IDEAS Radio 22 May 2020

Reopening the Economy post-COVID19

Aghogho Oboh: Shaku Maku everybody!  It’s a fine, fine afternoon in Lagos.  I’m Aghogho Oboh, and Public Square is what we do every Friday, 4 pm to 6 pm.  And I’m sure you’ve been enjoying the great programmes we’ve been having today on 99.3 Nigeria Info.  And on the Public Square today we’ll continue with our discussions on the issues of big importance to us as a nation.  First we will be going to Ayo Obe on IDEAS.  Ayo opens the Public Square with IDEAs, and today she will be talking about something that is very important, which is the reopening of work … work spaces; whether there are any IDEAS issues in this one.  She will be talking to us about that, and then we get to the big Square with Rotimi Sankore and I, where  we’ll look at the education system.  A number of states have some … well, interesting options on how they can get ahead with the schools while the pandemic is on, but then, it does leave a lot of questions on the practicability of these options for  schooling during the pandemic.  Remember, you can join the conversations in Public Square on social media @PublicSquareNG, @ideasradiong, @aghoghooboh, @NigeriaInfoFM, @RotimiSankore.  Any of these handles, we can have a conversation going forward.  So!  Let’s go over to Ayo.  Hello Ayo, good evening!

Ayo Obe: Good evening Aghogho, how are you?

AgO: I’m brilliant.  And how’s … how’s the … now I’m a bit  whether it’s still the lockdown now, or partial reopening, or living with the coronavirus pandemic …

AO: It’s the … it’s the … Socially distancing … societally aware, I should say, reopening … but it’s partial.  It’s easing of the lockdown.  We are doing it gradually, gradually .

AgO: Exactly, and so this is what we are trying to understand.  It’s a curve that no one apparently has an idea of how to go about it.  So it looks as if it’s a case of try this and see how it works out for many of the authorities involved in reopening these places.  But, let’s stick with the discussion we’re having today on IDEAS, which is the reopening of places of work …  I’m sure you’ve seen the report with the number of states, and there’s been the back and forth, especially with the PTF boss, I remember a number of briefings where he’s raised concerns with the state governments that have decided to reopen faster than some other states.  What are the IDEA issues with respect to the reopening of places of work Ayo?

AO: Well I think in this case there are actually at least three of them: the Integrity of  the decisions that are being made, the Ethics that are being brought to bear, and the Accountability.  Now Ethics of course, it’s always about finding the balance, because we all know that … minds are increasingly focused on the economic impact of COVID-19, and that’s why you see this growing push for places of work to reopen.  And in fact, if you will recall that yesterday the National Economic Council, which is chaired by the Vice President, set up a committee … chaired I think by the Delta State Governor and the Governors also of Lagos, Kano, Bauchi, Anambra, Plateau and the Federal Capital Territory’s Minister, on the best way to reopen the Nigerian economy.  Now I think that’s important because there’s been this sort of haphazard uncoordinated approach to reopening of places.  Now there’s no doubt that some states have been worse affected than others, but when you’re trying to find the balance between trying to reopen and still protecting Nigerians, particularly employees and customers, from the COVID-19 virus, it’s important that you focus on preserving the lives of your staff and your customers.  Because we’ve seen in other countries that it’s almost as though the desire of employers and … to make profit or  to continue doing their business, had been the primary concern.  So that’s why I think the Ethics issue is an iss … is … arises.  And the fact is that the primary consideration has to be the rights of employees, customers, teachers and pupils to be protected against the virus.  And I think also that when we think about the … I mean I did say that I think that the opening of schools raises particular issues, because of the fact, first of all, that you’re dealing with children.

AgO: Right.

AO: And … even the … getting children to wear masks, getting them to live in a world where people are going around wearing masks.  You know most of us normally, we meet a child, we smile at the child, but now we’re wearing masks.  The child doesn’t know whether we’re smiling, or what … what our reaction is.  So already, dealing with children in the workplace is an issue.  And teachers … certainly we’ve seen in some foreign countries that the teachers’ unions  are being subjected to some not necessarily very subtle blackmail, for saying that they expect that they should be properly protected before schools are reopened.  And so I think that … and we have to face it too, that reopening of schools is not just … we don’t send our children to school simply because we want them to have an education.  Certainly that is very important.  But the fact is that unless parents return to … have somebody, a child minder in the form of the school, they themselves cannot return to the jobs, if those jobs require their physical presence.

AgO: Exactly

AO:  So I think that again, the balance of the Ethical issues has to … we shouldn’t keep it … we shouldn’t pretend that it’s not there.  And lastly on the issue of the importance of reopening of workplaces, is that there are some workplaces that may not at first sight appear to be vital industries; I mean, they’re not medical personnel, they’re  not … what’s the word I’m looking for … they’re not firefighters and so on, but nonetheless, they’re vital.  I mean let’s look at that company in Ibadan where 105 (or even more I think) employees tested positive for coronavirus; it was a customer service provider.  And that kind of industry, or that kind of business, is increasingly important in a socially distancing world.  For example, I don’t want to have to go to my DisCo to complain that I don’t have electricity.  I want to be able to telephone them.  For that I need customer service providers.  So we should see that there are some industries where, if the rest of us are going to be able to maintain our social distancing, we’re going to be relying on them to go back to work, and I think that it’s important that they should be very well protected, and that Ethics should be at the forefront in the decision of employers about whether or not they will make their employees come back to work.

