Prioritise Nigeria’s healthcare in COVID-19 fight
The maxim health is wealth can’t be overemphasised
Recent efforts in Nigeria show a slow but steady shift towards fixing or lessening the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on economic activities. With COVID-19 cases not showing signs of slowing soon, we urge the federal government not to lose focus but rather prioritise the healthcare system.
The IMF, in a recent report on “COVID-19: An unprecedented threat to development,” made it very clear that the immediate priority is for countries to do whatever it takes to ramp up public health expenditure to contain the virus outbreak, regardless of fiscal space and debt positions.
As at Sunday, the number of confirmed COVID-19 patients had risen to 5,959 with 338 new patients recorded. Here is the risk, the rapid spread of the virus, if left unchecked, is threatening to overwhelm the weak healthcare system which has characterised Nigeria over the years.
Some state governments are gradually easing lockdown measures. Lagos State with the highest number of COVID-19 patients is considering re-opening its economy on improved businesses’ readiness stating that, “with the size of the state’s economy and numbers of businesses that operate in its domain, the government could not afford to keep people and businesses on lockdown permanently.” We may see similar responses also from the federal government.
The reality is that Nigeria is faced with an unprecedented health and economic crisis, which requires a commensurate and timely policy response. Amid the need to restart economic activities, the fiscal authorities must also seek to minimise the humanitarian cost of the health crisis by ramping up the preparedness of healthcare systems. Nigeria’s healthcare system is currently under-equipped to deal with the increased demand for critical services, posing challenges in tackling the outbreak.
The Presidential Task Force on Covid19 recommended that states prepare isolation centres with capacity for 3000 beds each. As the states do so, BusinessDay recommends that they consider ensuring that the facilities should be easily convertible to regular hospital bed spaces.
In the short to medium term what must be prioritised, according to the World Health Organisation, are the procurement of essential medical supplies for effective treatment (including for intensive care), setting up test labs to allow rapid case identification, implementing effective contact tracing and quarantining, and supporting frontline health workers. For countries where limited fiscal space and financing constraints prevent adequate health spending, mobilising grants or zero-interest loans should be a priority.
According to the IMF, the priority for oil exporters like Nigeria should be to accommodate essential health spending and combine well-paced, growth-friendly spending adjustments that protect social spending and public investment.
This is a tough time for Nigeria. The lack of budgetary space to absorb the global shock of the COVID-19 pandemic is complicating an appropriate policy response. The fiscal situation is more complex because persistently low oil prices are expected beyond 2020 and will result in low revenues for an extended period.
A major challenge Nigeria has faced so far in the pandemic is its testing capacity. Twenty weeks into the pandemic just 35,345 patients have been tested out of an estimated population of 200 million people. This is too low. The number of new infections reported daily is a reflection of how many tests can be being conducted daily. It is not the total number of Nigerians who have contracted the disease. The number of tests must increase.
While we restructure the 2020 budget, get loans from the IMF, World Bank and etc. in a bid to spur growth in the economy, we cannot afford to treat the healthcare system as secondary.
We have called for a rethink of the 2020 revised budget in our editorial. We expect expenditure on health infrastructures and facilities to take priority above others. The federal government must see in this crisis an opportunity to build a solid and vibrant healthcare sector.