Gbenga Omotoso is the Commissioner for Information and Strategy in Lagos State. With the upsurge of the Coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19), and its effect on residents, especially with the state being the epicentre of the pandemic, the state’s image maker tells BENJAMIN OMOIKE all the state government has been doing to rise to the occasion. He also talks about the proposed vacconation of residents, ongoing projects and other matters.
Almost one year since the index COVID-19 case was reported in Lagos. How would you say the state has fared?
It wasn’t something that came with warning, we thought it was going to be short and brief. We didn’t know it was going to be a marathon. Experts are even saying it is going to be here with us for a very long time, until it becomes like malaria, until almost everybody has it. It was something we never really knew what we were going into, one way or the other we are prepared.
Thank God for Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu. He is a listening governor. The Health Commissioner told him that there was something going on in China since December 2019 and he listened. We were told it was going to be so bad in Africa that we would be picking bodies on the streets, but that has not turned out to be true.
We thank our first responders, doctors, nurses and all medical workers, who are at the forefront of this. They have done well and we need to applaud them all the time. For us, it is something that has taught us a lesson, remember we had Ebola years back but we didn’t know COVID-19 will be this long.
Nigeria hasn’t tested up to a million people since this pandemic broke out. Will you say in this regard, the nation is really prepared to fight this?
I wouldn’t want to speak for Nigeria, but Lagos is really serious in flattening the curve of COVID-19. The kind of testing they are doing in some other places is what I call ‘fast food test’. You do the test and in a few minutes, the test result is here. Some of those kits, like the Commissioner of Health in Lagos said, are useless as useless, not giving accurate information.
You know it is not good for you to be positive and they say you are negative, or you are negative and they say you are positive. It’s very dangerous. The kind of test we do in Lagos is called the PCR test and our test is confirmed to be 99 per cent correct, unlike all other test kits, and the test is expensive.
The fact that it is expensive doesn’t mean people should not come forward for testing. That is why the government set up sample collection centers in all the Local Government areas, so that the government can pick up those samples and take them to the laboratory in Yaba. That the rate of infection is very low is that people are not so excited about testing.
You know an average Nigerian will prefer to get sick instead of knowing their status and begin to panic. By the time most of them come out for testing, they have fallen sick, that is not the way it should be. People should come out to test, so we can continue to test.
Wearing of face masks in public places has been declared compulsory. The President has made a proclamation to this effect, with a penalty. A lot of people still don’t wear face masks in Lagos, what is state government doing about this?
It is illegal for people not to wear masks. That is why we are making a lot of advocacy around the place. In Lagos, we don’t paste posters everywhere, it will be put down but this particular one is an emergency. We are now pasting posters all over the place that people should wear face masks. Recently, a few television stations, including foreign ones, came to the IDH in Yaba, to do stories and what they saw there shocked them and the number of people too; that people are struggling to breathe and people must be on oxygen for days now.
I do not think now that people are not aware that COVID-19 is real. But why are they not using it, some people claim – you won’t believe it – that they cannot afford buying a face mask, that is why the government is giving out free face masks, some of those that are not wearing face masks, the Police are arresting some of them.
Talk about people gathering in a crowd, officers of the Lagos Safety Commission are going round, they shut down event centers, they shut down places people gather unnecessarily.
Will you say the Federal Government has done enough in terms of support for Lagos in this fight?
Absolutely. It will be unfair to say the Federal Government has left Lagos in the cold to fight this pandemic alone. If you recall, last year, the huge amount that was approved and released to the state in this fight. We equally had various partnerships from the private sector and well-meaning individuals and.organisations. All of these collaborations have been very useful and have yielded positive and fruitful dividends in the fight against the pandemic.
What is Lagos State Government doing to get Lagosians vaccinated?
All I know is that the state is waiting for the Federal Government to take the first step, we do not know yet what the Federal Government policy is. Lagos State Government is also discussing with some experts, those in charge, regarding vaccines. We want 60 per cent of our people to be vaccinated and once you do that, we can say we have passed immunity.
Lagos State is a sub-national, we are not going to roll out vaccine without Federal government support, now we don’t know what will suit our own situation.
What is your position on state policing, especially with the Lagos State House of Assembly agitating for it?
It is clear that Lagos State is under-policed. Community Policing should be encouraged in Lagos State. Most of our law enforcement agents don’t know much about certain areas well, because they are mostly transferred. We have FBI in America and we have New York police, everywhere they have state police, so it should be the same in Nigeria.
Governor Sanwo-Olu has been able to execute some projects in the last one year, especially those he inherited from his predecessor. What is the state of many of these projects that are yet undone?
When Babajide Sanwo-Olu came in as governor, he promised he was not going to abandon any project, the one you mentioned (Agege/Pen-Cinema Bridge) is almost 97 per cent complete. Any moment from now, it will be commissioned.
The Pen-Cinema Bridge will open up the axis, the property there will go up and it will ease the traffic around the area. There are so many other projects which the governor is doing, for example, all the drainages around town. Before, experts were telling us the sea was going to be flooded and people should move and go to the upland area, but we thank God that did not happen. You can see that the government is cleaning up all drainages and embarking on construction of new drainages, so much so, that when it begins to rain, we won’t feel it at all.
Then the network of roads at Ojokoro, which has created ease of movement around the area, the public works have worked on more than 400 roads in Lagos. There is no way the government will work on 400 roads in Lagos and the people will not feel the impact. In education, thousands of teachers are trained to use android devices, to help them teach their students, and the outcome in education is, over 300 school buildings have been refurbished, our colleges LASPOTech and LASU, are doing well. New schools have been built.
In the health sector, the mother and child hospitals have been built and many of them have impacted in the lives of the people.
Government’s plan to curb unemployment in Lagos, especially in aftermath of the #EndSARS protests?
The government has done a lot regarding unemployment. When you look at the capital projects, all of these projects are done by the youths. We won’t bring somebody from outside to come do it. Even in the Ministry of Science and Technology, the are helping more inventors in the state. In the Skills Acquisition Centers established by the state government, over 13, 0000 youths have been trained. They are not just training them but giving them equipment to start their business.
If you look at the Lagos State Employment Trust Fund, it is at the forefront of helping young graduates to be able to do something on their own. In the aftermath of the EndSARS, they helped many whose businesses were destroyed because of the aftermath of the EndSARS. LSTF has helped people to be their own bosses and start their own business. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs has helped a lot of women to start their businesses in the last one year.