AS NIGERIA faces the coronavirus pandemic, arguably her most challenging national crisis since the three-year Civil War of 1967-1970, governments at national and sub-national levels are still enmesh in confusion almost six months after the outbreak of covid-19 in China and slightly over two months since the index case in Nigeria.

The aura of confusion clearly manifests in the inescapable failure of political leadership to match their words with the preferred programmes vital to subdue the pandemic.

Pointers to the confusion and lack of capacity come in three major ways. While the first indicator is the steady rise in the number of infected people and the spread of the infection across states, the second is the inability of the authorities to increase testing capacity which has been identified as very crucial to checking the spread of the virus. The third pointer is the growing resistance to the lockdowns restricting movement and the new norms guiding social relationship due to the absence of a worthwhile economic stimulus plan or implementable palliatives following the lockdowns.

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Reference points

One of the most applauded strategies of containment of covid-19 was designed by Denmark. The Danish government before enforcing the lockdown of its cities also designed a clear policy direction that was a product of a tripartite consultation of private employers, organised labour and government. It was a collective strategy that western analysts described as an effective battle plan against Covid-19 as it took into consideration the immediate existential wellbeing of Danish citizens, their economy at large and, in the long run, the interdependence of all these variables.

The Danish Prime Minister, Mette Frederiksen, after the negotiations with trade unions and employers’ associations, announced that 2.6 billion Danish kroner (about US$379,148,900.00) had been set aside to prevent mass layoffs in the private sector that would be facing financial pressures from the lockdown of the economy.

The scheme was planned to last for three months with the state agreeing to pay 75% of the salaries of employees, paid on a monthly basis, with companies paying the remaining 25%. For hourly workers covered by the agreement, the government agreed to pay 90% of their wages, which is up to 26,000 Danish kroner per worker, about (US$3,794.53), per month.

It is believed that by this agreement, the Danish government will be spending as much as 13% of the national economy within three months. This, it is asserted, is roughly the equivalent of a $2.5 trillion stimulus in the United States spread out over just 13 weeks.

According to the Danish Minister of Finance, while commenting on the unprecedented tripartite consensus, workers and employers had agreed to withdraw this huge sum of money from the country’s Sovereign Wealth Fund to finance welfare policy measures for citizens and to cushion the economy from the shocks expected to come post-pandemic.

In Africa

A number of other countries have activated their emergency stimulus measures. At the continental level, Ghana and South Africa seem to be more focused and had taken pre-emptive measures directed broadly at the mass of the people. The Ghanaian and South African presidents have been very visible in leading the battle against the coronavirus by ensuring that their actions and pronouncements carry the stamp of presidential authority.

President Macky Sall of Senegal

Since Ghana recorded its first two cases of the novel Coronavirus on 12th March, 2020, President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo has addressed Ghanaians 8 times with the last being last Sunday, April 26, 2020. Apart from the moral boost that this constant presence is sure to give the citizenry, the Ghanaian leader, realising the value of health workers in the war against Covid-19, quickly approved insurance cover for healthcare professionals and ancillary staff to the tune of $60, 000 (N23.4m) for death and $4, 300 (N1.67m) for critical illness.

In taking major decisions, the Ghanaian government ensured the participation of multiple stakeholders including the Ghana Trades Union Congress (Ghana-TUC) as according to President Akufo-Addo, “Majority of people who will be affected by decisions of that nature are the working people of our country, the ordinary people of Ghana.”

President Akufo-Addo of Ghana

While there were no known palliative measures for private and informal sector workers who might be affected by the lockdown on the entire country, a major practical measure the government took was the decision to take care of water and electricity bills of all Ghanaians for the months of April, May and June. In order to address the inadequacy of water supply in some areas, the President said “all water tankers, publicly and privately owned are also going to be mobilized to ensure the supply of water to all vulnerable communities.”

For South Africa, the continent’s second biggest economy after Nigeria, which has the highest coronavirus infection rate in Africa, and whose economy is said to be “technically in recession” before the pandemic; the government has so far had a very robust interface with organized labour and other stakeholders in the economy.

