‘How social distancing is killing us slowly’

•Lagosians lament as COVID-19 protocol forces costs of transport, foodstuffs to soar

It is meant to protect their lives but it has almost taken their livelihood away. OLALEKAN OLABULO, AKIN ADEWAKUN, TOLA ADENUBI and TUNBOSUN OGUNDARE report how social distancing is costing residents an arm and a leg.

IT was Chief Olu Falae, a former Secretary to the Government of the Federation, that first forcefully argued that what is being practised in Nigeria and world over to stop the spread of coronavirus is physical distancing and not social distancing, because what the rule preaches in times of contagious disease emergency is physicality and not socials. While the rest of the world has stuck with the “social” term, the definition of the elder statesman and traditional ruler of his hometown is finding direct expression in Lagos, Africa’s fastest growing city and home to about 25 per cent of Nigeria’s entire population.

Twenty-two million residents of the state are now compelled to observe distancing as a precautionary measure against the spread of the virus ravaging the entire world and the enforcement of the new rule is also compelling them to go through the pains of surviving at a higher cost.

From moving around in commercial buses to moving goods from one point to another, from having to pay double for daily essentials to being handed forceful leave without pay from work, residents of the state are feeling trapped by the Covid crisis and beaten by the after-effect of having to stop its spread. Although residents of the state have a way of being carefree with policies they do not approve, the compliance level this time is high due to stringent enforcement and stipulated penalties for violators of the order in public places like markets, public transports and malls.

In different areas of the state, whether posh or common, residents are fast developing the habit of ensuring social distancing in public places but at a cost which many of them have described as tough, while calling on the state government to look into some of those issues. Some of the areas where the social distancing order has brought pains and hardship to many residents of the state are high cost of transport fare as drivers are compelled to reduce the number of their passengers and still meet income target; social lifestyle and temporary loss of jobs.

 

‘I spend N2,400 to get to Ladipo’

For Jimoh Alamu, who lives on Church Street in the Ekoro area of Agbado-Oke Odo Local Council Development Area, it costs a fortune to move around the city nowadays. According to Alamu, an auto-mechanic, the advent of COVID-19 and the attendant policies of the state government on transportation in the state have made residents to be paying through their noses to get to their destinations. For instance, it costs the father of four between N1,100 and N1,200 to undertake a journey to Ladipo Spare Market in Mushin where he normally buys his spare parts. It used to cost him half of that amount to undertake same trip in the past.

Alamu said: “Instead of the normal fare of N100 from Aboru to Iyana Ipaja, we pay N200. You know, Marwa, the tricycle operators, will only take two people instead of the normal four, in compliance with the state government’s directive. Iyana Ipaja to Oshodi Express costs N500 instead of the old fare of N200-N250, while it costs about N400 to ride on a commercial motorcycle from Oshodi Expressway to Ladipo. In the past, we used to pay between N150 and N200. I was able to get a gear for a Mazda Bolt that I had earlier priced for N50,000 in the market for N60,000 when I got there last week. Such increments are always attributed to the new regulations which have made transport fare go up in the state. Besides, they open sparingly for now in the market and this could be another reason for such increment”.

He, however, expressed disappointment that the rule about maintaining social distancing is not being observed in the market. “The crowd here still looks uncontrollable. It is still a shoulder-to-shoulder situation, the type needed by the pandemic to wreak havoc. People here seem to be oblivious of the existence of a pandemic as deadly and highly contagious as coronavirus,” he lamented.

According to Gbadebo, a resident of Olorunto in the Aboru area of Agbado Oke Odo Local Council Development Area, government’s new rules regarding social distancing in the state are being used by commercial drivers to extort the already-impoverished residents of the state. The electrician who is in his mid-50s also confirmed the hike in transport fare within the metropolis.

“From Akinola Junction to Iyana Ipaja, a trip that used to cost N50 now costs N100, while Iyana Ipaja to Agege route has also witnessed a 100 per cent increase. It is now N100 instead of the rate of N50 for the same trip pre-COVID,” he stated.

 

‘It’s never been this bad’

For Mrs Abigael Akinsola, a resident of Sanni Labode Street in the Abule Egba area of the metropolis, her family of five has never had it this bad, especially with the astronomical rise in the prices of foods. “A four-liter bucket of garri that we used to buy for between N350 and N400 now goes for N700, while a tin (DeRica) of rice now costs N450 instead of the N200 it used to go for,” she stated. The woman also complained: “The same DeRica of beans sells for N200 instead of N120. Can you imagine how a family (of five) like mine, without a solid means of living, will survive?” argued the 41-year-old petty trader, whose husband’s okada business has been grounded for some time now due to the state government’s directive.

