LAST week, in a widely circulated official statement, Elisabeth Byers, Senior Spokesperson of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), issued a grim forecast for the Nigerian labour market that the Federal Government and authorities at various levels will do well to take to heart. Pointing to relevant UN data, Ms. Byers warned that the country was in for hard economic times unless urgent steps were taken to ameliorate the conditions induced by the understandable restrictions on movement put in place to combat the spread of Covid-19. According to her, “More than 3.8 million people mainly working in the informal sector face losing their jobs amid rising hardship, and this could rise to 13 million if movement restrictions continue for a longer period. This would add to the almost 20 million (23 percent of the labour force) already out of work.”
If prospects for the labour market in general are gloomy, the WFP spokesperson has even worse news for parts of the country already reeling from the Boko Haram insurgency, in particular the northeastern states of Borno, Adamawa, and Yobe. If Ms. Byers is to be believed (and there is no legitimate reason to doubt her), these states are already on ‘life-support’ and will need an injection of more than $182 million dollars “to sustain lifesaving aid… over the next six months.” Happily, Ms. Byers was not all darkness and gloom, as her statement also outlined plans by the WFP to get urgently needed food and nutrition assistance to an estimated 1.8 million people “in IDP [Internally Displaced People’s] camps and among vulnerable communities to ensure that people have enough food while they are on full or partial lockdown.”
We are not surprised by the WFP spokesperson’s grim forecast, for it merely confirms the fears and anxieties of economic experts and other close watchers of trends in the Nigerian economy who have pointed to persistent flaws in the Federal Government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Indeed, following the WFP’s prediction, the Federal Government came up with an even more damning prediction of 39.4 million job losses. Just to be sure: we are not criticising the government, at whatever level, just for criticism’s sake. As we have made every effort to establish in previous editorials, Covid-19 has been a logistical nightmare and a moral quandary for governments around the world and, understandably, the Nigerian authorities have not been an exception. Like governments everywhere, the Federal Government has struggled to balance the need to keep people safe with a legitimate concern not to cripple the economy.
Beyond that, however, the Federal Government’s handling of the pandemic has been anemic at best, and utterly dispiriting at worst. While it has shown commendable eagerness to impose a lockdown, it has ignored all the good ideas put forward by experts to ease the pain of the lockdown for the common (wo)man. Time and again, the Federal Government has turned a deaf ear to desperate pleas by ordinary people about the harsh economic effects of the lockdown, and its so-called attempts to distribute food to the most needy have been an absolute farce. While, on the one hand, it has allowed churches, mosques and hotels to reopen, subject to state regulations, even as the number of new cases continues to rise, on the other hand, restaurants, bars and other social gatherings are to remain closed, meaning that avenues for ordinary people to trade and make money are either limited or non-existent.
All in all, while the government deserves some sympathy due to the unusual constraints created by the pandemic, it has not helped itself with the steps it has taken to balance public safety with brutal economic need. One thing it can do right away is to rejig the Presidential Task Force on Covid-19, which currently comprises no economists and hence lacks the essential perspective that someone with that training might have brought to the table.
Whatever it does, the Federal Government needs to move rapidly before public frustration boils over.
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