COVID-19: Private sector leads in care for Nigeria’s poor

president buhari

President Muhammadu Buhari at the weekend saluted the public-spiritedness of wealthy Nigerians and organisations for standing up to be counted in the battle against COVID-19 pandemic”.

The president’s felicitations communicated in a statement released Friday by Femi Adesina, his special adviser on media and publicity came after several wealthy individuals donated to a pool of fund meant to tackle the coronavirus pandemic across the country.

But that was after former Vice President Atiku Abubakar urged the Nigerian government to replicate its Conditional Cash Transfer and Trader Moni models it largely used to reach millions of indigent homes and petty traders in 2018 and 2019 ahead of the 2019 presidentail elections, to help the citizens overcome the harsh realities of COVID-19, which has already restricted social and economic activities even for the self- employed, following partial lockdown in several states of the Federation.

Atiku’s underlying advocacy was that N10,000 financial stipend for each vulnerable family would enable poor Nigerians meet some of their basic needs and get some of the items required to stay safe during their period of self- isolation.

As at last weekend, it was obvious the Federal Government had no scheme for direct financial support to vulnerable Nigerian most of whom cannot afford to buy nose mask and sanitisers and other security and sanitary items recommended by health authorities whose prices have since sky rocketed.

This same concern had prompted the Senate President, Ahmad Lawan, to urge the Buhari administration to initiate means of providing relief for poor Nigerians whose daily livelihood will be affected by the restriction on movement.

According to him, the fund should be for the purpose of purchasing food and pharmaceutical supplies for ordinary Nigerians.

Lawan warned that not making provisions ahead of time to address the basic needs of poor Nigerians may likely lead to more problems for the government and reduce its success rate in controlling the spread of the disease.

“Our prayer is that we are able to overcome this menace of COVID-19 in good time; because it is really taking a toll on our lives.

“If we have to eventually shut down our country; then as a government we must be prepared to have some relief for the most ordinary people. “I’m not seeing anything at the moment targeted at providing some relief.

“If we lock-down Nigeria today, that will wake-up trouble, because the majority of our citizens go to the market every day before they can get something to eat,” Lawan said.

But contrary to the Nigerian experience, the US President Donald Trump, on Friday, signed into law a historic $2 trillion stimulus package as the American public and the US economy battle the devastating spread of COVID-19.

The legislation stands as the largest emergency aid package in US history, as it represents a massive financial injection into a struggling economy with provisions aimed at helping American workers, small businesses and industries grappling with the economic disruption.

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Key elements of the package include sending checks directly to individuals and families, a major expansion of unemployment benefits, money for hard-hit hospitals and health care providers, financial assistance for small businesses and $500 billion in loans for distressed companies.

From the amount, single Americans would receive $1,200 and married couples would get $2,400. Payments would phase out above certain income thresholds. Jobless workers would get an extra $600 a week for four months on top of their state benefits.

CNN Business reported that the damage the coronavirus pandemic is inflicting on the global economy is so severe that governments are poised to start handing out cash directly to citizens, an emergency measure to help cover food, rent and utility payments during a period of extreme duress:

“Some countries and cities have already said they’ll give out cash as part of their coronavirus response. Hong Kong said in late February that it would give 10,000 Hong Kong dollars ($1,288) to all permanent residents who are at least 18 years old. Australia said last week that it would pay 750 Australian dollars ($434) to pensioners and others who receive income assistance. It looks like the logical next step for countries like Germany, France and Spain, which have pledged to do “whatever it takes” to support businesses and individuals.”It helps contain the damage,” said Holger Schmieding, chief economist at Berenberg Bank. “You are able to pay your employees for another month if you get support.”

As of mid-march, many local governments in China have been giving out prepaid spending vouchers to boost consumer spending, but the amounts are relatively small.

On March 20, the U.K. government announced new fiscal measures including a program to issue grants to companies covering up to 80 per cent of worker’s salaries if companies keep them on payrolls rather than lay them off. It will be up to $3,046 a month per person. An increase in safety net tax credits for people who are out of work by $1,200 a year.

Unfortunately for the better part of last week, Nigerians had waited to no avail for a direct Federal Government’s intervention that could alleviate much of their anxiety.

In Lagos for instance, residents’ hope of sharing from some of the kits supplied by Chinese billionaire Jack Ma, was dashed when it was reported that the items were allegedly shared among government top functionaries and their families with the remaining  flown to Abuja.

