Chatham House “Priorities for Nigeria’s Post COVID Recovery” Research Event
OPENING REMARKS BY HIS EXCELLENCY, PROF. YEMI OSINBAJO, SAN, GCON, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE FEDERAL REPUBLIC OF NIGERIA, AT THE CHATHAM HOUSE RESEARCH EVENT THEMED: “PRIORITIES FOR NIGERIA’S POST COVID RECOVERY” ON THE 23RD OF MARCH, 2021
I am delighted to be here to participate in this very important ongoing global conversation and to fit Nigeria’s own priorities for our post-COVID-19 recovery into the global context of post-COVID recovery.
There is no question at all that the devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic on business, on production, on learning, on travel, and on practically, every facet of life has set us all back tremendously, but at the same time, it has also created incredible opportunities. I’ll be focusing on about four or five areas beginning with public health and how in the area of public health and general healthcare, we intend to respond and build on what we’ve learned in the past year.
As with other nations, the pandemic tested the integrity of our systems, and in charting our way forward and designing our nation’s post-pandemic future, especially the health area, we are clearly going to be building on some of the experiences that we’ve had so far.
What we did beginning in April/May, was to develop an Economic Sustainability Plan, a short-term strategy formulated to address the two-fold challenge posed by the plague to both public health and the national economy. So in practical terms, this meant creating resilience in the health sector to ensure that we could respond to crises like this in the future, as well as saving and creating new jobs by stimulating local production across several sectors. So I’ll be talking about our public health response, as well as of course, the economy and we’ll be talking again about some other areas, including climate change, energy, and security.
The Economic Sustainability Plan was, I said, our short-term plan for being able to respond to the crisis, but we also realize that it will be a bridge to some of what we intended to do in the future.
The first recorded case of COVID-19 was for us on February 20th, 2020, and what happened immediately, again pointed to some of the areas of our public health system that we could actually build on. So when the patient was identified, a sample of the virus was sent to our Africa Center Of Excellence For Genomics and Infectious Diseases at the Redeemer’s University in Osun State, Nigeria. They’re a team led by Professor Christian Happi analyzed a sample and they were able to, within 48 hours, share the very first genome sequence of the severe acute respiratory syndrome Coronavirus II from Africa, with the global science community.
The speed with which the test samples were analyzed, helped us calibrate the measures that we thought would be necessary to curb the spread of the pandemic. But the interesting point here was that we had some capacity to be able to at least quickly put together the genomic sequence of the disease, but that capacity had always been ignored until this arose. There was a bit of work done on Ebola, but we had practically ignored this. One of the critical areas for us going forward obviously is in doing far more with our research institutions and investing far more in our research institutions.
Since February 2020, we’ve significantly ramped up our testing and case management capacity. We’ve activated from about five molecular laboratories to about 120 molecular laboratories, most of them public laboratories. We’ve expanded the footprint of our sovereign public health response capabilities, especially at the sub-national level and in areas where such capabilities simply didn’t exist before, but going forward, we are committed to building on the exemplary dedication of our health workers and strengthen the capacity of our health system to withstand shocks created by infectious diseases and pandemics such as we experienced.
So in this regard, we are promoting a culture of preparedness across all levels of our healthcare sector. And one reason why we’ve been able to manage this pandemic, I think better than expected, is that we did have some existing public sector infrastructure to work with. So the Ebola outbreak of 2014, our ongoing battles with Lassa fever, our successes with polio eradication, helped us to tighten our epidemic contingency plans, strengthen our emergency coordination and surveillance capacities, and also, of course, enhanced investments in public health laboratories.
So one of the key lessons that we learned from our response to the Ebola outbreak was the need to build systems in peacetime, if you like, that can be used during outbreaks of this kind.
Our national Center For Disease Control, the Nigeria Center For Disease Control, which was founded in 2011, was made independent in 2018, as we prioritize the strengthening of our public health infrastructure.
