As Omicron Beckons, Governments Should Be Less Panicky And More Transparent

By Isaac Asabor

There is no denying the fact that with the fast spread of the global pandemic, Coronavirus Disease in 2019, popularly known as COVID-19, that people around the world expressed panic in various behaviors thereby putting their businesses in danger, and to a large extent damaging the global economy. Without any iota of exaggeration, the impact devastatingly affected the economy of Nigeria, social values, and psychological stress of the people involved regardless of the directness of contact with the infected. Today, evidences abound that the consequences of the panicky measures adopted or rather exhibited is still being paid for.

In fact, after-effect of the pandemic is highlighted in the Human Rights Watch Report that has it that the Covid-19 impact worsens hunger in Nigeria, particularly in Lagos, and noted that inadequate support highlights need for expanded Social Security System.

In the same vein, the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has worsened the plight of families living in poverty across the nation and have left many people struggling to afford food and meet other basic needs even as not few people that are wont to dodge responsibility find the impact of the pandemic as readily available excuse. For instance, most companies that are no longer fulfilling the obligations they owe their stakeholders, particularly the workers and suppliers, are now known to use the prevalence of Covid-19 as excuse.

Worse still, survey data shows that federal and state government supports, including cash transfers and food assistance, reached only a fraction of families going hungry. Even the cash transfer and the food, where available, lasted for just few days.

In fact, for the governments not to repeat the mistakes made during the apogee of the Covid-19 pandemic as an Omicron variant has been detected in Botswana on November 11, 2021, and reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) by South Africa on November 24, 2021, after it began spreading rapidly in Gauteng Province, a predominantly urban area containing the cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria, it is expedient panicky measures are not adopted.

It is arguably not to repeat the mistakes made while warding off Covid-19 that compelled President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa on Sunday, November 28, 2021, to warn of the dangers that are inherent in“unjustified” travel bans imposed by many countries following the emergence of the Omicron variant.

“The only thing the prohibition on travel will do is to further damage the economies of the affected countries and undermine their ability to respond to, and recover from, the pandemic,” Ramaphosa said.

The South African leader called on countries to “urgently reverse their decisions” before “further damage is done to our economies.”

He added that “the prohibition of travel is not informed by science, nor will it be effective in preventing the spread of this variant.”

The South African Ministry of International Relations and Cooperation said the latest round of travel bans “is akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker.” It added in a statement that “excellent science should be applauded and not punished.”

In the United States, President Joseph R. Biden Jr. met in person on Sunday with his Chief Medical Advisor, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, and members of his White House COVID Response Team, and he was told that the current vaccines are likely to provide ‘a degree of protection’ against Omicron variant.

“Dr. Fauci informed the President that while it will take approximately two more weeks to have more definitive information on the transmissibility, severity, and other characteristics of the variant, he continues to believe that existing vaccines are likely to provide a degree of protection against severe cases of COVID,” the White House said in a Statement.

While it is expedient for Nigeria to be proactive as Omicron is fast spreading, it is necessary for the governments, at all tiers, to infuse transparency and trust in the disbursements of financial and condiment and food assistance to the people.

It would be recalled that in June 2020 the federal government passed a 2.3 trillion Naira (US$6 billion) Economic Sustainability Plan that included money to expand a federal cash transfer program. Thus, cash transfers reached 921,445 households in March to April 2020 but tapered off as the crisis worsened, benefitting 400,734 households in November and December 2020. It would also be recalled that the federal and Lagos State government also provided food assistance during the pandemic, with state government officials claiming food handouts reached around 500,000 people. Unfortunately, the foregoing data are just bandied on media landscape as many Nigerians can hardly identify anyone that has benefited from the foregoing handouts.

In fact, cash transfers, food, and other government assistance, however, have fallen far short of need. NBS data from April and May 2020 showed that just over 2 percent of households had received cash transfers since the start of the pandemic and 12 percent had received food assistance, whereas more than half had run out of food in the previous 30 days. By November 2020, just 0.6 percent of households had received cash transfers in the last month and 3.5 percent had received food assistance, while almost half had recently run out of food.

In Lagos, government assistance has had even more limited reach, in part because of state government delays signing people up for federal cash transfers. Lagos residents, despite making up more than 10 percent of Nigeria’s population, received less than 1 percent of the cash transfers paid nationwide between March and December 2020. A new rapid response cash transfer program, intended to reach an additional 1 million people nationwide, began in January 2021.

Against the foregoing backdrop, not few Nigerians confessed that they heard about all the monies the government was supposed to be getting for Covid-19; billions of Naira, and the government talked about the food they were distributing, but most of the communities never got any. It suffice to say that the war against Omicron is imminent that both the federal government and state governments should avoid all the flaws that engendered distrust and suspicion in their bid to ward off the Covid-19pandemic.

In fact, as Omicron beckons, there is an urgent need for the government to increase its focus on expanding social safety nets even as the people expect it to embark on key reforms that would include legal recognition of Nigerians’ right to social security, national and state-level strategies. This is to pave the way for the realization of the rights that are inherent in the expansion of cash transfers and other programs that would be used to respond to the pandemic, and new entitlements, such as unemployment benefits for informal workers, that are key elements of an effective social security system.

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