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ON December 21, 2020, the Presidential Task Force(PTF) on COVID-19 suggested to state governments and the Federal Capital Territory Administration (FCTA) to shut down recreation centres, pubs, parks and clubs but allow malls to remain open to the public as part of measures to contain the rising wave of coronavirus in the country.
This singular advisory may have done significant harm to the nation’s efforts to contain the deadly pandemic, findings by The ICIR have shown. Because malls were allowed to open as advised by the PTF, residents of Abuja trooped out, violating COVID-19 protocol during the last Christmas and New Year festivities, according to findings by The ICIR‘s reporter who monitored parks and recreation facilities in the city during the period.
Amidst a sharp daily increase in cases of COVID-19 in Nigeria, especially in the country’s capital and Lagos State, the nation’s commercial hub, thousands of residents of Abuja trooped to Novare Mall located around Lugbe to celebrate Christmas and New Year, flagrantly flouting the protocol set by the government to contain the spread of the virus.
The facility was crowded, and private security guards and officers of the Nigerian Police were overwhelmed by customers, comprising shoppers, fun-seekers and others who swarmed the premises to relish the fun of the season.
In line with the PTF advisory, the Federal Capital Territory Administration (FCTA) had on December 23, 2020, ordered the closure of all recreation parks, pubs, club venues and restaurants in the city, while it allowed malls to provide services for the public. The FCTA also banned social gathering during the festive period. Many residents of Abuja spurned the directive on social gathering; they trooped out en masse to celebrate the festivities.
Christmas is among the biggest feasts celebrated by Nigerians. It is a period for Christians to commemorate the birth of Jesus, who is believed to have been born over 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem of Judea, Israel. He is the head of the Christian faith.
It is a time for homes to cook varieties of food and entertain guests, including neighbours, friends, family members, among others. Two most significant incidents during Christmas celebration are carols/services in churches and visit to recreation parks and shopping malls by people who participate in the feast. It is usually a period of holiday. After helping themselves with delicious meals and drinks at home, faithful (especially women and children) dress in beautiful attires and shoes that make them look unique, and they gracefully visit choice locations within their neighbourhoods for fun. Outings for the feast are arguably merrier at the parks, malls and related places.
The feast is soon followed by the New Year Day which everyone, irrespective of religious leaning, celebrates with similar pomp as Christmas.
“What makes this year 2020 Christmas unique is because in the early days of the year, people were panicking. A lot of us did not believe they could see the end of the year because of the high fatalities being recorded by the developed countries from coronavirus. A lot of us lost our means of livelihood and the likes, but we didn’t lose our lives. That is why we are here,” said one of the visitors to the Novare Mall, Blessing Joseph, on Boxing Day (December 26, 2020) while speaking with The ICIR.
Shoprite, located within the Novare Mall, along the Airport Road has a wide area of land in-between it and the Airport Expressway, part of which is beautifully landscaped into parking lot and turfs for fun. There are many businesses in the mall, including a new generation bank, but Shoprite is unarguably the most visited and popular.
The mall, opened on November 30, 2017, has since served people within the Airport axis of the FCT, namely Lugbe, Giri, Gwagwalada, Airport and Kuje, among others.
During the Yuletide and the New Year season, residents swooped on the mall, the majority of whom were children and teenagers. They clearly violated the guidelines on the coronavirus pandemic in the manner in which they conducted themselves. From The large space in front of the mall provided enough ground and served as an alternative to recreation facilities that were shut by the government. Many families came to the premises with mats, foods, drinks and spent hours as they would at the parks.
A significant number of visitors came with face masks, but they hanged these masks on their jaws. At the Novare Mall, the huge population was recorded on 25th, 26th and 27th December as many of the Christian faithful and their well-wishers left churches to continue their feast with family and friends outside their homes.
In Abuja, Shoprite malls are located in Apo, Silverbird (at Central Area); Lugbe, Zone 5 (around Peoples’ Democratic Party headquarters); and Jabi Lake, but the Lugbe mall had the largest crowd during the period, as witnessed by our reporter.
