Nigeria and Covid-19 Challenges: Public Policy Choices

By Salihu Mohammed Lukman

Since the outbreak of Covid-19, popularly known as Corona virus, across the world, the common saying is that the world will not be the same again. What will change, is left to individual conclusions. One thing that is however certain is that Covid-19 is a world leveler whether with reference to so-called developed or underdeveloped nations, rich or poor citizens, powerful or powerless citizens, or ideological standpoints. It is attacking and taking lives almost in the same magnitude across all countries indiscriminate of political, economic or social status. Somehow, the threat of Covid-19 is affecting all nations and humanity equitably. The challenges of Covid-19 could be said to have present an opportunity to unite the world human community on a scale that may not have been experienced throughout human history.

The big question is, are we going to be united in taking census of affected population, counting and celebrating deaths? Or are we going to be united in marshalling effective responses to limit and eventually control number of citizens infected by the virus and lost to death? Could such effective responses come about through self-isolation and lockdown? Perhaps, these are partly the control measures to ensure that governments and public authorities are able to manage the problem and prevent it from escalating. Beyond these control measures, what could be the other important requirements?

Somewhat because effectiveness of responses will be determined by the quality of services provided by the health sector, initiatives around healthcare service delivery should be the focus of attention. Given the terrible state of our hospitals in Nigeria such that almost every citizen believes that to find cure for any sickness, major or minor, Nigerians have to go outside the country. Irrespective of our earnings or social status, it is a common belief across all divides in the country. As a result, everybody’s instinct, once faced with medical challenge is to mobilise financial resources, which many have to achieve through donations by family members and well-wishers. With Covid-19 dangers facing all countries equally, most of the countries that used to be destinations for Nigerians in search of medical services have shut down.

Therefore, part of what could be the challenge facing us as Nigerians may be the issue of initiating processes of developing our health sector such that it is able to mobilise our leaders and citizens to work in harmony. Unfortunately, because the reality of our national life has made citizens to distrust all our leaders at all levels, public conversations around these issues are cynical and full of anger. In the circumstance, all that appear to dominate all our news platforms are negative commentaries and in some respect doomsday analysis and projections.

With such reality, we may just be setting ourselves, as a nation, for a disaster. So long as our terms of engagement with our leaders is informed by a negative mindset, the outcome would most likely only be negative. It was Ant Middleton, in his 2018 Bestseller, First Man In: Leading from the Front, who argued that the principle that should underpins leaders is positivity, which according to him “is the secret principle of success”. Given how disappointed we are with our leaders, and against the background of Covid-19 world pandemic, how can we be positive? What does positivity even mean? Could it suggest being uncritical and supportive of everything our leaders do?

Individuals would have different views about what being positive should mean, which could be blinded by our deep-seated anger against our leaders. Unfortunately, our leaders have also developed a corresponding mindset that almost equate every critical opinion as hostile. As a result, we are witnessing expressions of joy when our leaders are infected by Covid-19 virus. And our leaders are also not open to public suggestions and recommendations. It is virtually a case of establishing a negative equilibrium, which negate all possible engagements between our leaders and citizens on how best to respond to the policy challenge that Covid-19 posed to the nation.

All these only exposes the sad reality that as a people we have lost our humanity. Once our humanity is lost, our capacity to respond to challenges such as the one posed by Covid-19 can only be weak. Chances are that we will be responding to citizens infected by the virus almost as if they are the virus such that could mean stigmatising the patient. It does not matter what the relationship is. Our angry mode against each other will continue to take away the best of our human side. Issues of developing our healthcare services to be able to respond to the challenges are at best reduced to evaluating governmental actions or lack of it.

In the Prologue to her 2019 memoire, Tough Love: My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For, Susan Rice eloquently made the point that ‘I still believe that the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice, but nobody is going to do the hard bending, if not you and me. It’s our choice, and I have always believed we must choose each other.’ To develop effective response to Covid-19 nationally and globally, is a struggle for justice. It is about the right to life, freedom from sickness, and good and accessible quality healthcare services.

In this trying time, there are hard facts that we must come to terms with. As Nigerians, since the mid 1980s, our public policy thrust discourages public expenditure in health and education. In some ways, Covid-19 pandemic is confronting us with the opportunity to revisit our public policy thrust. Like Ms Rice has argued, nobody will ‘do the hard bending’ for us. In any case, every country is facing those basic challenges around making difficult public policy choices. In our context as Nigerians, are we ready to collectively work to revive our healthcare delivery services and educational institutions? Or are we going through another cycle of consolidating the same public policies that discourages public investment in our health and educational sectors?

Whether we will be able to respond to this challenge positively depends on our ability to engage our leaders and through such engagements strengthen their capacity to courageously act for higher public investments in health and educational sectors. It is also about whether our leaders are disposed to public recommendations. In other words, are we ready as a nation to produce new policy equilibrium for the country?

