Four weeks after President Muhammadu Buhari announced total lockdown in Lagos, Ogun and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) to check the spread of coronavirus, otherwise called COVID-19, a decision was taken by the Federal Government to relax the stay-at-home order with effect from Monday, May 4, 2020 on account of the hardship experienced by the people, particularly hunger.
But since the relaxation order took effect on Monday, the fear of a backlash has been widespread because a lot of the people in the affected states ignored the rule of social distancing and other guidelines aimed at stemming the tide of the fast spreading virus that has infected more than 3,000 Nigerians and claimed more than 100 lives.
The worst culprits are banks and public buses, particularly in Lagos and Abuja, where the observation of the rule of social distancing is almost zero. In their desperation to enter banking halls for one financial transaction or the other, bank customers in the aforementioned cities have been besieging the premises of banks in hundreds even before the normal 8 am when banks normally open for business.
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And when the banks’ doors are open for business, it is always a pandemonium as the security personnel of the banks battle to ensure sanity at their entrances. Anxious and desperate are oblivious of the rule of social distancing as they push and shove one another and even discarding their face masks in some instances.
There is a widespread opinion that whatever gain had been made in the battle to curtail the spread of coronavirus in the four months that people were forced to stay indoors might have been rubbished within a few minutes of the commencement of the relaxation order.
Chika Okafor, a manager in a branch of one of the new generation banks located in Ogba area in Lagos, said the bank was least prepared for the crowd that besieged its doors early Monday morning and afterwards.
He said: “We did not expect the chaotic situation at all. We had thought that because the automated teller machines (ATMs) were functioning throughout the lockdown period, the people’s needs for cash would have been taken care of. Alas, we were wrong!
“We had to lock our doors and control access to the banking hall because allowing such a crowd into the banking hall would have made nonsense of the social distancing policy against COVID-19 pandemic.”
Okafor’s view was shared by Mrs. Ibironke Asaju, who works in another bank about five buildings away.
Asaju said: “There is definitely no way we would have thrown our doors open to all the customers that bombarded us throughout this week. Nigerians just have to learn to get used to online banking. That is the in-thing now, especially with the ongoing coronavirus death threat.”
Kits to the rescue
It was learnt that in view of the pressure from desperate customers, some banks have come up with kits and other protective outfits to be won by their workers before their doors are fully opened to the general public.
One of our correspondents was reliably told that the staff of Fidelity Bank, for example, could start wearing one of such kits before the week runs out.
But it was the case of a hen that perches on a rope; neither the hen nor the rope will know peace. Some bank customers our correspondents spoken with said their experiences were not less nasty than those of the bank workers in the wake of the relaxation order.
Mr. Chukwudi Mezie, a Fidelity Bank customer, said: “I have an account with Fidelity Bank. After such a long period at home, I needed to do some urgent banking transactions.
“I went to the branch of Fidelity Bank at Ago-Okota, Lagos, but I was told that the branch did not open for business. I was advised to go to the branch of the bank in FESTAC Town, but the crowd that I met there was just too much.
“I ended up wasting the whole day at the branch without achieving anything. I had to return home and went back to the Ago-Okota Branch the next day.
“By then, the branch had opened but the crowd was also too much. We were given numbers and I was 55. We were more than 300 customers and we waited for the whole day. In the end, the bank was only able to attend to just 45 customers.
“I was finally able to enter the banking hall on Wednesday. But to do that, I had to send my younger brother to the bank very early in the morning to secure a tally number for me, and he got number 39. I was able to enter the bank and conclude one or two transactions.
“I also went to Guaranty Trust Bank the following day to deposit some money and it took the assistance of one of the security personnel for me to go in and deposit money. It is really difficult to carry out transactions in the banks now.”
At the Onipanu Branch of one of the new generation banks on Monday, desperate customers were seen outside the bank’s doors pushing and shoving themselves as they sought entry into the bank through its tiny automated doors.
The surge was occasioned by the complaints many of the customers had about their accounts, ATM cards and failed transactions, as well as those who wanted to deposit cash at the branch.
There was physical aggression as well as verbal exchanges among the customers. In the end, majority of them could not secure entry into the banking hall.
Touts who had been deprived of the illegal money they extort from commercial bus drivers at bus stops in Lagos were also on the rampage. A few of them spotted face masks while many others had none.
Why social distancing rule is ignored
According to Michael Abugo, a marketing communication consultant in Surulere, Lagos, “social and physical distancing is not working because of non-enforcement. The banks were just on propaganda campaign on the publicity given to their dysfunctional queues with the non-observance of social and physical distancing within their operational environment.
“Virtually all the public buses are on full passengers and are not being checked by the authorities. My fear and concern is that the relaxation of the restriction on movement may be counter-productive if enforcement of social distancing rules is not in place.”
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On his part, a Nollywood movie director and producer, who pleaded anonymity, said: “Social distancing is not quite working. There is a clear conflict between understanding its essence and the desperation to get by with daily living, especially amongst the masses.
“I didn’t go out, so I am not even aware that banks closed their doors to customers. But I saw lots of crowd in front of practically all the banks.
“Perhaps what was seen as closing of doors against customers was an attempt to allow people into the bank in batches so that distancing could be achieved between customers.
“The gathering of crowds defeats the principles of social distancing. But I can say that social distancing is not working.”
Another film producer, Quadri Hassan, noted with sadness that most Lagosians were not observing the rule of social distancing.