In Abuja, there are other mall locations at Sahad, H-Medic, Grand Square, but they did not have as much crowd as Shoprite malls during the festive season.
“We came here because everywhere we had gone to was closed by the government. So, we were told that this place is open, and we are here,” said James Adelaja, who came to the Lugbe Shoprite with his family of six. None of the Adelaja’s wore a face mask.
Speaking on behalf of the PTF, director of information, Office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Willie Bassey, told The ICIR that the advisories issued by the PTF on behalf of President Muhammadu Buhari were not binding on states and the FCT. He said states were at liberty to decide what measures were best for them, but that the overall decision of every state should be to help the nation prevent and subsequently defeat the pandemic.
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He, therefore, dissociated the PTF from any alleged discrimination that might have existed by way of closing recreational parks in the FCT while allowing shopping malls to operate.
Emphasising the flexibility of the advisories, Bassey cited a particular state which chose to allow its schools to resume earlier than the January 18 suggested by the federal government.
He said the PTF had been doing its best to sensitise Nigerians and all entities in the country to the dangers of COVID-19, stressing that it would nobody any good to put others at risk. He appealed to everyone in the country to always abide by the regulations set by the government as, according to him, the states were expected to take more responsibilities in combating the pandemic as specified in the last federal government’s advisories.
The PTF had, on December 23, 2020, suggested that states in the country and the FCT close all bars, night clubs, pubs, event centres, and recreation venues. Only restaurants providing services to hotel residents were allowed. The PTF also said that restaurants providing takeaways, home deliveries and drive-ins were to be closed.
The government had restricted all informal and formal festivity events, including weddings, conferences, congresses, office parties, concerts, seminars, sporting activities, end-of-year events to not more than 50 persons.
It suggested that all gatherings linked to religious events should be attended by fewer than 50 percent capacity of the facility of use during which physical distancing and mandatory use of face masks should be strictly enforced. It had also said that, where more than 50 persons were attending any such event, the gathering should be held outdoors only.
The PTF further suggested that public transportation systems were to carry passengers of not more than 50 percent of their capacities in compliance with social distancing rules.
It also advised that all government staff on GL.12 and below were to stay at home for the next five weeks, while schools should be closed till at least the 18th of January, 2021 to enable the measures introduced to take effect.
Our reporter sought to get the reaction of Magic Land, one of the biggest fun centres in the city, which was among the parks locked by the government. A senior official of the park who refused to give his name because the park had not been allowed to operate told The ICIR, “What I will let you know is this, we don’t have any comment to make. We are not angry with anybody. The decision is from the highest authority and we don’t have any comment to make. Even though we want to make any comment, it will be after they have opened us. We don’t know what is in their mind. For now, we don’t have any comment to make. We are so sorry.”
Some of the residents who spoke with our reporter at the park expressed sadness over the decision to shut the place and other recreation centres in the city, faulting government’s decision to allow malls to operate when similar businesses were shut down.
“We are saddened by the development. You can see my family of 12 here. We are from Kubwa. We got to the Maitama Park, it was shut. We came here, we were not allowed to enter. This is really disappointing; I didn’t expect this on a Christmas Day,” Daniel Oketola, one of the fun seekers, told The ICIR.
“This is not an ideal thing to do by the government. I’m yet to come to terms with the criteria used by the government to shut one place and leave the other open.”
Our reporter monitored cars coming into the Magic Land, Maitama Park, and noticed that they were turned back by security agents during the festive season.
But, Shoprite said it did its best to manage its patronage. Responding to enquiry by The ICIR on crowding of its Lugbe, Abuja mall during the last festivities by customers, Kunle Abiola, marketing/CSR coordinator, Shoprite Nigeria, said the company contracted security guards and they were stationed at its entrances, monitoring the number of customers that entered its stores. Abiola said that, where necessary, entrances were closed to limit the number of people inside the stores.
He said strict hygiene and safety measures were usually in place in its facilities to help protect customers as much as possible.
He explained that Shoprite remained committed to following COVID-19 guidelines as set out by the various government departments.
He also appealed to the public to do their part and observe the appropriate precautions whilst in public spaces.
