Coronavirus: Capitalism fails to defend the health of millions of Nigerians

Even though the figures are rising daily, it is not certain yet how disastrous the ravages of COVID-19 will be for Nigerians in terms of the number of infections and deaths. Economically, however, there is no doubt that Nigeria faces the possibility of another economic recession as a result of the virus disruption of the workings of capitalism the world over. Working people are once again fearful of what the future holds.

The effect of a new recession will be damaging, reversing the weak shoots of growth since the economy recovered from the last recession of 2015. The political repercussion could be damaging to the ruling class, as well. A working-class that has not tasted the fruits of the last recovery may not be willing to be made the sacrificial lamb for the new crisis. This could trigger, sooner or later, mighty class battles.  

Imminent danger!

All things being equal, COVID-19 can cause a humanitarian disaster of gargantuan proportions that could make anything experienced before now pale into insignificance. The effect could be the same as lighting a match in a dry field. But its extent is not, at this moment, clear but the threat is great.

The first reason to fear is that Nigeria as a neo-colonial capitalist outpost, with its dysfunctional infrastructure and a mass of the poverty-stricken population who live in slums and indecent houses, is a perfect habitat for the virus to thrive. A country of over 200 million people – more than half of that population is located in cities like Lagos where hundreds of thousands are crammed into tiny accommodations and depend on crowded buses for the daily commute. Handwashing, the most basic measure to check the spread of the virus, is not within the reach of many as millions of homes in urban and rural areas have no access to running water, let alone sanitation!

Like someone on Facebook retorted, how can a member of a family of five who all live and sleep in a small room self-isolate? Even if it is possible to self-isolate in such a condition, the fact that they have to share common bathrooms and toilets with 6 or 7 other families shows the social catastrophe that this virus could pose to human life. In the event of an outbreak, many of the potential carriers of the virus will be untraceable because they have no known address – they are homeless and jobless. At least 20.9 million are unemployed. This is all thanks to decades of implementation of capitalist policies which have deepened inequality by concentrating wealth in the hands of a tiny fraction while millions live in mass misery. 

To quarantine infected communities or enforce a lockdown will not be a mean task. The state will not seek to mobilise the people to defend themselves from the virus as the ruling class fear the working masses’ organising. Instead, they will soon resort to measures of terror – mobilising armed detachment of soldiers and police to corral people into obedience. This will also raise the danger of stamping on democratic rights and igniting riots as thousands who work in the informal sector survive through daily earnings will resist any measure aimed at forcing them to stay at home. Hospitals will be easily overwhelmed. Nigeria has a weak and failing health system due to years of neglect. Underfunding, commercialisation and privatisation are the reigning philosophies of succeeding capitalist government in the health sector. During an outbreak of Lassa fever last year, Doctor Chioma Nwakanma, who lost a colleague to the disease, complained in an interview with BBC of lack of equipment “as basic as oxygen tanks. Protective equipment like gloves, we have to borrow from patients,” (BBC Africa, 24 April 2019).

Not only is there inadequate equipment, with only 40, 000 doctors in a population of over 200 million, the personnel to combat a disease outbreak are grossly lacking. Latest data from the World Health Organisation (WHO) says that Nigeria’s physician-to-patient ratio is four doctors per 10, 000! (BBC Africa, 24 April 2019). They, alongside nurses, radiologists, laboratory attendants and other health workers are relatively underpaid and under-resourced leading to mass emigration out of the country. Little wonder that on the eve of the coronavirus outbreak, doctors at the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) Abuja, Gombe, Enugu, Kaduna and Cross Rivers went on strike in protest at government failure to pay the backlog of salaries and meet other demands.

Was an outbreak inevitable?

It was possible to prevent an outbreak but not with the limited measures being canvassed by the Buhari All Progressive Congress (APC) capitalist government. To start with, the government indecision is what has given the virus a foothold. Evidently, the crisis caught the government off guard especially because unlike Ebola, COVID-19 came with a bouquet of an economic catastrophe which momentarily knocked the regime off the rails. 

