Nigeria: COVID-19 - Private Sector, Labour Leaders Oppose Fresh Lockdown

An empty road in Abuja during the COVID-19 lockdown of the Nigerian capital.
18 May 2020

Abuja and Lagos — As President Muhammadu Buhari addresses the nation today after 14 days of relaxation of the lockdown of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Lagos and Ogun states he had imposed March 30 to curb the spread of COVID-19, the organised private sector (OPS) and labour have indicated their opposition to a fresh shutdown of the economy.

Leading members of the sector and the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) spoke to THISDAY yesterday and said a fresh lockdown of the economy would be retrogressive and would have tremendous negative economic and social consequences on the country.

This position was canvassed by the Nigeria Employers' Consultative Assembly (NECA), the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI) and the Nigerian Association of Chambers of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture (NACCIMA) and a Professor of Financial Economics and the Director of the Centre for Economic Policy Analysis and Research, University of Lagos, Prof. Ndubisi Nwokoma, in separate interviews with THISDAY.

Following the relaxation of the lockdown two weeks ago, the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 had complained about the failure of citizens to adhere to measures laid down to curb the spread of the disease, warning that if the disobedience persisted, the federal government might be forced to reinstitute the shutdown of the country.

The rise in the number of confirmed cases and deaths since the easing of the restrictions had also made public health analysts advocate a return to total restriction to slow down the rampaging virus.

Yesterday, Nigeria recorded 338 new cases, bringing to 5,959 the total number of confirmed cases in the country.

Announcing this last night, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) said Lagos recorded 177 new cases, Kano 64, Federal Capital Territory (FCT) 21, Rivers 16, Plateau 14, Oyo 11, Katsina nine, Jigawa and Kaduna four each, Abia, Bauchi and Borno three each, Gombe, Akwa Ibom and Delta two each, while Ondo, Kebbi and Sokoto recorded one each.

It said: "Nigeria had recorded 5,959 cases of COVID-19. 1,594 persons have been discharged, while 182 persons have died."

The president is, however, unveiling new guidelines for the containment of the pandemic today, the Chairman of the PTF, Mr. Boss Mustapha, said yesterday while answering questions from journalists after leading his team to a meeting with the Buhari in the State House.

Mustapha, who described the meeting as a routine exercise during which appraisal of the last guideline unfolded by the Buhari was carried out, recalled that today, being the 14th day since April 27, when the last guideline was issued, the president is expected to unveil a new procedure for the fight against the disease.

According to him, the meeting was meant to present the president with raw materials aimed at assisting him in making the right decision for the way forward.

"This is part of a routine exercise. I think this is about the third time that we have had cause to submit an interim report to him on our activities as a task force and also to update him on preparation for the other phases of the engagement. And we have supplied him with all the materials that are required to look at the issues.

"We are in for the long haul, this is not a short distance race. It is a marathon and we have to keep everything in perspective. But remember, on the 27th of April, he addressed the nation and put in place the easing of the lockdown effective from the 4th of May. From the 4th of May to date is about 13 days.

"Tomorrow, we should expect new processes to be put in place. But we have to give him all the material details that will help us in preparing for the future. So, that is why we are here," Mustapha said.

He also advised Nigerians expecting an immediate end or sudden disappearance of the disease to perish the thought, pointing out that it would be foolhardy to expect the fight against the disease to end in the next two months, bearing in mind that hope of available vaccines for its cure is not yet in sight.

According to him, it would not take earlier than 18 to 24 months before such vaccines would be produced, submitting that until such vaccines are available to cure the disease, COVID-19 would remain the albatross of mankind.

Furthermore, SGF added that even if the current cycle of the pandemic subsides, there might yet be its resurgence which he said had been the characteristics of infectious diseases.

Against this background, he said the task force had resolved to adopt a new approach in the fight against the disease, disclosing that the fight would henceforth be taken to community levels where there are primary health centres.

He said such primary health centres would serve as the platforms for tracing, tracking, isolating and reporting suspected symptoms of the disease.

Mustapha said: "COVID-19 is not going to go away in the next one or two months. Whoever tells you that is not being realistic. No vaccine is on the horizon. We are talking about 18 months to two years before vaccines would be confirmed for human use as far as COVID-19 is concerned, and unless we get there, what it means is that it will remain.

"It might have cycles. After the first cycle of the pandemic, there might be a relief.

There can be a resurgence and that is evidenced all over the world. It has happened before as it is the nature of infections. So, I believe that what we are going to do now as a task force is to come down to the levels of having the communities take ownership of the response.

