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COVID -19: Thousands stranded abroad as Nigeria sleep-walks into total lockdown

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The ever-busy lobby of the National Assembly Complex closed its doors to the public on Friday over the fear of the dreaded Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic just as hundreds of Nigerian students were left stranded in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, following the government’s directive that all schools be closed indefinitely over the Coronavirus. Already, the Sudanese authorities have directed the Nigerian Embassy in Khartoum to evacuate all the students back to Nigeria, even as the international airport in Khartoum has been shut down temporarily over the COVID-19 pandemic.

An official memo from the office of the Director General (Protocol), Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Sudan and addressed to the Nigerian Embassy in Khartoum drew the attention of the Nigerian government to the closure of all schools, universities and colleges in Sudan as a result of COVID-19 with effect from March 15, adding: “Due to these sudden measures and coupled with the fact that almost all the private and public student hostels have requested all of the students to vacate the hostels premises immediately, almost all of the volume of Nigerian students studying in Sudan are now stranded, as the airport too has been closed. It is pertinent to state that this has become a great source of concern to the embassy, as well as parents,” the memo stated.

However, a window of opportunity was offered to the Nigerian authorities to evacuate the stranded students with Badr Airline “on compassionate grounds.” Besides, the students, under the aegis of the National Association of Nigerian Students, Sudan (NANSS), in a statement expressing the travails of the students, said the international airport in Khartoum was closed in response to the disease.

Meanwhile, the former chairman of Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs in the 8th National Assembly, Senator Shehu Sani, while reacting to the development, said he reliably learnt that “a plane carrying the Nigerian students will be taking off from Khartoum later today (yesterday).” He urged the government to “give them waiver and permit them to land, so that they don’t get stranded in Sudan, as they have since been sent out of the hostels by their universities.”

At home, the federal government closed three international airports over the disease. The Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19 yesterday announced the closure as part of measures taken to combat the spread of the disease. The Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF) and PTF Chairman, Boss Mustapha, stated that from midnight Friday, the Malam Aminu Kano International Airport, Kano, Akanu Ibiam International Airport, Enugu and the Port Harcourt International Airport, Omagwa would be closed to all international flights. However, the two busiest airports; the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja and the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos would remain opened to and accept international flights, irrespective of the type of operations.

A statement issued by the Director of Information in the SGF’s office, Willie Bassey, enjoined all stakeholders to collaborate with Port Health Services in the identification of suspects/persons at points of entry and to bring such persons to the attention of Port Health Officers for appropriate action. Besides, the PTF urged all Nigerians to remain calm and cooperate with the instructions already issued by the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA) and Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) on modes of worship and gatherings at this time, not exceeding 50 persons, assuring that adequate and appropriate information would be made available in due course.

Meanwhile, more states joined the federal government to battle the virus by rolling out measures to promote social distancing. In Niger, the state government ordered the closure of all educational institutions in the state, including tertiary schools. The closure, which starts from Monday, will last for 30 days. A statement by the Secretary to the State Government, Alhaji Ahmed Matane, also suspended all public gatherings. Ekiti State Governor, Kayode Fayemi, yesterday barred social, political, religious and family gatherings of more than 20 persons as part of efforts to check the spread of coronavirus. The governor, who announced that “all public and private schools and institutions in Ekiti State are to close down from Monday, March 23”, also directed that “all non-essential workers in private and public sectors are encouraged to work from home from Monday, March 23”.

The Anambra State Government has also banned all public gatherings and directed tertiary institutions to go on compulsory vacation. According to a statement signed by the Governor, Chief Willie Obiano, the ban on public gatherings will commence from Monday while the closure of tertiary institutions will commence from today. He said: “Primary and secondary schools are mandated to go on compulsory break from March 27, 2020, while inter-house sports competitions are suspended till further notice.”

The FCT Administration has also directed the indefinite closure of all schools in the territory as a precaution against the spread of the virus. The FCT Minister of State, Dr. Ramatu Aliyu, gave the directive in Abuja yesterday during a meeting with heads of Secretariats, Departments and Agencies (SDAs) under her supervision. Also, the Chairman of Abuja Municipal Area Council (AMAC), Hon. Abdullahi Candido, has directed all council’s workers, except those on essential services, to remain at home for two weeks.

The Benue State Government has also directed the closure of all schools in the state as part of measures to prevent the spread of the virus to the state. Briefing journalists after the state Executive Council meeting yesterday, the Commissioner for Education, Prof. Dennis Ityavyar, said all schools had been directed to conclude examinations on or before Friday next week and proceed on holiday. The Enugu State Government has also directed public and private primary and secondary schools in the state to conclude all activities in their various schools and shut down on or before March 27.