But while it’s true that in many respects, our hospital infrastructure still lags behind the standards, especially richer countries of the world. We’ve been able to draw on the resilience and adaptability of our tried and tested community health systems. For example, we were able to very quickly repurpose the teams that have been deployed to communities, to vaccinate children against polio to conduct enlightenment campaigns in communities about the new pandemic.
The pandemic has asked tough questions of national capabilities, as I said, in the area of research and innovation and I must say that we responded quite gamely, to these issues.
Last December, the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research launched a new set of COVID-19 test kits that could produce results in 57 minutes. The new kit was designed by Joseph Shaibu, a Molecular Virologist at the NIMR. By the end of the year, the Center of Excellence in Osun State which was the first to sequence the genome of the SARS Covid II will inaugurate the biggest genomics research center in Africa, and earlier this year, the center was selected by the broad Institute of the MIT and Harvard University to be part of a prestigious scientific coalition that will help set up an early warning system to prevent and respond to future outbreaks and pandemics.
We are prioritizing local research and development, and investing in the efforts of our scientists and innovators to develop solutions in pharmaceuticals and medical consumables. Of course, to support this, the government set up the healthcare sector intervention fund, which is about $185million disbursement to finance the acquisition and installation of critical medical equipment and we also have a $609 million disbursement also, this is to the health sector in particular, for the production of generic drugs and also the development of our vaccine production capacity.
There are quite a few developments which we think, as a result of our experiences in the past year and I think that in particular, our research efforts have benefited greatly from the aftermath of the pandemic.
So I just want to mention, just to close this bit about public health, the need for vaccine multilateralism. As part of our recovery efforts, Nigeria has taken delivery of about 4 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccines under the international COVAX scheme and we commenced the vaccination of our people.
This year we’ll receive 84 million doses of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine under that same scheme, which will be enough to vaccinate about 20% of our population. However, these efforts and those of other African countries are proceeding under the specter of vaccine nationalism, and there are justifiable concerns in my view, about the certainty of fair and equitable access to vaccines, as well as the likelihood that poorer countries may be left behind if the distribution of these vaccines is determined by the nationalistic sentiments that we’re seeing all over the place at the moment.
We must be particularly concerned about the securitization of global health; that tendency to conflate global public health with national security and geopolitical calculations at the expense of the multilateral collaboration required to worldwide vaccine coverage. So I think that in our globalized environment, national self-interest alone is insufficient to address the challenge of a global pandemic. Indeed, in a world as interconnected as ours has become, any plan other than a global plan is bound to be counterproductive.
I’ll just go quickly to the economy and some of what we’ve done, especially our first response to the fallouts of the pandemic.
Our first priority, of course, was to protect people and their livelihoods, and about 50% of our economy is driven by the MSME sector. And one of the specific interventions under the Economic Sustainability Plan was what we described as a Survival Fund, which essentially was a fund to protect jobs and to ensure that during the course of the pandemic and immediately thereafter, informal workers in particular, or private-sector workers, especially those in the informal sector, were at least being able to continue to earn some wages.
So through this initiative, we were able to support, in the first phase, over 300,000 businesses by providing salaries for three months for beneficiaries. Now, the beneficiaries included private school teachers and the reason of course is that public school teachers continue to earn salaries even during the lockdowns, but private school teachers were not as fortunate.
Government-supported private school teachers, road transporters, also taxis, especially commercial tricycle operators in the urban areas. They also came under the survival fund scheme for a three-month period. We also sought to protect the most vulnerable, in particular, the urban poor, who also, of course, were very hard hit.
What we did was to provide direct cash transfers to the urban poor and there are many of them who are in our social register. Now, in the first phase of that, we were able to benefit about 1 million beneficiaries and we are now in a position, using the same social register to scale up the program to about 20 million beneficiaries. In addition to this, we also focused on underpinning infrastructure to provide a multiplier effect for resilience in the future but found that to reach people, to provide support, to keep the economy open, and keep people at work, we needed to have certain things in place, especially data.
