COVID-19: Matters arising

Bola Bolawole

By Bolanle Bolawole

Coronavirus remains the rave of the moment and the talk of the whole wide world. The cause of the virus has spun an array of conspiracy theories – from the believable through the sublime to the totally ridiculous. Is COVID-19 chemical or biological warfare? Is it the cut-throat struggle for world supremacy between the United States and China? Is it a 3rd World War fought by other means? In other words, does coronavirus follow after Carl von Clausewitz’s definition of war as “the continuation of (super-power) politics by other means”? If so, who is the culprit or agent provocateur: the United States or China? Who has got the upper hand now and who will laugh last?

As the world counts the cost in thousands dead and hundreds of thousand infected, there is also a feverish search for solution. Many countries are in the race to find a vaccine that will tame coronavirus just as the world tamed HIV-AIDS and Ebola. Now and again we hear shouts that a cure has been found but before the euphoria takes root; such joy turns into ashes in our mouth!

Since coronavirus broke, the suffering has been unprecedented. The death and suffering of loved ones apart, the arduous task of survival, of sheer keeping body and soul together, has tried the soul and capacity of many – the lumpen elements and wretched of the earth more so. It is to these that lock-downs and stay-at-home orders become a huge joke. Between coronavirus and hunger is like a man running away from a lion who meets a bear. It is the dilemma of someone caught between the rock and the hard place.

A man sent on an errand by Kabiyesi met a flooded river along the route: He dare not return to say he could not proceed; yet; it was impossible to wade through the flooded river. Hence, the cry for palliative measures, especially to the most vulnerable segments of the society, to make them stay at home and stay safe – for their own good and for the good of all of us. It is in their interest as well as ours to offer them palliatives. Enlightened self-interest dictates it. Unfortunately, however, the situation is not that simple.

Governments here do not have a culture or tradition of catering to the needs of the people. Here, it is survival of the fittest and rule of the jungle. For another, where are the reliable statistics to determine who is who and the effective structures to get whatever palliatives to the people? So, whatever palliatives will end up being political palliatives; we will run in circles and chase shadows.  The rich will get richer still and the poor, poorer.

Politicians at federal, state and council levels will play monkey games with whatever palliatives there are. In the end, a gaping hole will be bored into the public coffers but we will not have value for money. Emergency millionaires and billionaires will emerge to dance on the graves of coro victims.

Even if we put our best foot right, do we have the resources that the rich countries have? Our entire foreign reserves are not up to a cent of what some countries have doled out in palliative measures. Much of the nation’s wealth is in private pockets. Which is why we have become a beggar-nation going cap-in-hand soliciting help. But these are not the best of times to scavenge abroad because all are commonly afflicted.

 Thus, Nigeria faces double jeopardy: A lean purse and a president who had enough of his own “wahala” before coro came. Whether Jubril of Sudan or not, Buhari had enough on his plate before coro came. How, then, does he cope?    

Mercifully, Nigerians know there is a limit to which they can rely on Buhari and are, therefore, taking their destiny in their own hands by proffering solutions in diverse ways to the coro pandemic. I relay two of such interventions here today from Comrade Issa Aremu, Marxist, Labour leader and passionate nationalist; and Comrade Joe Okey-Odumakin, activist par excellence who has been to the White House and has also massed hundreds of awards and accolades.

First, Aremu:   

“I commend the statesmanship of Governor Nasir El-Rufai of Kaduna State for his full disclosure as a Coronavirus case in Nigeria. His honest and audacious disclosure was timely in removing ignorance amongst some citizens. It was a wakeup call for all Nigerians that this rampaging scourge is real.  By this singular act, Nasir and other statesmen who were open about their status had offered necessary leadership to convince those still in an unhelpful denial.  COVID-19 is a reality. It is a rampaging classless, gender- and race-blind, faith-blind virus. However, it can be controlled through respect for the rules of resistance against it – self-isolate – as requested by the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) for cases showing no symptoms.

“It is time for all compatriots to heed the advice by public health authorities to observe preventive measures and ‘stay home and stay alive’ The point cannot be overstated that COVID-19 cases are still increasing. This historic battle cannot, therefore, be for governments alone. Organized Labour, civil societies and organized businesses must compliment the efforts of governments to tame the spread. Employers must invest in particular on the protection of essential health workers on prevention awareness and control of the disease. The Federal Government must urgently revive the tripartite National Labour Advisory Council (NLAC) made up of workers, employers and government with proactive, coordinated and strategic interventions to minimize the impact of the virus. 

“All labour market institutions such as negotiating councils must be reactivated in both public and private sectors for innovative, problem-solving agreements to ensure that workers do not suffer loss of life and earnings, wages and pensions during the on-going lock-down. NLAC should urgently establish a SITUATION ROOM/PLATFORM/FORUM. Nigeria reportedly had only 300 tested cases compared to South Africa which had reportedly carried out over 20,000 tests. 

“There is certainly considerable room for a robust bi-partisan collaboration in Nigeria and in Africa as a whole to prevent a worsening virus spread against the background of the existing daunting health challenges of malaria and  Lassa fever which, even though with cure, have killed more people than Corona Virus.

