As Coronavirus Exposes the Social Gulf…

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THE HORIZON BY KAYODE KOMOLAFE   kayode.komolafe@thisdaylive.com

When the COVID-19 War is over the cost of prosecuting it would be calculated in social terms and in figures.
That is to be expected after a public health emergency that has generated a grave economic crisis, you would probably say.

Yet, there is certainly a cautionary point to make in emphasising the social cost at this stage of the crisis, the end of which even experts are unable to put a precise date.
The humanitarian crisis that the missteps in the resolution of the crisis could cause may ultimately undermine the legitimacy of the fight against coronavirus.

It is really a Catch-22 situation for the government.
If the restriction on the population is lifted , more lives may be put at risk going by the calamitous experience of countries that delayed in taking precautionary measures especially lockdowns. Alternatively, the extension of the period of lockdowns comes at enormous socio-economic costs.

How do you ensure public health safety without crippling the economy and caging the society?
This question has imposed a severe test on the leadership.

The ferment generated by the lockdown imposed by governments across the country is growing. The prognosis is bad as the most vulnerable segments of the society become legitimately restless. There is virtually no home for slum dwellers to stay as a way of breaking the coronavirus chain. Those who live on daily incomes are practically presented with a choice between hunger and the virus. How do you mobilise the alienated millions of jobless youths to make the necessary sacrifice for the collective safety? While corporate organisations compute their losses and ponder the future in online conferencing, the many economic players in the informal sector feel completely displaced from the stage.

There have been reported spectacles of flouting of the restriction rules as well as a wave of crimes of looting and robbery. The fear of insecurity in neighbourhoods grows as residents take precautionary measures against being infected with coronavirus.

President Muhammadu Buhari has extended the lockdown in Lagos and Ogun states as well as the Federal Capital Territory of Abuja for 14 days. The initial period of 14 days of lockdown ended on Monday night. Expectedly this official step at public health safety has not been well received by those most adversely affected by the lockdown. In fact, the real socio-economic impacts of the lockdown on the poor may never be fully captured in official statistics.

In a similar manner, India, a country of 1.3 billion people, extended yesterday the lockdown on the whole country till May 3. Like Buhari, Prime Minister Narendra Modi appealed to Indian people to make the socio-economic sacrifice so as to save lives. Already, India has more than 10, 000 cases of coronavirus.

The Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, also gave a global perspective to the development. According to Ghebreyesus, each country must take decisions based on its “situation” to save lives and protect people especially the most vulnerable. He gave six criteria to consider in making the decision. They are control of transmission of coronavirus; minimising the risk of outbreaks; educating, engaging and empowering members of the public on the “the norm;” putting in place capacities to “detect, test, isolate and treat” cases and their contacts; management of the risks of importing the virus; and preventive measures in work places, schools and other public places.

The 19 northern governors may need to ponder the advice from the WHO. They have ruled out lockdowns a priori because of the peculiar socio-economic condition of the poor region. It’s hoped that this would not turn out to be a grave tactical error in the nation’s strategy against COVID-19.

Not a few perceptive observers had expected that the president would even impose the lockdown nationwide at least for a week to enable experts sort things properly and draw useful conclusions. Is it not said that a chain is as strong as its weakest link? May the north not be the weak link in the Nigerian sector of the global COVID-19 war.
The big picture becomes more worrisome when you add the unfortunate fact of the less than strict adherence to the anti-coronavirus precautionary measures in different parts of the country. This is observable on the part of the leaders and the people alike.

To be sure, the federal government and state governments are making palliatives available to the most vulnerable segments of the society. For instance, the president announced on Monday evening that the number of the beneficiaries of cash transfer would be increased from 2.6 million to 3.6 million. Lagos state has been remarkably distributing foodstuffs to the needy in poor locations. Other state governments, private organisations, individuals have made materials available to give succour to the poor. All these are in addition to noteworthy efforts to put in place healthcare facilities in preparation for any eventuality.

The management of the process of getting the palliatives to the poor has certainly not been flawless. No one, of course, expects perfection. But the obvious structural faults and the human factors should be addressed for the welfare purpose to be achieved as the crisis seems to be deepening.

Those in charge of getting things done to mitigate the suffering of the poor should listen public criticisms.
The observations by the people should not be taken as the voice of the enemy in this war in which everyone should be a combatant for the sake of his or her life.

Beyond this, however, is the fact that whatever welfare package the government and private bodies and individuals could provide in the circumstance would still be grossly inadequate to keep the poor at home. Some loaves of bread or N5, 000 seem not to be enough to keep a slum-dwelling family of eight at home. The pressure is still mounting despite billions of naira spent in mitigating the effects on the poor.
This is an indication of the enormity of the problem.

Fundamentally, things are in this tragic mode largely because of the systemic inequality that defines this society. The poverty of the majority of the people has been exposed so scandalously by the steps being taken to stop the spread of coronavirus.

Imagine this hypothesis : with a very low number of the most vulnerable people, the palliatives so far made available could have probably made a greater impact on the people’s condition. When the president approved cash transfer for 3.6m people, an observer might say that was giving cash to one of 30 persons desperately in need. Well, official statistics may be different from this public perception.

In the coming days, issues may crystallise to bring into fore the underlying condition of inequality and social injustice in the Nigerian society that may exacerbate the COVID-19 crisis. Social distancing is helpful in controlling the spread of coronavirus; but the socio-economic gulf in the society is compounding the crisis generated by the virus.

The public spirit of the organisations and individuals who have made the welfare provisions available is highly commendable. But the social pressures that would be felt in the nearest future would prove that the poor need more than charity. What they actually need is social justice within the system.

As a political personality, Buhari has an unmistakeably pro-people instinct. However, the structural problems of endemic poverty would require more than this sympathy for the poor. The Buhari administration should confront the poverty question in a more radical way to avoid a profound social crisis. This is the point being made from a global perspective by an Anthropologist at the London School of Economics, Jason Hickel, in his recent book entitled “The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions.”

In proposing “the necessary madness of imagination,” Hickel quotes the great African revolutionary, Thomas Sankara, in a chapter of the book as follows: “You cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness. In this case, it comes from nonconformity, the courage to turn your back on the old formulas, the courage to invent the future.”

All told, the nature of this crisis is a tragic reminder of the primacy of the common good in policy formulation.
A society operated on the foundation of common good would not have this wide social gulf as evident in the Nigerian society. Those responsible for economic management and their advisers should see in this crisis the centrality of social policies for the common good as they purse economic growths and other liberal economic ambitions.

Without inclusive social policies , even when things hopefully improve by official reckoning, some of the economic statistics would sound largely as abstractions to the poor.

The nation should frame an economic philosophy of the common good to guide policy choices. For instance, a government driven by the common good would not budget N47 billion to “repair” a parliamentary building that’s not structurally defective when many of the constituents of the lawmakers still engage in open defaecation in different parts of the country. With a common good economic philosophy billions of naira would not be spent in importing state -of- the -art cars for political office holders when most of the people (the leaders are supposedly serving) do not have access to potable water.

The president is putting in place committees to work on the post-COVID-19 economy for the country. For that proposed economy to work in the interest of the people, there should be a new anti-poverty politics in the land as the concomitant.

This is because long after a vaccine must have been produced for coronavirus and a definitive cure found for COVID-19, the crisis that would be engendered by mass poverty and gross inequality may linger than any one can imagine now.