A year ago, the novel Coronavirus, popularly known as COVID-19 pandemic, hit the globe with catastrophic consequences. An infectious disease caused by a new strain of Coronavirus, it was first discovered in Wuhan city in the Hubei region of China and quickly spread across the world. It was a phenomenon like no other, forcing a universal lockdown with severe fallouts like mass deaths, sharp revenue drops, travel restrictions, manufacturing and business stoppage, job losses, as well as fear and uncertainty.
The cataclysm was even more pronounced in countries with fragile economies such as Nigeria. According to a report of the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), forty percent of our population lives below the poverty line of N137,430 ($381.75) a year, representing 82.9 million people living on less than $1 a day.
Nigeria recorded West Africa’s first confirmed case of COVID-19 in late February, 2020. In response, the Federal Government swiftly launched a series of measures that included awareness campaign, travel restrictions and fiscal policies aimed at cushioning the impact on the food system. While a presidential committee coordinated the response measures of the major health challenge, it soon emerged that the Federal Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development was to play a key role in managing the crisis. In fact, the pandemic had given the ministry its first biggest job, having been created by the Buhari Administration only months earlier.
It was indeed a baptism of fire of sorts for the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, Hajiya Sadiya Umar Farouq. On the eve of the pandemic, the Nigerian economy was just slowly pulling out of the 2016 recession driven by a 2014–2015 fall in oil prices. According to a 2019 World Bank report, the recession, the first in 25 years, had imposed a relatively manageable contraction of about 1.6% of GDP. The sudden shock on the economy caused by the COVID-19 pandemic was, therefore, a huge drawback that pulled down another 17 million people below the poverty line, especially in the urban areas. Experts observed a sharp spike in poverty during the second quarter when most of the lockdown measures were in place. As such many Nigerians, especially those that were directly affected by the harsh socio-economic costs of the emergency, looked up to Sadiya’s ministry for a much-needed succour.
It came in doses. The ministry began to devise key responses with a focus on the most vulnerable people in the society. These included refugees and internally dispersed people (IDPs), people living with disabilities, older persons, trafficked persons, orphans, the poorest of the poor in communities, petty traders and other persons of concern.
To achieve its target, it distributed foodstuff like rice, maize, millet, sorghum, vegetable oil, tomato paste, milk, sugar and spaghetti to the states and FCT for the poor and vulnerable. It introduced a Conditional Cash Transfer programme in which four months of stipends were paid at once to beneficiaries. It also gave loans and three months interest holidays for those holding TraderMoni and MarketMoni loans.It shared take-home food rations consisting of rice, beans, vegetable oil, palm oil, tomato paste, eggs and salt to households of children enrolled in the National Home Grown School Feeding Programme.
Additionally, the Federal Government and the UN World Food Programme (WFP) gave cash and food assistance in COVID-19 urban hotspots. Another collaboration of the ministry and the WFP was the provision of cash and food assistance in three COVID-19 urban hotspots, i.e. Kano, Abuja and Lagos, totalling US$4 million; while the government provided grains, the WFP provided cash. The intervention was reported to have reached millions of people in urban areas where the social and economic fallout of the lockdown was most severe. Related to this is the Rapid Response Register to cater to the urban poor affected by the pandemic.
The Grant for Rural Women is another measure introduced by the ministry this year as part of President Muhammadu Buhari’s social inclusion and poverty reduction agenda. The programme is targeted at 120,000 rural and semi-urban women in all the 774 local government areas of the 36 states and FCT. It is a community-based initiative in which women aged 18-50 are eligible to access N20,000 grant each. Its goal is for increased income, enhanced food security, more productive masses and financial inclusion.
These initiatives are being implemented with gusto by Sadiya Umar Farouq, who is seen visiting the states and launching them in person. Testimonies from beneficiaries indicate that the government response is hitting home where it is most needed.
There is a near-unanimous agreement by economic experts that without these initiatives, the poor and downtrodden Nigerians, who have been made further economically defenceless by the global pandemic, would have been rendered all the more vulnerable. The doses of palliatives have palpably been helping the recovery process.
However, poverty and want are still rampant in Nigeria, a country which experts say already accounted for the highest absolute number of poor people in sub-Saharan Africa even before the pandemic. COVID-19 is also far from gone even as the vaccination programme is ongoing. As such, the need for sustaining the palliative measures for targeted groups remains relevant.
As the government continues to run these all-important programmes, it should also be mindful of the charges regarding alleged politicisation and lack of adequate transparency in the distribution of palliatives and respond appropriately to them. Retaining the confidence of beneficiaries and critics alike would be the icing on the cake for Minister Farouq and her team as they work tirelessly to deliver the Buhari Administration’s palliatives to the poor and vulnerable Nigerians.
Sheme writes from the National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN), Abuja