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COVID-19: Nigerians drop guard, shun social distancing as Delta variant cases rise


Alexander Okere writes about how some Nigerians have let down their guard despite threats of COVID-19 Delta variant and fear of a third wave

It was 4:30pm on the eve of Eid-el-Kabir, and Chinecherem Ezirim, a salesperson in one of the popular supermarkets in the Ojodu Local Council Development Area of Lagos, had his hands full attending to hasty shoppers. The rush was apparent but Ezirim didn’t mind. For one whose monthly salary was dependent on the volume of sales, he felt assured that his July pay would receive a boost.

Like a crowd of gamblers struggling to cash their wins, the customers, many of whom did not have a face mask on, competed for his attention to leave early enough to prepare for the festivity which the Federal Government already declared a two-day holiday for its celebration amid rising cases of coronavirus infections and a possible third wave.

“Oga, I don’t even have time for coronavirus. I have a lot of things to do,” one of the shoppers, who did not give his name, told our correspondent pointedly before walking away briskly when asked why he didn’t have a face mask on.

But Ezirim said though he was aware that the pandemic was far from over, he could not keep up with the habit of wearing a face mask while attending to customers. He added that forcing customers to wear one or use a hand sanitiser before attending to them could adversely affect his sales.

“We used to have a hand sanitiser and a provision for handwashing in my shop, but not everybody used them. Some customers would go without using them. But we could not force them to use a face mask or wash their hands,” he said.

A total of 229,099 cases of the Delta variant, first detected in India, have been recorded in the United Kingdom, United States of America, and India alone as of July 30, 2021, according to data from Statista, a research and analysis services provider. The UK had 180,998 cases, the US had 32,287 cases while India had 15,814 cases.

Eight days after the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control announced the presence of the deadly Indian strain (Delta variant) of the coronavirus in Nigeria, the Presidential Steering Committee on COVID-19 has on July 18, placed Lagos, Oyo, Rivers, Kaduna, Kano, and Plateau states, and the Federal Capital Territory on red alert, calling for strict safety protocols compliance during the Eid celebration.

The Secretary to the Government of the Federation and Chairman, PSCC, Boss Mustapha, in a statement warned other states to continue to enforce all protocols to guard against the spread of the coronavirus.

He also cautioned Nigerians to be mindful of the likelihood of a wider spread of COVID-19. The NCDC said Nigeria had so far recorded 10 cases of the Delta variant as of  July 27.

As of 3:45pm on Friday, July 30, 2021, the NCDC said on its website that Nigeria had recorded 172,821 confirmed cases, 5,740 active cases, and 2,141 deaths. The global figure of COVID-19 cases stood at 196,829,525, with 4,202,467 deaths as of 3:52pm on Friday, July 30, 2021, according to John Hopkins University and Medicine Coronavirus Resource Centre.

The Federal Government had last year placed the country on lockdown, among other stringent measures, for more than five months, as a part of efforts to contain the pandemic. The policy caused the rapid change in personal hygiene among Nigerians as they tried to protect themselves from being infected by the deadly virus and panic buying resulted in a surge in the prices of non-pharmaceutical products such as face masks and hand sanitisers.

Citizens letting down their guard

But recent checks by our correspondent showed that many Nigerians have thrown caution to the wind. Our correspondent who visited markets, malls and other public areas observed that while the use of hand sanitisers was no longer a common practice, only a few among Nigerians now wear face masks in public. Many of those with face masks hung them on their chins.

It was also discovered that the use of face masks and hand sanitisers at automated teller machines, social gatherings, and market areas was poorly enforced in different parts of the country.

‘Wearing face masks tiring’

Some Nigerians who were flouting the COVID-19 protocols who spoke with Saturday PUNCH said they let down their guard because they were tired of wearing a face mask and did not believe the pandemic was still a national emergency. Others accused the state and federal governments of not properly handling the pandemic.

A resident in Ebonyi State, Mr Moses Nwevo, said he was struggling to adhere to non-pharmaceutical preventive methods because of the public perception that a third wave of the pandemic was not real. He also said his busy business schedule made getting vaccinated a big challenge for him.

“When COVID-19 entered Nigeria last year, everybody was conscious about wearing their face masks while moving on the road or going to different places. But now, we think it is not real. I am not used to covering my face or wearing a face mask.