AgO: Big decision to be made, and not one to be taken lightly when you just have mentioned the implications and the consequences if everyone isn’t taken … on board for this one.  But Ayo, when you look at the board and everyone who should be involved in this sort of critical decision making, saying whether the school should open, or whether the workplaces should open, you think everyone is on the same plate with this one or everyone’s opinion has been sought, or everyone’s … everyone’s … importance of decision has been taken into …

AO: Well no, I don’t think that they, everybody’s … I mean if … I think actually if we look at the issue of the reopening of schools and educational institutions, it’s a good example, because we’ve already seen that the government has already stated: “We will reopen soon.”  Now, what … before they said “We will reopen soon” and used that word “soon”, had they consulted?  Whom had they consulted?  Because for … in the normal situation, you have at least three parties involved.  Not just the employer, which is the school; you also have the unions or the  teachers’ associations; and then you have the students, or where there are young students, Parent Teachers’ Associations.  Because they all need to be in … part of the decision,  and also talking about what do we need if we are to return to work?  What are our minimum requirements?  I’ve already talked about the problems that you’re going to face with young children.  But also the teachers themselves, they are facing … I mean, if we’ve looked at the figures, the most recent figures from the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, it suggests that a larger proportion of the deaths from coronavirus have been where there’s an underlying health condition of diabetes or hypertension.  And … the job of a teacher, I don’t know, anyway, maybe they already start off with a high degree of patience, but those parents who have been doing home schooling recently, they know how hypertension can develop from trying to teach children.  So I think that there’s that aspect of the health condition, and also of course, from the point of view of children, I mean even though we keep on hearing this thing, this statement that: Oh, it’s the elderly who are more at risk, it tends to lead to a false sense of security in the … in respect to the young, and in fact, we are now seeing that there are  some particularly pernicious impacts that coronavirus is having on very young children.  And of course, if the … the incidence of asthma and conditions like that are much higher now than they used to be … perhaps in the past.  So I think that all of those have to be consulted if  you want to have a decision that has any Integrity, because I keep on saying it, you’re going to be asking everybody to make sacrifices and to some extent to take risks, and to adopt different social habits – the washing of hands and so on and so forth.  If you don’t bring them on board, then your decision will not only lack the Integrity, but it will probably be ineffective.

AgO:  Yeah.  It does appear something we’re not very up to speed with here in the way for example decisions are made, and maybe, you have dry run, say for example, if you’re going to have the schools open next month, open in two, three, four months, this should be a planned process, saying: This is what will happen  as people will go to school,  these are the things you expect them to see.  We didn’t see that happen before the reopening, which is some of the criticism the Lagos State Government for example faced, and the FCT and I think Ogun State: saying: This is what will happen if you get to the banks, do X, Y and Z. 

AO: Yes

AgO: Any thoughts in terms of  maybe have a dress rehearsal, what should happen in a typical school environment if eventually there’s relaxed studies in school systems.

AO: Well, I think that the school system, as I say, it’s particularly …  it’s a particularly interesting  way to look at some of the issues that arise in relation to trying to restart the economy, not just because as I say, of education, but also because of the wider impact and the wider signals.  But the fact is that dress rehearsals are going to be difficult unless you’re going to say that a certain number of children are going to be asked to come back to school, and others will still have to remain at home.  Now it happens that even though the normal thing would be that older children should be more able to understand and to comply with the social distancing requirements, that actually, it’s the parents of the … with the younger children, who – in a way – are most anxious to get them back to school, because unless they are back at school, they can’t really … they cannot go back to work either.  So I think that it’s one thing to talk about dry runs and so on, but I think that it would have to be very carefully monitored.  I mean, the idea of opening schools, and then … we’ve seen the size of class in most of our public schools.  I mean, the children are hanging from the rafters, and let’s not talk about the universities, where the students are peeping in from the outside windows with such a crush, trying to participate in lectures and so on.  And I think that if we are expecting them to reopen, then there are some things that can be done, in terms of providing them with the means for the distant learning and so on, but if we don’t do that, then we’re going to just be expecting them to come in en masse and no amount of dry run is really going to change that … the situation.

AgO: Right, right.  Another important group of people in this whole equation, are the employers, and I’ve heard a number of things they’ve said … about how decisions have been made, they say they are the ones who bear the brunt of most of the decisions, the impact … they pay the salaries and the bills, and face the most consequence in terms of the survival of their employees, or even the children, like in the schools.  What sort of considerations do you think will be going on in the mind of a typical employer in any of the lockdown states?

