COVID-19: Nigeria must prioritize homegrown strategies
Debo Onifade is the author of “Liberating Nigeria: A Guide to Winning Elections and Reviving our Country”, and the founder of the Nigeria Politics Online Forum: Liberating Nigeria.
Nigeria is one of the greatest countries on earth in terms of human capital. So rather than blame China, the United States, Europe, or even Nigerian returnees for the COVID-19 crisis within its borders, it needs to focus on overcoming the corona virus healthcare issues and coming out of economic recession. Truth be told, Nigeria is not approaching recession, COVID-19 and the consequent crude oil price slump have already put the country back in recession.
Nigeria should start by being honest with its people that only little help will come from abroad and that its revival must happen through internal creativity. The United States, China and Europe have enough COVID-19 related challenges to deal with for the next few years and that’s why the best debt relief the G20 has offered so far is a one-year moratorium on repayment, not the debt forgiveness that many poor countries clamored for.
Japan is testing its Fujitsu-made favipiravir drug to treat COVID-19 and phase II clinical trials began in the United States this month. Cuba is doing same with its interferon alpha-2B recombinant (IFNrec) and testing in several countries. The United States, Europe and China have begun phase I clinical trials for COVID-19 vaccine. Nigeria should begin its own clinical treatment trials with local herbs and seize the opportunity to determine their effectiveness. Already, the COVID-19 Nigeria data clearly indicate an unexplainable slow rate of infection and deaths that the world must fully understand and learn from.
The United States is sending checks to its people, offering special loans to small businesses, and planning huge bailout for the worst hit industries. Australia is subsidizing wages for workers, the United Kingdom is offering rescue loans to small companies, and China is prioritizing their big manufacturers and exporters. Nigeria should learn from these examples but consider its peculiarities to adopt apt strategies. For example, the federal government needs to quickly understand that using their existing database of poor people to determine who needs help at this crisis time is unwise. Lagos, Abuja and Kano are currently the most affected regions and many indigent residents that require urgent assistance are not on the database. So the federal government should collaborate with local officials, as well as religious and community leaders to rapidly update their database and strategies.
The delivery system for relief items by Lagos and other states have been awful as people troop out of their houses to fight for food. If the state governments lack the capacity to effectively deliver relief items without jettisoning the required social distancing, they should partner with local religious and community leaders or outsource this service to capable private organizations or military units that can do the job effectively. After all, the United States COVID-19 task force also had to get help from the military to enhance supply chain and expeditiously build mobile hospitals.
According to a top Nigerian classifieds website and business blog – Delon.ng, the Nigerian government had earned about N43b (roughly $110m) from local corporate and individual donations as at April 15, 2020. And they are trying to deploy these funds towards a coordinated COVID-19 task force response across Nigeria. This is unfortunate because the bureaucracy and corruption that are usually common with most government processes in Nigeria will grossly reduce the effectiveness of the funds. Why does Bill Gates travel to core north instead of staying in affluent Lagos and Abuja to monitor his healthcare donations to Nigeria? He does this obviously to limit corruption. The corporate and individual donors in Nigeria should channel their subsequent donations directly to the needy by creating an efficient structure filled with people of integrity instead of giving funds to the government.
COVID-19 also gives Nigeria the opportunity to revamp its healthcare system. The country can learn from the United States, United Kingdom, Germany and Australia, but it must ultimately create a local solution that best suits Nigeria. Like many other government agencies in Nigeria, the National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS) is grossly failing, and I believe that until it is revamped into a Public-Private-Partnership (PPP) model comparable to the hugely successful National Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG), it will not work. In order to expand its pool of subscribers and revenue, NHIS should be allowed to enroll small business owners and people in the informal sector who prefer government insurance, as well as state government workers in states without a functional State Health Insurance Scheme (SHIS).
The NHIS and SHISs should collaborate to deploy the United States Medicaid-type system to provide free healthcare to all qualified poor people in Nigeria that cannot afford to buy health insurance. The ministries of health should focus on regulation and staffing, while a fixed percentage of NHIS and SHISs revenues should be used to fund healthcare infrastructure across the country like NHS does in the United Kingdom. Nigeria’s human capital is its greatest asset, not crude oil. Healthcare and education should therefore become its top priorities.
Regarding social distancing in Nigeria, most poor and lower-middle class people living in the big cities will struggle to practice appropriate social distancing. For example, in areas where residents rent side-by-side rooms, government needs to emphasize the use of protective masks even while the people are indoors. State government must also find orderly way to provide masks to people free of charge. This represents another business opportunity for many state governments to facilitate local manufacturing of masks within their territories.
In America, some stores allow older people above sixty years of age to shop only from 6.00am to 9.00am and other people can then come in after 9.00am. It is impossible to maintain this type of orderliness in Nigeria. Therefore, government should just advise all older people perhaps above sixty-five years or seventy years to try their best to stay at home except there is a life-saving reason to go out.
Self-isolation is often advised for anyone having coronavirus symptoms or people that have likely come in contact with a coronavirus infected person. Perhaps only the rich people in Nigeria can correctly self-isolate as they will likely have spacious houses. State governments should quickly increase capacity to provide facilities for self-isolation, as thousands of people at risk will need this help. In fact, the best way to help doctors and nurses treating coronavirus infected patients across Nigeria to self-isolate and protect their families is to provide hotel-like accommodations to them with individual toilet, bathroom and kitchen.
I hope Nigerian politicians will also seize this downtime opportunity to learn and reflect on how they can turn a new leaf to start developing Nigeria after the storm is over. I am not able to discuss many policies in great details in this article as I would have loved to, but my book on Nigerian politics and policies– “Liberating Nigeria: A Guide to Winning Elections and Reviving our Country”provides extensive recommendations.
Finally, it is time to crash the jumbo expenditure of the legislature and executive, smartly deploy technology to reduce corruption, and incentivize young people to embrace agriculture in order to climb out of recession within a short time.