It is the same story for many households in the state, particularly the low and middle-income earners, although those that could be tagged comfortable before the pandemic are now also lamenting. Many have been sent home by their employers on forced leave without pay because of the crash in the global economy. And families are suddenly discovering that incomes are drying up without losing their jobs, though they can’t be said to have the jobs in the real sense of it. In some homes, both the father and mother were affected.

 

From Apapa with tears

Transport fare in Apapa and its environs has shot up, also due to distancing regulation. When Saturday Tribune checked out the bus fare from Apapa to Ojuelegba and from Ojuelegba back to Apapa, it was observed that there had been an increase of over 100 per cent because buses the route and were hitherto picking 14 passengers can now only pick between seven and nine passengers due to the official directive. Speaking to Saturday Tribune, an Apapa-bound commuter stated that in the early hours of the day, the prices usually return to normal as bus operators fill their buses to the brim due to lack of security operatives on the road by that time of the day.

The commuter, who identified himself as Chibuzor Kalu, said: “In the morning, between, say, 4.00 a.m. and 6.00 a.m., bus operators charge the normal fare of N200 and fill their buses without recourse to social distancing order. However, once it is 7.00 a.m. or 8.00 a.m., the bus operators revert to the social distancing order and increase their transport fare by 100 per cent. At times, we pay as much as N500 just to cross from Ojuelegba to Apapa.” He added that for okada, the transport fare, which used to be N500 per passenger prior to the lockdown, has now gone up to N1,000.”

When one of our correspondents visited Mile 2 overhead bridge to board a bus to Tin-Can port, he found that the fare was N300 instead of N100, while the motorcycle operators who used to charge N300 to Tin-Can demanded for between N700 and N1,000, depending on the time of the day. Saturday Tribune observed that two laws are guiding the commercial bus drivers plying Sango-Toll Gate to Oshodi. From the Sango axis to Iyana Ipaja, a J5 bus, for example, will carry three passengers per row and then reduce the number in each row to two passengers in the course of the journey. What gives out for the difference is that from Alakuko to Iyana-Ipaja, transporters have a field day as no security agents are available to check their level of compliance with social distancing. The opposite is the case from Iyana-Ipaja to Oshodi, especially between Mongoro and Ikeja Along Bus Stop.

The leadership of the transport union in the state, at the inception of the easing of the lockdown, had warned members to desist from arbitrary hike in charges for their services, while admonishing them to comply with the social distancing regulation of the state government. The Musiliu Akinsanya-led union also came out with the policy of no-face mask, no-entry for passengers. While the face-mask directive seems to be in force with the drivers, sustenance of the regular fare has been largely ignored. Efforts to reach the council chairman, popularly known as Olu-Omo, on phone were unsuccessful.

 

All our customers are gone –Nightclub operators

Nightclubs in the state have continued to count their losses in the wake of the social distancing order. Clubs and other places of relaxation have been shut down by the order of thee state government. Operators who tried to circumvent the directive have been sanctioned by Babajide Sanwo-Olu’s government. When Saturday Tribune visited Club Vegas, located along Opebi Road in Ikeja, and Club Royale, located around Ikeja City Mall in Alausa, the two prominent clubs known for having their halls, bars and parking lots filled up were observed to have become mere shadows of their old selves.

Speaking to Saturday Tribune on how the lockdown has affected their business, a staff member of Club Vegas lamented that if the lockdown persisted, he might be asked to stop coming to work. According to him, some of his colleagues have been asked to stay away due to lack of jobs to do. The man who identified himself simply as Dare explained that prior to the lockdown, Friday nights through the weekends were always very busy at the club.

“The lockdown has affected business. Some of my colleagues who handle the VIP bar section have been asked to stop coming to work because there are no customers to attend to and the club cannot afford to continue paying staff salaries when there are no jobs to do. The most affected section is the car park section where we used to have about six workers coordinating and arranging vehicles whenever we had shows. At times, during Friday shows, vehicles even parked by the roadside when the car park was already filled to the brim. Nowadays we hardly see a vehicle in our parking lot and that is why the club management asked about five of the six people manning the car park to stay at home until the lockdown is lifted,” Dare said. The bar tender disclosed that “inside the VIP bar where I work, we made more than N1 million during our peak periods like Friday nights. These days, it is difficult to make N1,000 because customers have not been coming since the lockdown began. Business has been so dull. I just hope that life will return to normal.”

