Alternate perspectives on Nigeria’s Covid-19 response

First, my thoughts and prayers go to our health workers. These men and women of valour risking it all battling at the frontline of COVID-19 are the true heroes of the moment. Almost every country in the world is shut, trying frantically to curb and reverse the spread of the coronavirus. Over the last weeks, major cities have been locked down the world over, emergency protocols have been implemented at unprecedented levels, and there has been a scramble in the research and development sector to develop new medications and vaccines to combat the virus Secondly, I would like to appreciate the effort put into the response by the present administration of Lagos state led by Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu. He has shown empathy and dedication to safeguarding the well-being of Lagosians and by extension, Nigerians.

The world economy has never been more integrated. There hasn’t been so much reliance on the allocative power of markets. The fragility of world economies has never been so cheaply exposed. And never has everything come to such a sudden, shocking, screeching halt, almost worldwide. The effect of the shutdowns and lockdowns, the quarantines and curfews, is economic whiplash for many countries, businesses and peoples across the world. The upside is that the world has, since 1939, built considerable communications infrastructure and technology that may aid rapid economic recovery, such that the period of global economic downturn does not have to last a decade and result in a world war (some say we are passing through one already) like the last experience. It is also important to know that some countries learnt serious lessons from the Great Depression, while some countries were not even born then.

Most of the countries this side of the world aren’t really very good at picking up these hard lessons of history by the way. But it is time to learn”. Truth is, we are where we are because successive administrations have only paid lip service to diversifying our economy and strengthening institutions. Already, our budget has been slashed by N1.5 trillion in the wake of the crash in crude oil prices. This however should not be the case if the budgeting process was adequate and appropriate. The 2020 budget in USD is 30 billion, whilst Republic of South Africa is working on a USD 130 billion budget for 2020. With the added pressure of COVID, should we be slashing budgets? No, we should not. However, we are in dire financial straits. The questions I therefore pose are these: how comprehensive are our plans to protect and resuscitate the economy? How prepared are we to use this unpleasant situation as a launch pad into greatness? Our response so far shows we are yet to fully grasp the enormity of the situation, as well as the opportunities that lie beyond the challenges.

Rather than lock down two states and the FCT, every state in Nigeria should be locked down for three weeks (21 days), and the announcement of the lockdown should have been made at least one week before it took effect to ensure Nigerians had ample time to get essential commodities needed.Also, immediately the first case was detected, the Government should have restricted all international flights coming into the country and effectively shut all land borders. Furthermore, the Federal Government should identify a government hospital in each state and funds raised from the trust fund will be used in upgrading them, procuring much needed equipment, and converting them to treatment centres for each state. Thus, 37 health facilities would have been renovated and upgraded, whilst providing well-equipped treatment centres. Also, the Federal Government could engage indigenous pharmaceutical companies for the production of commodities such as hand sanitizers, isopropyl alcohol, face masks, PPEs, and the likes. These would be channeled to the isolation and treatment centres. Funds realised from the trust fund would also be deployed in procuring commodities from indigenous pharmaceutical companies.

For mobilising funds, the Federal Government could meet with the governors of the 36 states and fashion out a modality for financing the response. It could provide N1 billion as counterpart fund in all states, whilst providing matching funds to set up isolation centres in each state of the federation, as well as deploy GeneXpert machines to laboratories in each state.

The CAC, FIRS and SMEDAN could be tasked with identifying small and medium scale businesses for grants and loans at almost negligible interest rates to help cushion the negative effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Furthermore, as much equipment as possible should be sourced locally; ambulances and other vehicles from Innoson, indigenous tent-making companies for the isolation centres and the like. This would provide these companies with much needed business, ensuring we do not lose money to foreign companies which do not pay tax in Nigeria. Furthermore, there should be provision of loan facilities as part of the economic stimulus packages for businesses, which would be accessed at quite a negligible. Dedicated radio and TV channels should provide primary and secondary school pupils with home schooling, whilst directing all NYSC members to stay at home for the next four weeks, ensuring advance payment of their monthly allowance. This is because the highly sociable nature of youths means they are more at risk of spreading the virus than most other age grades. Also, large supermarkets could be engaged to serve as food banks during the lockdown. Their established logistics and supply chain will prove decisive in ensuring continuous supply.