“I have five of face masks in my house but I usually forget to wear one each time I leave my house for business. I am still trying to make it a habit. I know that COVID-19 is in town but I have received a jab. I am a businessman; I don’t have the time to receive a jab,” Nwevo said.

A caterer in the Ifo Local Government Area of Ogun State, Janet Peter, said she didn’t believe Nigeria was in for a third wave. She, however, said she suspected it could be an avenue for the federal and state governments to spend more funds.

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“Actually, I don’t think COVID-19 is in town even though the government said it exists. I have a face mask but I don’t have one on because I don’t use it all the time; I don’t go out all the time.

“But I don’t believe there is another round of COVID-19. The government is trying to use it (COVID-19) to spend funds. I don’t believe there would be another round of a lockdown,” Peter added.

Another resident in the state, Opeyemi Odutan, said she would not take a COVID-19 vaccine but use only supplements to boost her immunity against a possible infection.

“Many of us believe the government is not handling the pandemic in a way that is good enough and the figures they give us are not really accurate. So, people have stopped being careful not to be infected.

“Apart from that, we are now aware of supplements to boost our immunity. The government got a lot of money for palliative measures but did not use it as it should. We no longer see COVID-19 as an emergency; even if it (third wave) comes, we are ready.’’

A student of secondary school in the Ogba area of the state, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of victimisation, said though the school authorities made the use of face masks compulsory on the school for pupils, employees, and visitors, many of the pupils preferred to adjust the masks towards their chins for comfort.

“Last week, we were instructed by our teachers to use a face mask. No pupil can enter the school’s premises without a face mask. But once we were allowed into our classrooms, we just placed the masks on our chins. They force us to wear a face mask but we don’t use it,” the pupil said.

In Oyo State, a resident who identified herself as Bello Arafat, said she was more interested in eking out a living and could not cope with the hassles of life while having a face mask on.

Arafat said, “I can’t say I don’t believe it when government officials say there is a third wave because they have access to information. But at this stage in Nigeria, I don’t think there should be another lockdown because we are tired.

“There is no money in this country. We are just trying our best. It is not easy wearing a face mask all the time. We are really tired of using it all the time. I put it on when I visit a bank but when I’m outside, I just want to feel a little free.’’

In Abuja, despite the discovery of the new Delta variant in the Federal Capital Territory, Saturday PUNCH observed that many residents appeared to have shunned safety precautions such as social distancing, hand washing and wearing of masks.

Various worship centres, event centers and drinking joints had also been going about their business without adhering to safety measures.

In Rivers State, residents are not adhering to safety protocols, especially the wearing of face masks. Apart from popular malls and supermarkets where customers are mandated to wear face masks, most residents ignore guidelines for the COVID-19.

Similarly, social distancing is not heeded as residents including most religious and social groups no longer bothered about safety measures. The Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps, however, said it set up a mobile court to try persons who defy the guidelines.

The spokesman for the NSCDC in the state, Akin Oguntuase, who said this in a statement in Port Harcourt, urged residents to always wear face masks while in public places.

Experts urge more vaccination, public awareness

However, medical experts said the federal and state governments should double their efforts in expanding vaccination campaigns to provide protection for Nigerians and prevent mutations. They also encouraged Nigerians to make themselves available for vaccination to prevent further mutations and the spread of the virus.

A virologist at the University of Maiduguri, Bornu State, Prof Marycelin Baba, told our correspondent that more variants of COVID-19 could emerge in future if the gap of infections was not closed with vaccination.

“Polio, for example, has a variant called vaccine-derived poliovirus that can also cause infection. The same polio vaccine that was manufactured a long time ago is still in use; another vaccine was not manufactured to take care of that mutant. It is the same way that the Delta variant is a mutant and a common characteristic of the RNA virus is to mutate as they move from one individual to the other.

“More variants may come in future if we don’t close the gap with vaccination. Don’t let anyone deceive you; before any vaccine is released for emergency use, it serves the primary purpose of protecting. The more the people are vaccinated, the more the virus would be handicapped to mutate and the fewer the opportunities for variants to emerge,” Baba said.

She added that she received the two doses of Astrazeneca vaccine, and for her, whether it is Delta, Alpha or Beta (variants), she would be protected.

