The reality of a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic has been forcefully brought home to Nigeria in a renewed harvest of deaths and a spike in the number of reported cases. With a higher number of Nigerians dying from COVID-19, many others hospitalised and new strains of the deadly virus popping up, the federal and state governments have become sufficiently alarmed to contemplate a raft of measures and restrictions in economic and social activities to contain the spread. But the dilemma remains how to effectively battle the pandemic without further devastating a battered economy already reeling from recession.
On January 10, 1,024 new cases and eight deaths were reported in 16 states and the Federal Capital Territory, said the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control. This brought the total cases reported since March 2020 to 110,087, of which 1,358 persons had died. Adding to the concerns is the discovery by Africa CDC of a new strain of the virus just like Europe and Asia are contending with new variants, prompting restrictions and partial lockdowns. With the International Monetary Fund forecasting that the economy will not rebound to 2019 levels until 2022-24, how Nigeria manages the second wave challenge will be critical for its future.
Traditional donor countries have their hands full and may not come charging in with aid this time. By Sunday, CNN’s trackers on Saturday reported 89.7 million COVID-19 cases and 1.9 million deaths in 218 countries since the first case was reported to the World Health Organisation in December 2019. Worst hit are the United States with 22.41 million cases and 374,342 deaths, India 10.45 million cases and 150,999 deaths, Brazil 8.07 million cases and 202,631 deaths, Russia 3.36 million cases and 60,963 deaths, and the UK 3.01 million cases and 80,868 deaths. Many countries are also defending against the second wave.
Decidedly, with mass poverty rising, the Nigerian economy after two successive quarters of GDP contraction cannot afford another lockdown. Even a partial closure of critical economic activities could be disastrous, the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry warned. Babajide Sanwo-Olu, the governor of Lagos State, insists that another lockdown in the state that hosts 60 per cent of all commercial activities and lost N1.5 trillion to last October’s post-#EndSARS riots is untenable. The President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), and the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 have also raised the alarm over the second wave and the ill-wind it portends for an economy in a tailspin. Like Sanwo-Olu, Buhari repudiates another lockdown.
Across the world, the second wave is weaving a destructive path, stretching health facilities and national treasuries to the limit and impeding recovery from the global meltdown. A new strain first detected in the UK last September accounts for higher infections in London, east and south-east England. Another has been found in Japan. Though experts expect available vaccines to still work, the new variant is replacing others fast, and has mutations that are known to increase the ability of the virus to infect cells, meaning faster rate of spread. The variant found in Osun State is more contagious, said Africa CDC, which cites the alarming rate of new infections and deaths via a similar variant in South Africa.
The immediate task for Nigeria is to halt the spread; then map out an effective vaccination programme. Failure to build and sustain local vaccine production capability has left the country exposed. India, in conjunction with Oxford University and AstraZeneca, has rolled out its own vaccine. It plans to vaccinate 300 million people by July. Israel is acknowledged as the fastest in vaccination; using lockdowns and strict regulations, 1.59 million persons in a population of 8.6 million have received their first shots, compared with 5.9 million in the US with a population of 331 million and 1.3 million in the UK population of 66 million. The PTF and NCDC will have to work effectively with the states and local governments to undertake mass vaccination. About 25 countries had started vaccinations by December.
The government has to overcome widespread public denial. Sanwo-Olu, who himself survived the virus, reminded Lagosians that this is no hoax. Among its latest victims are dons, senior political figures and professionals. Government at all levels should strictly and dispassionately enforce the rules on gatherings and preventive protocols. There should be no exemptions.
Nigerians must be self-disciplined. The virus is no respecter of persons or of spurious conspiracy theories, some recklessly stoked by some clerics: 32,824 persons have died from COVID-19 in South Africa out of 1.21 million confirmed cases. The prevailing scepticism that pervades Africa, including the rumour that the vaccine alters a person’s DNA, should give way to reality and science. The government should revitalise its medical research agencies and vaccine production.
The challenge still is how to delicately balance life and livelihood. Full lockdown is not an option. This is the time for the Buhari regime to implement reforms, especially the fundamental drivers of the economy, which will support strong and sustainable growth. Proshare’s Economic Outlook 2021 recommends keeping the virus at bay through effective vaccination, exploiting opportunities offered by the African Free Trade Agreement and “fiscal policy options supported by access to more concessional financing, relief, and private financing and bold policy reforms.” Policy measures contained in the new Finance Act, interventions by the Central Bank of Nigeria to ease liquidity and credit access should be accompanied by aggressive rural infrastructure provision by the states, rehabilitation of highways, stimulation of SMEs and start-ups. Incentives to businesses should be strengthened, especially in high job-generating sectors like agriculture, food and beverages, pharmaceuticals and construction. The port bottlenecks should be cleared and quick, corruption-free privatisation of public commercial assets undertaken.
From the $70 a barrel in early 2020, oil prices plummeted to less than $20 in March. Last week, Brent crude oil rebounded to $56pb. The incremental rise in crude oil prices should be put into improving competitive capabilities in human capacity development, infrastructure development and business capacity development. Insecurity has to be tamed to facilitate economic and social activities and vaccination rollout. Now more than ever before, the 36 states must function as productive economic units and tend to the health and welfare of the citizens.