Yesterday, President Muhammad Buhari extended his earlier lockdown order on Lagos and Abuja by another 14 days, in his bid to follow global standard response in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Understandably, our attention will be focused more on the economic impact of this order, given the fact that a vast majority y of Nigerian live from hand to mouth, literarily. In Kwara state, the governor, Alhaji AbdulRazaq AbdulRahman has also ordered a total lockdown, equally for 14 days.
However, while the difficulties of a time like this are acknowledged and apparently unavoidable, a worst case scenario might still be in the offing to rubbish the lookdown order and other ancillary policy decisions by the government if the communication strategies being currently being employed particularly towards those providing essential services, and more specifically, the market women/men, is not reviewed to reflect more pragmatism.
Let’s start with acknowledging that radio and television campaigns by government on the pandemic are commendable. Besides, individual broadcast organizations have equally ensured a continuous dissemination of information on the disease on virtually all their programmes.
But a visit to any market during the brief (window)period residents are allowed to come out under the order, will reveal that there is need for a reinforcement of the communication strategy to educate on, and ensure adherence to, social distancing rules in order to reduce the possibilities of transmission.
Social distancing is a challenge to humanity, generally, given that we are created to desire a hug, a handshake, etc as demonstration of love, acceptance and consolation and even acceptance. For us as Africans, with a culture that frowns at individualism, keeping social distance becomes even more challenging. Add to this the reality of economic poverty, and lack of proper designs for our market and several other social institutional platforms, then the challenge becomes even greater.
Walking through any of our markets in the window period during this lockdown shows people still having contact carelessly with one another, contrary to what we see in other nations, particularly those seriously struggling to contain the disease given the devastation it has wrecked on their people and which devastation we must make every effort to avoid.
While would we have this scenario of people ‘buying and selling’ as if there is no COVID-19? Our people have either forgotten, or understand but refuse to accept, the fact that human contact remains the most potent form of transmitting the COVID-19 and therefore keeping social distance, a most reliable weapon for protecting ourselves. Also our markets are not designed in such ways as to effect a social distancing system.
This then means that the market place is a veritable ground for community transmission of the disease; with consequences better imagined than experienced.
While little can now be done about the market structures (Lagos introduced neighborhood markets specifically to reduce opportunities for social contact and it can be done in Kwara or any other state but is not a sure answer to the structural challenges associated with African market environments), much can be done in the way of reinforcing communication during this period.
We must realize that not everyone in the market will listen to a radio station. It is not always possible to listen to radio inside the market. Not many of them will watch a television to see a public service commercial. And not many of them are literate enough to read or read and understand the NCDC text messages (By the way I have not seen indigenous versions of the sms though I would believe they exist). This then means that the communication on COVID-19 prevention may not be reaching this very vulnerable group at the most critical point. And that is why many of our people in the market place (and most likely, many of our youths in the densely populated communities) will continue to continue their engagements.
What to do: I propose the introduction and utilization of travelling community educators. We have the ministry of Information and Communication, and we have the Public Health Education Unit of Ministry of Health both of which have vehicles with Public Address Systems (PAS). We also have a set of local herbal producers who sell their wares using their vehicles or motorcycles equipped with small PAS. They move about markets and community streets and with their loud speakers do reach a lot of people.
Apart from using the civil service based ministry officials and their channels, Government can equally engage these people to move around markets throughout the window period and to move around various communities during the lockdown proper with prerecorded messages emphasizing the mode of transmission and the usefulness of social distancing as a preventive measure. Their messages should include the importance of hand washing and how that can be done, even in the market place, no matter how small a stall or store is.
Their messages will serve as reinforcement for whatever they might have heard at home on radio or television or from their neighbors. This will change their orientation at the market and help to further flatten the curve of infection transmission. Failure to do this reinforcement might mean that we are still opening the window of exposure with uts consequences.
And another challenging dimension to this matter: If people can come out from 10-am-2pm, a total of four hours for buying and selling, three times a week, how can they not meet together in a church or mosque, two hours on Sunday (for churches) and less than that on Friday (for mosques) where incidentally religious leaders will still pass the message of prevention and where social distancing rules can still be far better observed/enforced than crowded market places where people buy and sell. And maybe ‘sell’ the virus to their clients.
For instance, prior to the lockdown, both partial and total, churches were already implementing hand washing and usage of sanitisers and I am sure mosques were equally observing the rules within the dictates of the scripture. Markets were not. And markets are still not doing anything. The fumigation of markets by government, while commendable, would not mean people cannot import infection from bodily contact.
All the same I am still an advocate of total lockdown, despite its pains, until we are sure there is safety out there. But while bearing the pains, government should help to ensure that there are no opportunities for prolonging the pains through preventable community transmission. A more pragmatic communication, as suggested in this article, would be a good way to achieving this. of course, along with other measures a may be appropriate.
Abiodun Oyeleye, PhD
Abiodun wrote from email@example.com,