Coronavirus – Labour and Working People Must Force Governments at all Levels to Contain its Spread
Coronavirus Pandemic – A Failure of Capitalism
Labour and Working People Must Force Governments at all Levels to Contain the Spread of Virus in Nigeria
By Peluola Adewale
Perhaps nothing in recent history has exposed the incompetence of capitalism to meet the basic needs of the people and advance humanity further than the global outbreak of Coronavirus otherwise called Covid-19 which as of March 21 had infected about 280,000 persons and recorded over 11000 deaths globally. The failure of capitalism is not as a result of lack of competent technology and advanced technique to tackle the pandemic but because production and the entire society, including health care system and often sanitation, have been primarily geared towards satisfying the profit of few, not the needs of humanity.
The concessions the capitalist ruling elite were forced to grant in some countries by the fear of socialism and struggles of the working class people, especially after the Second World War, have been rolled back with advent of neo-liberal capitalism in 1980’s. This was accentuated by the collapse of deformed workers’ states and the restoration of capitalism in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. While these states were based on a caricature of socialism, they used to act as counterweight to capitalism.
As a result, the last three decades have been witnessing brutal cuts in public spending on health care and privatisation of health care system in many countries. This has made even advanced capitalist countries, especially the United States and also Britain, unprepared to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic despite their world-class health care systems. The epicentre of pandemic has moved from East Asia to the Western Europe and North America – the epicentres of capitalism. The western European countries are in different degrees of lockdown. The entire society has been almost shut down in Italy and Spain. Citizens need a pass to walk on the streets of France. The Covid-19 death toll in Italy has already surpassed that of China – the cradle of the virus. In China the ruling state capitalist regime, anxious to maintain its authoritarian rule, attempted to suppress news of the Covid-19 outbreak but then used state resources to combat it.
Globally the poor and inadequate response to the pandemic after it broke out in China showed how the capitalist ruling elites around the world, were engrossed in the pursuit of profit, also contributed to the rapid spread of the virus globally and the thousands of deaths recorded so far.
Buhari’s Capitalist Government not prepared
Nigeria and some other African countries have also begun to catch the bug. In Nigeria the confirmed cases are on the rise. It is 22 as of March 21. But it has begun to show a sign of geometric progression from two cases as of second week of March to 22 in the third week.
Though most of the cases are foreigners and Nigerians returning from Europe and United States, there is already a sign of community transmission with a man who had not travelled out of the country but tested positive. There is also an American who came through Nigeria-Benin border where little screening measures had been put in place. It is not impossible for somebody with virus to have passed through any of the land borders and melted into population. Besides, already in Lagos alone the government was tracing about 1300 contacts of different Covid-19 patients. All this shows that an outbreak of this virus may already have begun.
But, as obtained in Europe and United States, Nigeria is not prepared to respond to outbreak of Covid-19 because of long years of poor funding of health care as dictated by capitalist economic philosophy. But unlike in advanced capitalist countries, the neo-colonial character of Nigerian economy and primitiveness of its capitalist ruling elite means the health infrastructure is not only grossly inadequate but also largely in poor state. At the same time the absence of clean water supply and sanitation makes it more difficult to limit the spread of Covid-19 and other infections in Nigeria.
In other words, despite huge human and material resources of the country, the domination of Nigerian economy by imperialists and multinationals, as well as the implementation of neoliberal capitalist model that discourages public spending but allows the parasitic ruling elite to seek medical care abroad in most cases funded from public purse, has made it impossible for them to build strong health system against any infectious disease, let alone provide safe pipe borne water and sanitation. This explains why cholera and Lassa fever have not only remained endemic in Nigeria in the 21st century but also come with high mortality. For instance, as the world is waging war against coronavirus pandemic, the latest Lassa fever epidemic in Nigeria broke out in January and as of March 15 it had recorded 906 cases and 161 deaths according to Nigeria Centre for Disease Control NCDC). The NCDC had also reported 31 deaths from cholera this year as of the first week in March.
So, contrary to the propaganda of the Buhari government and the impression created by the much vaunted commendation of the country by WHO, Nigeria’s health system does not have capacity to confront the spread of the virus especially if there is community transmission. But the culprits are not only Buhari led federal government but also include state governors as public health is on concurrent legislative list i.e. it is the responsibility of both federal and state governments to provide public health care along with safe water and sanitation.
