Protective masks ready for distribution.Protective masks ready for distribution. [photo: Nigeria's Federal Ministry of Health]

[This article was written for The Round Table website in collaboration with the team at Africa Today.]

The first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Nigeria was on 27 February, 2020. An Italian had arrived from Italy through the Murtala Mohammed International Airport Lagos, and tested positive for the novel coronavirus. About 10 days later, 9 March, a second case was reported in Ogun state, southwest Nigeria; this time a Nigerian who had had contact with the Italian. By early March, incidences of COVID-19 had appeared in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) of Abuja. Due to its quick transmission rate, and in a bid to curtail its spread, the Nigerian government on 29 March announced the lockdown – to take effect 30 March – of the two affected states and the FCT, locations that are home to about 30 million people. President Muhammadu Buhari made the announcement via a nationally televised speech about a month after the first case was reported.

As more infections were reported around the country, various states initiated their own lockdown procedures, taking a cue from the central government and then adding their own measures as it suited them. Schools, government offices, markets, commercial premises including banks and malls, the law courts among other places were shut down. While some states did not immediately implement lockdown procedures, perhaps because the arrival of the virus in the country wasn’t taken seriously, other states were fast to implement the procedures: Lagos, Ogun and Osun states, in proximity to each other and major access routes to the country’s interior, were the first to implement the procedures. Rightly so, as Lagos state soon became the epicenter of COVID-19 in Nigeria. The initial lockdown for the states including Abuja was for two weeks but was extended twice eventually culminating in a five-week lockdown.

The lockdown, unprecedented especially with the restrictions that came with it, the likes Nigerians had not experienced before, paralysed many social and economic activities. Part of the restrictions, aside from the total ban on vehicular and pedestrian movement, included staying indoors, practicing social distancing, ban on social and religious gathering, and limiting clusters of people to not more than 50 initially and then 20. Some of these restrictions, however, were not strictly adhered to as many flouted the guidelines by staying outdoors and in some parts of Lagos, where people live in proximity, attempts at social distancing were impracticable and were soon abandoned.

Nigeria has 36 states plus the Federal Capital Territory of Abuja, and all but two instituted total lockdown procedures mostly as a precaution. However, most states had, by the last week of April, announced plans to ease restrictions with the President announcing “a phased and gradual easing of lockdown” for Abuja, Ogun and Lagos states by 4 May. Ogun state, however, extended its lockdown by a week with the governor citing increasing “community transmission of the virus” as the reason for the extension. To prevent Covid-19 transmission during the step-down, government made face-mask wearing in public compulsory, reduced the number of passengers cars and public buses can convey at any one time, allowed the opening of markets and businesses every other day and introduced a six-hour work shift, from 9am to 3pm. In addition, all inter-state passenger travel was banned with only controlled interstate movement of goods allowed while restrictions on social and religious gatherings remained in place with a 10-hour nationwide curfew, from 8pm till 6am, introduced.

The five weeks during which the lockdown was in force, Nigerians groaned under its weight especially as economic activities – formal and informal – stopped completely. The informal sector, a major contributor to the Nigerian economy, suffered badly: about 63 million Nigerians work in this sector. Food and physical lethargy were the major challenges Nigerians faced during the lockdown. Although the federal government announced a series of palliative measures to help relieve pains associated with the lockdown and indeed began distributing food packages, the fact was that these measures were greatly inadequate. Nigerians complained about the lockdown, amplified by social media, and government soon announced a gradual easing of the lockdown much to the delight of the country.

It has been reported that businesses in Lagos lost ₦2.7 billion in revenue in the weeks the lockdown was in effect. Lagos is Nigeria’s commercial capital with its airport, seaport and land border admitting more people and processing more goods and services on a daily basis than most Nigerian states. As rumours of another lockdown persist, based on the increasing number of COVID-19 infections, the labour unions and the Organised Private Sector are cautioning against it. According to experts, if introduced again, the negative implication on the economy will be enormous. Already businesses have been forced to introduce cost-cutting measures including downsizing and reduced salaries the first time out, with some businesses folding up altogether. The second lockdown will be catastrophic.

So far the number of COVID-19 infections for a country the population size of Nigeria is minimal. This could be the only positive fallout of the five-week lockdown.

Biodun Omojola is the Economics and Business Editor of Africa Today, the London based Pan-African news-magazine, based at its Lagos bureau.

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