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For many Nigerians, working remotely is a luxury 

Pandemic presents opportunity to revamp education, close digital divide

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to threaten economies of the world, the discovery of a vaccine has been described as the exit strategy as most countries struggle to flatten the curve. Until then,  the coronavirus will continue to ravage and remain a devastating threat to lives and livelihoods.

Maintaining social distance, masking up, and ensuring personal hygiene has become the new sermon every government preaches to its people daily. Also, organisations have had to adopt “teleworking” as the new normal as they can’t afford to shut business operations indefinitely while fighting a pandemic, particularly when it’s uncertain when it will end.

Social distancing and teleworking may be viable options to combat the spread of the virus, however, it threatens jobs requiring employees’ physical presence or face-to-face interactions.

In Nigeria, the COVID-19 pandemic is overwhelming its labour market. Nigerians are losing their jobs due to the growing effects of the pandemic. The National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) COVID-19 impact monitoring survey conducted between April and May this year revealed that of 1,950 households, 42 percent of the respondents who were working before the outbreak were no longer working for reasons related to COVID-19. About 79 percent of households reported that their total income had decreased.

Many who are unable to work remotely, face a significantly higher risk of reductions in hours or pay, involuntary leave of absence, or permanent layoffs.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) in a survey on the feasibility to work from home in a large sample of advanced and emerging market economies, revealed that given same occupations in both markets it is easier to telework in advanced economies than in emerging and developing economies. This is because more than half the households in most emerging and developing countries don’t even have a computer at home.

Given the large size of Nigeria’s informal sector and the concentration of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in the formal sector, workers in these sectors are at a higher risk of losing their jobs because of the inability to do their jobs remotely. SMEs for example accounts for 96 percent of businesses and 84 percent of employment in the formal sector.

According to the IMF report, workers in food and accommodation, and wholesale and retail trade, are the hardest hit because their jobs are  the least “teleworkable”. Yet some are more vulnerable than others. Young workers and those without university education and women disproportionately concentrated in the food service and accommodation sectors and part-time workers of SMEs were identified as largely prone to job loss.

The effect of this is that it worsens income inequality in Nigeria as these groups of people are located at the bottom of the income distribution table. They are largely concentrated in the hardest hit sectors identified earlier.

In the short to medium term the more vulnerable will need some form of social insurance and safety net to weather the ravaging effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Providing such should be the priority of the Federal Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development to cushion affected households against loss of income and employment.

Also, we must buttress the need to revamp Nigeria’s education system. Life-longeducation and training will help prepare students, workers for the jobs of the future.

The need to close the digital divide and invest in digital infrastructure is also important. The reduction by 97 percent of Right of Way charges for telecommunication infrastructure by the Ekiti state government is a good example other states must imbibe. It is a move that will encourage investment in digital infrastructure.

The new workplace is online. Some firms have continued operation successfully because they have embraced technology and exposed their workers early enough to the digital world.

Nigeria isn’t off the hook yet. Effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are still being felt across households. It is therefore imperative that discourse and actions towards lifting the costs of the pandemic currently borne by those least able to.

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