Of Lockdowns and Social Inequalities


The COVID-19 lockdown has again highlighted the socio-economic cleavages within the Nigerian system, writes Soyombo Opeyemi

“It’s going to be a long-drawn strike; we advise Nigerians to stock their homes with foodstuffs; there is no retreat, no surrender, until government meets our demands.” This is the familiar refrain of organised labour anytime industrial action or strike-induced lockdown looms in the country.

Now, majority of the working population, some 80 per cent of them, belong to the informal sector of the economy. They include the hairdressers, barbers, bricklayers, site workers, ‘pure water’ sellers, welders, auto mechanics, auto electricians, food vendors, battery-chargers, fruit sellers (fruiterers), shoemakers (cobblers), pepper sellers, Bole and Epa sellers, vulcanizers, bus drivers and conductors, porters, car wash men, ‘photocopiers’ (computer business centres owners), hawkers, make-up artists, photographers, grocers, confectioners, market men and women, petty traders – in general. These people rely, essentially, on daily income to feed their families and aged dependants. For them the dictum, ‘no work no pay’ is a faith accompli; a shut-down of the entire commercial system translates into imposed fasting and hunger. These are the people, in their millions, that are often called upon by labour unions to ‘stock their homes with foodstuffs!’

It is this same beleaguered people that are now being called upon by state and federal governments to stock their homes with food items and stay at home for 14 days, in the first instance, and another 14 days, in the second instance, seven more days, and more days ahead, all in a bid to curb the spread of corona virus pandemic!

Again, majority of these people (wholly or partly) depend on power supply to earn a daily living; you can then imagine what a heavy toll the epileptic power supply takes on their stomachs. It must be mentioned somewhat in passing that this is a period of intense and insufferable heat, thus compounding the woes of the lockdown. Regularly, you encounter those that have been thrown out of their peasant businesses by decades of erratic electricity supply. They earn so little that they have nothing left to buy a generator let alone afford the price of petrol. Some of them do not use kerosene anymore – which at any rate is usually prohibitive. They turn to the nearby bush or forest to gather firewood.

What is the daily life like for the majority of the toiling masses? After a meagre meal, usually devoid of basic nutrients, the father goes to a nearby building site in order to earn the income for the day; the mother goes to any roadside to sell roast yam, with the children assisting in earning additional income by selling ‘pure water’ to equally famished and thirsty Nigerians.

Returning home in the evening, the woman has to guide her loins lest she loses the day’s labour to the ubiquitous area boys and pick pockets. But when the boys decide to instigate a riot or clash with the police, traffic law officers or rival cult groups, it is the woman that is in danger of losing the roast yams, the raw tubers and her earned income for the day. Her sons or daughters would do well not to get knocked down in the stampede or be felled by stray bullets of law enforcement officers; they could thank their God for losing the sachet water income for the day and getting away with minor injuries. In a serious case, the daily earnings might be consumed in a private clinic or a public health centre, where they will still pay and in addition risk exacerbating the injuries through unwarranted delays and sadistic indifference!

Members of the labour unions are sure of their salaries no matter how long any strike or lockdown lasts! The working population in the formal sector is so tiny, almost negligible, when compared with the men in the informal sector. It would seem the hapless multitudes in the informal sector are willy-nilly dragged into battles that leave them empty-handed either in victory or defeat; these are the careworn souls in Nigeria. Moreover, when organised labour succeeds in forcing the government to salary increment (which induces inflation in the system), these same poor people in the informal sector are the losers for it. So heads or tails, the poor masses are the losers.
This is not to suggest that Labour agitation has never had any salutary effect on the nation. But the evident charge of self-centredness is a burden Labour has to carry until equitable share of the gains and losses pervades the entire downtrodden sector of the nation, of which Labour claims she is part.

No doubt, the state and federal governments have introduced some palliatives to a fraction of the downtrodden masses to cushion the debilitating effects of the lockdown, occasioned by the deadly COVID-19 pandemic. But this is the problem that confronts the country. Apart from corruption, which has become the norm, what manner of injustice is wrought by these interventions?! For instance, there are ten hungry and famished homes in a street as a result of the lockdown. Because of limited resources, you give to one home while nine other homes watch with dismay, indignation and anger the inequality and social injustice of using the resources that belong to all to cater for a few!
To choose a further illustration, you have one million vulnerable citizens but governments are only able to provide food palliatives to twenty thousand! Very well, the resources are just limited. But how do the remaining nine hundred and eighty thousand citizens react to this intervention, when it is very clear that the resources that went to only twenty thousand people belong to all? And a worst case – when the new palliatives go to the same set of people (the twenty thousand) that had benefitted from the earlier social interventions!