While President Cyril Ramaphosa did not delay in imposing a lockdown on major cities as the rate of infection steadily climbed, he did not delay in unfolding a wide range of safety nets to cushion the effects of the stiff measures to contain covid-19. In an announcement on March 24, 2020 by Mr Thulas Nxesi, South Africa’s Employment and Labour Minister, the government announced relief measures for the citizenry while the lockdown lasts.

President Ramaphosa of South Africa

According to the minister, public servants on emergency services during the lockdown period will be compensated and adequately furnished with protective gears and other safety materials. In addition to this, other categories of workers who are not on emergency duty but fall ill during the lockdown, or whose socio-economic conditions take a plunge during the period of national emergency, will also receive adequate financial support from government. “We are activating the Basic Conditions of Employment Act rights for those employees. Those who will be working during this period will be expected to be supplied with the necessary protective gear when on duty,” Mr Nxesi stated.

Private sector workers were also not left out of consideration by the South African government as the it invoked the country’s National Economic Development and Labour Council Act (NEDLAC) to bring employers in the private sector and their workers to “negotiate special leave conditions.” In addition to this, workers who may be temporarily unemployed due to a number of reasons are to benefit from the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) which provides temporary relief to workers who are each entitled to draw R3,500 (about N67,795) monthly from UIF.

For informal sector workers not captured by the above palliatives, President Ramaphosa had assured that a safety net would be developed to secure them from any possible economic hardship. In addition, the government is considering a one-trillion rand (almost 21 trillion naira) stimulus proposal designed in collaboration with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) along with business and community representatives on 17th April 2020 as the country’s economic intervention to limit the destructive outcome that a lockdown on the economy, which is being predicted to plunge into a deep recession anytime soon.

While the examples of Ghana and South Africa are reference points in their relative responsiveness to popular and working class subsistence yearnings, Senegal and Madagascar are receiving continental and to some degree, global attention for their innovation and courage in looking inward for a solution to the pandemic.

Senegal, which has far little resources compared to Nigeria, South Africa, Ghana and many other African countries, is being celebrated for developing early-detection mobile kits and 3D-printed ventilators which it has deployed to successfully control further spread of covid-19. By this, Senegal is believed to have demonstrated a possible model in curbing the coronavirus banking on experiences it gained from managing the Ebola outbreak. In addition to this, Senegal has reportedly put in place a comprehensive system to assist people who self-report with the illness, apart from having monitoring teams from the health ministry that promptly respond to people reporting in ill.

As at 29th April, 2020, Worldometer noted that Magadascar, which has a total of 128 infections, had no new case of coronavirus and 100% recoveries. This means it has zero death. This feat is attributed to President Andry Rajoelina who, rather than looking up to the West for remedies, decided to look inwards by encouraging the Malagasy Institute of Applied Research to develop a herbal medicine called “Covid Organic” or “CVO.”

The President has made the herbal solution, which is said to contain artemisa, a local plant used in treating malaria, compulsory for the administration of the coronavirus infection for both preventive and treatment remedy. To demonstrate his confidence on the medication, the president drank it on National television, live while launching it.

President Rajoelina, drinking his CVO on live television

Nigeria, according to Boss Mustapha, the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), who chairs the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on Covid-19 Response, revealed that the federal government was considering the importation of Madagascar’s CVO.

At the task force’s daily briefing on Tuesday, April 28, the SGF stated: “I want to assure you that whatever is happening in the world, we are mindful of it and we are keeping tab. I was reading of the experiences in Madagascar – of why everybody is drinking some solutions that have been prepared. This morning I was sharing with my wife, and I told her that probably I would request that Mr President to allow us import a plane load for a trial.”

Nigeria: What manner of Plan?

While it is understandable for Nigeria, less scientifically and technologically endowed, poorly motivated healthcare manpower, with an equally decayed health infrastructure to be overawed by Covid-19; the prevailing circumstances around which the war against the infection is organised appear not only unserious but markedly flawed.

From President Buhari’s seeming lack of empathy, commitment and confusion to the glaring disorganisation in the structures empanelled to wage the wage the war against covid-19, coupled with the absence of formidable and credible alternative voices, either in a dynamic opposition party or popularly-conscious and active organised labour and civil society; it will take divine intervention to mitigate the impact of the impending disaster that is facing Nigeria.