He said: “What I saw about social distancing in Lagos is totally wrong. Lagosians are not practising it. By next week, the number of people infected with COVID-19 is going to be high.
“My experience on the road yesterday and today has not been encouraging. You see people packing themselves in buses like sardines while a lot of the passengers, drivers and conductors are not wearing face masks.”
On her part, an educationist, Mrs. Bunmi Aloba, simply said that “social distancing cannot work. I was out today and found that it is extremely difficult to observe it.”
Things will get better — Publisher
The publisher of Our Daily Manner, Bishop (Dr.) Chris Kwakpovwe, said that “social distancing is not working because of the poverty and desperation level in the nation.
“The bankers were wrong in the way they treated customers, but they were organised inside the banking hall as I was told. I am sure that crowd reaction will become more disciplined after this first week when reality of the new order dawns on everyone.”
A Lagos-based media practitioner, Dele Iwagbemi, who spoke with one of our reporters on the phone, was furious about the callous way he felt many of the banks treated their customers, especially in the first few days of the week.
His argument is that the banks ought to have envisaged that customers would besiege them at the first gush of air of freedom and prepare adequately to meet the challenge.
He said: “If the banks foresaw the rush, there was nothing to show that they actually prepared for it. Rather, most of them, quite callously, decided to open just a few branches to deal with the situation.
“You needed to see the motley crowds in most of the few branches that were opened to customers. The premises of those banks were simply jam-packed in defiance of the social distancing policy in place.
“In my own case, even though I needed money badly, I didn’t bother to venture into the bank. One of my accounts is in Polaris Bank. Unfortunately, my ATM to the account had expired and I had not renewed it when the lockdown came on us suddenly, and I had no money in Sterling Bank where I have my ATM.
“It was a terrible period for me and my family because my cash was stuck in Polaris Bank. I could have transferred the money online as a friend suggested but I have misplaced the expired ATM which I needed to do the transfer. I was counting days.
“I was, therefore, so happy President Mohammadu Buhari created a window to collect money directly from the banks by relaxing the lockdown this week.
“You can now imagine my disappointment when my bank (Polaris), like some others like Access Bank, Fidelity Bank, and so on decided to open just a few branches when they should have known that people would rush into the banks.
“It is so disappointing. What are the banks up to? Are they trying to save cost at the expense of human lives? It is so unfortunate. I will suggest that even though some of the banks later in the week belatedly opened more branches, the regulatory authorities should sanction the banks involved to serve as deterrent. The damage has already been done.”
However, a retired banker and chartered accountant, Mr. Felix Oko, believes that Nigerian banks did very well in putting in place platforms for alternative banking transactions.
He argued that many of the people that are trooping to the banks are individuals who are still dealing with physical cash because they do not want to embrace technology.
“Many of them have their reasons. Some say the online banking is susceptible to fraud and so on. I think the banks, this time around, did well. People should learn to embrace technology,” he said.
Gradual reopening of branches strategic — Banks
However, official sources in some of the banks told our reporters that many of them, which opened since Monday, had adopted new strategies to reduce the large crowds at their branches, which were opened in phases. Many banks, they contended, had sent messages to their customers informing them about the branches that will be in operation, every day of the week after the lockdown was relaxed.
“In many of the banks’ branches, canopies and chairs were set up outside the bank’s premises for customers to sit while waiting to be attended to. In many others, the customers ran riot, many of the customers were impatient, some threatening to close their accounts if they were not allowed into the banking hall,” one of the sources who spoke in confidence, said. Sources in Polaris Bank, Fidelity Bank, First Bank, among others, told our reporters that the gradual reopening of their branches was strategic, mainly to avoid possible eventualities over the COVID-19 pandemic.
In an emailed notice to its customers, GTBank said it will for now be alternating the opening of its branches every week. It said customers will be advised on a weekly basis of the branches open to serve them. Another source in GTBank said the architecture of its branches was built in a way that there are no fences to stop people from entering.
He said people can easily walk into the branches, hence what was witnessed were many people trooping into the premises to gain entrance to the banking hall.
He said the bank has continually asked its customers to use e-payment channels given that the bank has invested heavily in digitisation of its operations.
He said many of the customers were there to make cash withdrawals, and a good number there to secure and sell spaces to customers that are in a hurry to be attended to.
The source said the bank has been reopening many of its branches, and had acted to ensure that if any branch had a case of COVID-19, it can easily move the customers to a nearly branch.
“We cannot expose all our branches at once to the customers, in case there is a case of COVID-19 in any branch, we can close it down and move the customers to the next branch. Gradual reopening of our branches is strategic on the part of the bank,” the source said.
In another emailed note to customers, Access Bank Plc said 2020 has redefined how people live and do business amidst the COVID-19 pandemic; utmost safety is the new normal.
“Fortunately, with the improvements on our mobile, internet banking, USSD (*901#) and PrimusPlus, most of your everyday financial transactions can safely be completed from the comfort of your home using your computer or phone,” it said.
The bank said it has put all necessary measures and hygiene procedures in place to ensure your safety and that of our staff while transacting at our branches.
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“As the government relaxes the restriction on movement, please remember to stay masked-up, wash your hands often and continue to adhere to health and safety guidelines as mandated by health authorities. We reiterate our commitment to providing you with the highest level of service excellence always,” it said.
An insider source within the bank, said most of the customers that trouped to the branches did not have ATM cards and needed to get one having realised how badly they needed it in the COVID-19 era.
The source said the bank also realised the need to open more branches and has got over 397 branches opened since Monday the the lockdown was relaxed.
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