Furthermore, the government can set up food banks in states where large supermarkets are not situated. NEMA could be saddled with the coordination of the food banks with support by the NSCDC. It could saddle the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs with cash transfer through the trader moni, market moni, and farmer moni platforms to provide palliatives to Nigerians captured on these platforms.Apportion a percentage of funds (50 per cent) taken from MDAs to providing palliatives to Federal Government workers. The Federal Government should meet with the private sector to set up a special trust fund for the COVID-19 response with a target of NGN 180 billion. Matching funds are then provided by deducting 50 per cent from proposed disbursement to Federal MDAs, with the exception of security agencies, and the Ministry of Health.Other sources of funding could be explored. I would like to point out that this is by no means an exhaustive list, and as announced by Mr. President, some of the interventions suggested are already being implemented.

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We have an opportunity to correct the wrongs and injustices of the past, providing a platform for success and prosperity this nation has never experienced. Some more radical changes will include development and/or revision of strategic plans for each sector of the economy. These should subsequently be harnessed and legislated into law to chart a path for Nigeria’s development. Subsequently, the public service should be restructured. In this wise, institute a highly effective and efficient public service by reducing the number of Ministries in line with the legislated National Development Plan (NDP). This will ensure budgeting and implementation mirrors the NDP. Secondly, decentralization of some powers to the subnational by taking several items off the exclusive list such as encouraging generation and distribution of power at sub-national level. This will ensure improvement of power supply to businesses and households, which in turn will have positive effects on the economy. Secondly, setting up Regional Economic Development Agencies (REDAs) that will harness the economic potentials of each region in a coordinated and sustainable manner. Other strategies such as restructuring the Civil Service in a way and manner that it attracts and keeps hold of the best minds the nation produces, instituting social welfare systems that cater for the most vulnerable in the society, restructuring our data gathering and management systems to reflect our reality, as well as making it 21st century compatible, and revision of our Education curricular to adequately equip the upcoming generations to favourably compete on the global stage. The curricular in its present form greatly disadvantages our children when compared with other countries of the world. Also, revamp of our sports sector to harness the vast sporting potentials we have in this country, revitalizing the health sector to maximise the world-class HRH we have in this country, as well as harnessing our vast bitumen deposit for expansion of our road networks and other applications. By extension, the Solid Mineral sector should be strengthened in order to harness the nation’s vast mineral resources.The next question how do we finance all these and more? I would like to highlight again, a suggestion by Tope Fasua. He says, “this COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant shutdowns and global panic offer us an opportunity to throw away the box in which we have imprisoned our minds for too long as a people; as it pertains to our economics that is. Why have all the indices come up short for us? No light. No water. Stinking environments. No public housing. No health systems. Nothing! Who do we think will invest in them for us and our people? We wanted to borrow $17 billion out of a total of $22.7 billion from China. Now they have their own problems. Still I don’t believe we should shrink the economy. I propose a more aggressive approach. I propose we look inwards, and try to raise N20 trillion in domestic bonds/debts. This comes to about $65 billion (roughly 15 per cent of our GDP), with which we can prime the economy over the next two to three years. This will have impact on our banks in terms of their liquidity but only for a while, as the money goes back into the banks through the payment for contracts. The banks will also be involved in the money creation process that expands the economy through loan creation”. There are several moneybags in this country, spread across the states of the Federation. The question is, do they trust the Government enough to make judicious use of their money? Are they convinced by the Government’s half-done plans? Most of these people are business strategists whom Harvard and Oxford would gladly invite to share their experiences at their business schools, and I am certain would already see the opportunities the Government is ignoring. All is not doom and gloom however, there is just about ample time for the administration to get its act together.This situation presents to us an opportunity the likes we have never seen, and the like we might never see. In the midst of so much chaos, we have a unique opportunity to create a new order that will be beneficial not just to this generation, but to generations yet unborn. Now is the time to act, now is the time to think out of the box, now is the time to recreate this nation, and now is the time for Nigerians to invest in Nigeria.

God bless Nigeria, stay safe, and stay calm.

  • Sodipe is a PhD candidate at the University of Ibadan.

NIGERIAN TRIBUNE

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