“I will encourage people to observe all the preventive measures because by doing so, they are not only protecting themselves against coronavirus, they are protecting themselves against other respiratory and virus infections as well as those that can cause gastroenteritis. The face mask will prevent the spread of other respiratory infections. Wearing the mask on the chin is a waste of time and energy because it will not serve any purpose; the real places that the mask needs to cover are the nose and the mouth, she added.

Also, the Chairman, Expert Review Committee on COVID-19, and virologist, Prof Oyewale Tomori, said that disregarding the preventive measure against contracting and spreading the virus would put many in danger.

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He said, “It is unfortunate and a danger not only to those refusing to wear face asks but also to their families, friends, and loved ones. COVID-19 is still around and being transmitted on a daily basis. The fact that we are not testing efficiently and effectively does not mean it is not around. The person locked up in a room with windows shut says the sun is not shining on a sunny day but those outside in the sun know better.

“Half a loaf is better than no loaf. The partial protection of the vaccine may be the difference between getting exposed, infected, and surviving or dying. Getting vaccinated and immunised may be the difference between being alive or dying or dead. So, please get vaccinated.’’

The professor of virology further stated that the third wave might double the number of cases recorded during the second wave.

He added, “First, the second wave lasted as long as the first wave, about eight months. However, the first wave produced 62,830 cases and the second wave made 104, 730 people sick. For every sick person in the first wave, we had 1.6 times the number in the second wave. From what we have seen the Delta variant doing in other countries, and should the third wave come in Nigeria, it will be a miracle if we do not see a doubling of the number of cases as we saw in the second wave. See the number of cases we are now reporting in the last two to three weeks; from zero to three-digit numbers,’’

On the nature of the Delta variant, Tomori said, “Ask people in Europe, see the situation in the USA, follow the figures from South Africa, Uganda and other African countries, and you will see we are dealing with an invasive, evasive and elusive variant that is transmitted rapidly and causing serious illness. To be forewarned is to be forewarned. A warning is not enough anymore; arming ourselves with masks, safe distance and a vaccine is the way to go. Enough of reactive red alert warnings; we must move to combat readiness.

“Keep persuading, while diligently and actively implementing the non-pharmaceutical interventions. We must all work with each other to encourage people to wear their masks. Establishments, public and private institutions, offices must enforce the guidelines in their spaces. We, as individuals, must persuade, encourage and insist on others complying with guidelines on NPIs.’’

A consultant public health physician at the Ladoke Akintola University of Technology Teaching Hospital, Ogbomoso, Oyo State, Dr Oluwatosin Ilori, said the face mask had become a necessity now more than ever to keep the Delta variant of the virus at bay.

Ilori said, “The Delta variant stays more in the atmosphere compared to the previous variants we have had. The implication is that the number of people that could get infected could be more. A person infected with the previous variant could infect two or 2.5 persons at a time. But this new variant can get four to five people infected at once because it stays more in the atmosphere.

“We need more face masks now than ever before. The important thing now is how to protect oneself with a face mask. The implication of that is we should not be tired of using face masks now. We need it more because of the peculiarity of the new variant we have now.”

Explaining the behavioural change and why many Nigerians may have returned to their old ways regarding peronal protection, a psychologist, Dr Martin Agwogie, said, “Recall that at the initial stage of the COVID-19, there was tension everywhere, people were afraid and people took the lockdown measure, to a large extent, seriously. After a time, people thought COVID-19 might not be as deadly, especially in Nigeria and Africa, as it is in other parts of the globe, due to the mortality rate.

“People thought some persons that contracted COVID-19 went into isolation and recovered from it. They thought it was not as serious as they initially thought. There is also the misconception that it is more of a disease of the rich, that only the rich were dying from COVID-19. That affected the level of risk people attached to COVID-19; what that simply means is that their perception of harm from the disease is possibly low.

“People survived the first and second waves; people have actually got to a stage where they said there was no COVID-19, so going back to taking precautionary measures was like going back to what they thought was over. Some had dropped their face masks and other preventive measures. For them, going back to it would be a challenge, especially because they don’t see it as a risk.”

Agwogie, however, urged government authorities to lead the awareness campaign against COVID-19 by showing example, through public adherence to preventive measures so that the citizens would understand the seriousness and follow suit.

He said, “I think the government also needs to increase the level of awareness and enforce the rule; it is not a case of ‘do what I say and not what I do,’ because you see people, even those in government still behaving as if there is nothing serious about it (the pandemic). If those who are respected in society do not adhere to the COVID-19 protocols, it throws caution to the wind.

