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COVID-19: Opportunity cost of lockdown

I feel obliged to write a few observations on this issue regarding Nigeria. I’m not sure the current policy with its heavy opportunity cost is likely…

I feel obliged to write a few observations on this issue regarding Nigeria. I’m not sure the current policy with its heavy opportunity cost is likely to lead us to the desired destination and whether we could at any rate get there even with these draconian measures.

The opportunity cost of closing Abuja and Lagos and the sky of Nigeria is too heavy a burden to bear for the objectives we wish to achieve regarding COVID-19. This is in addition to states imposing separate measures even before recording their index cases. While not clearly spelt out, I presume our main objectives are to maintain the health of the productive part of the population as much as possible and to save the lives of Nigerians as much as possible.

It is a pity that much of current policy was put in place without a full examination of the implications of the economic, in particular the opportunity costs of these and possible alternative policies. As he indicated in his speech, Mr President would be putting a team to study these issues, which will be supported by his Council of Economic Advisers. Economic considerations should have formed a pillar in the formulation of policy along with health and ethical considerations,which perhaps not too wrongly have been given all considerations

Clearly, existing and mounting evidence suggests COVID-19 is most dangerous to the old and especially those with underlining health issues. Ideally of course, we don’t want to loose a single Nigerian and we should do all we can to preserve lives. It is the case however that much in the human condition is about choice, often between difficult or even impossible options. But the forks in the journey of life must be taken. Often the best road is that less travelled. It is more often than not about choosing the least costly option. Lose a few older people or many more in a lockdown with little other option for survival for many, often the productive part of the population. Would not current policy of lockdown perhalps end up  saving older folk at the expense of younger folk who would die because they cannot be fed or they cannot feed themselves or they can’t even get to hospital when they have to?

Current policy seems largely copied from Europe but in the view of many needs to be amended to serve Nigeria’s purpose. There is no social safety net in Nigeria to prevent the able dying from hunger in a lockdown. And yes, it is happening. We don’t have a comprehensive national health system that could be overwhelmed. What we have is already overwhelmed. Much of European policy on the pandemic is targeted towards achieving a plateau in infections before the health service is overwhelmed. At any rate, have we examined other European policy models to see how well they are or not doing and if they may serve our purpose better? Sweden stands out regarding their approach to the pandemic, which is different, and so far at least as successful as any in this regards. There is strong social distancing to minimise the evident path the virus takes to infection. Else every one goes to work. They seem to have been doing better than France, Britain, Italy and Germany. With our younger population, which should be less prone to catching the virus or being massively hurt by it, should this not be a better model to look to?

We are a younger population than Europe. 60% of Nigerians are about 25 years or younger. We are less vulnerable than Europe to COVID-19. Should this not be reflected in our policy on the subject, tilting policy towards maintaining production in a society where most productive people live basically from hand to mouth? It’s ok if you are a civil servant, with an assured salary at the end of the month. But a worker in a factory or a hotel or worse a daily paid labourer? How does lockdown square with one’s survival in those circumstances? Yet these are the ones who create our gross product. We must have a way of letting them function while doing what is possible to minimise COVID-19.

The brunt of current policy is being paid by productive side of the population. Those at risk are the older generation. Cannot the policy be concentrated on how to save them rather than constraining the totality of society’s productive capacity?

Suppose we say instead that vulnerable groups, those over 55 or so, or who are sick,or both, be given a holiday. Give them support on a need basis; they stay in doors as a preventive, a kind of lockdown for the potentially vulnerable. Everyone maintains social distance. All else in society can get about their productive business. Shut clubs perhalps, minimise large crowds, not more than 20 people at a time away, including religious, sports etc. Would that not save the lives of those more vulnerable to COVID-19 but at the same time let productive parts of society function?

Quite a few States have put in their own clampdowns. In some ridiculous instances even before recording their index case. What tools are available to such states when finally citizens get the pandemic? Bury the whole state? At any rate where incidences arise should all of the state be in lockdown? In the interest of production, cannot particular cities or regions of the state affected be closed down instead of the whole state?  For northern Nigeria, we are on the onset of the rains and the planting season. Can’t farmers who by definition maintain social distance be exempted from these lockdowns?

What will the government now do after two weeks to Lagos and Abuja if cases were to more than double or so in two weeks at the expiration of the current lockdown? Continue a lockdown to economically ruin the nation?

Nigeria’s rate of growth is projected to be negative 3.6% for 2020, much to do with COVID-19 occasioning fall in demand for and prices of oil. Need we put in place policies that massively curtail production and make matters much worse than they need to be?

A phasing in of measures could have been considered. Throwing in your most important weapons leaving nothing for retreat with a view to fight another day is a strategy that could be bettered. The time for the deployment of a lockdown our most massive weapon has probably not arrived and we pray it never would.

In conclusion, Mr President should consider the Swedish model and deploy same.

Emphasise the productive sector of the economy by letting those who can work to proceed with same. Protect the vulnerable by making them stay at home and supporting them, while urging the states especially the farming districts in the north to exempt farmers from these lockdowns with the arrival of the rains and the planting season.

Ibrahim Aliyu is the Chairman of Urban Shelter Ltd.

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