 

Market blues

At the Oja Oba market in Abule Egba, traders said prices of foodstuffs have slightly reduced, compared to the peak of the total lockdown when movement was not allowed at all. They said only the prices of imported goods have continued to go up. According to the traders, before the lockdown, a bag of foreign rice sold for between N23,000 and N25,000, while a bag of Nigerian rice went for between N16,000 and N23,000. At the beginning of the lockdown, a bag of foreign rice jumped to N30,000, while Nigerian rice cost between N18,000 and N23,000. As of Wednesday morning, a bag of foreign rice was between N24,000 and N27,000, while Nigerian rice oscillated between N17,000 and N20,000. Further survey showed that a paint bucket of garri presently sells for N700, having increased from the pre-lockdown price of N600 and reduced from mid-lockdown price of N1200. Beans (Honey) ahas reduced to N1,200 per paint bucket from N1,400, while melon (egusi) has reduced to N400 per DeRica from the N700 of the lockdown era.

 

We can’t force price reduction –Babaloja

The Babaloja of Ashade Market in Ogba, Chief Adegoroye Adegboyega, while speaking with Saturday Tribune, described the hike in the prices of foodstuffs as one of the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. He noted that the market leaders were not empowered to compel the traders to reduce price.

Chief Adegboyega said: “There is nothing we can do. We cannot force them to sell below the buying price. Only the government can fix prices. You cannot ascertain how much they bought their goods and, therefore, you cannot dictate how much they should sell it. We can only advise them. Look at it: the government has reduced the cost of petrol and it is not reflecting on transport fare. If not for coronavirus, people would have advocated a reduction in transport fare. The traders are going through hardship to get their goods. It is after coronavirus is gone that people can fight for price reduction.”

The state Commissioner for Information, Gbenga Omotoso, couldn’t be reached for the official stance of the state government.

 

A family’s ordeal

For Mr Tunde, a casual worker at a manufacturing company, life has never been this bad. The father of three has not been finding things easy since the lockdown, as no income has been coming in for him. His wife, a teacher in a low-profile private primary school in New Oko- Oba, has not received any salary, just like him, since March. To worsen the situation, palliatives either from government or corporate bodies have never come their way.

“Am I not poor?” Tunde asked rhetorically as he noted that he found it difficult to believe the claims of the federal and state governments that foodstuffs had been distributed as relief materials to the needy and the vulnerable. While wondering how government determines who exactly are the needy and where they live and how they reach out to them, Tunde narrated his ordeal at one of government-designated palliatives distribution centres in a certain local government area: “I went to Iju Grammar School, Fagba, when I heard that government would distribute palliatives to people there. I got the shock of my life when I got there and I was given two sachets of noodles. I was told that that was for a family. So, it has not been easy. The fact that prices of foodstuffs have gone up in the market has compounded people’s sufferings.”

When asked how he was coping with his family, Tunde said it was simply by the grace of God as his wife’s family and a church member had been lending them a hand. “It is what they give to us at times as foodstuffs and cash that we live on,” he said.

Tunde said it was uncertain if his company will call causal workers back to their duty posts immediately ban is lifted on general movement. According to him, his company, for now, is making use of only members of staff, while the casual workers have asked to stay back at home without a definite date of resumption. “So, coronavirus has really dealt a big blow to my family. The suffering is too much. Government should just open up the economy for somebody like me to know what next and where,” he pleaded.

Also for Mrs Jane Ikechukwu, a petty trader, the pain brought about by coronavirus and the lockdown on her family has left her unhappy. Mrs Ikechukwu, who lives in the Alakuko area of Ijaye-Ojokoro axis, sells second-hand clothing at Oshodi and for her to get to work and return home now, she requires a minimum of N1,400 instead of half of the amount needed for the same trip prior to this time.

This new reality and the likelihood of not making any or much sales throughout the day have now forced her to resort to trekking from home to the Lagos-Abeokuta Expressway where she will board a bus to Oshodi at N600 per trip. “I can’t help trekking about four-kilometer distance from home and doing the same in the evening when returning. By that, I save N200 from my daily expenses,” she explained. Mrs Ikechukwu said she would have elected to continue staying at home until normalcy returns but she was tired of staying indoors and there wouldn’t be any food to eat if she didn’t go out. Accusing transporters of making life more difficult for commuters, she said it was not that she actually wanted drivers to retain their old transport fare since they now carry fewer passengers but their new charges should be commensurate to the difference.

 

Many teachers yet to receive Feb. salary –School owners

The situation of things for many teachers has also been tough. President of the League of Muslim School Proprietors (LEAMSP), Mr Abdulwaheed Obalakun, and his counterpart in charge of the Association of Formidable Education (AFED), Mr Orji Kanu, gave an insight into the lot of teachers in their schools According to Obalakun, more than 70 per cent of LEAMSP members have not been able to pay their workers February salary let alone March and April. He said: “It is disturbing that we cannot also afford palliative materials to give to them during this COVID-19 crisis, at least to cushion the effect of the pandemic on them and their families and government is also not helping.”

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