International Policy Digest

Arinze Chijioke
World News /26 Jun 2020
06.26.20

Nigeria Moves to Criminalize Non-Use of Face Masks as Infections Spike

Worried by the widespread disregard of measures to slow the spread of COVID-19, the Buhari government is considering ways of making it a criminal offence for anyone caught not wearing a face mask.

Nigeria currently has 22,614 confirmed cases of coronavirus with 549 deaths. As we have seen in other countries like the United States, Russia, and Brazil, these numbers could easily spike if the public isn’t more mindful of the dangers posed by COVID.

Dr. Sani Aliyu, the National Coordinator of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19, said criminalizing the non-use of face masks had become necessary.

He said “we are now working with the security agencies and state governments to make the use of face masks in the public mandatory. There is total non-compliance with the use of face masks and social distancing. It is unfortunate that about 70 percent of Nigerians still believe that COVID-19 is not an issue.”

Empty markets during the lockdown. (Arinze Chijioke)

Recall that in a televised speech on April 27, President Muhammadu Buhari announced the gradual easing of lockdown measures across the country. His decision to ease the lockdown was informed by the need to allow Nigerians a little bit of freedom to work again, after months of lockdown had inflicted severe economic harm on Nigerians.

The president, however, listed measures that would accompany the phased and gradual easing of lockdown measures to include a nationwide 8 pm to 6 am curfew that was later reduced from 10 pm to 4 am and compulsory use of facemasks and a ban on ‘non-essential’ travel between regions.

Medical experts including the president of the Nigerian Medical Association, Dr. Francis Adedayo Faduyile, and the head of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, Chikwe Ihekweazu, warned that the easing of the lockdown measures would result in more infections.

Days after, reports filtered in of how citizens had failed to adhere to public health guidelines introduced to help slow the spread of the virus.

Virus for the rich

The perception among a vast majority of Nigerians, especially those in the informal sector, is that any policies being implemented are to the benefit of the wealthy.

About five customers surround John Chinedu (not really his name), waiting patiently at the popular Ogbete Market in Enugu, each standing less than a metre apart.

None goes away until each is satisfied with the prices they’ve negotiated.

Shoppers packing a local market. Few are wearing face coverings. (Arinze Chijioke)

But Chinedu’s mouth and nose are not masked. He is not even carrying anything he could use to protect others from his droplets of saliva.

Some of the customers who are carrying face masks are only tying them around their necks while they haggle over prices.

Reports have shown how many Nigerians only wear face masks to avoid being victimized by the police who are making sure that citizens wear them each time they go out.

Izuchukwu, an electronics repairman, says he believes he will not contract the virus for any reason. He says he cannot wear a mask because it makes him uncomfortable.

“All of us do not wear face masks because nobody is coming here to check us. We still do our normal business every day. It will not get to us,” he said, at his shop.

Emma Onoh shares a similar opinion. He says the government is only using the virus to earn money for itself and make poor Nigerians suffer. “I have my mask here, but I can’t wear it because it does not make sense to me,” he said.

Social distancing and wearing masks have been popular worldwide in slowing the spread of COVID-19. Although such practices help control the spread of COVID-19, Nigerians have yet to grasp how the virus is transmitted.

In public spaces like banks, markets, and bus stops, they gather in large numbers, jettisoning the use of face masks and flouting orders by the government.

Fear of more deaths

During one of its daily briefings, the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 warned that the country might start to count bodies in the hundreds in the next three weeks following the spread of coronavirus in the country.

Boss Mustapha, the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, said he was worried about the attitudes of some Nigerians to the virus despite its rate of spread.

The task force drew attention to the fact that many Nigerians who manage to wear face masks only do so out of fear of being victimized by security forces at checkpoints.

“By the time the death tolls start coming in, the nation might enter into a serious panic mode, because the casualties would reflect the figures and the testing rate,” he said.

The absence of drugs or vaccines for the treatment or prevention of the disease makes it imperative for the people to take personal responsibility for the protection of their lives by wholly embracing non-pharmaceutical methods of combating COVID-19 such as wearing face masks, regular washing of hands and maintaining social distancing.