"We have developed a national response which has been cascaded to the states but the communities must plug into the national response. Where we have primary health care centres all over the country, they can be used as stations of reporting of surveillance within a particular community, of tracing, of tracking so that we can take out those that we suspect to have exhibited symptoms or have come in contact with people who have exhibited symptoms for testing and isolation.

"That way, you plug them out of the community and reduce the risk of transmission. That is basically what we are working on."

Mustapha, who is also the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), insisted that the battle at hand is not "a 100-metre race" but assured that the new guidelines to be unveiled by Buhari today are holistic and would provide a better platform to handle the pandemic.

"I can assure you that with proposals we have brought today for Mr. President's consideration, I think holistically it will put us in a better frame to deal with the future," he said.

He also spoke on the Malagasy formulation against COVID-19, which the President of Guinea Bissau, Mr. Umaro Embalo, presented to Buhari on Saturday, saying the medicines would be handed over to the agency concerned today for the commencement of trial process.

He, however, reiterated the comment of the president while receiving the drugs that they would not be administered until they have been scientifically proven.

"I understand it's been brought by... I will take delivery probably tomorrow (today), Monday. The president has already said it will be scientifically dealt with; it is only after that that he can allow it to be tested. But that has been our position that whatever comes in, whatever cure, whatever solution that is being provided must be subjected to a process of validation.

"The Minister of Health has institutions under his ministry that are charged statutorily with the processes of validation. Anything that we will receive, anything that is locally developed must go through the processes of validation before we will allow it," he explained.

SGF also disclosed that an opinion poll conducted in the country on the level of awareness of the existence of the disease showed that 99 per cent of respondents confirmed that they were aware of it.

However, he said 26 per cent others claimed that they had immunity against it, a situation he described as unhealthy because such persons might not adhere to safety procedures which he said could lead to further spread of the disease.

Mustapha further gave a hint indicating that pastors agitating for the reopening of churches might have to wait for so long, noting that the task force is strongly opposed to the idea of people congregating in any area.

According to him, the aftermath of such action would be counter-productive, because it would serve as a breeding ground for transmission of the disease particularly among the aged and sick persons with weak immune systems.

"That is why as a task force, we have stood very strong against congregations.

Congregations are the easiest places where you can get infected in terms of

transmission and that is why we try as much as possible to discourage congregations in all that we do. Because, the aged, the sick and the vulnerable will turn up in congregations and once they get infected it becomes another ball game altogether."

He said the president was satisfied with the performance of the task force, saying he pointed out that despite Nigeria's weak health infrastructure, the level of fatality from the pandemic is far insignificant when compared with what is happening in the developed world "where countries ... have traditionally established health institutions with all the palliatives, with all the privileges, with all the schemes that guide its people."

OPS Opposes Fresh Lockdown

Meanwhile, the organised private sector has expressed opposition to a fresh shutdown of the economy.

While NECA disclosed that any fresh lockdown would lead to a loss of 2.7 million jobs, LCCI said the previous lockdown would lead to a 45 per cent increase in unemployment rate.

In their separate interviews with THISDAY at the weekend, OPS argued that the government should focus its energy on gradual easing of the lockdown and enlightening Nigerians on the necessity to comply with the official guidelines issued by relevant government's institutions on how to prevent community transmission.

NECA Director-General, Dr. Timothy Olawale, said: "The implications of another lockdown will be shocking to the economy, businesses and individuals. It will threaten between 1.28 million and 2.75 million of jobs nationally. Prior to the advent of COVID-19, the economy had been struggling with a huge budget deficit that was occasioned by low revenue and external shock.

"Therefore, easing the lockdown is about the only way of striking the necessary balance between the economic and the health crisis as a nation.

"The OPS would rather request that governments at all levels should be responsible for restoration of the economy while working towards flattening the curve.

"We would rather suggest that, it is imperative that the federal, state and local governments should set up robust safety guidelines and measures in place and strictly enforce them to enhance sustainable living whilst reducing and containing the spread.

"The implication for the Nigerian economy can only be imagined. The most important thing is that all protocols should be enforced by government. The failure of the public to observe the guidelines is not enough reason. The government should bring its full weight to bear on the enforcement," he said.

To LCCI Director-General, Dr. Muda Yusuf, the initial lockdown had profound negative effects on jobs, income, revenues and business sustainability.

Yusuf argued that the government should rethink any intention to re-introduce the lockdown and continue with the gradual easing of the economy to save the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of Nigerians who are mostly in the Small and Medium Enterprises space because life and livelihood are both important.

He warned that the government had very limited capacity to manage the social consequences of another round of total lockdown.

