COVID-19 In Nigeria: End the Lockdowns Now, By John Adeoti
End lockdowns and save the economy. Now is the time to open factories, businesses, schools, roads, and all activities that provide people with opportunities for work. Nigeria needs to move fast in a highly competitive global economy. We cannot afford to be a laggard in the emerging post-COVID world order. One more opportunity that must not be missed – end lockdown now, and let the world see Nigeria leading the pack of nations that are back to work.
As we grew up, my generation was taught the Yoruba rhyme, ‘ise ni ogun ise, mura si ise ore mi’. The essence of this rhyme is that hard work is crucial to economic wellbeing at personal and societal levels. Anything that would disrupt work must be properly scrutinised and judged by its merit. One of such things is ill health in all its variants. No reasonable human being will ever subscribe to work at all costs when his or her health is in danger. In the 1960s and early 1970s, we were taught to keep a healthy body and sound mind. The public health supervisors or sanitary inspectors (wole-wole) were early at their duty posts and out to ensure that the environment was clean. Potable water flowed freely in our major cities, and the rural areas had freshwater sources that were naturally pure and refreshing. Simply put, clean water was available in abundance to maintain good hygienic practices: the washing of the body, hands, legs, etc., as frequently as one desired. Nigerian hospitals then had doctors and other health professionals who were satisfied to serve in their fatherland, and one of the best hospitals in the British Commonwealth was the University College Hospital, Ibadan. The Nigerian health system was an envy of many African nations. If coronavirus had come earlier, we were perhaps, more prepared to fight it and in better stead to win than today, 60 years later.
The COVID-19 pandemic debut in Nigeria was with the index case of the Italian man on February 28. Thereafter was the panic, the trembling, and fear, as in many other nations. But whatever reservations any critic of Nigeria’s response might have, the unity displayed and the unison of response are commendable. We all agreed that coronavirus is an enemy that must be fought and defeated soonest. The display of professionalism by our health personnels in the frontline, the prompt commitment by the private sector, and the support provided by various state governments, especially Lagos State government, which has been directing mitigation and care activities at the epicentre of the pandemic in Nigeria, exemplify what Nigeria can achieve when we are united.
Further reflections on the approach adopted by Nigeria in response to the pandemic however reveals the inherent weaknesses and shortcomings of Nigeria’s approach to economic and social development. For many years, Nigeria has been adulated as being a giant and a country with great potentials. Nigeria’s response to the pandemic missed one more opportunity to explore her great potentials. One policy response that epitomises this error is the lockdown policy. The relevance of the lockdown policy for Nigeria does not go beyond the first four weeks of the pandemic, when like so many countries, Nigerian policy makers had inadequate knowledge of how to curtail the spread of the virus. It is right to concede that the land borders and the airports should remain shut because the virus has its sources abroad.
Lockdown policy by the federal and state governments in Nigeria has long overstayed its usefulness and should immediately be terminated for the seven following reasons:
1. Copycat Response to the Pandemic
Nigeria’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been a wholesale copy of the response by countries of Europe and North America. It is time to be ingenious and show that we have learnt enough. We should design African responses to African challenges and allow development partners, whether from the West or East, to give us some respect and contribute to what we believe works for our peculiar situation. The situation and context of COVID-19 in Nigeria and most of Africa is very different from the situation in Europe and North America. Yes, it is the same enemy called coronavirus, but different populations with different medical histories that may explain the very low incidence and apparently low fatality rate of COVID-19 in Africa. The World Health Organisation (WHO) and many concerned notable individuals have repeatedly warned that the incidence of COVID-19 will spike in Africa, but so far that has not been the case. Some of them are beginning to change the doomsday predictions, but we need not wait for them. We should know enough that this is Africa. Africa has solutions to her problems, and Nigeria should lead Africa in showing that we can solve our problems. We need help from many sources and the help should fit into what we believe addresses our challenges.
