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Nigerian private sector needs to stay home

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Corona Chronicles: 23-27 March

By 'Tofe Ayeni
Posted on Thursday, 26 March 2020 13:14

Virus Outbreak Nigeria
People wearing face mask walk through a busy Market in Lagos, Nigeria, March 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

As Nigeria wakes up to its new reality of the pandemic in its borders; decision-makers at both the government and the private sector need to take action to ensure the virus doesn't spread as fast it has in other countries. But with the private sector still lagging in this, and the government late to implement measures, many wonder if it's already a hopeless situation.

At the time of this publication, 26 March, the total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Nigeria is 51.

The number of confirmed cases, however, is unlikely to tell the whole story.

All over the world, low-risk patients with mild symptoms are discouraged from going to the hospital to avoid spreading the virus. Instead, it is suggested that they self-isolate at home.

This advice, in addition to the limited tests available, means that official figures are likely much lower than reality.

READ MORE: Nigeria’s north: Coronavirus in the world’s poverty capital

Informing Nigerians about COVID-19

In Nigeria, where about 69 per cent of the population are living in poverty, many are undereducated and not well-informed about the pandemic.

In addition to that, medical conditions with similar symptoms kill people constantly.  In fact, Nigeria has the highest global number of pneumonia child deaths, with an estimated 443 deaths per day, or 18 every hour, making it harder for people to know if an illness is in fact related to the coronavirus or otherwise.

Although the first case of coronavirus in the country was reported on 28 February, President Muammadu Buhari did not formally address his nation until nearly a month later, on 22 March, much to the disappointment of his citizens.

“We are working with Ministry of Health on protecting our citizens from COVID-19 virus. As a government, this is now a key priority for us,” he said.

READ MORE: Kenyan government agree to pay cuts, curfew imposed as coronavirus cases grow

Measures in place

Although country-wide measures are in place, such as the banning of all international flights to and from the country effective midnight on 23 March, most regulations are reserved for residents of Abuja and Lagos, where most cases have been concentrated.

All residents are advised to stay at home, avoid mass congregations of any kind as well as non-essential outings until further advice is given.

However, despite warnings from the government to not have gatherings of over 20 people, including religious services, Sunday 22 March still saw some church services going ahead as planned.

Health warnings apply across the board

Lagos State is the most affected, and with schools and public gatherings already banned, the state government directed some civil servants to stay out of the office.

This does not affect the civil servants on essential duties and first responders.

“I am hereby directing that all public officers in the entire unified public service from Grade Level 1 to 12, which constitute about 70 per cent of our entire public workforce should stay at home from March 23, 2020 and this will last for 14 days in the first instance,” said Lagos State governor Sanwo-Olu.

The governor also pleaded with companies in the private sector across the state to employ similar measures and allow non-essential staff to work from home for the same period.

However, this seemed to be more of a suggestion than a directive that has resulted in various companies still insisting that their staff come to work, claiming they are indeed essential.

Private sector employees at the mercy of their companies

Private sector companies have been reluctant to send their employees home.

Even international companies, with branches worldwide closing, seem to be waiting to the absolute last minute, or for a direct order from the government to shut down.

Although most teams at KPMG Lagos are now working from home, as late as Monday 23 March, various teams were still expected to be present at the office.

They were given instructions on social distancing, for example, seating in the dining hall was drastically reduced, and employees were told to pre-book a seat before coming to eat, and to spend no more than thirty minutes doing so.

Employees were also told to avoid overcrowding in lifts, limiting the number between four to six. However, it is unlikely that six people in a lift can all be two metres apart.

Measures taken by other companies:

  • Ernst & Young employees were relieved to be informed on Sunday 22 March that they could work from home.
  • PWC first gave their employees an option of whether to work from home or come in, and many still came in for easy access to the internet. However, as of 23 March, they have all been told to work from home.
  • McKinsey employees all across Africa are working from home.
  • Guinness Nigeria told all employees who are not required to be physically present in the offices or at the breweries to “work from home across all locations with effect from Friday 19 March 2020.” It is unclear, however, how many employees are “required to be physically present”.
  • 85% of Stanbic IBTC staff are working from home, but this means that 15% are still commuting and interacting each day.
  • The Nigerian Stock Exchange said: ‘effective Tuesday March 24, 2020, we have activated a 30-day remote working exercise for our employees excluding essential staff.’

And in general, various employees in both Lagos and Abuja are complaining that their employers are supplying them with masks and gloves and instructing them to sanitise regularly, rather than doing the proper thing and telling them to not come in.

READ MORE: WHO’s Tedros: ‘Don’t abandon the poorest to coronavirus’

Do strict measures work?

Taking a look at other countries, on 16 March, France’s President Emmanuel Macron announced that people were to start working from home, for at least 15 days with the possibility of an extension.

This came nearly two months after the first case in the country was reported on 24 January.

Macron also declared the country at war with an invisible enemy (a virus) and put in place some of the most severe measures in Europe, which appear to have worked to a certain extent.

France – which was for a time the second-worst affected country in Europe after Italy – has now been overtaken by Spain and Germany.

In the United States, measures are being implemented on a state-by-state basis, with New York having the most severe ones.

However, US President Donald Trump’s initial refusal to take early action has set the country back, and some fear these regulations are now coming in too late.

Trump has also said that he would like the country to be largely reopened by Easter – 12 April – despite warnings from health experts.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: ‘Africans don’t repeat our mistakes!’ in open letter from Italy

Bottom line: The situation around the world should have alerted other governments, such as that of Nigeria, to implement strict restrictions sooner rather than later, but it is easier said than done.

It is relatively easy to see what effect this will have on the spread of the virus in the country. It is counter-productive for people to go to work and return to households that are trying to self-isolate.

However, in populous countries such as Nigeria, with many people working in the informal sector, there is a wider economic effect. People are unable to work from their homes and need the money they earn daily to survive. The Lagos State government made the hard decision to close markets as of 26 March, but provisions have not yet been announced for those who will lose their daily income.

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