove it.

“But advocacy will require persuasion and people understanding that they don’t need to be policed around but need to wear masks for their own safety. So, we need to convince them it is in their best interest. We are doing it with the various trader associations and going from shop to shop.

“The traders, on their own, have formed a task force. In any of the markets we manage, it is no mask, no entry zone and no mask, no deal zone. If you don’t wear a mask and if you come to the Wuse Market, the trader is not expected to attend to you.

“But there are still some categories of people, who need enforcement before they comply. So, we have our mobile courts on standby for such people, who are empowered to try them in our various markets. Anyone, who flouts these rules, will be taken to court and punished, which may include shutting down of shops.”

 Worship centres flout guidelines

Apart from markets, worship centres, including mosques and churches, have relaxed enforcement of COVID-19 guidelines. The recommendations by the NCDC that services should not exceed an hour, centres should not exceed one third of its sitting capacity and that children and persons above 60 should avoid worship centres, it was learnt, were not obeyed while social distancing and wearing of face masks were no longer being practised in many worship centres. Temperature of worshipers was also not being checked except in large worship centres.

Attah told this newspaper that clerics of both faiths had been deceiving their followers into thinking that COVID-19 was a scam.

“If it was something that everybody believes in, then it (advocacy) will be easy but when you still have clergymen, clerics of both faiths still contending that COVID-19 is not real, it makes it hard for us,” he said.

Attah, who shut over 25 worship centres during the lockdown, further stated that while there was substantial compliance in worship centres located in the metropolis, it was business as usual in the suburbs.

“The compliance level is also dropping in churches and mosques. In Abuja city centres and metropolis it is strong, but when you go to the suburbs, it is dropping in a very worrisome manner,” he stated.

Infections may worsen

The Chairman, Medical Sub-Committee of the COVID-19 Ministerial Expert Advisory Committee in Abuja, Dr Ejike Oji, told The PUNCH that fatigue seemed to have set in, especially in the area of enforcement.

Orji, who said the statistics released by the NCDC was higher than that available to the FCT authorities but admitted that there was a need to do more in public enlightenment.

The doctor said, “This is the thing we have been grappling with in Abuja. There is this wishful thinking that the rate of infection of the disease is dropping. We are telling them that it is not true, that the disease is still out there. We have a public health messaging issue.”

He said one of the reasons the advocacy was failing was because most of the people, who had the disease were actually asymptomatic and could thus not see the need to abide by COVID-19 guidelines.

Oji added “Of all the things we have been doing, where we feel that there is a lot of room of improvement is the level of public communication and community engagement. You won’t even blame people, because they react to what they see and feel. The reason we are having these mixed messages is because of our population demography.

“About 70 per cent of our population is less than 30 years of age and if you look at how the virus is moving, it is only killing those who are above 60 and those who have co-morbidity and these people are just about 3.5 per cent.

“So, these young people have the impression that this disease is not there anymore, but we do know that it is killing people. If you look at the case fatality ratio or the cumulative number of deaths, you will see that it is increasing. It is over 50 dead in Abuja now and we are still at the first wave of the disease in terms of progression.

<<Punch>>