This situation rankles. It breeds indignation and social resentment. But what can the governments do or how can they confront this dilemma, the social inequalities?

The present condition has led to the inescapable conclusion that Nigeria still appears to operate within Thomas Hobbes’ state of nature, the state of self-preservation, the survival of the fittest! Under this condition, law and justice are absent. Crimes are inevitable. The life of man is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”!

Whether it’s COVID-19 lockdown or labour strikes, prices of food items will skyrocket, which will translate into higher cost of living.

For instance, at the beginning of the current lockdown, prices of foodstuffs rose by 50 per cent; the rise was up to 80 or 100 per cent in some locations! Yet, majority of citizens are sitting at home without money in their pockets! Those that have some coins in the banks are regularly frustrated by the Automatic Teller Machines (ATMs) that are starved of funds. And when some ATM cards are trapped in the machines or the owners receive debit alerts without the cash, they are barred from entering the transaction halls as banks have yet to resume full operations! It is thus that some have no access to the small amount of cash they have in the banks as a result of the lockdown. Besides, we run a queer economy. When prices go up in Nigeria, they never fall even when conditions that led to the rise have abated.

It’s been acknowledged that 80 per cent of the nation’s wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few – less than one per cent of the population – which are not affected by the shocks of any lockdown and strikes. The teeming masses cannot file for unemployment benefits as you have in developed climes. They eke out an existence on paltry daily wages. Consequently, they bear the brunt of harsh conditions that lockdowns usually impose on the country.

Nonetheless, we must acknowledge the interventions of the state and federal governments during the present COVID-19 lockdown. The governments that provide some window of limited movement for its citizens to mitigate the excruciating lockdown deserve all our plaudits. In Ogun State, to cite an example, the governor, Prince Dapo Abiodun, relaxes the lockdown every 48 hours in order ‘to balance the need for public health safety with the economic well-being of his people’. The welfare of Ogun citizens is uppermost on his mind.

Just like his counterpart in Ogun, Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu of Lagos State distributed a lot of food palliatives to the vulnerable citizens. He introduced neighbourhood markets in order to ensure the effectiveness of the movement restriction. Governor Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti State distributed food packages comprehensively. This is complimented by the monthly social security stipends to the elderly, a scheme introduced for the first time in Nigeria during his first coming as governor of Ekiti State.

Coronavirus is party-blind! In Anambra, where citizens travel a lot and host some major international markets, apart from massive distribution of food palliatives to communities across the state, Governor Willie Obiano appeared to have won the war against the deadly infectious disease even before the first shot was fired! As far back as January, long before the index case in the country, the governor, through his Commissioner for Information and Public Enlightenment, Mr C.Don Adinuba, issued a well-publicized advisory to Anambra citizens across the globe against travelling to China and the precautionary measures to take against the disease in some other 13 European countries. The state cemented the advisory through a systematic sensitization campaign that involved cabinet members in major markets, motor parks and hotels across the state. Ndi Anambra are reaping the dividends of the foresight of Governor Willie Obiano.

The proactive response of Anambra is in sharp contrast with the earlier position of the Kano State government, which, at best, was ambivalent about the pandemic or, at the worst, lived in denial of its ravaging effect on the ancient city.

The Federal Government occasionally announces a window of relaxation of the lockdowns in order to ensure that citizens do not starve to death in their homes. In this connection, one must condemn in the strongest terms the overzealousness of some law officers enforcing the lockdowns, which has resulted in brutalisation and deaths of a number of Nigerians. There is no law that empowers a security agent to horse-whip, gun-butt, brutalise or manhandle an unarmed law-breaker or suspect who does not resist an arrest. Our law enforcement officers must be schooled in the protocols of human rights. It is high time we stopped the barbaric conduct of some security agents. Like the Igbo proverb, you do not beat a child and at the same time order her not to cry. You cannot lock people at home like birds in a cage – without food – and expect them not to struggle for survival. They first have to eat to be able to defend themselves against the pandemic. The (political) heads of these security institutions must take responsibility.

In the final analysis, there is need for governments across the federation to brainstorm on the best, nay a system-driven mechanism to ensure the delivery of the greatest good to the greatest number of citizens at all times, especially the downtrodden masses. This should be a major take-away from the COVID-19 lockdowns across the country.

––– Soyombo, media practitioner and public affairs analyst, writes from Abeokuta via densityshow@yahoo.com.