On Nigeria reopening for economic reasons & flattening the coronavirus curve

There might be an illusion that things are getting better but an improved response is clearly and urgently needed

A few weekends ago, New Zealand became the first country to return to unrestricted, full capacity crowds at live sporting events, following a consecutive 24-day run where no new cases of the novel coronavirus—Covid-19—was recorded. It was one of the very few positive and heart-warming moments in a period where restrictive measures have been put in place, in order to curb the ongoing pandemic that has caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, globally.

In the same weekend, Nigerian rapper Naira Marley headlined a live show at Jabi Lake Mall in Abuja, and although it was reportedly meant to be a drive-in concert, it devolved into a large gathering that paid little mind to social distancing, a primary recommendation in the fight against the pandemic. After news of the event broke, there was outrage, and rightly so. It was a display of carelessness in a time when we can’t afford to be careless, especially when, unlike New Zealand, we’re aren’t even remotely close to flattening the curve.

The Jabi Mall concert is also symbolic of Nigeria’s shoddy response to the pandemic—a shit show that mirrored the fact that there’s been no major leaps in eradicating the virus’ spread, despite the fairly recent moves to re-open society. After a 6-week period of total restrictions on movement—which was riddled with reports of rule breaks—the Nigerian government relaxed lockdown protocols, allowing intra-state travels and opting for overnight curfews, first from 8pm to 6am and now from 10pm to 4 am.

With the emphasis on people moving from their homes to places of work and business, the reopening is largely centred on the country’s perennially struggling economy, and it’s difficult to entirely fault the government’s decision on that basis. In 2016, Nigeria suffered a recession that was officially adjudged to be its worst since the 1987 recession, and according to experts, the country has yet to fully shake off the effects from that economic downturn. In fact, over the last few months, there’s been reports of another impending recession, which may be even worse than its predecessor.

As a country largely dependent on the sale of crude oil for income to run government expenses, the sharp fall of international oil prices—due to low demand because fewer people are moving around, globally—is the major threatening factor. (Similar to other recessions, this is a familiar ditch that we always fall into.) Although it’s not a safe time to conduct business, reopening society for business is the only adoptable strategy for the economy, in order to lessen the hard fall of this potential decline. It shows that the wheels of capitalism never stop turning, even when people are in identifiable danger.

If all this chatter about the wider economy doesn’t bother you—it should—we can all, at least, identify with the fact that bills need to be paid. With the way Nigeria is set up, a prolonged halt is clearly unsustainable. In a country with alarming poverty stats and where most of the population subsists on periodic income—daily, weekly, monthly—it’s unsurprising that the reopening has been embraced for its necessity, from businesses who are looking to make profits and stay afloat, to employees who have to carry out their obligations without the safety that comes with remote work.

“Every time I get back home, I have to be extremely cautious around my kids because I can’t be too sure of my every step,” a Lagos-based banker who has been going to work every day for the past few weeks tells me via voice note. “I move around in public commercial buses, and even though there’s safety measures like masks and extra space in between passengers, I’m always dealing with the fear that I can contract the virus without knowing.” As a virus that counts on (in)voluntary recklessness to spread, her observation shows that prevention isn’t just about being at alert and careful at all times, it also counts on everyone else around us being at alert and careful at all times.

With these high stakes, it’s clear that people are risking their lives, and possibly those closest to them, every time they go out. On the flip side of the immediacy of working to pay bills, it’s important to note that all of this is happening while we’re still struggling to eradicate, or at least curtail, the spread of the virus. Where other countries—whose economies have also been adversely affected by the pandemic—have matched reopening protocols with a consistent reduction in cases, Nigeria’s situation isn’t quite the same. Till date, hundreds of new COVID-19 cases are being reported on a daily basis, and it’s difficult to tell if we have been through the worst or have even seen it yet.

A big part of this uncertainty is down to the deficiency of tests—there’s been little over a hundred thousand tests in a nation with close 200million people—which is essential in the fight against the virus since a significant portion of carriers are asymptomatic. In thrusting its citizens into this peculiar and ominous set of circumstances, one would expect the government to better invest in improving public health safety, but that hasn’t always been the case.

As the pandemic began to ramp up in the country, the government rightly rolled out emergency funds to the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, however, just last week, it cut down healthcare funding by over 40% in the revised budget for the remainder of the year. While this revision was brought on to reflect the negative change in expected income, the aggravating part is the unchanged approval of 37bn Naira for renovations to National Assembly buildings. Adding to that, the federal government recently threatened to fire Nigerian doctors who are currently on strike, in protest of unpaid salaries and hazard allowances, as well as inadequate personal protective equipment (PPE).

Consistently and grossly underfunded, these issues with the healthcare sector are far from novel, they’re only being heightened by the fact that we’re in the middle of a pandemic. It is heart-breaking that the most essential set of people in these trying times have to deal with being undervalued. Markets and places of business have been reopened for understandable reasons, but as we’re still expected to live with this coronavirus in the coming months, it’s not the time to undervalue a health sector that’s important to our collective survival until there’s a permanent solution to the pandemic.

Like the rest of the world, we’re waiting for a Covid-19 vaccine, and while there are high hopes for one within a year to eighteen months, it’s better to err on the side of caution. According to health experts, at least 60% of the world population will need to be vaccinated, in order for us to be totally immune, which means over 4billion doses of the eventual vaccine will be needed. For context, no other vaccine has reached the billion necessity threshold. Considering how far off Africa tends to be on the priority list when it comes to outbreaks, we need to guarantee our own safety beyond simply waiting and hoping that a vaccine turns up.

Instead of buying into the illusion that things are getting better because we’ve opened society to an extent, we need to realise that there’s no better time than the present for an improved response that helps in eradicating the pandemic. This means continuing to uphold individual safety measures and, very importantly, clamouring for better government reaction as regards the health sector. In doing this, we give ourselves a chance at a full reopening that goes beyond strictly economic reasons—a social utopia where we hugs can be exchanged, religious people can gather and concerts can be held in stadiums without any ensuing backlash.

Dennis is not an interesting person. Tweet at him @dennisadepeter