During a public health crisis, a government’s credibility is a vital asset. To slow the spread of a virus, the government must convincingly inform and instruct the public. And to do this, it must inspire trust. Trust by following the science, acting out of the interests of the population, and enforcing measures that will help to keep the public safe. Trust depends on transparency. If governments appear to be concealing the truth or withholding information, their credibility can quickly crumble.
The Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) has been consistent in publishing the number of new cases recorded on daily basis, as well as the number of deaths and recovery but in the beginning, it was beyond this. The agency started by detailing new cases with the origin of the individual that contracted the virus, their movement and latest information on them but as more cases are recorded, they dropped this information.
A sample of their first announcement of the first case reads: The case is an Italian citizen who works in Nigeria and returned from Milan, Italy to Lagos, Nigeria on the 25th of February 2020. He was confirmed by the Virology Laboratory of the Lagos University Teaching Hospital, part of the Laboratory Network of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control. The patient is clinically stable, with no serious symptoms, and is being managed at the Infectious Disease Hospital in Yaba, Lagos.
The questions on the level of transparency by The Nigerian government in the fight against the pandemic started when it was rumoured that the country has recorded its first death of coronavirus. The story was first published by The Punch Newspapers but was later deleted and was announced days later by the NCDC which forced the citizens to begin to question how open the agency has been in the fight and if there are more that are being hidden intentionally and why?
Another case was when it was rumoured that The Chief of Staff of the Nigerian president, Abba Kyari, has tested positive for coronavirus, following his recent visit to some of the countries with the worse cases. Later on that evening, the NCDC published an update on the cases recorded with “one case in Abuja” without stating, as has been the case, who the person is, which further fueled the question of transparency and started the rumour of how safe the country’s leader, President Muhammadu Buhari is following his closeness to His chief of staff.
Recently, it was reported that before the death of the second person who died of the disease in Nigeria, he visited Imo state on his return to Nigeria from visits to the UK, Italy and US which are some of the hottest areas of the virus but till date the NCDC is yet to release any statement regarding his movement and is being accused of shielding the case and covering up possible viral cases within Owerri and Mbaise.
Another point of accusation on the agency’s transparency is the donation being made by some individuals and businesses in Nigeria which as at today is over 21 billion Naira. The Federal government still laments on lack of funds to purchase ventilators and testing kits for the virus.
The Federal Ministry of Finance was recently embroid in a show of shame after their twitter handle sent out a tweet to Tesla founder, Elon Musk asking for support in the acquisition of new ventilators and testing kits, leading to a public questioning on what all the donations Nigerians have been making so far is being used for and how it’s being managed?
An environment of opacity and suspicion has made the Nigerian government into its own worst enemy and aggravated what Nigerian officials seemingly fear: that Nigerians could suspect they are covering up the real scale of infections.
Nigerian government and the NCDC may have nothing to hide at all. Thus far, there is no evidence of an orchestrated cover-up of infections. Nigeria government responded faster and more aggressively than other African countries and even the US and UK, by speeding up contact tracing, shutting schools and universities and even religious activities. The government has halted political fights with the opposition parties and seem to be more focused on getting the country back to normal and putting an end to the spread of the disease.
Moreover, no country can claim a perfect response – the scientific consensus about the virus is still emerging and nobody yet knows how much devastation it will ultimately wreak. Nigeria could have acknowledged that most countries undoubtedly have more infections than confirmed numbers because testing is still limited.
The UK itself is contending with two dramatically different models: one from Imperial College London researchers, who argue the country is still early in its fight with the virus and another from researchers at Oxford University, which suggests that as much as half the population (over 30 million people) may have already been infected. In the absence of data about the virus, such models are partly reliant on assumption and speculation.
Indeed, its persistent aversion to transparency has led many observers and foreign governments to view most official claims with a degree of suspicion.
Recently, an army general was dismissed from his post leading the fight against Boko Haram when a video surfaced on social media showing the general lamenting on the killing of his men by the terrorists which is, according to him as a result of insufficient arms and ammunition and being obviously overpowered by the insurgents who are well equipped with superior firearms.
Not only was the government’s response harmful, it was also unnecessary. After the news broke and went viral, the government released a statement on improvement in supplies of arms and adequately equipping the soldiers to clear out the terrorists. But the damage to its reputation had already been done and would last for years.
It’s the same story with coronavirus. The government would do far better by responding transparently to concerns and being open about the measures it is taking. During a pandemic, transparency is not a liberal luxury, but a vital feature of effective governance.