There are two famous sayings that we need to invoke to appreciate the many right sides of coronavirus outbreak rather than the gloomy and fear-exciting pictures painted across the media. The first is that ‘things are never as bad as they seem,’ while the second is that ‘sometimes you have to lose what you have to gain something new.’ Even in the throes of enormous losses, scrap contemplative reflection may reveal a throve of benefits for which one needs to be grateful. The extent of acceptance or otherwise of this argument depends on where one is standing. It is also not precisely accurate that every undesirable situation presents apparent opportunities by itself. However, being responsible demands that we scavenge through the rubbles of damage for treasures possibly hidden therein. A fear and tear evoking circumstance will not immediately on the face of it throw up leverageable socio-economic opportunities. Opportunity discovery is, therefore, the work of the person who conscientiously looks for it. Accordingly, the rubbles of the coronavirus epidemic and the lockdown present definite advantages for improving our country and businesses.
The first distinct advantage is another opportunity window open to us to experience the degree of our vulnerability in the face of an unexpected shock as well as another possible chance to put in place enduring remedies. Although the spill-over difficulties triggered by the epidemic cut across virtually every aspect of our economy, we focus on three areas in this part of the essay. These three concerns are (a) the risks of our old-age monolithic and factor-driven economy status, (b) disparaging neglect of our health sector, and (c) the questionable role of our research institutes in the country’s production supply chain. We have had many oil price shock experiences, but we ignored the lessons that each of them taught. None, however, co-occurred with precipitous global supply, demand and price decline, severely threatened output and income prospects amidst substantial indebtedness at home and abroad. The current one, however, embodies the genuine reality of Fela’s ‘double wahala for dead bodi and the owner of dead bodi’. Over-reliance and no utilization of this commodity to facilitate the private provision of public goods is the regrettable premise for today’s undesirable and unwanted reality. The slowly unfolding consequences are well-known. They include the scarcity of foreign exchange and the rapid depletion of our stock of external reserves, the devaluation of the naira and a negative shock to domestic factor productivity. This time may not be for listening to and cheering controversial coronomics and its attendant ‘stimulate-it’ recommendations, which will not only create a new debt crisis but end up exacerbating as well as papering the existing sets of difficulties.
Response strategies should, however, encompass the immediate valuation and securitization of ‘surplus’ and generally abandoned high valued public assets should provide the new financial leverage for a fresh set of fiscal priorities that should attend to the present realities. Such primacies should skew heavily in favour of the following: very-low taxes, external debt and debt service rescheduling, concessions and transfers of capital projects accounting for at least 50% of proposed public sector capital expenditure to the private sector and downward review of the allowances of political appointees (where possible). There is also a need to legalize, licence, formalize and regulate micro-scale crude oil refining operators similar to the ones hitherto operated by Niger Delta militants. That step is necessary to create domestic demand for our crude oil and may crash the prices of fuel and kerosene. There is no need to rehash the criticality of fuel and kerosene prices in influencing the prices of goods and services. Thankfully, a positive offshoot of the outbreak is the 15% reduction in fuel pump price, which is not proportionate with the global market drop in crude and refined oil prices. It is also crucial to scale-up (or possibly double the size of) the intervention activities of the Bank of Industry and Bank of Agriculture at improved concessionary interest rates. Finally, EFCC’s efforts at the recovery of stolen public assets should be at an elevated level.
Again, the coronavirus invasion of Abba Kyari, the President’s Chief of Staff, and many of the politically powerful persons in the country provided them with the opportunity to think again about the conditions of our domestic medical and diagnostics facilities. Many thanks to the spate of global country border closures successfully, which prevented many of them from jetting off to better medical facilities overseas. Meanwhile, the cost of this spiteful age-long culture of medical tourism is unofficially estimated to exceed $1.3 billion annually. This anomaly is not surprising, though, since as of 2017, Nigeria was only better than three countries – Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic and Myanmar – in the WHO global health index. At the last count, he – the president’s Chief of Staff – ended up in a privately owned medical facility in Lagos state. Why is it so difficult for us to have global-level cutting-edge privately owned diagnostic facilities in at least each of the six geopolitical zones in the country? These diagnostic facilities can support proximate University teaching Hospitals with its management outsourced to seasoned private-sector health administrators for efficiency purposes and relative protection from public sector abuses. The role of government in all of these will be to provide the right set of incentives that would enable productive entrepreneurs to bring those dreams into existence.