Minister of Health and member of PTF briefing Mr President

There is a complete disconnect between the scale of the infection, the socio-economic despondence underestimated by authorities at both the federal and state levels, demonstrably reflected in what their actions and inactions vis-à-vis the logic of governance, which is the wellbeing of the citizenry.

Unlike his Ghanaian and South African counterparts, President Buhari has, since the coronavirus outbreak into a global pandemic, acted exactly the typical way he had carried on since his election; never showing any inclination to urgency, even when he had received a personally tragic sting from the covid-19’s whip in the death of his Chief of Staff, Mallam Abba Kyari.

While President Buhari has spoken to the nation on three different occasions through a national radio and television broadcast, he had on all occasions failed to restore confidence in the hearts of the elite and common people, perhaps with the exception of only members of the Presidential Task Force, whose daily rituals now only serve to put fear in the heart of Nigerians with the increasing rate of infection, death, hunger and despondence.

Like a masquerade that comes out after prolonged expectation from a waiting crowd, it took prolonged murmurs and several conspiracy theories from Nigerians to draw out Buhari to make his first broadcast when he pronounced the lockdown of Abuja, Lagos and Ogun states. Since then, he has made two additional broadcast, all of which failed to fundamentally alter the strategy of containing covid-19 order than lockdown, social distancing and the other health advisories as if those remain in and of themselves the only solutions to the infection, but in spite of which the virus continues to spread with just a couple of states waiting to be engulfed.

A glaringly inadequate armour in the frontline of the battle since the index case is the testing capacity for covid-19, which many healthcare analysts repeatedly recommend is among the most effective instruments for containing and eliminating covid-19 in the same line with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for health personnel and their proper remuneration and insurance cover.

The successes recorded anywhere against the virus has depended hugely on a well-motivated medical staff coupled by the capacity to massively conduct test and quarantine when positive, more than the efficacy of lockdowns. But for decades, apart from the legendary decay of Nigeria’s health infrastructure, doctors and health workers remain the most neglected. President Buhari remembered to address the question of lack of insurance for health workers only in his third national address last Monday.

Since the pandemic began, these are issues that have been referred to time and again by concerned Nigerians. Most notably, medical practitioners, especially specialists in the field of epidemiology, have consistently argued for the strengthening of the testing capacity to reinforce the containment strategy.  

For the President of the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), Dr Francis Faduyile, “once we don’t have test kits, we may not be able to test everybody that has had contact (with a patient) and it may be difficult for us to effectively control those who are infected from mingling with the uninfected in the public. So, that is a major drawback and we need to improve our capacity to test so that we can quickly isolate or quarantine those who are positive or those who have contacts respectively… Once you cannot test all the people that need to be tested, we may not get the number of infected persons and as I tell you, the number we have may not be representative of the number of positive cases in the country and that is dangerous for the effective containment of the virus in the country.”

According to Shan Soe-Lin, Managing Director of Pharos Global Health Advisors and lecturer at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University, and Robert Hecht, professor of Clinical Epidemiology, also at Yale University and President of Pharos Global Health Advisors; “what’s needed is widespread testing of people with no known symptoms… We need to aggressively search for asymptomatic carriers, particularly among people who have frequent contact with the public and among vulnerable populations. This includes those who are infectious but will never develop symptoms and those who will develop them days after the test.”

While President Buhari rightly identified testing as a fundamental strategy in his two-step approach to winning the war against covid-19, stepping up testing has failed to materialise in the implementation programme being administered by the PTF.

For now, neither the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) nor the PTF has provided sufficiently believable reason why it has been difficult to establish a decentralised testing operation many months into the war; a feat that Ghana and Senegal, two of Nigeria’s West African neighbours with lesser resources at their disposal seem to have effortlessly achieved in the battle against covid-19. The PTF and the NCDC has a war chest of an initial N15 billion in addition to the huge donations from corporate and private individuals.