In a country with roughly a 200 million population there are just five centres located in Lagos, Abuja, Kano, Enugu and Rivers designated for treatment of Covid-19. Those states were chosen because they host international airports. But out of the five only the Lagos centre was ready as of the third week of March. Now that the government has shut down Kano, Port Harcourt and Enugu international airports it is not likely the work on the designated centres in those three states will be completed if it had been started at all. Even the Lagos centre seems to have very limited capacity. This could explain why the woman who was the third case was reportedly kept in ambulance for about 2 hours before a space was provided for her. The government has also now announced the shutdown of the main international airports in Lagos and Abuja with effect from Monday March 23.
Besides, there are just five laboratories in the country with capacity for testing of this virus. Two of the laboratories are located in Lagos and one each in Abuja, Ede in Osun and Irrua, Edo State. None are in the North East, North West or South East regions of the country. So samples have to be transported to and fro the location of the patient such that the result of test that ordinarily comes out within six hours may not be available in five days depending on distance from the nearest laboratory. This laborious and clumsy arrangement was partly responsible for the death of one old woman in Enugu with a suspected case after having just returned from the UK. This woman, who was isolated in a place which looked worse than a manger by the management of Enugu University Teaching Hospital, died shortly after the result of her test, which turned out negative, came on the third day after the collection of her sample.
Yet in order to limit the spread of the virus by identifying cases mass testing is required. But this cannot be achieved by just having five laboratories in entire country. Beyond the question of equipment, there is acute shortage of doctors and other health care workers. In contrast to the WHO recommendation of one doctor per 600 people Nigeria can only boast of one per 5,000, according Prof Adewole the immediately past Minister of Health. Indeed as a result of relatively terrible pay and conditions, doctors and nurses are some of the highest number of migrants who often run abroad in search of greener pastures. For instance, out of 72,000 doctors registered with the Medical and Dental Council of Nigeria (MDCN) over half reportedly currently practise outside the country. In a situation of a full blown outbreak on the scale of Italy for instance, there is every chance that there would not be adequate medical professionals to attend to sick patients.
Labour Must Force Government to Act
Unfortunately, the leaderships of Labour (NLC, TUC and ULC) have not done anything to mount pressure on the government to adequately prepare for the possible outbreak of the virus in Nigeria beyond screening at airports. Now labour and pro-masses’ organisations have to weigh in to defend health and wellbeing of ordinary working class people and the poor. They should lead workers and the poor to demand the following from both state and federal government:
1. Immediate provision of facilities for mass testing of anybody with symptoms of coronavirus in every local government in Nigeria. There is already a diagnostic kit or procedure that makes it possible to test thousands of people daily. It has been used in South Korea.
2. Provision of facilities for quarantine of suspected cases and isolation of confirmed cases at every local government. In a country projected as poverty capital of the world and where majority of the working class people and the poor masses live in slums and indecent houses, as a result of the failure of the successive capitalist governments at both state and federal level to provide decent mass housing, self-isolation is practically impossible. So both state and federal governments have to make provision for quarantine of anybody with symptoms of coronavirus.
3. All general hospitals must be well equipped and staffed to handle patients with critical cases of Covid-19.
4. Many health workers must be recruited to fight the virus and be retained after the pandemic.
5. Provision of adequate protective gears and special allowance for all health workers in the frontline of battle against coronavirus.
6. Provision of temperature checking equipment and hand sanitizers at all motor parks, bus stops, taxi parks, motor cycle parks, markets and informal clusters across the country.
7. Hand washing with soap and clean water is an effective way of guiding against contracting the virus. But many households don’t have running water. Many have to travel long distance in order to fetch water. Labour and mass organisations should demand a crash project of provision of potable water in every community, school and market not only because of coronavirus but also to prevent enteric infection like cholera and typhoid fever which are caused by unclean water.
8. Government must make available hand sanitizers to Nigerians and distribute them free of charge through trade unions, market associations, artisan groups, community associations and schools.
9. Government must make an order or law that mandates sick leave with pay and without loss of job for every worker including casual and contract staffs with suspected or confirmed case of Covid-19. The order should also allow worker to take leave without loss of job or pay to support parents, spouse or child in quarantine or isolation and must include a provision for the taking over by the state of any private company or organisation that rationalises/retrenches its workforce or fails to pay workers during this crisis.
10. Safety measures against coronavirus infection including closures of workplaces where necessary without loss of pay and jobs by workers.