However, worried by government’s slow pace on direct intervention to the vulnerable groups at the grassroots of the nation’s economy, a number of wealthy Nigerians and organisations, including banks, last week began  donating billions of Naira to help fund medical centres and provide essential materials necessary to curtail the spread of coronavirus among the poor citizens of the country.

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Last Thursday for instance, Chairman of the United Bank for Africa (UBA) announced a donation of N5 billion (about $13 million) to provide beds for isolation centres, intensive care unit facilities and direct access to medical advice to up to 450,000 citizens every day.

“This global pandemic must bring citizens, governments and business leaders together — and quickly. As we see a rapidly increasing number of cases of the coronavirus in Nigeria and Africa, the private sector has to work hand in hand with various governments, in stemming the spread of the global pandemic,” Tony Elumelu, UBA Chairman said in the statement.

Other wealthy private sector operators that have since lent a helping hand include Mr Femi Otedola, Abdulsamad Rabiu, Herbert Wigwe, Segun Agbaje and Aliko Dangote, Africa’s richest man, all of whom contributed N1 billion Naira (about $2.7 million) each to support the government in curtailing the pandemic in Nigeria.

From oil and gas industry the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) had coordinated an intervention of $30 million (N11 billion) to help cushion the impact of the global pestilence on the Nigerian economy.

The Group Managing Director of the national oil company, Mr Mele Kyari, who made the disclosure said the intervention was done in collaboration with partners in the oil and gas industry.  “This will be followed, in the next few days, with the deployment of ventilators, beds and temporary intensive care facilities across the geopolitical zones of the federation.”

Industry players that partnered with the NNPC to make the intervention include the Niger Delta Petroleum Resources Ltd, Oando Oil Limited, Oriental Energy Resources Ltd, Pilar Oil Limited, Platform Petroleum Limited, SEPLAT Petroleum Development Company Plc, and Shoreline Natural Resources. Others are Suntrust Oil Company Nigeria Limited, Vertex Energy Limited, Waltersmith Petroleum Oil Limited and Yinka Folawiyo Petroleum Limited, among others.

Although the donors, noted that their resources were targeted at supporting government’s effort at checkmating the virus now ravaging the world as a weapon of mass destruction, many commentators believe that the government inability to provide immediate support to vulnerable groups in the country leaves much to be desired.

While Nigeria’s fatality rate remains the lowest across the world, its galloping and exponential growth rate has made its containment much more compelling.

As at the weekend, COVID-19 infection rate has grown to almost a hundred cases with its social and economic impacts also taking a dangerous toll on ordinary Nigerians.

Meanwhile, when at the weekend President Muhammdu Buhari, announced the immediate release of N10 billion grant to Lagos State, and another N5billion to the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) to enable them increase their capacity to control and contain the outbreak, while also supporting other States with capacity-building, the missing link perhaps was how the families of over100million inhabitants living below the poverty line can possibly benefit directly from the allocation.

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Buhari said: “Accordingly, I approved the following: The immediate release of a N10 billion Naira grant to Lagos State, which remains the epicentre of the Covid-19 outbreak in Nigeria. This grant will enable Lagos State increase its capacity to control and contain the outbreak, while also supporting other States with capacity building.”

The President said he has also approved the release of N5 billion special intervention fund to the Nigeria Center for Disease Control (NCDC) to equip, expand and provide personnel to its facilities and laboratories across the country.

While there is no doubt that Lagos is currently the epicenter of the COVID-19, it is certainly not the macrocosm of Nigerian nation since millions of Nigerians who live outside the state are also at risk of coronavirus infection. This prompted some commentators to advise government to discentralise the resources going into the containment of COVID -19 to ensure that no one is exposed to its dangers. The battle against the virus should not be centralised since Lagos is not the gateway to all 36 states of the country.

Government’s directive to the NCDC to draft all its recent retirees back into service to beef up our manpower in response to the pandemic, and recalling those on courses abroad without much emphasis on its prevention across the country creates the impression it was merely interested in a spike than taking care of the vulnerable groups who need protective gear and food to knock out the disease. This again is worrisome when viewed against the more than 80 per cent of the nation’s economy in the informal sector most of whom live on daily earnings.

Earlier, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), on behalf of the Bankers’ Committee and in partnership with the private sector led by Aliko Dangote Foundation and Access Bank, have formed the Nigerian private sector coalition against COVID-19 out of the urgent need to combat the unfolding COVID-19 crisis in Nigeria.

According to the CBN Governor, Godwin Emefiele “The need for all Nigerians to play a role in this fight cannot be understated as we are quite literally in the fight of our lives. I must highlight the fact that this is not just about bringing money. Your time, your services, your products will all be helpful.”

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