"We have seen some easing of the lockdown in some sectors - manufacturing, office administration, ICT, financial services and trading. But some critical sectors are still in complete lockdown. These are entertainment, hospitality, aviation, interstate transportation and restaurants. These sectors are critical to employment. They are labour intensive and, therefore, have high employment elasticity and have large multiplier effects resulting from their extensive value chain.

"So, rather than re-enact the lockdown, we should be thinking of easing it and developing robust sector-specific COVID-19 protocols to manage the risk of further spread," he said.

Similarly, NACCIMA Director-General, Mr. Ayo Olukanni, expressed the view that a lockdown should not be the way to go.

"Rather, we must work to achieve a balance between curtailing the rate of infection and keeping the economy running. Another national lockdown is not a guarantee that we will no longer have spread of infection because we have seen that these lockdowns have been obeyed more in its breach.

"We may not have the exact figures now, but economic losses from the first lockdown have been estimated to be in trillions of Naira," he said.

Ndubusi cautioned that the possibility of another lockdown should be handled carefully, pointing out that the economy is currently in tatters. "The high incidence of poverty in the country would make it very difficult for the government to enforce another lockdown and the country may find itself in crisis. Many firms are in serious negative financial conditions and may prefer a gradual reopening of the economy rather than having another lockdown," he said, insisting that "another lockdown will not be value-adding."

The organised labour has also said it would not support any move to restore full lockdown of the country again.

NLC General Secretary, Mr. Emma Ugboaja, who spoke to THISDAY yesterday, said any measure, which would stifle the economy, is not what is needed at the moment.

"We are against total lockdown; we are for opening the economy sector by sector. You should give a sector-specific guideline. We are for opening up not shutting down. The government should be able to give guidelines for each sector to operate," he noted.

He argued that some people could not work from home.

"We need people at the construction site, we need people in the farm to operate the agricultural sector and we need the transport sector to be on the move effortlessly," he said.

Findings from a survey carried out by LCCI to determine the impact of the lockdown on businesses in Lagos State showed that the unemployment rate would rise to 45 per cent as businesses execute cost cutting measures to survive the impact of the lockdown.

The survey, which was titled "Lockdown and Its Impact on Businesses: LCCI Survey Report," noted that cost-cutting strategies particularly downsizing has implications for the economy from unemployment and productivity perspectives.

"First, it will exacerbate the already-high level of unemployment as more and more workers risk impending job losses. This may see the unemployment rate surge to 40 per cent and 45 per cent by the end of 2020 from 23.1 per cent as at Q3-2018. Additionally, the potential risk of huge job losses will aggravate the magnitude of stagflation in the economy. This has a ripple effect on the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) given that private consumption by households accounts for about 60 per cent of national output."

The survey, which was released yesterday by Yusuf, said 63 per cent of business operators was weighing plans to downsize operations to minimise losses, adding that this development is not surprising as businesses have not generated income for over a five-week period and have lost trillions of naira in profit due to lockdown.

"This suggests that the unemployment rate is expected to increase drastically post-lockdown except government takes urgent steps to support business owners towards surviving and ensuring business continuity.

"Most of the respondents (46 per cent) intend to slash salary and reduce the workforce as a joint measure, while 24 per cent has the plan to cut personnel cost only, 13 per cent intends to trim staff strength only, while 17 per cent are proposing no salary payment," the report said.

The survey stated that 81 per cent of the respondents were 'severely' affected by the lockdown, while 17 per cent experienced a moderate impact on their business, adding that 50 per cent of businesses in the service sector experienced a severe impact by the lockdown.

It stated that 64 per cent of the respondents suffered a loss of N500,000 and below daily during the lockdown while 16 per cent indicated a daily loss of between N1 million - and N2 million. Only about 20 per cent of the businesses suffered more than N2 million daily losses and above during the lockdown.

"A conservative assumption that sampled business operators lost an average N500, 000 each day during the lockdown suggests that each operator lost N17.5 million within the five-week lockdown from March 31 to May 3, 2020. This modest estimation indicates that about N2.7 billion was lost in revenue by sampled businesses to the lockdown. This translates to trillions of naira losses for thousands of businesses operating in Lagos."

Lagos Considers Reopening of Economy

Meanwhile, one week after the partial easing of the lockdown on the state, Lagos State Government is considering reopening of the state to full business activities.

The state Governor, Mr. Babajide Sanwo-Olu, yesterday said the government was considering full reopening of the critical sectors of its economy, adding, however, that the move would not be pushed in a hurry.

According to him, in the coming days, the government would be rolling out Register-to-Open initiative as part of the plans that would enable it to assess the level of readiness of the players in the identified sectors for supervised operations.