AO: Well, I think that what is operating in the mind of any employer, is that they are facing a drop in – most employers – are facing a drop in their expected income. However, again, the school system provides a very interesting set of examples; because while the public schools are … they are, they talk about they should open in June or latest July, and I also noticed this happening abroad: but that the private schools are saying: No, we’re going to stay until September before we reopen.  And one issue that I think we should … many people may not be aware of, is that many private schools are insisting – especially the ones that are popular … where there’s a waiting list for, and students have to struggle and pass exams to get in – many of those private schools are saying: You have to pay the full fee for the term that you didn’t turn up because we provided distant learning for you.  And the parents are sort of … Ah!  But we didn’t come, we didn’t use some of your school facilities.  But the private, some of those private schools can afford to say: Well, if you don’t pay, you don’t come back, there are many people who are ready to join and to come in.  That’s on the private schools, so that in fact, for some of them, they may actually be happy about the idea of: We will wait until  September.  It may even pay them because you can be sure that again, some of such schools are actually cutting the salaries of their staff because they’re saying: Well, you’re not paying so much in transport and so on.  But for most employers, the real issue is falling income.  And I noticed yesterday that the National Economic Council meeting referred to an expected 31% fall in expected earnings.  And so the Federal Government had said that it was going to suspend ISPOs and other deductions that relate to the bail out and so on.  But most businesses face … I should rather say: Do most of our businesses face such considerate creditors?  And the answer is No.  But then on top of it, employers are still looking to how they can squeeze the margins, and we saw in Kaduna State that the government had stated that it was going to take … without any consultation, that it was going to make a mandatory 25% deduction, and they called it a “contribution to palliatives” in Kaduna.  And the point about this was that again, the Integrity of that decision that was taken without any consultation with the … employees, their unions and so on, and also … a single person with … who is living at home may say: Well 25%, not too bad … but a …  married civil servant with three children, may not find a 25% cut quite so easy to absorb.  So I think that these sort of blanket statements, and then to say you are contributing it to palliatives …  Well what sort of palliatives?  So I think that wherever the employers are … they should … they need to bring their employees on board and discuss with them.  Lay out the situation.  Now that’s of course, in Kaduna State we’re talking about a government, and governments, they can go to market, they can borrow and so on and so forth.  Most of … most Nigerians who are employed, are employed by small and … medium industries and quite frankly most of them are very small industries … three or four employees, five or six or seven.  And for them to start thinking of borrowing to pay salaries, it’s not easy, but if their business is small, they can discuss with people, discuss with their employees.  And I think that if there is to be any sort of Integrity to those decisions, it’s essential they be consulted, because as I said, most employers are not going to have the same kind of understanding creditors, landlords and so on and so forth, that the Federal Government is showing itself to be to the State Governments.

AgO: So, in closing Ayo, if you ask the question, you know we’ve seen some businesses in Lagos reopen, the government has said, well, we’re not going to make it as quickly as we’d planned before, we’re going to watch things happen slowly and reopen … as we see fit.  What would you say with the schools that we haven’t opened, would you say that they’ll be opened soon … I know it’s almost impossible to say … given a timeline, what month you probably will be thinking about … but I guess it would be easier in saying, what are the processes you would expect to see before the schools are to reopen?

AO: Well, I think that one of the first things that we expect to see is that if there are rules on social distancing, wearing of masks, then we expect to see those rules enforced and it shouldn’t be left to individuals, the private individual to say: You’re not wearing your mask properly, please keep out.  I mean, I was reading on my Twitter feed, somebody said that the person standing behind him in the queue for the ATM was so close that he had to turn round and say: Do you want me to back you?  You know, that is, carry you on my back like a baby.  And so I think that these … it shouldn’t  … it should be a standard thing.  I mean, yes, we are not in the situation that we see overseas, where people are actually being attacked for wearing masks, but nonetheless, many people are not wearing their masks properly and government is not, is being very careless about enforcing, and at the same time, they will suddenly come up with that horrible situation that we saw on the bridges a couple of days ago where they were enforcing some aspect of their lockdown or curfew, and as a result, many people could not even get home for ages!  These things are counter-productive.  You always need to see: What is your end goal?  But I think that if I go into a shop, I expect the shop to be enforcing the rules about wearing masks and so on.  I don’t expect to have to be saying: Ah!  You’re not doing this, you’re not doing that, and I think that that applies to the general society.  Teachers should not be facing parents who are breathing all over them  as they drop their children (over whom they have also breathed) off at school.  So it’s very important that the protection comes from the group and not resting on the shoulders of the individual.  The responsibility of the individual is to comply and observe the social distancing, but it’s not … but they should not have to also become an enforcer as well.

AgO: Absolutely.  Alright, we’ll leave it at that.  Thank you very much Ayo Obe.

AO: Thank you Aghogho.

AgO: Always a pleasure.  And we will do a circle again, as Ayo exits the Square so that Rotimi can join in.  Do have yourself a great weekend Ayo.

AO: I wish you the same, thank you very much.  Bye!