Caring for citizens amid Covid-19 lockdown

NIGERIA joined the group of countries affected by the coronavirus pandemic when it recorded its first index case on February 27. Since then, unfortunately, the number of cases in the country has slowly risen to over 170, now at the beginning of April. Lagos State has turned out to be the epicentre of the outbreak,understandably so given its status as the most cosmopolitan state in the country. In his speech, which finally came on March 29,President Muhammadu Buhari stressed the danger that the spread of the coronavirus posed to human life and to communities. Recognising that coronavirus has no cure, he advised Nigerians “to avoid getting infected through regular hygienic and sanitary practices as well as social distancing”.Following experiences in different parts of the world, the president put Lagos, Ogun and Abuja on lockdown for an initial period of 14 days with effect from 11 pm on Monday, March 30.

Before then, state governors across the country had implemented various measures to support social distancing in order to stem the spread of the virus. These measures will be developed into a national strategy by the Presidential Task Force on Coronavirus to protect the lives of citizens and residents and “preserve the livelihoods of workers and business owners to ensure their families get through this very difficult time in dignity and with hope and peace of mind.”As the president admitted, the coronavirus outbreak and measures to combat it have adverse implications for the livelihoods of citizens and the economy. As a result, countries across the world have taken measures to mitigate its impact on citizens and the economy. The United States, for instance, has provided $2 trillion as stimulus to ease the pressure on the economy,to be distributed to individuals whose sources of income had been eroded by unemployment. The money also includes grants to small businesses and loans to companies to sustain production or payment of staff salaries.  This is in addition to supporting health workers and providing medical supplies.

In Europe, Germany approved a coronavirus stimulus package of $814 billion as loans for business and to finance higher social spending. France unveiled about$40 billion aid package for businesses and workers, while the European Commission suspended debt and deficit requirements for members of the bloc. The European Central Bank announced a “Pandemic Emergency Purchase Program,” a bond-buying scheme worth €750 billion to provide EU members with increased liquidity. Japan provided a package of steps like cash pay-outs to households and non-direct spending measures such as credit lines and guarantees of $515 billion, while South Africa’s package of about R5 billion included the Temporary Employee Relief Scheme that will enable companies to pay employees directly during this period and avoid retrenchment. It also has the employee Compensation Fund and reserves within the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) system to extend support to workers in SMEs and other vulnerable firms which are faced with loss of income.

Nigeria apparently does not have a reserve of funds for emergencies like the coronavirus case currently unfolding. The coronavirus-driven downfall in the price of oil in the international market led to a panic review of the 2020 budget. The government has announced that it would require about N120 billion to fight the disease. Happily, the private sector has demonstrated patriotic commitment by donating over N20 billion to the cause. The Federal Government has released N15 billion to both the National Centre for Disease Control and Lagos State, the epicentre of the outbreak. Lagos is Nigeria’s most densely populated state, hence the demand for food will be high during the lockdown. The president assured Nigerians that food processing,distribution and retail companies would be exempted from the lockdown. He also promised that relief materials would be provided for residents of satellite and commuter towns and communities around the affected states. The Lagos State government has also commenced the distribution of relief materials to the people.

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The main issue is that several governments at various levels have demonstrated lack of commitment to the welfare of citizens. Even now, some state governments are owing their workers several months of salaries. Even when the Federal Government released welfare funds to enable the states to pay their workers, a number of state governments diverted the funds to other purposes. The Federal Government’s Social Investment Programmes have not proven to be very effective because of leakages and poor targeting or deliberate stealing of the funds. Relief materials in camps for internally displaced persons have been mismanaged and privatised. That is why, rather than reduce, poverty has continued. As a matter of fact, Nigeria became the poverty capital of the world in 2018.

The high level of poverty has made the fight against coronavirus an uphill task. Accountability and effective targeting are immediate challenges in any attempt to raise funds and distribute relief in this crisis condition. The government has to think creatively about how to promote social distancing and prevent stampede in distributing relief materials when they become available. It has to act in a way it is not used to, given the life and death nature of the current challenge. Although technology may ease the process, it does not guarantee a hitch-free exercise in the distribution of food and other relief materials in poor neighbourhoods where hunger is high and in unplanned settlements. The rush is better imagined. But perhaps more fundamentally, Nigeria must become a nation with reliable records. Planning is hampered when population figures and other vital statistics are shrouded in mystery. Just how do you distribute relief with adequate and reliable records?

For now, though,we call on individuals, foundations, and non-profit organisations,including religious organisations, to support the process of providing reliefs to the poor.  We urge them to take into consideration the requirement of social distancing in distributing these relief materials to the poor. This is necessary to avoid a situation where the solution worsens, rather than ameliorating the problem.




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