2. No Foothold For Coronavirus In Nigeria
Coronavirus has had no foothold in Nigeria. For whatever reason this has happened, we should be grateful to God that COVID-19 is not an African disease like HIV/AIDS or Ebola. Why then should we fear and panic like in Europe and America? Nigeria should wake up and live according to the reality that for once, Nigeria and Africa are not the only spaces to be pitied in the present circumstance. We should be like Madagascar, offering the world a solution to the pandemic. An end should immediately be pronounced to lockdowns and our research institutes should be urgently funded to provide herbal solutions that prevent and/cure COVID-19. The testing of Madagascar’s COVID Organic tunic should be honest, scientific, and devoid of the influence of the WHO. What the world urgently needs is solutions that would defeat coronavirus. This could be a source of new wealth and foreign exchange for African countries. If the West and East refuse our solutions to COVID-19, we should be brave enough to apply our locally made solutions. After all, we are a large market of 205 million people in Nigeria, and Africa is already a 1.3 billion market.
3. COVID-19 Asymptomatic Persons Live Normal and Should Return To Work
From our current understanding, it has been acknowledged that coronavirus may not show in many infected or asymptomatic persons. Africa is largely made up of a youthful and energetic population. About 77 per cent of Africans are under the age of 35 years. Why then should we lockdown, like Europe and America which have the problem of ageing populations? It is time we rise and take advantage of the strength in Africans. Besides, our closeness to nature and the use of its herbs, and our resilience in harbouring killer diseases such as malaria, yellow fever, Lassa fever, meningitis, HIV/AIDS, etc., have perhaps helped us build natural immunity that has made coronavirus unable to wreak havoc in Africa. Moreover, we now know that coronavirus is more deadly for persons with underlying vulnerable health conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, and sickle cell anemia. Such persons could be given a compulsory six month leave from work in the first instance, so that they can stay at home and be isolated from possible contact with coronavirus.
4. Most Nigerians Are Daily Wage Earners
At least 90 per cent of Nigerian workers are daily wage earners. Lockdown has made life miserable for the vast majority of Nigerians because the incomes of many have suddenly disappeared. Savings are virtually nonexistent for this category of our compatriots. Palliatives by the government have been both too little and too limited in reach. In contrast to our dismal experience in Nigeria, stimulus packages in America and Europe, where job losses were also sudden and vast, have been robust and marked by significant transfer of liquid cash to citizens. Lockdown has thus been with care and compassion in many developed countries. Since Nigeria lacks the resources and empathy to implement such care, why then keep the lockdown? Moreover, the layoffs due to lockdowns have further exacerbated Nigeria’s already disturbing security challenges. Ending the lockdown would alleviate the burden of increasing security challenges, especially in Nigeria’s major cities.
5. Lockdowns Are Not In Nigeria’s Economic interest
Lockdown policies in many countries have resulted in the shutdown of industrial production and restricted logistics to cover only essential items such as food supply and healthcare. As a consequence, the price of Brent grade crude oil, Nigeria’s major source of revenue and foreign exchange, crashed to an all-time low of US$19.33 per barrel on April 21. Although the price of Nigeria’s crude oil has managed to rise to US$32.50 per barrel since May 15, the prognosis for the future of the oil market is very bleak. This will not improve unless the lockdown is eased or terminated in industrialised countries that use oil as a major source of energy to power production facilities and keep an efficient logistics system. With lockdowns, Nigeria’s revenue base and fiscal stance are in a precarious situation. Nigeria rushed to do the unusual by taking an emergency loan of US$3.4 billion from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to partially cushion the effects of the shock due to fall in crude oil price. In spite of this, the foreign reserve is under severe pressure, the naira is depreciating fast, and inflation is rising. In reality, lockdowns are not in the interest of the Nigerian economy. The earlier the lockdowns are ended, the better the future of Nigeria’s major revenue source – crude oil. Why then should Nigeria be a protagonist of lockdown? Nigeria should be brave enough to act in its self-interest by immediately ending the lockdown and encouraging other countries to follow suit. COVID-19 may not disappear soon. The world is now better educated on how to manage COVID-19 and curtail its spread.
