By Ethelbert Okere
A palliative, what it is: To mitigate; that is, to make something less harmful. It is more appropriately used in medical parlance to describe a measure taken to minimize the progression of a disease and relieving undesirable symptoms for as long as possible rather than attempting to cure the disease. Differently put, a palliative is a stop-gap-measure.
Therefore, haven imported it into the current national lexicon in the fight against the dreaded COVID-19 pandemic, it is only proper that we understand that at no time did the government – both federal and state – think that it is a panacea to the debilitating consequences of measures being taken by it to minimize the spread of the virus. Before the current state of affairs, it was not a hidden matter that, minus Lagos state, state governments in Nigeria are not financially buoyant and merely struggle to meet some of their basic obligations. Imo state is not an exception.
But as they say in our native parlance, “Mgberede Nyiri Dike” (It is in an emergency that you know what a man can do). That quite describes the current situation in the state. Given the financial trajectory of the state, it requires coverage and creativity to come up with the measures put forward by the Uzodinma administration to assist the people in standing up to the challenges of having to comply with the government’s – indeed health experts’ – a directive to stay away from the daily drudgery of earning a living.
It is not for me to tabulate the quantity of rice, beans, noodles, yams, etc, the state government has so far distributed. It is not even necessary because no matter the quantum, it can never be enough. In any case, one common idiosyncrasy of the Igbo man, no matter how poor, is to bluff even before kings that he can feed himself. “Ina Enyem Nri?” (Do You Feed Me?). Put differently, a typical Igbo man feels embarrassed or even humiliated whenever he finds himself in a situation whereby he has to depend on handouts from others, even if it is the government.
I watched the video clip where Governor Uzodinma handed out food items to the officials of the various local government areas for onwards distribution to the people. His posturing did not betray any illusion that he was giving out a lifeline but a “demonstration of commitment to the welfare of the people to avert shortages in food supply at a time of economic uncertainties…” This statement by the governor shows that he understands exactly that the gestures by the state government, under his supervision, are just to minimize the effect of the “lockdown” on the people, not a permanent solution to the perennial economic deprivation they have been contending with.
Imo state is not the only place where the government is doing something to support the people but it is certainly ahead of many others in the strategic steps to ward off the dreaded virus.
It is striking that in a state that is yet to record a single case, the government has put together a mechanism in waiting. Signs that the Uzodinma administration was not going to foot-drag on the matter came when on March 22, 2020, it set up a nine-man committee on the prevention of COVID-19 and headed by a world-renowned expert on Pharmacognosy, Professor Maurice Iwu.
Of course, it would be too mechanical to say that there is a correlation between the existence of the Iwu-led committee and the fact that there has been no case recorded in the state so far, but what cannot be disputed is that the committee has helped the state government in taking clear and unambiguous steps to position both the government and the people in readiness for any eventuality.
In less than two weeks, on April 3, 2020, to be precise, the state government, ably guided by the committee, commissioned six state-of-the-art COVID-19 isolation centres across the state: Two in the capital city, Owerri, including one at the federal medical centre; one at the Imo State University Teaching Hospital, Orlu; one each at the Aboh Mbaise General Hospital and the Okigwe General Hospital and the General Hospital Umuguma in Owerri West local government area, and along Orlu road, still in the state capital.
This was how the governor put his message across to the people while commissioning one of the centres: “The Imo state government is not relenting in its efforts to prevent the virus from entering the state. The government has deployed well-trained personnel from the National Centre for Disease Control NCDC to attend to any suspected case of the virus in the state. In like manner, a molecular laboratory which will serve the purpose of testing other viral diseases including Ebola has also been set up by the government”.
Nothing can better demonstrate the readiness of a government to provide the needed leadership at a time. However, it would amount to a dangerous complacency for the government to rest on its oars at this stage; for the simple reason that there are recent developments that were, perhaps, not quite anticipated even a month ago.
A few days after the commissioning of the isolation centres, the first index case was reported in the neighboring Anambra state. It is a worrisome development, considering the geographical contiguity between the two states. In fact, the two states are almost borderless with each other.
Take the Onitsha expressway end at the Mgbidi-Amorka boundary. There is almost nothing to show that you are in a different state if you are at the spot where the boundary is supposed to be.
The people of both towns – Amorka (Anambra) and Mgbidi (Imo) – eat in the same eateries and drink in the same bear parlous. It is the same thing at the Akokwa end. The people of Akokwa, which is in Imo state, share everything in common with Uga, a village in Anambra, less than a quarter of a kilometer ahead.
Needless to say, the final landing of the coronavirus in Anambra calls for extra vigilance by both the government and the people of Imo state. More pointedly, the Imo state government should pay special attention to all boundary areas between Imo and Anambra, with messages soliciting the cooperation of residents there, especially as it concerns social distancing. That is at the carrot ends. The stick should not be spared even though with caution.
Clearly, there is a need to enforce the stay-at-home measures in the boundary areas more strictly. As a matter of fact, stricter compliance is needed state-wise than is currently the case. Although breaches are nation-wide, methinks that the time has come for Imolites to volunteer, on their own, to obey the stay-at-home order.
It is to the credit of the state government that, so far, the security agents have shown caution in their duty of enforcement. But I believe that Ndi Imo, a proud heritage, should not wait until we are beaten into the lines.
Still, the government has a further role to play in terms of enlightenment and orientation. This is the time the state orientation agency has to be revived and set to work. The agency should immediately set up sub-agencies – if it has not already done so – at the local government levels to do village-to-village live campaigns.
It may not cost a fortune to the state to immediately procure open vans, mounted with public address systems for officials to go round towns and village with messages on social distancing, regular hand washing, and other necessary personal precautions. Clearly, press statements or even radio broadcasts may no longer be sufficient. Yes, the coming of corona… to a close neighbor like Anambra is a thing to worry about but I am optimistic that in the end, Imo may still achieve the feat of being one of the spots in the world where the almighty corona… dared not step into!