Op-ed: In Defense of the Poor: #COVID-19
By Oluwasoromidayo George
I was amazed at the number of calls l got during the COVID-19 lockdown in Nigeria. These were distress calls by people who wanted to help others who were in need. People and communities were in dire straits.
As people took to social media to complain of hunger and the need to go back to work, the fear became palpable. l clearly remember a particular video that was circulating with people saying that they would rather die of the virus than of hunger. Criminality did not take a back seat – it got so bad that criminals wrote letters to neighborhoods, warning them that they were coming to rob. It was a reminiscence of the old days in Lagos, Nigeria, when people would get letters from armed robbers that they were coming to rob and that you should either get ready or bear the consequences. The picture was similar across the world – people taking to the streets and demanding the lockdown to seize, as thousands or even millions lost their jobs.
There have been speculations that the pandemic will lead to a global and national recession. The reality is that as people lost their livelihoods, many more became poorer and that in itself l guess was more frightening than being affected with coronavirus. Economic sustenance and health are intricately dependent on each other and not separate, as most would think. So, it’s not a case of choosing health and well-being over income. It appears it must be a balancing act.
Though things appear to have gone back to normal, as many discard the face mask and disregard the advice of social distancing, social and economic interactions have changed as businesses are constrained. They do business with new rules and a new level of responsibility that will safeguard not only the health and well-being of their employees but also their partners and customers. Several businesses have closed entirely, and many are in the process of restructuring. It is important to note that though economic stimulus was given by the government to companies to help sustain commercial operations, disposable income had been constricted for some time, thereby impacting sales and purchasing trends.
People everywhere have to feed and sustain themselves, most notably the poor and the vulnerable, who depend on daily income sources and have no savings. Everyone has to earn a living. Not making a living can further lead to more damaging health implications. Hence government and business leaders need to have a holistic plan to ensure a balancing act between health and economy.
The main point is, how do we safeguard Nigerians from further slipping into poverty? What are the key actions that will help us manage the present pandemic/economic challenge but also put us on the long-term track to prosperity with life-changing and measurable indicators that will be tracked and reported? It is important to note that what we call the new normal is not, in essence, unique, but it is the manifestation of a life that begun to change drastically decades ago. For many years, development experts have been screaming at the top of their voice that the world is changing, and the impact on human existence can be irreparably devastating if we fold our arms and do nothing about it. We see today as an indication that anything can happen, and we, therefore, need to prepare for the unexpected occurrences as a global community.
Peterson Ozili, in an academic paper, stated that there are five main ways in which the pandemic affected Nigeria, and this included the inability for borrowers to service their loans and the decline in crude oil prices. Also, the shock in the global supply chain led to an inadequate supply of goods required in the country, while the national budget became obsolete as projected revenues dipped due to the fall in oil prices.
Finally, the stock market plunged as investors withdrew their funds. Chukwuka Onyekwena and Mma Amara Ekeruche, in their write-up, while stating similar views to Ozili, noted that the pandemic is a wake-up call to Nigerian policymakers to design a more integrated approach to tackling the challenges being faced in the country to build more resilience to shocks. They also stated that it is essential that the economy’s revenue base is diversified to other sources other than crude oil.
Finally, after the pandemic, what next and when? These questions must always be on our minds as we prepare for an even more uncertain future that may, in effect, look like a scene out of a scientific fiction movie. However, it will most certainly be based on the values that are nationalistic, discriminatory, unequal, uncollaborative, and self-grabbing. As the widespread capitalist system that governance is hinged on continues to plunge forward without pausing to think about a sustainable future – we are in danger of a more sinister outlook that we may not be prepared to tackle. My only hope is that things change for the better.
*Oluwasoromidayo George is a Non-Executive Director of the CSRG Institutute, where she leads research into Bottom of the Pyramid strategies