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2020: Conoravirus Exposed Weaknesses In Health Sector, Economy

The novel coronavirus first made its entry into Nigeria in February 2020 after the Virology Laboratory of the Lagos University Teaching Hospital confirmed the first case, an Italian from Milan, Italy. 

The minister of health, Osagie Ehanire, bragged about Nigeria’s preparedness to combat the virus but economic experts were of the opinion that the virus would cause upheaval in the already weak Nigerian economy. The mass of the population received the news with mixed reactions; some were of the opinion that it was a government ploy to seek international aid. 

The World Health Organisation classified Nigeria among the top 13 high-risk countries in Africa with respect to response to the disease and safety of health workers. “I wish to assure all Nigerians that we have been beefing up our preparedness capabilities since the first confirmation of cases in China and we will use all the resources made available by the government to respond to this case,” Ehanire told the press. He also pleaded that ‘fake news’ should not be spread on social media applications and that the coronavirus was real. 

Indeed, the Director-General of the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control, Chike Ihekweasu, had gone along with a team sponsored by the WHO to study the virus, a type of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), where it first originated in Wuhan, China. The disease was said to have been transferred to humans from wild animals. 

Sixty doctors were deployed to the Murtala Mohammed Airport in Lagos to support the screening exercise of those coming into Nigeria from other countries. Tedros Gheberyesus, DirectorGeneral of WHO, warned at this time that the disease could escalate into a pandemic.

The Presidential Task Force.

The president, Muhammadu Buhari, had failed to address Nigerians, a tradition that was taken up by world leaders to update their citizens on the peculiar situation which most found themselves in. According to the Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed, it was not the appropriate time for the President to address the country. The right time would come four weeks after the first coronavirus case was confirmed and the country had now recorded 110 cases. March 9 saw the announcement of the formation of the Presidential Task Force for COVID-19 which was to represent the Presidency and work with the ministry of health and the NCDC. 

Their functions included the provision of overall policy and support of the National Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) at the NCDC and other MDAs, enablement of the delivery of national and state-level outbreak control priorities, review and approval of recommendations for the implementation of countrywide or regional non-pharmaceutical interventions like the lockdown of schools and public gatherings. 

The chairman was the secretary-general of the federation, Boss Mustapha and the national coordinator was Dr Sani Aliyu, the National Agency for the Control of AIDS director-general. Among their first actions was the closure of the Nigerian airspace to 13 countries including China, Italy and the United States of America, on March 18, all were countries which had recorded over 1,000 cases of the virus. The visa on arrival policy was also suspended. 

Five days later, they shut down the international airports in Lagos and Abuja with exceptions made only for ‘emergency and essential’ flights. The president received a lot of criticism for his failure to address Nigerians. The Senate also defended Buhari, on March 20, some members said that it was too early to question his silence. 

Other African presidents who now had the virus in their domain including South Africa, Zimbabwe and Ghana, had addressed their citizens. While the president took his time, WHO classified the disease as a pandemic. Explaining its reluctance to initially do so because of the gravity of the word. According to Gheberyesus, ‘pandemic’ was not to be used carelessly. The ‘alarming levels of spread’ and the ‘alarming levels of inaction’ spurred the WHO to classify SARS-COV-2 as a pandemic.

Initial Lockdown and Travel Bans.

Finally, the president addressed the nation in a live broadcast on March 29 and declared a lockdown in Abuja, Lagos and Ogun States given the severity and occurrence of the diseases in those areas. The lockdown would last for 14 days. He assured that Nigeria had studied the responses to the disease used by other countries and was quite capable of handling the situation. Buhari said, “We will use this containment period to identify, trace and isolate all individuals that have come in contact with the confirmed cases.” 

All workers were to stay home, religious and social gatherings were banned, the Abuja Mosque for the first time in several years did not host the Friday Juma’at service for some weeks, interstate travel was stopped. Only essential workers were allowed passage including health care workers and, certain level officers in the civil service and bank officials. The key was that if the service rendered was not required to fight the pandemic then the individual had no business being out there. As the first lockdown was about to elapse, the inability of the government to control the spread of the virus required that the lockdown be extended by another 14 days, the president told Nigerians. In 14 days the number of infections had grown by 224 new cases. 

At the end of that period, the Federal Government approved the phased and gradual easing of the lockdown measures, by now the cases had become 1,955 and infections were only absent in Cross River and Kogi States. The gradual ease of the lockdown would go on from May till August. Night curfews were imposed in several states, students and most civil servants were asked to stay at home, and the remaining citizens were asked to maintain social distancing, use face masks and sanitise their hands; to avoid touching their faces and their noses. “No country can afford the full impact of a sustained lockdown while awaiting the development of vaccines,” the president said.

Economic Downturn

The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) reported in January 2020 that there was ‘overall optimism’ among business owners for the months of January and February according to a survey, however, with the rise in cases around the world, the biggest consumer of crude oil, the USA, shut down operations to stop the spread. 

This action affected oil prices making them drop. The first fall was recorded in February with Brent crude oil falling to $22.58 per barrel at one point in March, the lowest level since November 2002, while the price of US West Texas Intermediate (WTI) fell below $20 a barrel and closed at an 18-year low. Nigeria was by no means left out in the effects this had on economies. It was difficult to sell oil as the demand from European and Chinese refineries were low. 