“It is commendable that the governor of the CBN, Godwin Emefiele, has initiated a proactive 6-point measure to ameliorate the impact of the disease on the economy that include: Cut in rates from 9 to 5 percent per annum for one year, effective March 1, 2020; grant of moratorium extension on all CBN intervention facilities, effective March 1, 2020; and N50bn targeted credit facility through NIRSAL Microfinance Bank for households and small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) hard hit by Covid-19. It is also significant and commendable that President Muhammadu Buhari has promptly approved a 10 billion Naira grant to Lagos, which is counting the highest number of cases, to fight the spread of the virus. 

“Post-coronavirus calls for sustainable prompt budget releases. The current crisis has exposed the underbelly of poor governance characterized by endemic complacency, sheer indifference and unnecessary competition amongst government agencies. It is remarkable that the National Assembly has passed the Emergency Economic Stimulus Bill, 2020 to complement the plans of the Executive arm.

“The fiscal authorities must complement the monetary policies of the CBN for Nigeria to cope with the challenges of diversification and the impact of COVID-19 on the Nigerian economy. This is NOT the time for uncritical cut in public spending. Already, Nigeria has the lowest budget per capital in the world. Additional reduction in the size of the 2020 budget by about N1.5 trillion, as part of the measures to address the impact of Corona virus on the Nigerian economy, will only undermine economic recovery and employment creation.

“The CBN has rightly directed that all Deposit Money Banks increase their support to the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries and support for funding intensive care as well as in training, laboratory testing, equipment and R&D. The Bank has increased financial intervention by N100 billion in loans this year to support the Health authorities to ensure laboratories, researchers and innovators work with global scientists to patent and or produce vaccines and test kits.  

“Nigeria needs a radical departure from the age-long unhelpful neo-liberal economics of wholesale liberalization, cuts in public spending, factory closures and export orientation. It is time for urgent diversification, import substitution, re-industrialization and beneficiation. This is the time to re- inflate the economy as commendably being done by the CBN and not a panicky contraction and deceleration. At $30 dollars per barrel of crude oil, Nigeria is far from being broke. But it is time to move from export of crude to refining, save scarce foreign exchange and create sustainable jobs.

“The CBN has promised to increase intervention in boosting local manufacturing and import substitution by another N1trillion across all critical sectors of the economy that includes the textile and garment sector. The apex bank has also initiated the private sector N1.5 trillion Infrastructure funding that will link farming communities to markets.

“The 2020 budget proposed as much as N2.45 trillion (almost a quarter of the budget!) for debt servicing. With coronavirus, such allocations to debts of dubious value are unsustainable. It is unacceptable that N2.45 trillion voted for debt servicing is more than the N2.14 trillion voted for capital expenditure! It is also time to review downward the N125 billion allocated to the National Assembly of some 500 senators and legislators. Indeed, the budget per capital of the National Assembly at N266,524,520.30 per legislator dwarfs the national budget per capital of about N57,388.88 as well as the N44.5 billion for the Basic Health Care Provision Fund (BHCPF) and N111.79 billion for the Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC) expected to impact on millions of citizens! Nigeria now needs a pandemic-sensitive budget!

“The on-going lockdown must be complemented with direct and targeted social transfer to the poor in formal and informal sectors whose per day incomes are engendered. With spirited national efforts, this pandemic will come to pass but the poverty and underdevelopment challenges will persist for some time to come”

That was Aremu from the Labour and Marxist perspective. Joe Okey-Odumakin, another Marxist and activist, approached the same issue from a pro-people and pro-poor perspective. She followed efforts by the Lagos State Government to offer relief materials to Lagosians and came up with these findings:

“As in many other mega cities, the Coronavirus pandemic is on the rise in Lagos, Nigeria’s most populous mega city, and all hands are on the deck to combat it. In the light of this, President Muhammadu Buhari gave an order of 14 days total lockdown of Lagos, Abuja and Ogun State from 11pm on Monday, 30th March, 2020. Thankfully, many private and corporate bodies have come to the rescue as they donate various relief packages to cushion the effects of the lockdown.

 “The disturbing question, however, is whether the courageous and bold war to stem the tide of Coronavirus will not be negated by efforts to get palliatives to the same people who have not been orderly in the quest to access the package. The methods adopted in distributing the relief materials have also become an issue (as well as) the predisposition of some of those put in charge to cut corners to compromise the integrity of the exercise and divert relief materials.

“To unravel these Gordian knots, we reached out to Ms. Biola Olusanya, Head, Lagos State Committee on Relief Package, on how a “Rescue Mission” would not turn out to endanger people even more.

“While emphasizing that the relief package was for the indigent, the vulnerable and the aged, she alleged that some politicians were cashing in on the exercise to score cheap political points, and were hijacking the exercise to feather their own nests and serve primordial interests. 

“Hence, as from Monday (tomorrow), her committee would leverage on LASTRA’s data base as well as employ the services of logistics companies to commence proper doorstep-to-doorstep delivery of relief materials to old and indigent people. 

“Olusanya also expressed shock that in many communities, people ignorantly thought COVID-19 was a “rich man’s virus”! 

“Also, the Lagos State Commissioner for Information, Mr. Gbenga Omotoso, lamented that the major problem bedevilling the relief package exercise was that some mischievous politicians were trying to use it to score cheap political points”

You can see say “wahala dey”, as they say!

LAST WORD: A fervent reader of this column, Pastor Jube Olawale, as if corroborating Joe, sent in this: “Something is happening now that may escalate the spread of coronavirus in Lagos. Somewhere around Gowon Estate, I saw people running to take position on a queue. I suspect it is to collect relief materials. Where is the social distancing? Can’t Lagos device a better way of relief materials collection?”


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