The reality is that the world is yet to produce any country where the health and educational sectors were developed with private sector investments. Nigeria, like many so-called developing countries, was a victim of ideological subjugation by global financial institutions. Arguably, one of the big lessons Covid-19 is bringing to us is that our health and safety can only be guaranteed with good public investment in the health sector.

It is true that our leaders have disappointed us over the years. It is also true that our leaders have, with hardly any exception, piloted the affairs of our country with submissive compliance to the philosophy that discourages public investment in health and educational sectors, at least since the mid 1980s. Most cases of public investments in these sectors prioritises constructions of hospitals and schools or classrooms. In very rare instances, the limited investments cover provisions of medical equipment. Investments in development of healthcare personnel, medicine, research, teachers, books, etc. are hardly considered.

Partly because these are the realities we faced, in many ways, our anger against our leaders are legitimate. But are we expressing our anger in a way that move us towards resolving our problems? For instance, how is public conversation around the Covid-19 pandemic in Nigeria strengthening our capacity as a country to effectively tackle the challenge? May be because we are just coming from elections and somehow the residue of electioneering campaigns and is political coloration is still very much with us, debate about initiatives and the urgency of protecting citizens gets dangerously politicised. It is almost as if Covid-19 is a new position being competed by our different political parties notwithstanding the fact that even its high-profile victims cut across our major parties. All these further prove that our politics has destroyed our humanity.

We need to wake up to the reality that our leaders, just like everyone of us need help with ideas, recommendations and above all volunteering our services and resources to strengthen our capacity to respond to Covid-19 challenge. So long as our disposition is that of condemning our leaders, the probability will be high that our leaders will be weak in testing new policy proposals coming from citizens including issues of policy shifts towards higher public investments to develop our health and educational services. Often, we imagine that our leaders are different from us and to the extent of such conclusions proceed to imagine that abusing our leaders can satisfy our anger.

May be so, largely because such abuses could support our self-obsessed mindsets. Against the background of threat to humanity in a universal scale such as we have today with Covid-19, we need some sober reflections both across leadership and followership. Perhaps a reminder of John Kenneth Galbraith perceptive words in his 1958 book, The Affluent Society, may be helpful here; The day will not soon come when the problems of either the world or our own policy are solved. Since we do not know the shape of the problems, we do not know the requirements for solution. But one thing is tolerably certain. Whether the problem be that of a burgeoning population and space in which to live with peace and grace, or whether it be the depletion of the materials which nature has stocked in the earth’s crust and which have been drawn upon more heavily in this century than in all previous time together, or whether it be that of occupying mind no longer committed to the stockpiling of consumer goods, the basic demand … will be on … resources of intelligence and education. The test will be less the effectiveness of our material investment than the effectiveness of our investment in people. We live in a day of grandiose generalisation.

Certainly, more than anything, Covid-19 has brought us to that day of grandiose generalisation on a global scale, which is daily questioning the effectiveness of investments in our health and educational sectors. Nations are responding to these challenges as a matter of emergency without the luxury of ideological preferences dominating governments’ initiatives to national budgets and balance of payments implications. Old ideological barriers around disincentive to welfare spending are hardly the focus. Of course, some old ideological factors are gaining ground on a global scale such as wage cuts, etc.

With the enormity of the threat Covid-19 has posed to humanity across the world, instinctively, all attention is about what to do to save humanity, at least in virtually every country. Non-governmental initiatives are springing up across the world to support governmental initiatives. Organised Private Sector, civil society, faith-based organisations, trade unions and all other voluntary associations are mobilising resources to support governments to tackle the threat of Covid-19 in virtually every country. Sadly, this cannot be said to be the case in Nigeria.

At this early stages of the manifestations of the threat of Covid-19 in Nigeria, we need to take urgent steps to recover our humanity if at all we want to focus ourselves to ensure that our responses help in producing the needed changes that could protect lives of citizens, guarantee quality and accessible healthcare services, etc. All these can only be achieved through high public investment in our health sector, which will also be partly dependent on similar high public investment in the education sector that will be required to produce the medical personnel.

The issue is whether as Nigerians we want to unlock all the possible opportunities that the Covid-19 pandemic present or we want to remain stuck to the negative mindsets, which reduces us to behave with little considerations to what qualify us as human beings. It is all about choosing the values that should drive our national life. It is a challenge for both leaders as well as citizens. It is the survival challenge, which Covid-19 present. Today, it is Covid-19, who knows what will be next. The task of responding to such challenge requires collective responses from both leaders and citizens. Covid-19 being the leveler it is, test our humanity across both leaders and citizens. The earlier we come to terms with this fact, the better for all of us. May God strengthen our resolve to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic!

*Salihu Muhammed Lukman is the Director General, Progressives Governors Forum (PGF)
Asokoro, Abuja

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