So we accelerated our broadband program, our broadband connectivity program by reducing the cost of laying broadband infrastructure and extending penetration to unserved and underserved areas. So the plan is to deliver data download speeds across the country of a minimum of 25mbps in urban areas and 10 Mbps in rural areas with effective coverage available to at least 90% of the population.
Our projection was by 2025, but with some of the work that’s already been done, we expect that we could actually conclude by 2023 and at the price of not more than N390 per one gigabyte of data, which is 1% of the minimum wage and 2% of median income. So we’ve recorded the mileage increase of fiber optic cabling from about 47,000 kilometers now to just under 55,000 kilometers representing a 10% increase over a one-year period.
So really, the pandemic was instrumental in our being able to move faster on our broadband connectivity program. The other program which we worked on is also the National Identification Program. So we’ve expanded the provision of national identification numbers by partnering with telecoms companies. Our aim is to issue national identification numbers to every Nigerian and our target is by the end of 2022. So far, we’ve covered about 56 million people and we expect that we should be able to conclude this by the end of next year, these measures will ensure that all parts of the country would have access to affordable data for both remote working and learning and also of course, for all of the business opportunities that broadband connectivity would of course encourage. Expanding our national identity base, of course, will also help us to identify those in need and this of course will help, in the development of our social register and so many other pro-poor programs under our social investment scheme. To stimulate production in the economy, we focused on energizing existing value chains in agriculture, construction, and renewable energy. Our agriculture program and I’m talking still about the Economic Sustainability Plan, which is, as I said, the short-term plan, during COVID and the post-COVID short-term plan.
Our agricultural program aims at expanding productivity, creating in total about 5 million jobs. What we’ve done so far is that we’ve been able to register and geotag about 5 million new farmers to farmland areas and the idea of course is also to increase land under cultivation from a combination of aggregated smallholder farms and the integration of previously underutilized farm settlements.
The program is supporting smallholder farmers by linking them to extension services and low-interest input financing.
Aside from agriculture, we have a mass housing program, which is designed to deliver affordable homes through direct intervention and the housing construction sector, aimed at creating 1.8 million jobs together with the construction of 300,000 homes in the first phase. Now, this is a social housing scheme and one of the priorities for us is that anyone who earns the minimum wage, and who is ready to expend a third of that wage on housing, should be able to afford a home.
So at the moment, we have programs going on in 12 States, we intend to expand to all of the States of the Federation. We’ve been able to build and develop a home, which costs just under N2million. I am sure that in dollars, I think that would be about $5,000. So that’s for the social housing scheme.
For a medium to long-term outlook, going forward, our priorities are to restore economic growth in the immediate term and in the medium term to reposition the economy on a sustainable footing. Our goal is to seize the post COVID moment, not only to save jobs, but to make the country a hub for local production, especially light manufacturing, shoes, steel fabrication, ceramics, plastics furniture, and building materials. Even as we build domestic capacity, we are doing so in the knowledge that our true horizon is outward.
So a policy imperative is the encouragement of value addition and beneficiation in every sector of the economy, especially to consolidate the areas of our comparative advantage. Manufacturing, as I’ve said, particularly, light manufacturing, holds considerable promise. We are looking also at mining where we think beneficiation will provide tremendous opportunity.
One of the ways by which we’ve tried to approach enhancing manufacturing is the establishment of Special Economic Zones. Of course, we have some already, but we are now looking at establishing six new Special Economic Zones will be well provisioned with power and infrastructure. Already we have one that will take off, we hope by the end of the year, that’s the Lekki economic zone and there are two others that we expect should to take off also at the very latest, by the last quarter of this year.
Recently, the president approved a N50billion export expansion facility as part of the Economic Sustainability Plan to provide support for exporters, particularly MSME’S. So, our priorities here, really include assisting a lot of the small companies that are doing incredible work, especially in food processing and packaging and in leather works, diamond manufacturing, in being able to export some of their products.