Governor Abdullahi Umar Ganduje of Kano State has also directed the closure of public and private schools across the state as part of precautionary measures against the threat posed by the virus. A statement signed by the Commissioner for Education, Mr. Muhammad Kiru, said the indefinite vacation became effective from Monday. The Ondo State Governor, Oluwarotimi Akeredolu, also directed the closure of all primary and secondary schools as well as tertiary institutions in the state as from today until further notice.

Nigeria may be heading for a total lockdown as the federal government, six more states and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) have shut down schools to curb the spread of the global pandemic. The closure of schools by the six states– Enugu, Anambra, Benue, Niger, Ondo, Kano and the FCT- has brought the number of states that closed schools to 16. Lagos, Kwara, Ogun and the North-west states of Jigawa, Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, Kebbi, Sokoto and Zamfara had earlier announced school closures in their states.

The federal government has also directed the heads of federal institutions and principals of Unity Colleges nationwide, to as a matter of urgency close them down in order to curtail the spread of the pandemic. The Permanent Secretary of the Federal Ministry of Education, Sonny Echonu, said the decision was to protect students and pupils from the deadly scourge. The Federal Government also added Austria and Sweden to its list of high-risk countries with widespread community transmission of COVID-19 in the last 24 hours.

The Senate also took steps yesterday to prevent the spread of the virus by suspending public hearings and shutting down the public gallery. Senators were, however, divided over whether the upper legislative chamber should be shut down with the recent return of 12 of them from the UK. The senators, who are members of the Senate Committee on Petroleum (Upstream), led by the Chairman, Senator Albert Bassey, returned from an international oil seminar in London last weekend.

Disturbed by the effect of the continued presence of the 12 senators at the National Assembly, the Senate yesterday went into an executive session that lasted for about two hours. There was a heated argument among the senators with some asking the leadership to shut down the Senate as a result of the possible spread of the epidemic with the return of the affected senators who had continued to mingle with their colleagues since they returned last Saturday.

Other senators were said to have canvassed for the restriction of visitors’ movements around the Senate. It took the intervention of the President of the Senate, Dr. Ahmad Lawan, for the arguments of the two parties not to degenerate as Lawan was said to have appealed to the two groups to allow peace to reign. Eventually, he was said to have advised the returnee senators to isolate themselves and report to the authorities for necessary medical checks for the pandemic.

Chairman of the Senate Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Senator Godiya Akwashiki, confirmed the story as he told newsmen after yesterday’s plenary that Lawan advised the 12 senators to go for medical screening. The Senate gallery will also be closed to the public till further notice, including excursions from schools and organisations from Tuesday.

Also, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) announced it was postponing senatorial by-elections in Bayelsa, Plateau and Imo states due to the Coronavirus. In a statement by INEC’s National Commissioner in charge of Voter Education and Publicity, Festus Okoye, the commission said that the by-elections would have taken place in the Bayelsa Central and Bayelsa West Senatorial Districts, Plateau South Senatorial District as well as in Imo North Senatorial District where vacancies occurred.

According to INEC, the vacancies occurred in the Bayelsa Central and Bayelsa West Senatorial Districts following the swearing into office of Senator Douye Diri and Senator Lawrence Ewhrudjakpo as governor and deputy governor of the state respectively. The commission also said it received notice of vacancies for the Imo North Senatorial District following the death of Senator Benjamin Uwajumogu and for Plateau South Senatorial District following the death of Senator Longjan Datong.

The Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) has directed all medical associations that have declared industrial actions against their management to suspend all actions and assist in containing the global pandemic in Nigeria. In this regard NMA urged the Association of Resident Doctors (ARDs) in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) and Gombe State, ESUT-Parklane and Kaduna, as well as NMA in Cross River State to report back to work and treat Nigerians.

Briefing journalists yesterday in Abuja, President of the association, Dr. Francis Faduyile, called on the federal government to provide all the necessary Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to the different hospitals, so that health personnel can adequately and appropriately manage their patients. The NMA president also requested that isolation wards be upgraded all over the states of the federation and the FCT for proper treatment of those infected. Faduyile implored all state NMA to set up a five-man committee of health professionals, including doctors, pharmacies and nurses, to monitor the level of preparedness and management of hospitals, while calling on the public to follow all instructions given by the government in an effort to contain this disease.

According to him, the national NMA committee on Emerging and Re-emerging Disease would be strengthened to interact with the federal government in an effort to see that COVID-19 scourge is contained and wiped off the country.