The world of work has never been so challenged as it currently is, as formal and informal businesses barely breathe the world over. Public health, livelihood and wellbeing are seriously threatened. COVID-19 has brought the world to its knees, as the global battle on the pandemic bears little fruit. The Federal Government of Nigeria termed it an “invisible enemy,” a situation so dire, do or die! Daily, the world counts thousands of heads downed. The global infection rate has crossed three million, and the death toll over 400,000. The geometric spread of the pandemic in Nigeria did not go against global predictions after all. With over 2,000 cases and 68 deaths in two months, the nation sits on the edge as government eases the lockdown that has had adverse effects on the economy.
But government’s decision to ease the five-week old lockdown that made a ghost of the nation’s commercial capital, Lagos, and its neighbour, Ogun State, as well as Abuja, was informed by reasons that have nothing to do with a drop in the number of infections or capacity of the nation to helm the ravaging pandemic that has hobbled even more prepared western nations. It was rather to save the economy from total collapse and stave off restiveness, revolt from hunger-stricken citizens in a nation that thrives 80 per cent on the informal economy.
President Muhammadu Buhari captured the situation succinctly in his address on April 28. “ No country can afford the full impact of sustained lockdown while awaiting the development of vaccines.”
But even as many, especially self-owned businesses and daily wage earners happily return to work, a dimming optimism grips even the most enthusiastic. The experience of Ghana and Germany who just suffered the worst second wave of the pandemic with numbers spiking unprecedentedly following relaxed lockdowns stares at the nation. It is a specter the chairman of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19, Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Boss Mustpha acknowledged, in one of the daily briefings. In spite of this, President Buhari, renowned for taciturnity, has been a beaming ray of hope since his first COVID-19 broadcast to the nation on February 29. His second address two weeks later, which extended the lockdown, was a balm on the soul of a troubled nation.
An aside, Buhari is an unlucky Nigerian President. A man who waited for over a decade of fierce presidential election battles with three successive losses, his vision of transforming Nigeria is here, viciously challenged by vicissitudes, latest being the raging pandemic. He remains unbowed notwithstanding. His confidence that Nigeria would rise with the world from the ashes of the evil pandemic is expressive and reawakening.
“Nigeria continues to adopt and adapt to these new global realities on daily basis…despite drastic increase in the number of cases recorded in the past two weeks, the measures we have put in place thus far have yielded positive outcomes.” He further assures of measures that will “ensure the economy continues to function while maintaining aggressive response to the pandemic.”
The return of workers to stations across the federation calls for risk assessment of workplaces, in line with occupational safety standards, to avoid turning workers vendors of community spread.
“In the face of an infectious disease outbreak, how we protect our workers now clearly dictates how safe our communities are, and how resilient our businesses will be, as this pandemic evolves,” says Guy Ryder, the director-general of the International Labour Organisation (ILO). The message is not lost on Nigeria, as guidelines for the re-opening of offices came in a manner that ensures reduced physical interactions, improved ventilation, adequate facilities for handwashing and cleaning of surfaces, in line with COVID-19 protocol. The work days and hours have also been reduced. This, however, has implications, as the ILO warned that “1.6 billion workers in the informal economy, which is half of the global workforce, stand in the immediate danger of losing their livelihood.”
No doubt, a strong national programme for the health, safety and wellbeing of workers, especially those at the frontier, expresses the resolve of the Federal Government. It has in place a special hazard and inducement allowance, group life insurance policy and employees’ compensation for injuries, disabilities sustained and even death in the course of discharge of duties, according to the Minister of Labour and Employment, Sen. Chris Ngige. He said government would “extend social protection to the most needy, protect incomes, jobs, as well as rebuild, reshape and re-organise the economic and social infrastructure and priorities beyond the crisis.”
These are steps that align with the theme of the 2020 World Day for Safety and Health at Work, titled, “Stop the Pandemic: Safety and Health at Work Can Save Lives.”
However, this bold response will have to contend with aggressive pessimism, a reality that many workers currently face. Though the Presidential Economic Sustainability Council is already engaging employers to save jobs and strategize on unique module for job creation, a gloomy signal emerged from the financial sector as some banks are already considering throwing out workers. But Ngige has warned against unilateral declaration of redundancy.
“I wish to state that employers will not be encouraged to disengage staff without prerequisite social dialogue and clearance from the Federal Ministry of Labour and Employment,” he said on Workers’ Day.
It was a strong national response, which led to the resolution of the Central Bank and the Bankers’ Committee to put retrenchment on hold. Is this just postponing the evil day? The former Anambra State governor is not known for frivolous statements and has his charismatic way of weathering the storm of trade disputes. A similar situation at the inception of the administration in June 2016 had the minister threatening financial institutions with withdrawal of operational licenses. The matter was later resolved by the National Assembly, with applause for the steps he took.
Nonetheless, the locale of the battle this time is certainly different. The COVID-19 pandemic has kept the world on tenterhooks and ruined businesses. Nevertheless, the minister remains confident, even as the ILO warned that nearly half of the global workforce is at risk of losing livelihoods. Ngige insists Nigeria is taking a job-rich strategy and has strong employment policies.
•Obidiwe, a journalist, writes from Abuja