Currently, Nigeria’s testing capacity is dreadfully low and highly centralised such that since the index case, the NCDC has been unable to test up to 11,000 suspected cases. The obvious implication is that if keen efforts are not made to step up massive testing, with an estimated population of over 200 million, the rate of infection will spiral out of control as had been predicted by some Western analysts. Perhaps, this scenario may be building up slowly in Kano, where hundreds have died from what media reports have described as mysterious followed by the state taking the lead as the new coronavirus epicentre in Nigeria.

Several months after his boastful and amplified rhetoric about Nigeria’s readiness to face the coronavirus, it was only last Tuesday, after the covid-19 battle had consumed dozens of lives, that Dr Chikwe Ihekweazu, Director General NCDC is admitting that Nigeria is working to increase her capacity to be able to test about 1,000 suspected cases per day.

It is even more curious that, with all the noise from the various state governors in their assurances of being battle-ready to combat covid-19, the states have been unable to demonstrate their avowed sense of urgency in putting together workable emergency testing laboratories. In many states whose governors are scrambling for federal funds, their immediate idea of the war to combat the pandemic remains the declaration of lockdown and the rehabilitation of some abandoned buildings or decayed general hospitals as isolation centres.

A recent report by Young Doctors, a Kano-based medical research voluntary group, raised alarm about the need to intensify testing as a major factor in stopping community transmission which epidemiologists fear is very devastating in epidemics. “Our findings suggest community transmission in Kano metropolis. Therefore, we recommend enhancing testing capacity, community-based testing and setting up of mobile testing centers within Kano,” Young Doctors stated among other recommendations made in the report of a smart research and verbal autopsy it conducted on the wave of deaths in Kano. The group noted in the report that the deaths “mirror severe COVID-19 cases reported around the world.”

Perhaps, the most frightening and symbolic indictment of Nigeria’s covid-19 response for its apparent lack of a systematic mechanism in responding to emergencies is best illustrated in an audio recording of a Mrs. Selma Ahmed virulently complaining of how the NCDC and Kano State government abandoned her son-in-law to die as a result of suspected COVID-19 infection.

Economic/Existential Factors

Another major challenge for the Buhari government is his failure to conceptualise a workable stimulus package for the economy that takes into account prevailing social and existential dynamics.

Though he captured this sentiment in the second portion of his two-step approach, Buhari has not been able to practicalise it like his Danish, Ghanaian or South African counterparts who had so urgently acted after consultation with the relevant stakeholders in a way that would not only get their buy-in but also capture basic requirements across the socio-economic spectrum.

Apart from not consulting with organised labour and organised private sector, who are of course not protesting their exclusion, the President also did not take the state governors into consideration when he unilaterally announced economic measures and palliatives. In the end, it became clear that the lockdowns and other stringent measures could not be sustained because of the burden and pressure for survival which were apparently as demanding as the threat posed by the coronavirus.

In his broadcasts, President Buhari left unresolved the key survival questions; job security and salary of a large chunk of the working population operating in the informal sector and others surviving on daily paid labour.

He also failed to address issues of job security of formal workers in big corporate entities and the survival of those organisations, all of which make nonsense of the economic measures that he sprinkled on the table in his first broadcast. This remains a crucial question that needed to be resolved and which organised labour and employers are also not prioritising.

With the underlying scenarios, nobody needs a prophet or a statistician to underscore the looming danger that the actions and inaction and lack of vision and poor management of the entire response operation have exerted on the labour market. The mere pronouncements of top government functionaries and news reports all point to the fact that thousands of jobs are already lost with hundreds of thousands more on the line.

On Thursday last week, Arik Air, Nigeria’s largest commercial airline, told its employees that it had cut salaries of employees by 80%. The airline’s Chief Executive Officer, Roy Ilegbodu, also told employees via a memo that the management of the company had also decided that at least 90 per cent of its workforce will be furloughed from May 1. 2020.

“To date, the situation created by the COVID-19 pandemic remains dire with a high level of uncertainty, even within medical circles regarding the containment of the pandemic. Although daily updates from a few countries seem to be encouraging, our situation in Nigeria appears to be getting worse. With the current observed trend of events, it is prudent to lean on the assumption that the situation is likely to persist for a while longer.

