Nigeria: Is there anyone in charge?

Someone once described Nigeria as “a work in progress”. A work in progress that has lasted more than 53 years since independence is a waste of everybody’s time. That description fittingly captures the confusion, chaos, and mess that underpin the way the country is being governed. It is tragic that Nigeria should be described in such an unflattering way. When you consider all the problems that are confronting the country and the way they are being dealt with, you feel that perhaps there is some justification in that portrayal.

Consider the ongoing debate over the 22 September date for reopening of schools. It is absurd that we should be arguing and shouting and yelling over a matter that is so straightforward. And it is because the Federal Government fixed a new date for reopening of schools without consulting widely with the community and relevant stakeholders.

The fact that the country is currently battling to contain and prevent further spread of the Ebola virus should have informed President Goodluck Jonathan, as well as his health and education ministers that the decision to direct schools to reopen on Monday next week (22 September 2014) was unwise, incautious, ill-advised, and could expose school children to the deadly Ebola virus.

The direction issued by the Federal Government that schools should reopen next Monday is not in the nation’s best interest. The government cannot claim to be more knowledgeable than stakeholders in the primary and secondary education sectors, as well as stakeholders in the health sector. These groups, namely the Nigeria Union of Teachers (NUT), the All Nigeria Confederation of Principals of Secondary Schools, and the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) to name just a few, have all expressed unhappiness with next Monday’s reopening date.

It is a mark of the disorganized nature of decision making at the Federal Government level that a date was fixed for schools to reopen without anyone consulting the stakeholders. Anyone who understands the destructive nature of the Ebola virus and the nation’s lack of capacity to contain or eliminate the virus will not advise that schools should reopen next week.

The government has suddenly become our modern day King Solomon who has perfect knowledge of what is right and what is wrong for the citizens. In that role, the government has disregarded all suggestions that the reopening date for schools should be postponed until doctors and paramedical workers can advise the best date to reopen schools based on educated assessment of the situation.

The national president of the Nigeria Union of Teachers (NUT), Michael Alogba, was right when he said: “In any sane society, decision such as this will not be taken until the government and all stakeholders have met and discussed the issue at stake and are sure that the nation is scientifically and medically free from the scourge…”

Alogba queried further: “What kind of government is this? Don’t they know that children can never be as hygienic as adults? Don’t they know that the immunity level of children is not as high as that of adults? Why do you want to open schools when you have not cleared out the virus; when you still have about 400 people under surveillance in Port Harcourt and Lagos?”

In every society, government has an obligation to ensure the safety, security, welfare and wellbeing of citizens. In our society, the government perceives serious danger to our health but mischievously directs everyone to defy the danger. This is exactly what the Federal Government has done in the present situation.

On a scale of priority, there is no question that health takes higher significance over education. It is only a healthy child who can attend school. A sick child cannot go to school to learn. Postponing the resumption date for schools would have been the right thing to do.

While West African countries are struggling to contain the spread of the Ebola virus, bureaucrats in Nigeria have peeped into their crystal balls and resolved that it is okay for schools to reopen next week, as the virus does not pose any threats to our health. It is such a reckless argument. How can politicians elected to look after the welfare of citizens make decisions that will have catastrophic impact on the health of school children and indeed the health of the nation?

Schools must reopen next week because the government has ascertained through non-scientific evidence that Ebola virus poses no more danger to school children than it does to the wider society. This is the foolhardiness that informs how decisions are made by officials. We can as well assure ourselves misleadingly that the Ebola virus that has been wrecking lives in Liberia and Sierra Leone in particular will not affect us because we are a special race, we are tough, and we are a resilient people. What kills people in other countries cannot scratch our skin.

The Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), an important stakeholder in the health sector, has already advised that it is not a good idea for schools to reopen on 22 September because of the danger that school children could be infected with the Ebola virus that has not been completely controlled or eliminated in the country. National secretary-general of the NMA, Dr Olawunmi Alayaki, said: “We are not happy with this decision on the resumption of schools. Schools should be shut till the last suspected case or patient is certified free of the virus.” The objection of the NMA is based in part on the well-founded argument that the nation lacks rudimentary sanitization amenities that will assist in averting further spread of the Ebola virus if school children become infected.

Another unimpeachable reason given by the NMA is that children have lower immunity and are known to play with one another when they are in good health and when they are in poor health. This implies that school children are more susceptible to catching the virus once another student has been infected. In that situation, it would be more difficult to restrain and isolate an infected child from mixing with other children.

The other significant issues ignored by government officials have to do with lack of health facilities in schools. How many schools, for example, have potable water for students? How many schools have hand sanitizers for students? How many school children understand the importance of using hand sanitizers, if they are available? How many schools have decent toilets for students? If schools lack these basic health facilities, managing the outbreak of Ebola virus in schools would be near impossible.

The NMA is a body of health professionals who are committed to safeguarding the health of citizens. If the government had consulted with the NMA, it would have seen the soundness in the reasons advanced by the organisation. The government would not have issued the hasty decision that schools should reopen next week. The NMA is genuinely concerned about the consequences of an outbreak of Ebola virus in schools.

The NMA has already proposed that schools should be reopened sometime in December this year or early next year to give the government time to acquire all the health facilities to aid prevention of further spread of the virus. The NMA said: “We can shift the resumption date till next year or in the next three months… Parents have no reason to be in a hurry because if Ebola should enter any school, it will assume another dimension. Children cannot survive isolation like adults.”

With the Ebola virus, as with any other deadly disease, it is always better to prevent than to cure those affected. Unfortunately, there is no cure for Ebola virus. Our fragile health system cannot cope with a large population infected with the virus. This is the fact the Health and Education ministers do not want to understand.

Some people have suggested that the government was right to fix the 22 September reopening date for schools because universities and polytechnics have been operating without Ebola affecting the students. What this argument ignores are factors such as the age of school children, their behavioural traits and their inability to understand how to take care of their health.

School children require more careful handling than university and polytechnic students. While adults can look after themselves, children are more likely to engage in risky behaviours that will expose them to infection.

We might believe we are in a democracy but we have a government that shows all the characteristics of a dictatorship. It is a government that does not consult and does not listen when civil society offers advice.

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