Despite public outcry, the government did not begin to take serious steps until the third week of March – over three weeks after the index case was discovered on February 27! If serious measures had been taken in the days following the discovery of the index case to restrict international travel and ensure serious checks at all ports of entry including land borders, perhaps the current situation could have been mitigated. Now in retrospect, it is clear that the government policy of self-isolation failed with many returnees, including lawmakers, government officials and the President Buhari’s Chief of Staff Abba Kyari who has now tested positive, simply going about attending meetings, political functions and social events as soon as they came into the country. Now the government has had to close schools, religious places, banned social gatherings and in some states, workers have been asked to work from home. A partial or total lockdown at least in Lagos and Abuja is already being considered.

Sadly, all of these measures may not be enough to prevent the disease’s spread. The pre-existing social conditions (e.g. mass penury, homelessness, slum housing, weak health infrastructure, inadequately trained doctors and other health professionals, casual and precarious jobs, inadequate sanitation, running water and electricity infrastructure etc.) which the system has created means that even the best of emergency measures may have little effect at this stage in containing the virus spread. 

Ultimately, what the COVID-19 has revealed is the failure of capitalism to truly protect the rights and safety of the working people. While socialists support any measure that can offer hope in this dark hour, we will not fail to stress that only the mobilisation of the working people in solidarity and struggle to begin to defend their common interests and fight for a different kind of society can lay a way forward out of the quagmire that capitalism has brought the world and Nigeria.

An economic catastrophe!

While the disease may cause havoc for a few weeks or months, the economic catastrophe it has brought will last for a longer time. A new recession cannot be ruled out. This is because the slump in crude oil price has met an economy weak and saddled with an enormous public debt and depleted savings. There is very little room for manoeuvre. Now the Buhari government is trying to unload the crisis onto the backs of the working people through an austerity plan. 

To combat the fall in government revenue as a result of the crash of crude oil prices, the Buhari government has announced measures to cut the 2020 budget by N1.5 trillion(nearly US$ 4 billion). This would mean that funding of capital projects like road and bridge constructions will be cut by 20%. There will be another 25% cut in the recurrent budget – salaries and allowances of public sector workers. A freeze on any new appointment into the civil service has also been announced except into health and security sectors. 

While a marginal reduction in the retail fuel price from 145 naira per litre to 125 naira per litre has been announced, ‘under-recovery’, another word for fuel subsidy, has been removed which means a new fuel price increase awaits as soon as crude oil prices begin to rise on the world market. Also, the currency has been devalued. These plans are still to be presented to the National Assembly for approval, but it is important that the workers’ movement begin to discuss these proposals and how to resist them. 

No to class collaboration! 

Socialists must warn that this is not a time for “national unity”. Already as some highly placed members of the capitalist elite are getting infected by the virus, the sentiment of “we are all in it together” is being played upon. Correctly, a layer of workers and youth have responded to this with justified derision, pointing out that if the virus was a national disaster and not a global one, the corrupt and roguish Nigerian capitalist elite would have jumped on the next available private jet and abandon workers and the poor to deal with it by themselves. Some have rightly pointed out how the pandemic is payback for their decimation of public healthcare through years of underfunding while they relied on foreign hospitals. 

Not surprisingly, the Punch newspaper (25 March 2020) has reported that Abba Kyari’s medical records had to be forwarded by e-mail from the Wellington Hospital in London so that Nigerian doctors would know if there were any pre-existing condition while treating him of COVID-19 infection in a Nigerian hospital. So neither the National Hospital in the federal capital Abuja nor the Aso Rock presidential clinic has the medical records of this individual who is reputed to be the most powerful person in the Presidency. Instead, they have been kept in an elite private hospital in London which most British people could never afford to go to. This is just an example showing how patriotic members of Nigeria’s capitalist ruling elite are. 