“What I would suggest is persuasion. Let them (Nigerians) know why they need to adhere to the protocols. There is a difference between adhering to protocols and the use of force. When you preach to their conscience through different channels, that becomes more effective. But that is not to say some measures cannot be used to curtail excesses when there is a breach. But I believe in persuasion and communication as against the use of force.”

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State governments react

The Imo State Government said while it was aware of the problem, it was intensifying efforts to reawaken the minds of residents about the existing safety guidelines and get more people vaccinated.

 The state Commissioner for Information, Declan Emelumba, said it was a general problem, noting that the state was doing everything to reinforce the consciousness.

He added, “It is a psychological thing; a lot of Nigerians don’t even believe there is anything called COVID, no matter what you preach to them. But all the necessary safety measures are still in place, they have not been lifted. It is just for us to re-emphasise them. Residents should not be tired of wearing a face mask because COVID-19 is real, people are dying. Also, the state government is intensifying efforts to ensure that many more people are vaccinated.’’

In Edo, the state government said though it had yet to record a case from the Delta variant, it was accelerating measures to persuade residents to continue to use face masks and follow other COVID-19 guidelines.

The Chief of Staff to the governor, Osaigbovo Iyoha, said, “Actually, it’s a concern for us that people have sort of slacked a bit with respect to obeying the non-pharmaceutical guidelines for the prevention of COVID-19. But we are not resting on our laurels; we are beginning to accelerate measures to get people to return to adhering to the guidelines.

“For now, we are just using persuasion, especially because of the Delta variant in the country. Though we have yet to record it in Edo State, that’s the more reason why we would intensify efforts in the near future to ensure that these guidelines are followed to prevent a further explosion of the spread of the virus. I think one of the things that have made the people a bit complacent is the fact that Nigeria has not been hit badly as other countries but that is not an excuse for people to jettison the guidelines.”

In view of its herd immunity target of at least 60 per cent COVID-19 vaccination coverage of the population of Lagos, the state government lamented that the percentage of residents of the state who had received two doses of the vaccine as of July 11, 2021, stood at a mere one per cent.

The state governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, in a statement, also admonished residents to resist what he described as ‘pandemic fatigue’ and find new reserves of strength “to quell this emerging third wave before it snowballs out of control.’’

Sanwo-Olu stated, “Whilst both the Federal and State Governments have a huge role to play in the management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the responsibility of managing the third wave ultimately belongs to all of us. Without the cooperation of the public at large, we stand the risks of losing both lives and livelihood, on a devastating scale. Therefore, I would like to once again reiterate that this is not the time to get tired or complacent. Instead, we must be re-energised to battle this invisible and seemingly relentless enemy.

“After almost 18 months of daily confronting this virus, it is understandable that many are tired and want their old, pre-pandemic lives to return. Unfortunately, we do not have a choice in this regard, and fatigue is not an option. We cannot afford to be tired, frustrated or distracted.”

The Gombe State Government said its policy on the compulsory use of a face mask was still in force while efforts were on to enlighten residents on the need to adhere to non-pharmaceutical measures towards curtailing the spread of the virus.

The state Commissioner for Information, Julius Ishaya, said, “The state government has not relaxed its efforts. What we have now is a standing steering committee headed by the state’s deputy governor. This committee is up and doing and we have our field officers all active. Our policy of compulsory use of a face mask before entering any government premises or wherever is still important and working. We are not taking it lightly and we are still encouraging our people; there are jingles and messages sent out to enlighten people that COVID-19 is real and the third wave is around the corner, so every person should take responsibility to protect themselves.”

Asked what the FCT administration was doing to curb the spread of the virus in the area, Acting Director Public Health and Human Service Secretariat, FCT, Dr. Saddiq Abdurrahman, said, “To curb the variant, it is not a new approach but we have the structure and mechanism in place which we have continued and strengthened. The most important approach to deal with the new variant is the same way we dealt with the second and first waves.

“People should learn to be responsible. The government has been playing its part. This is a pandemic, we have come to terms with it, it is real, killing and now the new variant which is highly infectious and spreads faster. Government is still doing sensitisation and providing access to prompt testing. The onus lies on every citizen to reciprocate; this is a two-way thing. Life is sacred.”

Additional report by Solomon Odeniyi and Dennis Naku

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