“We are working closely with the various authorities and have various measures in place for the different countries in which we trade,” part of his statement read.
According to him, the company had been proactively acting to safeguard its employees and customers since the emergence of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, picture evidence taken by The ICIR during the festive period sharply contrasts with Shoprite’s claims suggesting that there were social distancing and strict adherence to regulations against the pandemic at its Lugbe mall during the festivities.
In his reaction, head of media and enlightenment of the FCT Task Force, Ikharo Attah, said the FCTA followed the federal government’s advisory and should be commended for its pro-activeness in preventing the virus from spreading.
“We are following PTF guidelines. You know, clearly, I think I got so many calls on that and I told them that we thought people would go home. When we cleared them from Millennium Park to go home, they moved into Transcorp Hilton. We cleared them from Jabi Lake Park, they went into Jabi Lake Mall. We cleared them from Magic Land, they went to Shoprite Mall. We were there on Christmas Day and New Year Day.
“I told the team that based on discretion, some of the children there are less than a year old, some of them are between one and three years with their mother. If you try anything there, the children would run into moving vehicles on the highway.
“On New Year day, we were there, some of the people advised me that we clear them. I said we could not clear the place because there would be a stampede. Because of the children and the mothers, we had to find a way to start talking to them. Throughout the December period, we did not make any arrest because we knew that the crowd we saw and addressed were largely women and children,” Attah told The ICIR.
He said his team was also overwhelmed by the crowd at the Jabi Lake Mall, where there were also Shoprite and other business entities. According to him, it would be difficult to differentiate people who came to shop from those who came for other activities.
He, however, absolved the management of the shopping mall from any blame as, according to him, the public wanted to enjoy Christmas and New Year at those locations against the counsel of the PTF, FCTA and the Task Force.
Asked why both recreation parks and malls were not shut down, he said the PTF guidelines stated that malls were to be open. “If you read the PTF guideline, malls are to be opened. Check the guidelines on the internet. So, what do we do?”
The ICIR also obtained a video posted by Attah on his Facebook page on Christmas Day, where he was appealing to residents who wanted to gain access to the Millennium Park, opposite the Transcorp Hilton. Attah, who doled out cash to some children in the video as their ‘Christmas Gift,’ eventually succeeded in pacifying the angry families who had come to enjoy their feast at the park.
The park is managed by the FCTA, which allows members of the public to have free access to the venue, daily. Many visitors see the venue as the most serene location for families and individuals to enjoy themselves without being charged, though they must pay for anything bought at the park. But it has been under lock and key by the FCTA because of the pandemic.
Daily confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 in Nigeria have been on increase since December 8, 2020. Apart from December 13, 14 and 28, there was no day the nation did not record over 500 laboratory-confirmed cases from December 10 to December 31, 2020. Positive cases in the month peaked with 1,145 on December 17.
Similarly, since January 1, 2021, confirmed cases have been on the high, and they were only fewer than 1,000 on the second and third day of the month. The highest figure for the month was recorded on January 6, with 1,664 cases, according to data obtained from the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC).
The nation is expecting delivery of its first COVID-19 vaccine before end of January 2021. One hundred thousand doses are expected to be delivered to the country through the National Primary Health Care Development Agency (NPHCDA). The World Health Organization (WHO) has strongly been advocating the equitable distribution of the vaccines to enable developing countries, to which Nigeria belong, benefit from the protection provided by the vaccines.
By the midnight of Saturday 17th January 2021, the country had recorded 110,387 positive cases; 89,317 of the cases had been discharged; while 1,435 affected persons had died. Lagos and Abuja led the chart of confirmed cases with 40,624 and 14,598 respectively. Among the prominent people in Abuja that have died of COVID was the former chief of staff to President Buhari, Abba Kyari, who died on 17th April 2020. Similarly, the acting secretary of the FCTA Health and Human Services Secretariat, Mohammed Kawu, tested positive for the disease in July 2020, but he recovered.
Data from the Africa Centre for Disease Control showed on January 15, 2021, said there were 3.176 million cases of COVID-19 in Africa. Of the figure, 2.594 had recovered while 76,752 had died.