What is a true “worker-based strategy”?

The first public statement of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) on the COVID-19 pandemic was issued at a press conference organised on Thursday 19 March 2020 with the professed aim of launching a “workers-based strategy” to combat the pandemic. Unfortunately, there was very little that was “worker-based” in the strategy proposed by the NLC leadership in this statement. Rather it was a speech which combined few commendable proposals and had worrisome class-collaborationist illusions. For instance, while advocating the need for a “workers-based strategy”, the NLC president disclosed that this strategy will be “complementary to the national strategy” i.e. the plans of the Buhari APC government to combat COVID-19. What this means is that the NLC leadership is endorsing the national strategy of the government – the same strategy which as we have seen is anchored on inadequate diagnostic and quarantine centres, inadequate doctors and health workers. There can be no better example of a labour leadership preparing the workers to be slaughtered than this.

Also, instead of making clear statements to the employers of labour not to dare attack workers’ rights during this crisis and measures, the labour movement would take should workers’ rights be attacked, all the NLC leadership could offer in the speech were appeals to the good sense of the employers. Such include: “Businesses should not panic and take adversarial measures against workers”, and, “Although the government is under pressure, it should put in place policies to mitigate business and social impact”. Thereafter they went on to solemnly declare in conclusion that “one our part, we are ready to work with employers and governments to ensure that workers get the needed support and employers a fair deal in these trying times”. In this contradictory speech, what the NLC leadership has effectively done is suspend the class struggle while preparing the working class for a big defeat by lulling it to sleep at the very moment the class ought to be making vital organisational and political preparations for the class battles that impend.

Thankfully, the NLC has issued a new statement on March 25 which, in some regards, was a step forward compared with their initial, March 19, one. In the new statement, the NLC raised criticism of the “big men” who refused to go into isolation when they returned from foreign trips. That may be true, but the biggest crime of the “big men” is their responsibility for the state the country is in and the capitalist system they defend.

Importantly the NLC declared that in supporting a lockdown:

 “Workers must not be cannon fodder for these socio-economic fallouts. In all of these, we demand job and wage protection. To make this possible, factories and businesses will require fiscal stimulus, financial aids and other macro-economic support incentives at this critical time.

“For millions of workers in the informal sectors, including our members in the transport, in the markets and all categories of artisans who are involved in involuntary lockdown, we demand cash grant through their associations to enable them cope during this difficult time.”

Furthermore, the NLC stated “large-scale lockdown should be accompanied with appropriate support systems that allow workers who provide essential services to function and in a manner that provides protection and sustenance to them and their families.

“Lockdown must be exercised in a way that guarantees citizens, especially the vulnerable groups, including those without income access to essential goods and services, to meet basic needs.”

While the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) agrees that some of these new proposals represent a step forward, words need to be put into action. Fine words alone will not produce change. Alongside fighting for sufficient emergency action to fight the virus the NLC, along with the TUC and ULC, must immediately start to mobilise to win the demands they have put forward to help working people and the poor survive in a lockdown.

Step up the class struggle

To be clear, COVID-19 has not suspended class oppression and class struggle. This much, the capitalist class – which is far more organised and conscious of its interests – knows. This explains why as they try to tackle the unfolding economic catastrophe caused by COVID-19, they are already looking towards making workers and not the rich pay for the crisis. For instance, while planning to cut the budget with its attendant consequences on wages and workers’ welfare, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) has launched a 50 billion naira (US$ 128 million) intervention fund (Targeted Credit Facility) to aid businesses and households that may be affected by the pandemic. 

Should the labour movement fall for the nursery rhymes of “national unity”, it is the working masses that would be used as the sacrificial lamb for this crisis. Wages will be owed by both the Federal and state governments. Even in a period of recovery between 2016 and 2019, at times around 20 federal states owed workers and retirees backlogs of salaries and pension running into over 20 months. This can become more generalised in the period opening up. New negotiations on wages and conditions, like the ongoing negotiations between university lecturers and the Federal Government, will be deadlocked as the government will use the economic crisis as an excuse to avoid making any concrete commitment. Despite promises to the contrary by the Finance minister, retrenchment in the workforce should not be ruled out at some point.