“Of huge significance to us is that we have suffered a sharp decline of over 98% in our revenue streams since the suspension of our scheduled flights almost four weeks ago. Added to this is the rapid decline in the value of the Naira by over 35% against the benchmark and with oil prices now falling well below $15 per barrel, it is evident that we must, without further delay, take decisive action to preserve our organization,” Mr Ilegbodu stated in the memo.    

Arik’s precariously fragile state is corroborated by the National Union of Air Transport Employees (NUATE). The union’s General Secretary, Comrade Ocheme Abah, in a letter to the NLC on the situation in the aviation sector and urging it to amplify NUATE’s position in the event of likely government intervention in the sector, noted that aviation is about the worst hit by covid-19. In the letter dated April 27, 2020, he noted that the picture of Nigeria’s aviation sector looks very pathetic compared to the rest of the world.

“Many of the airlines were on life support before the advent of COVID-19. Many of the logistics and other allied companies were equally at the verge of winding up. Practically all the agencies were virtually dependent on government support. The Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), for example, had been grappling with the heavy burden of maintaining 23 airports across Nigeria of which only two are viable, a responsibility that is impossible to shirk due to the social-economic importance of maintaining all the airports. Under these circumstances, the pandemic imposed shutdown cannot but be seen as a killer punch against aviation, to the extent that aviation in Nigeria runs a very high risk of total collapse without urgent and substantial intervention, or bailout, from the Federal Government,” Comrade Abah stated.  A letter by the four unions operating in the aviation industry addressed to the Minister of Aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika, expressed similar sentiment.

In the hotel sector, the situation is equally distressing. Findings by National Record indicate that majority of the hotels in Abuja metropolis scaled down their operations two weeks before the actual lockdown and in the process, furloughed their employees.

According to some affected employees who confided in our correspondent, the hotels at a crucial meeting of Hotel Owners Forum Abuja resolved to scale down services upon finding out that some people suspected to be exhibiting symptoms similar to those of coronavirus were tactically hibernating and getting secretly treated in hotels.

Palliatives or pain?

Apart from some of the economic measures like the three-month repayment moratorium for all TraderMoni, MarketMoni and FarmerMoni loans as well as moratorium given to all federal government-funded loans issued by the Bank of Industry, Bank of Agriculture and the Nigeria Export Import Bank, all of which have no immediately discernible impact in the manner the poor and vulnerable yearn for to meet the challenges posed by the lockdown, all the components of the palliatives that President Buhari announced were and are being poorly administered.

A survey recently carried out by two Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), ActionAid-Nigeria and Centre for Information Technology and Development (CITAD) revealed that even in the FCT, only two out of the 19 poor and vulnerable communities benefited from the government palliative to reduce the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on them.

Notwithstanding this type of flaws in the administration of the palliative is the outrage trailing the quality and sufficiency of the products being distributed as palliatives, much of which have become core themes of comic relief in the social media. As many lament and condemn the methodology of sharing the palliatives and the quality of the rice being shared, others question lack of data being relied on to determine and identify the beneficiaries; the so-called poorest of the poor.

From across the country, the narratives have been more of pains rather than palliatives.  There is no better way of illustrating the failure of the palliative scheme than the failure of many state governments to pay salaries and emoluments of their workers and pensioners. For quite some time now, only a handful of state governments are up to date in the payment of salaries to workers and pensioners.

A sadistic twist to the narrative is the resolute determination by some state governors and a few federal government agencies and parastatals, which naturally ought to support workers under the circumstances, are actually bent on deducting their salaries. When challenged, some of them, symbolised by Kaduna State governor, Mallam Nasir el-Rufai, are vehemently justifying the cruel policy.

In the imagination of majority of Nigerians, the state owes very little or no responsibility to the people. For them, this uncaring attitude is manifested in the number of people killed by security agencies in the first period of the lockdown which almost double the number of those killed by coronavirus.

This collective feeling of being left-on-their-own, particularly at the gravest moment of a globally dreaded coronavirus disease, may have driven so much traffic to the viral video of a young man who went berserk when arrested by security personnel enforcing the lockdown in Abuja. At that point, and even now, many agree with him that “hunger virus pass [supersedes] coronavirus.”

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