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COVID-19: Imperative of improving on Nigeria’s response

Measures must be all-encompassing and objectives well defined

Just as other COVID-19 infected countries, Nigeria began its fight against the deadly virus when it confirmed its first case on February 27, 2020. Responses seemed swift; unintended measures were enacted and people realised that COVID-19 outbreak wasn’t a joke.

Against the wish but expectation of many, the number of COVID-19 cases in the country has surged since February with hundreds of new cases recorded daily. Try as governments at federal and state level do, Nigerians are yet to see a flattening of the curve. Many have survived, few have died and others still stand the risk of contracting the virus.

Winning the battle against the current plague ravaging the lives and livelihoods of Nigerians is dependent on the country’s ability to prevent, detect and respond to a public health crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, our evaluation of these independent variables in Nigeria is similar to the World Health Organisation’s Joint External Evaluation (JEE) assessment of Nigeria in 2017.

According to the assessment, Nigeria was thought to have limited capacity to “prevent” biological, chemical, or radiation health risks. Although better at “detecting” new health risks through real-time surveillance and laboratory capabilities to test diseases, sustainability is questioned.

Also, Nigeria was recorded to perform badly in “response”. This is reflected in the country’s  weak infrastructural capacity to respond to sudden health risk like the COVID-19 pandemic.

The status hasn’t changed in 2020. The discovery of a vaccine may be the sole hope for Nigeria if its entities do not swing swiftly into action to address the distressing assessment on preparedness to tackle public health risks.

One way will be to boost testing capacity for COVID-19 and fund the purchase of relevant medical equipment. Compared with peers in Sub-Saharan Africa, Nigeria has one of the lowest test samples. As at July 4 2020, only 151,121 samples had been tested in Nigeria for a population estimated at 200 million. This represents 0.07 percent of the population.

It is a cause for concern that, in contrast to Nigeria, South Africa, a country of 58 million people, has as at June 30, conducted 1.63 million tests, representing 2.8 percent of its population.

It has become, not just urgent, but also imperative that Nigeria funds the purchase of more ventilators and intensive care unit beds given the consistent surge in the number of confirmed cases. As at April, Nigeria could boast of just 450 ventilators and 350 ICU beds, according to a report by Brookings. This, in our view, is a far cry from the identified need.

Though we commend the Nigerian federal government and the CBN on the initiatives taken so far to ameliorate the health, social and economic impact of the pandemic, we are at the same time miffed that some of the policy responses have weaknesses and, taken together, are not commensurate with the magnitude of the problem.

The Economic Stimulus Bill 2020, for instance, excludes the Nigerian informal sector – projected to be worst hit – which accounts for about 65 percent of Nigeria’s total GDP and 90 percent of the workforce while aimed at providing 50 percent tax rebates to businesses that are registered under the Companies and Allied Matters Act.

It is important to point out that businesses in the informal sector are not registered but are often supported by microfinance facilities.

It is unfortunate that the government’s N20,000 cash transfers to the poor and vulnerable registered  under the National Social Register (NSR) is limited to just 2.6 million households registered on the NSR platform.

This is a meagre 2.9 percent of 87 million Nigerians estimated to live on less than $1.90 a day. This also implies that about 76 million Nigerians are not captured on the NSR register, hence reveals gaps in Nigeria’s information management system.

The CBN’s N3 million stimulus package to poor families impacted by COVID-19 requires collateral and is not interest-free. Many poor families do not have collaterals to present nor can they afford interests charged on these loans. Many are poor because they have no jobs.

It is imperative therefore those measures must be all-encompassing, meaning that objectives must be properly defined and well executed. From what we see, Nigeria isn’t off the hook yet as far as the pandemic is concerned. The country must improve its ability to prevent, detect and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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