Impacts of COVID-19 on humanitarian assistance in Nigeria

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The crisis could lead to security, armed robberies, thefts and engagement of destitute and vulnerable population in asocial and immoral activities, engagement of young boys in criminal activities or by insurgent groups.

By Aslam Khatti

It was the time when humanitarian aid used to be pretty conventional; sailing ships used to bring the food items from one country to the other to feed the people in need. Later, the regional and local procurements were considered and bulk buying from major corporations and big supplying firms were able to pile up their pockets from the profit – but last couple of decades brought Cash Transfer Program to better serve the local market, benefitting the program participant through localized accessible options of commodities and wider and comfortable choice of all groups.

This entire and long process of switch over faced immense bureaucratic process, operational intrudes and political peculiarities to be accepted but now this cash-based humanitarian assistance is not only widely accepted but heavily dependent on the functionality of its operation.

The recent COVID-19 has changed the entire spectrum of economies. For example, in Africa; countries located in the Lake Chad Basin, like Cameroon, Nigeria, Niger and Chad, who are heavily dependent on the imports for the food commodities, the closure of international borders is going to create another crisis of economy, leaving people of this region to face food insecurity crisis, unemployment and intra-community peace disturbance.

If we take a quicker and closer look at the context of North East of Nigeria, where the country shares its borders with Cameroon and Niger, these have been closed. The opened borders used to be informal sources for the trade and strengthened local economy. Nigeria used to sell its fuel to the neighboring countries while they were also able to import seasonal staple food.

I remember that when I was working in the north of Cameroon back in 2016 – 17, I used to see several Nigerian products in the Cameroonian markets – for example cigarettes, fuel and canned, packed food items. Same were also observed while visiting the N’djamena (Tchad). Similarly, being here in Nigeria, it was learnt that staple food, cattle and fish used to be bought and brought from Cameroon. Now this all is shutdown, so the impact is irreversible.

In the beginning of March 2020, Nigeria recorded its first COVID-19 case and subsequently the federal and state governments took serious steps in terms of limiting public crowd. In case of north, inter-state movements were restricted, and later soon as the Borno state registered its first case, two-day curfew and subsequently lockdown was imposed for two weeks with two days relaxation for markets, wherein only essential intra-city movement was allowed.

Apart from the macro level economic issues like devaluation of local currency, drop in the fuel prices; huge budget-cuts to respond to COVID-19 and decreased exports, the impacts at micro level cascaded in the North East where there is more than 2.5 million displaced population living in worsening state.

Due to international borders’ closure, there is high drop of fuel prices and the supply chain of staple food is disconnected. Similarly the restriction on inter-state movement and transportation has limited/impeded the ability of market actors to stock up and supply to their local markets and consequently the local markets’ stocks are depleting and causing the immense spike in the prices. Only two-day opening of banks have also caused the liquidity issues in the local markets.

The important thing is that the numerous humanitarian agencies are supporting access to 1.6 Million internally displaced people to food through cash, voucher and in-kind food assistance, but the disruption in supply chain will no longer capacitate the local market to meet the demand of these agencies.

Drivers wait in line for fuel at Oando Petrol Station in Lagos, Nigeria, April 25, 2016. Plummeting oil prices have set off an economic unraveling and collective anger in a country that is among the world’s top oil producers.(Ashley Gilbertson/The New York Times)

To continue the support, humanitarian agencies are monitoring the prices very closely and will eventually increase the prices, and will further escalate the local market prices, which will cause economic burden on the non-beneficiary population. On the other hand the secondary impact of COVID-19 is heavy on the lower income families living in the urban settlement, as their daily wages are suspended and left with no means of income, no-assistance provided by NGOs and insufficient food support provided by the government to such groups who were economically independent before the pandemic. This all lead to another type of crisis.

This crisis could lead to security, armed robberies, thefts and engagement of destitute and vulnerable population in asocial and immoral activities, engagement of young boys in criminal activities or by insurgent groups. If the food assistance is suspended due to unavailability of functioning supply chain then affected population living in the camps and camp-like settings will drive towards the direction like protests, looting, theft and above said mal-activities, and in case if there is local COVID-19 transmission observed then there will be higher ratio of deaths as in north east the government infrastructure has limited capacity of screening, testing and treatment and widespread virus will create a chaos and will record a new human crisis.

(The writer, hailing from Sindh, is currently based in Maiduguri, Nigeria and is working with international humanitarian agency Mercy Corps as Advisor for Cash and Food Security Program. He has exclusively contributed this article to Sindh Courier which highlights the situation prevailing in Nigeria)

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