In a bold move to address the shortage of medical supplies during the fight against the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, President Muhammadu Buhari has approved the waiver of import duties on all medical equipment and supplies into the country. The waiver is expected to strengthen the health system in the country and support the efforts of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) in combating the pandemic. To hasten the process, the President has ordered the Nigerian Customs Service to fast-track the clearing of all medical supplies, equipment and pharmaceuticals at the ports. The waiver is part of the government’s measures to check the economic impact of the pandemic.
The waiver is a move in the right direction because experts in pharmaceutical sector have warned of imminent drug shortage in the country if the pandemic persists. Current import duties on drugs and other health consumables, put at 30 per cent, are high. Moreover, the pharmaceutical firms in the country are not producing in full capacity due to institutional and other limitations. They depend so much on imports from India, China, United States of America, Britain and other countries. The high import duty and other taxes have led to rise in the price of drugs.
Therefore, the Federal Government’s intervention is expected to ensure reduction in prices of drugs and other health consumables. We urge stakeholders in the sector to utilise the opportunity to ensure that the drugs are available and affordable.
Besides, the time has come for the country to strive to achieve self-sufficiency in drug production. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the shortcomings in the health sector. The recent revelation by the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) that Nigeria depends on other countries for its drug supply is instructive. According to the Director-General of the agency, Prof. Mojisola Adeyeye, Nigeria imports 70 per cent of its medicines as well as active and non-active ingredients mostly from India, which relies on China. With the sources of these ingredients hit by the ravaging effects of the coronavirus, Nigeria’s supply chain has been severely affected. “India is already feeling it because they buy most of their materials and active ingredients from China. If India is feeling it, we should start praying because we don’t manufacture anything here except water; we import almost everything – active and non-active ingredients, equipment etcetera,” she said.
Other countries Nigeria relies on for drug supply have also closed their airspaces in their efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. This has resulted to scarcity and high cost of available drugs.
Therefore, there is urgent need to look inwards to encourage and support companies that can manufacture drugs and medical consumables locally. Doing so will guard against the depletion of our stock.
Government should encourage the local manufacture of needed drugs by ensuring that the N100 billion intervention funds by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) as healthcare loans really get to them. The processes for accessing the facility should be transparent.
It is heartwarming that the apex bank has identified key local pharmaceutical companies that will be granted the funding facilities to support the procurement of raw materials and equipment required to boost local drug production. Smaller firms in the industry should equally be allowed to draw from the N50 billion target credit facility earmarked by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) for small and medium enterprises affected by COVID-19. We call for close monitoring of the beneficiaries to ensure prudent management of the loans.
The government should incorporate the COVID-19 rescue plan by Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industries (LCCI) at boosting local drug manufacture. It should implement the proposed tax breaks and concessions for investors in the health sector for at least one year as well as the zero-import duty on raw materials and equipment. There is no doubt that these measures will accelerate the rebound of the sector.
The government should also use the opportunity of the pandemic to incorporate alternative medicine to the nation’s healthcare delivery system. Every effort should be made to lessen the country’s dependence on other countries for its medical supplies. We say this because no nation depends on another for its basic needs.