Cushioning shutdown effects on the poor
Experience has shown that the lockdown of the economic and social activities of society actually arrests the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) as is the case in many countries, particularly China where the virus pandemic started. The rapid spike in infections in the United States, Spain, Italy and the accompanying deaths has been attributed to the lack of an early lockdown in those countries. Hence the resort to lockdowns to arrest the spread of infections of the virus has now become globally acceptable.
In this regard, the majority of Nigerians have welcomed the lockdown of the economy and other societal activities by the federal and state governments across the country. The Federal Government through the initial address of the President, Muhammadu Buhari and the accompanying legislation specifically called for an initial two-week lockdown of activities in Lagos and Ogun states as well as the federal capital territory, Abuja where the incidence of infection has been highest across the country. It was reviewed and renewed on Monday by the president. Other state governments also had some form of lockdown as they deem fit. This line of response by the authorities has been widely accepted across the country though there is the lingering question of how the ordinary and already impoverished Nigerian would survive during the period.
Nigeria has a predominantly large informal economy and many of its citizens, particularly those self-employed have to eke out a living on a daily basis. While the government has made the correct assertion that being alive is paramount above other considerations, efforts should have been made by the authorities to provide substantial palliatives for the very poor in the population who depend primarily on daily cash flows to eke out a living for themselves. The expectation is that Nigeria should not deviate from what happens in other jurisdictions equally plagued by this pandemic.
In the President’s address to the nation, some of such palliatives appear to have been articulated. For example, according to the President in the first address two weeks ago, “for residents of satellite and commuter towns and communities around Lagos and Abuja, whose livelihoods will surely be affected by some of these restrictive activities, we shall deploy relief materials to ease their pains in the coming weeks.” He went on to state that the Federal Government will grant a three-month repayment moratorium for all TraderMoni, MarketMoni and FarmerMoni loans as well as all Federal Government funded loans issued by the Bank of Industry, Bank of Agriculture and the Nigeria Export-Import Bank. Alongside these, the President directed the conditional cash transfers for the next two months payable to the very vulnerable in the society be paid immediately as well as a controversial continuation of the school feeding programme even though the schools have closed. The recent reduction of the pump price of premium motor spirit is also supportive of government efforts to alleviate the sufferings of the poor over the period. That is a federal policy. What of the implementation? Reduction of fuel price from N25 per litre to N23.5 per litre has not been affected till date.
The deployment of relief materials by the Federal Government, as promised appears to be a mirage or at best very un-transparent. There have also been questions about conditional cash transfers in relation to effectiveness and spread. The question arises as to how reliable the data of poor persons, used in the implementation. There is also the question of the part of the country where these supposedly vulnerable Nigerians come from. These concerns are awash in social media with the perception that the palliatives are restricted to certain sections of the country. This is dangerous and unacceptable.
This suspicion should be allayed by the authorities. There has been a lot of hue and cry regarding the wellbeing of the very poor in society over this period of economic lockdown. There are reports of attempted protests by some poor persons over this period. Even some Federal Government employees such as university lecturers have not been paid salaries for about two months over integrated payroll controversy. And this is not being addressed at this time.
In an apparent response to the President’s call on all Nigerians to support those who are vulnerable within their communities, it can be noted that the private sector, under the auspices of Private Sector Coalition Against COVID-19 (CACOVID) and coordinated by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) via a Relief Fund has raised at least N15 billion. The contributions came from the CBN itself, Aliko Dangote, Abdul Samad Rabiu (BUA Group), Segun Agbaje (GTB), Tony Elumelu and many other notable Nigerians and organisations with the funds coming from at least 37 donors including individuals, banks and other corporate bodies. The deployment of these contributions to providing the much-needed palliatives is of great essence as many Nigerians are already complaining that the efforts of the Federal Government are far below expectations.
The state governments have also made some efforts in this regards but it can be noticed that palliatives provided by some state governments are indeed laughable. How can a state government give a ball of ‘eba’ and a plate of ‘egusi’ soup as a palliative to its citizens, expected to last for four weeks? And such was even celebrated with media coverage provided. For some states, the provisions made for entire communities are barely enough for a single community. Some palliatives such as the restricted permission of petty traders of food items to sell their wares and enhance their cash flow, as applicable in Lagos State appear value-adding even though it is hoped this will not open a new window for more infections.
In a post-COVID-19 era, the recently unveiled CBN approval of a N50 billion facility to cater to the needs of households and small businesses affected by the pandemic should kick off without delay. The facility, which permits households to access up to N3 million loan at 5% interest rate per annum and to be managed by the CBN and the NISRAL Microfinance Bank is a commendable effort that would enhance a smooth transition to normal life after the pandemic, for many households and small businesses.
In closing, the government needs to know that its efforts in providing palliatives for the poor members of the society during this period of lockdown fall far short of what other governments across the world are doing for their citizens. Aside from developed countries like the USA where the food programme is continued in New York, countries in other parts of the world appear to have put in place a better-coordinated palliative plan for their people. This is a time when all hands should be on deck, even by churches, mosques and other religious organisations to reach out to the poor and provide adequate palliatives over the period of the lockdown. There were reports at press time of serious robberies in parts of Lagos. Let’s hope they are not a fallout of the poor coordination of palliatives for the poor – yes the poor who are bound to disturb their neighbours for food at these perilous times!