There are risks to fully reopening Nigeria’s economy: Lessons from Brazil, India and Morocco

As Nigeria enters its final phase of easing lockdowns, there are concerns from experts about the high threat of increased community infection, and the risk it poses to our stretched healthcare capacity. On June 19, Nigeria recorded 745 cases, the highest number of daily cases confirmed so far, but as examples from other countries show, this is far from our infection peak. The risk of community infection is higher than it has ever been. Public health precautions were stricter when Nigeria had less than 200 cases, compared to current level of enforcement now that it has above 21,000 cases from 120,108 samples tested as of June 23.

For community infection to remain low, societies must undergo sharp behavioral changes to maintain preventive measures. The enforcement of lockdowns helped maintain this behavioral change; however, due to the social and economic impact of the lockdown, movement has resumed, albeit with social distancing and other preventive guidelines. Nonetheless, it is no surprise that the initial safety precautions individuals observed have been reversed, as most Nigerians believe that the threat of infection is no longer present since the government has eased movement. However, constant public education support has been provided through community activations from social organisations and individuals to complement ongoing efforts of the government.

The case studies below show how Brazil and India have taken similar strategies to Nigeria’s and failed at curbing the spread of COVID-19. However, Morocco which has maintained strict public health measures, exemplifies how proper planning and utilising local tools for financial inclusion can reduce pressures to ease lockdowns and curb the spread of the disease.

India’s early response to the pandemic was somewhat exemplary due to strategies like using a publicly funded mobile application for COVID-19 tracking and management. However, while a majority of households have received relief materials from the government, most breadwinners in these households have lost their income or jobs due to the pandemic. With worries about the economic and social impact of the pandemic, India forced a reopening of its economy to soften the risks of hunger and unemployment.  

As the lockdown was eased, India experienced a sharp increase in infection rates, putting extreme pressure on the country’s healthcare, especially in low-income areas without proper healthcare and accurate reporting. India recorded its highest daily infection of 15,968 cases, and experts are worried that like other countries, this number does not reflect the true infection rates as some people may be asymptomatic, coupled with its limited testing capacity.

The Brazil government’s early and current response to the pandemic has been widely criticised, especially since its President, Jair Bolsonaro, constantly downplayed the severity of the pandemic by urging citizens to go on about business as usual. However, the numbers suggest otherwise. Brazil has the second-highest COVID-19 fatalities globally and recorded over 54,000 new infection cases in a single day. The few provinces that refuted the President’s leadership and enforced lockdowns are also beginning to ease lockdowns and reopen due to economic pressures, although as many fear, the worst is yet to come.

Unlike the examples above, Morocco maintained its lockdown since the first few cases were recorded, and the country is set to observe four consecutive months of a total lockdown. To ease the social impact of the lockdown, the government has used an e-wallet platform to transfer money to citizens in low-income communities. This cash handout and other disaster relief programs have been funded by a $1 billion fund set up by the King of Morocco, Mohammed VI. The public communication in Morocco has also maintained the narrative of an ever-increasing risk of infections with time, and the need for more precaution.

 

With Morocco’s lockdown still in place, managing and curbing the spread of the virus has been easier than in other countries, and today, circa 79 percent of the country’s 10,693 COVID-19 patients have recovered. Morocco has now reduced daily infection numbers from circa 700 to circa 100 daily cases.

 

What this means for Nigeria?

While Nigeria’s population and other factors make it difficult to drive a direct comparison to Morocco, there is a lesson on maximising the opportunity for mobile money as a tool for financial inclusion. Morocco also sets an example for the need to find contextual solutions that consider the different factors that can hinder the success of certain strategies. For Nigeria, an increase in awareness campaign is necessary to cement the public awareness progress achieved over the past months, as well as reach more remote and vulnerable communities.

The risk communication campaign in cities that are reopening must strongly communicate that although individuals can move, the risk of getting infected is even higher than before. If the narrative from authorities does not clearly show that infection risks are higher than ever, individuals will reduce their adherence to preventive guidelines. We must also ensure that social distancing opportunities are maximised in public spaces. For example, using physical distancing tools like two-meter markers at in-person business centres and transparent barricades in clustered spaces to reduce transmission. 

Finally, while there have been some gaps in government responses, community activations from social, private, and religious organisations, as well as individuals, have played a vital role supporting ongoing efforts, not just in Nigeria, but in the countries discussed above – a reminder on the importance of tri-sectorial responses for inclusive impact.

 

 

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