11. Special financial support for any artisan or trader who is in quarantine, self or public, as a suspect case or isolation as a confirmed case.
12. Immediate crash program of public investment to end homelessness, street begging and slum housing – three most crucial factors that could escalate the pandemic. All vacant homes of the rich be requisitioned and distributed to ensure all those who are homeless or live in slum have a home and are safe from the viral contagion.
13. A massive social welfare programme under the control of democratic committees formed at street and community levels to provide food, water, electricity, and other essential provisions to people who are self-isolating or in the event of a general lock down.
14. Nationalisation of the health sector under democratic workers and community control and massive public spending on healthcare in order to ensure building of a strong health system along with provision of safe water and sanitation capable of significantly reducing the incidence and fatality of any infectious disease and preventable disease.
Economy is already infected
However, if the country is lucky to escape the havoc coronavirus can wreak on public health or ride out the storm, the economic crisis which can only bite harder is already here. Coronavirus has infected the world economy. It has forced many factories and businesses to shut down globally and thereby triggered a depressed demand for commodities. Crude oil is one of the worst hit. Low demands have combined with oversupply of the product, as a result of the failure of Saudi Arabia led OPEC and Russia to renew quota agreement, to force down the prices to below $30 per barrel.
The current Nigeria’s budget is benchmarked at $57. The government has already announced the plan to cut the budget by reducing the budget benchmark to $30, cutting the capital expenditure by 20 percent and recurrent by 25 percent. But for Nigeria the crisis is not just about low prices but also there are many unsold cargoes which have continued to build up. So even if the prices do not go below $30 the country may not be able to meet the volume target. At the same time the excess crude account, which had not fully recovered from the 2008-2009 global economic crash, has been further drawn down to about paltry $78m. So there is no fiscal buffer. The low oil prices also mean that the country may not be able to borrow at the international market to finance the budget. Besides, already the public debt is a huge drain on government revenue – about 30 percent of projected revenue in 2020 budget is for debt servicing. This is not affected by the cut. The crisis has already forced the CBN to technically devalue the naira to N380 a US Dollar and this will further increase the cost of goods, particularly imported ones.
Workers and the Poor Must not pay for the Crisis
All this means that Nigeria will not able to finance even the reduced budget. However, it is likely that the government will spend relatively more on healthcare now that coronavirus is still on the rampage globally as the thieving ruling elites themselves are not immune from contracting the virus and right now most, apart from those using private jets, cannot travel abroad for treatment. But the funding on the health care will be rolled back when the pandemic is over using declined revenue as the excuse. Labour, health workers unions and pro-masses’ organisations must be prepared to fight for continued funding of health care including building of more standard hospitals and well-equipping and adequately staffing of old ones such that the country is prepared for any infectious disease and as well as non-communicable diseases.
It should also be expected that the government especially at the state level will not only refuse to pay new minimum wage but also return to the era of unpaid salaries citing drop in revenue from federation allocation. Labour unions and workers must reject any policy or action that will make them to bear the brunt of the economic crisis. They should demand that all political office holders be put on average civil service salary structure and all government finances and projects are subject to open democratic control of workers. Instead of fraudulent contract system the labour should demand the use of well-funded, adequately-equipped, democratically controlled public works departments for projects.
Socialist Alternative Needed
These measures together with nationalization and democratic control of the key sectors such as oil and gas, banking, etc. will ensure that there are resources to pay decent wage for workers and also finance provision of infrastructure and basic needs like health care, sanitation, safe water, education etc. Any government that is unable to do these should be asked to vacate power. But they will not leave power on their own volition. Besides, their failure is a product of their capitalist philosophy. This is why the working people need their own mass party on a socialist programme to fight against capitalist attacks and struggle to wrest political power.
Globally, the capitalist governments have resorted to different forms of state intervention to clear the huge mess in the health care system. This is an admission of the inability of the neo-liberal policy of relying on so-called ‘private enterprise’ to meet social needs and emergencies. Definitely the new waves of public spending will eventually contain the pandemic. But they will not undo the monumental damage that years of poor funding and privatisation have inflicted not only on public health but also on people’s lives and livelihood. Furthermore the ruling classes, while now spending money to save their system, will later try to claw this money back in one way or another from the working and middle classes. This colossal failure of capitalism will not be lost on some layers of the working class people and youth and thereby prompts a layer to seek an enthronement of socialist alternative.