How to win the Covid -19 ‘war’ in the informal sector-FIWON

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By Gbenga Komolafe

Being Text of Press Statement by the Federation of Informal Workers’ Organizations of Nigeria (FIWON) on Containing the Spread of the Covid-19 Pandemic.

The Federation of Informal Workers’ Organizations of Nigeria (FIWON), an umbrella organization of over 170 organizations of working people in the informal economy in Nigeria hereby uses this medium to make this urgent statement about the ravaging Covid-19 pandemic.

Since 31 December 2019 when the first case of COVID-19 was reported, 693,224 cases have been confirmed worldwide, including 33, 106 deaths, according to the WHO.

Latest reports from the Nigeria Center for Disease Control (NCDC) indicate that 139 cases have been reported so far in Nigeria with 2 deaths. While the Nigerian figure is low compared with other countries in other regions, there are fears that limited testing among exposed communities in Nigeria might hide true picture of the spread of the disease among the general populace.

It is in this respect that we commend the lockdown order on Lagos, Ogun and the FCT which have recorded the highest numbers of Covid-19 cases but there are fears that the lockdown on its own, without other aggressive government intervention may not help much in rapidly containing the spread of the disease especially among low income working people in the informal sector whose livelihoods has been dangerously impacted by the lockdown. Working people living in poor, overcrowded communities with poor water, sanitation and healthcare facilities are especially vulnerable to the Covid-19 pandemic because of the difficulty of practicing social distancing rules in over- crowded households and communities.

Also worrisome are the disturbing reports of serious harassments suffered by informal workers offering critical services particularly in the traditional food production, processing and supply value chains, transport, waste disposal and public sanitation in the last 48 hours of the lockdown.

We also observe that the Federal government has announced palliative measures to cushion the effects of the lock down including payment of stipends to the poor while Lagos state government has also been distributing food in some communities in Lagos.

It is sad to note however that most of our members have reported not accessing any of these. It is important to stress that in coming up with palliative measures, the specific context and peculiarities of the informal sector must be taken into reckoning especially as some of the traditional measures being suggested are simply impractical in the informal sector. It has been observed for instance that the much – advertised practice of social distancing is simply incomprehensible in the informal context because it presupposes that people live in a house large enough to practice it.

Hand washing is a privilege too. It means having access to running water. Hand sanitizers are a privilege. It means having money to buy them. Lockdowns are a privilege for people who live by the paltry day by day earning they make. For the on – going lock downs to be effective and yield desired impacts with minimal suffering to the long – suffering people in the informal economy, we hereby put forward the following demands:

1.    Water and sanitation facilities should be provided by the government in high-density public areas, informal settlements, food markets, motor parks and other water deprived communities and rural areas in response to the coronavirus pandemic. This should be accompanied with campaigns for regular handwashing and maximum hygiene in these places.

2.    Food and Other Essential Commodities Supply Chains must remain open: As several states close their borders to other states, it is important for the federal government to coordinate these movement restrictions nationally to enable food and other essential commodities supply chain to remain open.

3.     Already prices of food have skyrocketed in the last 48 hours of the lock down mainly because food supply chains have been disrupted. This is dangerous!

4.    There is need for an urgent investment in capacities to rapidly test, treat and contain Covid-19 spread. We are concerned that few people have been tested so far while thousands of people that have been exposed to the virus through hundreds of international travelers that are now difficult to trace, remain anonymous. This is dangerous!

5.    Support for households and communities. As millions of households suffer loss of incomes at this period, universal income transfers via BVN enabled cash transfers can be explored while those lacking this facility can be requested to register for it through their trade and community and faith – based organizations.

This will be more effective than attempts at food distribution by the Lagos State Government and the cash transfers by federal government which most urban poor are not receiving.

6.    Despite the lockdown, workers and transporters on essential services especially in the traditional food supply, processing and retail value chain and must be allowed to operate without restrictions while government should protect them with strict regulations that reflect the need for social distancing while basic protective clothing especially nose guards and gloves should be provided. All motor parks and garages must be provided with sanitizers, water and hand washing facilities.

7.    Harassment by law enforcement agents of those performing essential services in the food, drugs supply chains, sanitation workers, neighborhood retailers, transporters assisting in supply of food and other essential materials must stop.

8.    We also condemn in unequivocal terms the involvement of soldiers in effecting the lockdown with terrible human rights abuses being reported already. Those flouting lock down orders should be dealt with strictly in accordance with the law.

9.    Recent Victims of Violent Eviction, over 55,000 people in 24 Communities in Lagos state must be resettled immediately as they are homeless right now.

10.                       Freeze Rents, loans and interest payments on mortgages, utilities, homes and business apartment rentage for a limited period, as has been done in various countries such as Italy, Egypt, Malaysia and the United States, Singapore, Thailand etcparticularly for those struggling to keep up with payments due to a loss in income.

11.                       Free health service must be provided at this time even if it means government taking over private hospitals as is the case in Spain. This is the only way sick people would be encouraged to report in hospitals rather than engage in self – medication which is the tradition in poor communities.

12.                       The 2020 Budget must be revised to provide for more funding for public healthcare provision. Primary healthcare centers, state hospitals and the referral hospitals must be expanded and equipped.

13.                       Safe childcare facilities for people who are sick, or in quarantine.

14.                       Low-cost loans will be needed, particularly for micro and small businesses to be targeted through Cooperative Societies and coordinated by the Bank of Industry to enable business recovery in the informal sector from the after effects of the lockdown.

Gbenga Komolafe is the General Secretary of FIWON

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