The lower demand for oil forced the government to change its revenue strategy for the year and led to an increase in the debt burden. The federal government holdings in terms of external revenues through the months also declined. While the gross external reserves were at $38.5 billion by the first week of the first half of the year, the reserves dropped to $36.6 billion in the second half and $35.4 billion in the last week of 2020.

Recession 

As a result of the lockdown, low oil prices and economic activities worldwide caused by the pandemic, Nigeria slipped into its second recession in less than five years. Gross domestic product(GDP) contracted by 3.6 per cent in the three months through September 2020, after shrinking by 6.1 per cent in the second quarter. Crude receipts provide nearly 90 per cent of Nigeria’s foreign exchange and roughly half of the government revenues, which dropped sharply during the period. Inflation also peaked at 14.89% in 2020.

Job Cuts. 

Perhaps one of the biggest job cuts was in the entertainment industry. There was a consistent decline in the non-manufacturing industry employment index level. The arts, entertainment and recreation sub-sector only started to show growth in December 2020. For the rest of the year, it was in decline. The banking sector, according to a report by Nairametrics in September, had laid off 2,477 employees. In April, due to the setbacks of the pandemic, Access Bank, one of the biggest lenders in the sector, said it was going to lay off some of its staff. The CBN intervened and instead, Access Bank cut salaries of its staff going as low as 40 per cent in some cases.

Dilapidated Health Sector.

Though it was not news that the Nigerian health sector was underfunded, what proved how bad it was is how coronavirus shook the sector. The most striking incident was the strike of health workers under the National Association of Resident Doctors (NARD) and Joint Health Workers Union (JOHESU). While the former went on a six-day strike in June demanding life insurance for doctors working on the frontline of the pandemic and increment in their hazard allowance, the latter, in September, embarked on a seven-day strike with similar demands. Labour minister, Chris Ngige, retorted in the case of NARD, that those who did not return to work would be sacked, a threat that fell on deaf ears. Despite the claims by Ehanire that Nigeria was well equipped to handle the virus outbreak, the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) branch in Kano State asked members to buy PPE to be used in health facilities from their hazard allowance of N5,000. There were available on ground only 40,000 doctors to provide care to the estimated 200 million Nigerians. Anietie Ewang, a researcher at the Human Rights Watch, said that the rise in COVID-19 cases brought into focus the ‘gaping holes’ in the country’s healthcare system.

Debt Burden

According to the recently released debt figures by the Debt Management Office, the country currently owes N32.233 trillion with the debt profile rising in three months, between July and September, 2020 by N1.21 trillion. The DMO said, “ Compared to the total public debt stock of N31.009 trillion as at June 30, 2020, the debt stock in 3rd quarter 2020 increased by N1.214 trillion or 3.91 percent. The FGN, State Governments and the FCT all recorded increases in their debt stocks due to borrowings to enable them to respond appropriately to the COVID-19 pandemic and to meet revenue shortfalls.”

Infections and Deaths.

Notable among those who died from the virus was the chief of staff to President Muhammadu Buhari, Abba Kyari, who tested positive for the virus in March and died in April and Suleiman Adamu, a Nasarawa State lawmaker who also died in the same month. A total of 1,278 people died from the virus in Nigeria. Abiola Ajimobi, former Oyo State governor died in June while Ondo State commissioner for health, Wahab Adegbenro, and Senator Buruji Kashamu died in August. 

In March, Governor Abdullahi Sule of Nasarawa State, Governor Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti State Governor Seyi Makinde of Oyo State, Governor Bala Mohammed of Bauchi State and Governor Nasir El-Rufai of Kaduna State tested positive for the virus and recovered. Engineer Muazu Magaji, Kano State Commissioner for Works and Mrs Rebecca Apedzam, a former member of the National Assembly tested positive in May. Governor Rotimi Akeredolu of Ondo State, Governor Emmanuel Okowa of Delta State and Governor Okezie Ikpeazu of Imo State alongside Secretary to the State Government of Delta State, Chiedu Ebie, Delta State Commissioner for Information, Charles Anigwu and Bauchi State Deputy Governor, Baba Tela, tested positive in June and recovered. 

In July, Benue State secretary to the state government, Anthony Ijoho, Benue State Head of Service, Veronica Onyeke, Benue State Chief of Staff, Terwase Orbunde, Osun State Secretary to the State Government, Prince Wole Oyebamiji and four cabinet members of Makinde were confirmed positive for the virus in June. At the end of the year, 87,510 cases of the virus were confirmed.

Nigeria Second Wave. 

After a decline in the epi curve of new cases of coronavirus from August to November, the month of December brought a sudden spike in new cases with over 19,000 cases reported alone in it, taking over 22 per cent of the entire number of infected persons through the year. Osagie Ehanire while addressing members of the press at a PTF briefing confirmed that the second wave had begun in Nigeria after noting the rise in epidemiological trend. The country secured part of what was left of the rights to COVID-19 vaccines and Ehanire assured of vaccines reaching Nigeria by the end of January 2021. The African Centre for Disease Control and Prevention announced a new variant of SARS-COV-2, which is more contagious than the original strain. Lagos and Kaduna State governments have now shut down large gatherings and schools.

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