In the private sector, the spectre of job losses looms. As the COVID-19 pummels the economy, some companies dependent on import of machinery and other materials for production may be forced to shut down production and lay off staff. In the catastrophic situation that could open up for the working people, Nigerian workers need a militant and fighting labour leadership ready to mobilise to challenge the regime’s attempt to make workers’ pay for the crisis.

To avoid the looming catastrophe, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Trade Union Congress (TUC) and the United Labour Congress (ULC) trade union centres need to map out a genuine “worker-based strategy” involving mobilisation in workplaces and communities to demand and be ready to fight with protests and strike actions, if necessary, for the following:

(1) A public-funded emergency plan to roll back the spread of COVID-19 by providing more testing facilities, ramping up checks at airports, land borders, motor parks, bus stops and markets.

(2) Free distribution of hand sanitisers, soap and face masks. Immediate re-equipping of all hospitals with beds, respirators, ventilators etc.

(3) Recruit more medical professionals and paid volunteers. All medical professionals, as well as all first responders and essential services workers in the frontline of the outbreak, are provided with standard safety gears and a COVID-19 special allowance of nothing less than 100, 000 naira (US$ 255) monthly aside from their regular salary and statutory allowances.

(4) Regular payment of 30,000 naira minimum wage to all categories of workers in public and private sectors. End casualization.

(5) A special grant of nothing less than 50,000 naira per month to working class households and the poor to ensure Nigerians are able to buy foodstuff and other essentials in order to self-isolate or in the event of a lockdown. Control and distribution of this fund to be in the hands of democratic committees set up at communities and composed by elected representatives of trade unions, community associations and pro-masses groups etc. in order to prevent fraud and other sharp practises.

(6) Cancel all household electricity debts. For a moratorium on housing and shop/stall rents. Slash in the cost of phone call tariffs, data, DSTV and GOTVsubscription cost to aid working and poor people to be able to communicate and access vital information or reach out to first responders in case of emergency.

(7) In the event of a partial or total lockdown, labour should take the lead in encouraging democratic self-organisation to organise supplies and their distribution – including action against profiteering and black markets.

(8) No to job losses on account of the COVID-19 virus. For the government to guarantee all employment and nationalize any company that retrenches workers.

(9) All fees to be stopped at all public hospitals. The State to declare free health care including free tests and treatment in order to ensure that the poorest of the poor are not afraid of reporting to the hospital if they feel sick.

(10) End all attacks on democratic rights. Free all detained activists and reverse all politically-motivated sack of workers and the suspension and expulsion of students. 

(11) For freedom of the press and the right to freedom of expression and association. Respect for the fundamental rights of citizens even while battling the virus.

(12) Opposition to the plan to cut the capital and recurrent budget. Instead, place all political office holders on the national minimum wage. All other proven expenses incurred to be covered by the State. 

(13) No to the freeze on recruitment into the civil service. Open the books of the state for the working masses to be able to clearly ascertain the financial position of the country.

(14) No to the removal of fuel subsidy. For reduction in fuel price to below 100 naira per litre. Reversal of all privatisation and anti-poor economic policies.

(15) End the corrupt contract system. For a public works programme under workers democratic control to handle all construction projects. 

(16) Cancel the national debt with compensation paid only on the basis of proven need. For a state monopoly of foreign trade.

(17) For a public probe panel composed of workers representatives to investigate and prosecute public officials and impose stiff punishment for those found guilty including forfeiture of their wealth. 

(18)​ Nationalise the key sectors of the economy under democratic workers’ control and management.

(19)​ A mass workers’ party to lead a movement to overthrow capitalism and enthrone a workers’ and poor people’s government armed with socialist programmes.

 

 

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