The third opportunity is the appreciation of our raw-material supply chain challenge vulnerability. China’s early containment response crippled more than 50% of our manufacturing facilities far ahead of our response and lockdown. Unfortunately, and matter-of-factly, our manufacturing industries connect umbilically to production facilities in China. When these facilities are down, it means that ours will be down too. Even now that there are no encumbrances for pharmaceutical and allied products making factories to operate, they find it technically challenging to do so, because China’s manufacturing industry is not fully functioning in some places yet. Regrettably, we have substantial endowments of many of the raw materials that the Chinese exploit and merely improve on and sell back to us as our intermediate manufacturing inputs. Sadly, too, we have the raw materials research Institute and many other similar institutions charged with the responsibility of looking inwards and developing valuable material inputs for our production plants. Perhaps, we may have to look seriously into the role of our supposedly research institutions in orchestrating the right kind of innovations and support for our development. Our manufacturing production needs to be free from Chinese exploitation.
The second benefit is the unifying effect of the coronavirus. It is surprising how we no longer talk about or make allusions to religion, partisanship, and ethnic orientations in dealing with the challenges posed by the outbreak. The coronavirus outbreak automatically became a critical unifying factor. Practically all of us now seem to have recognized it as a common enemy and subconsciously assumed that we are all together in it. There no longer appears to be a distinction between Christians and Muslims, southerners and northerners, rich and poor, in the fight against the disease. Suddenly, altercations that always arose due to differences in belief systems and ethnic backgrounds all seemed to have vanished in this short period. It is typical of us to resist and effectively break down the walls of unproductive divisions when collectively confronted with conditions that evoke fear, uncertainty and urgency. Yet even though that the combination of these three elements – fear, high level of uncertainty and economic urgency – characterizes our macroeconomic environment in the ordinary course of our lives, we still fail to eliminate those sad divisions. This situation presents one more opportunity for us to discard those irrelevant differences that set us back as a nation.
The third benefit is the role that technology has been playing during the lockdown. Telecommunication companies and the banks facilitating digital transactions on data are reaping huge benefits on account of that. Companies have also elevated the levels of collaboration by leveraging several collaborative technologies to promote their meetings, as well as perform the function which they usually carry out on-site. The question, therefore, is why we cannot retain and mainstream this culture. The benefits are enormous and comprise the minimization of traffic congestions on our bad roads, the reduction of the negative impacts they have on our domestic logistics and supply chain as well as the reduction of the extremely high levels of stress that Nigerians go through in many cities. Lagos, for instance, is ranked as the third most stressful city in the world and only better than Baghdad in Iraq and Kabul in Afghanistan. Although traffic congestion is not the only considered factor, it is a significant consideration in the case of Lagos. Residents spend an average of six hours every day to and from work. Therefore, it will be heart-warming to see the emergence of a work-from-home culture in our corporate institutions. It will be a fair guess that about 50% of the tasks that people execute in their offices are easily executable from home if there is good internet infrastructure.
Finally, at the home level, many families are for the first time in many years experiencing filial bonding. Macroeconomic challenges and the accompanying demands for more income have driven many of their members in different directions for many years. In many instances, virtually every member of the family has to make financial contributions for their common survival. Consequently, many children become partial breadwinners. However, this lockdown has provided many homes with the opportunity to spend time together in filial togetherness. As one of the WhatsApp comics put it, this period is the only time in the history of Lagos, Abuja and Ogun states of Nigeria that all the wives can afford to authoritatively account for the whereabouts of their husbands. Children are also thrilled because now they can have both parents together at home at the same time. These social benefits are, however enjoyed in families that hitherto lived in peace. At the other extreme where husbands and wives used to live like rats and cats, this may not be a good time for them at all. Either way, it seems that we may be welcoming more babies in the next coming months.