Furthermore, the lockdown has resulted in the colossal loss of tax revenue by the government and it should be terminated soon so that economic activities can resume and the tax revenue stream can recover. In some places, it has affected the supply of agricultural inputs at the onset of the planting season, and this signals potential food crisis if the lockdown continues. The lockdown policy has also provoked great reduction in the capacity utilisation of many manufacturing firms, some of which are unable to continue production due to the shortage of imported intermediate inputs. An end to lockdowns will help reboot these firms, increase employment and boost manufacturing outputs.
6. Opportunity For New Production Lines and New Greenfield Investments
Coronavirus has ravaged the world and brought sorrow to many families and nations. There is, however, a bright side to the darkness of COVID-19 in Nigeria. The panic around the world would apparently lead to shake-ups and realignments in investment destinations. New product lines would emerge arising from the debut of COVID-19. Nigeria could attract investors seeking locations, where among other key incentives, the workforce is less susceptible to COVID-19. By immediately ending this lockdown, Nigeria’s organised private sector, including industrial production firms, would be back to work in spite of coronavirus. This would demonstrate to the world that international capitals targeted at greenfield investments cannot be deterred from yielding good returns in Nigeria in case coronavirus has come to stay.
7. Schools At All Levels Need To Reopen To Safeguard Further Decay In the Educational Sector
Nigeria’s educational sector was already traumatised and in a state of decay prior to COVID-19. The publicly owned educational institutions are the mostly affected ones because they generally lack adequate educational facilities and resources to maintain high standards of education delivery. The situation is further worsened due to the lack of internet infrastructure that can support online learning programmes during lockdowns. This creates a new problem of increasing gaps between education in private and public institutions in Nigeria. Ending the lockdown will bring an end to this new trend of the increasing gulf between education in private and public schools. Besides, students and pupils at home are becoming more restless and are prone to being misled to join miscreants involved in criminal activities. An end to lockdown could thus save many families from avoidable heartaches and prevent human and material losses.
In addition to the immediate ending of lockdown, it is important to point out that the coronavirus test is necessary only for suspected symptomatic persons. Nigeria’s current regime of testing for coronavirus is expensive and unsustainable, and fund for testing could be used for more critical needs such as intensive care for COVID-19 victims. COVID-19 is a viral disease, and like other viral diseases, has no cure but fizzles out after 14 days. For symptomatic persons, the symptoms are managed until the virus is conquered by the body’s immune system. Why then do we need to spend scarce resources to test everyone that are suspected but not symptomatic? A more efficient approach is to test only when there are suspected COVID-19 symptoms.
Finally, ending lockdown is in the interest of all Nigerians, including the healthcare workers. Everyone will again begin to feel normal, and the apparent shift in focus from other diseases will be less pronounced. Doctors and other health workers can again reasonably balance the attention given to patients of all category of diseases. For now, the plan for the management of COVID-19 should be restricted to isolation centres for symptomatic persons. Those that are not symptomatic should live normal lives, work for a decent livelihood, pay tax and other obligations required for the sustenance of lives and the economy. It is time to end the lockdowns all over Nigeria. Good hygiene that we now profess – frequent handwashing with soap and use of sanitisers, and the wearing of masks in public places are the new normal that should complement the immediate end to the lockdowns. End lockdowns and save lives. End lockdowns and save the economy. Now is the time to open factories, businesses, schools, roads, and all activities that provide people with opportunities for work. Nigeria needs to move fast in a highly competitive global economy. We cannot afford to be a laggard in the emerging post-COVID world order. One more opportunity that must not be missed – end lockdown now, and let the world see Nigeria leading the pack of nations that are back to work.
John Adeoti is a professor of Development Economics at the Nigerian Institute of Social and Economic Research (NISER), Ibadan.