The governor spoke at a briefing after the State's Security Council meeting held at the State House in Marina.

Sanwo-Olu said officials from Lagos State Safety Commission (LSSC) and Lagos State Environmental Protection Agency (LASEPA) will be visiting restaurants, companies, religious houses to assess their level of readiness.

With the size of the state's economy and number of businesses that operate in its domain, the governor said the state government could not afford to keep people and businesses on lockdown permanently.

He said: "We are at a level where we are reviewing the other arms of the economy. In the coming days, we will be starting what we call Register-to-Open, which means all players in the restaurant business, event centres, entertainment, malls and cinemas will go through a form of re-registration and space management.

"There is a regulation that will be introduced to supervise this move. We will be coming to their facilities to assess their level of readiness for a future opening. I don't know when that opening will happen in the weeks ahead, but we want these businesses to begin to tune themselves to the reality of COVID-19 with respect to how their work spaces need to look like."

Sanwo-Olu also said government agencies would be visiting places of worship to evaluate their level of preparedness ahead of full reopening.

The governor disclosed that all the 10 staff of the Government House, who tested positive for COVID-19, had fully recovered and returned to their beats.

Madagascar Records First COVID-19 Death

In another development, a 57-year-old man, who developed complications after testing positive for COVID-19 has reportedly died in Toamasina, a city in Madagascar.

The spokesperson for the COVID-19 Operational Command Centre, Hanta Vololontiana, confirmed the development yesterday, stating that the man died on Saturday.

The Cable reported that two other people who are also down with severe complications are "still in intensive care."

Twenty-one new cases were confirmed in the East African country yesterday, bringing the total to 304 COVID-19 cases, since confirming its first case on March 19, the Malagasy press agency reported.

Speaking on the effectiveness of the country's tonic in a recent interview with France 24, President Andry Rajoelina, said: "COVID-Organics is a preventive and curative remedy against COVID-19. It works really well and it is as a result of the research carried out by the Malagasy Institute of Applied Research, which has the status of an original research centre."

Three Dubai Evacuees Test Positive

Meanwhile, at least three of the 256 Nigerians evacuated from Dubai on May 6 have tested positive for COVID-19 in Lagos.

Upon arrival in Nigeria, the federal government had placed them under isolation for 14 days in a hotel in Lagos where tests have now been conducted as part of the standard protocol for returnees into the country.

Announcing the status of the three evacuees yesterday, Lagos State Commissioner for Health, Professor Akin Abayomi, said those who tested positive had been admitted to the COVID-19 care centre for appropriate treatment protocols.

He said: "We will continue to adhere strictly to quarantine protocols and enforce necessary precautionary measures in order to contain the spread of the pandemic," he added.

Survey Reveals 63% of Hand Sanitisers in FCT are Fake

In a related development, at least 63 per cent of alcohol-based hand sanitisers sold in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) are fake and could not protect residents against COVID-19, a federal government survey has shown.

The survey also showed that 50 per cent of the hand sanitisers circulating in the capital territory do not have the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) registration numbers.

According to the document, tagged: 'Quality Assessment of Some Alcohol-Based Hand Sanitisers Circulating in FCT' and dated May 13, 2020, which was obtained yesterday by THISDAY from a source at the Federal Ministry of Health, the National Institute for Pharmaceutical Research and Development (NIPRD) had last week underwent a quality assessment of 30 different brands of alcohol-based hand sanitisers within Abuja to ascertain their efficacy in killing the virus that causes COVID-19.

The result, however, showed that although many residents of the capital territory use hand sanitisers, 63 per cent of such products could not stop them from contracting the highly contagious disease.

The document reads in part: "Of the 30 different brands of alcohol based hand sanitisers assessed, 19 (63.33 per cent) contain less than 60 per cent alcohol; 23 out of the 30 samples, representing 76.67 per cent, failed to meet pH criterion for topical products.

"15 of the 30 brands of alcohol-based hand sanitisers in Abuja, representing 50 per cent, do not have NAFDAC registration numbers. Eight of the samples (26.67 per cent) were without manufacturing and expiration dates. The alcohol content of some of the samples was not stated in their labels.

"67 per cent of the samples were locally manufactured; three per cent from England and Canada each, while 27 per cent had no manufacturers' address," the survey revealed.

According to the document, NIPRD recommended to the federal government to conduct a more robust study across the country, as this would help in halting preventable spread of the virus among Nigerians.

"NAFDAC should step up efforts to clamp down on manufacturers of unregistered hand sanitisers," the report added.

Omololu Ogunmade, Onyebuchi Ezigbo, Segun James, Martins Ifijeh and Dike Onwuamaeze

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