BY JAYE GASKIA
NOTES FOR A LECTURE DELIVERED AT THE 24TH PLENARY SESSION OF THE NGC OF AUPCTRE IN ENUGU: 10TH MARCH 2021
The COVID 19 Pandemic which was formally declared by the WHO in January 2020, has had and continue to have deleterious and devastating impact on the world. As of 6th March 2021, more than 116 million cases have been reported globally, 65.7 million total recoveries, and 2.58 million fatalities as a result of the pandemic.
In Nigeria, since the first case was reported in February 2020, there have been a total of 158,042 confirmed cases, with 137,025 persons recovering from the disease, 19,063 active cases, and 1,954 fatalities. And out of an estimated population of over 200 million, only 1,544,008 samples have been tested, including repeat tests to check prognosis of confirmed cases, and make a determination as to the recovery status.
The world was already gravely unequal in many respects and across many dimensions long before the pandemic, however it seemed that the pandemic has and is making the world even more unequal. If the pandemic revealed anything with respect to inequality its was to confirm the scale and deep-rooted nature of systemic inequality between and within nations.
Poorer and less developed countries saw their underfunded, poorly equipped, understaffed public healthcare delivery system more quickly overwhelmed by the pandemic, than richer and more developed countries.
And within countries, poorer communities and less endowed communities bore a disproportionate burden of the pandemic, both in terms of the direct health consequences, as well as the socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic.
And according to a report by Oxfam in January 2021, released to coincide with the beginning of the World Economic Forum in Davos, “The pandemic also revealed that more than three billion people lacked access to healthcare and that three-quarters of workers had no social protections such as unemployment benefit or sick pay. In low- and lower-middle-income countries more than half of workers were in poverty despite having jobs, the report said.
In contrast, billionaires globally saw their wealth increase by $3.9 trillion between 18 March and 31 December 2020, the report said. Their total wealth now stands at $11.95 trillion, which is equivalent to the amount governments in the largest 20 developed and developing nations, or G20, have spent in response to the pandemic.”
Furthermore, “the pandemic has hurt people living in poverty far harder than the rich and has had particularly severe effects on women, Black people, Afro-descendants, Indigenous Peoples, and historically marginalised and oppressed communities around the world, the report said.”
And globally, “The increase in the 10 richest billionaires’ wealth since the crisis began is more than enough to prevent anyone on Earth from falling into poverty because of the virus, and to pay for a COVID-19 vaccine for everyone.”
It is thus very clear that if there is an urgent lesson to be learned from the pandemic, it is a reinforcement of the view that human rights are fundamental, and indivisible, and as such all ought to be equally guaranteed, protect, and enforced by governments. The pandemic has shown that it makes no sense to distinguish between socioeconomic rights, like the right to healthcare and to housing, from civil and political rights, like the right to assemble and free speech, for instance.
Poorer communities, with poor access to quality healthcare, and living in inhumane and subhuman conditions, both within and between countries, have been hit hardest by the pandemic.
While the COVID 19 Pandemic globally revealed and brought into full glare, the gross and systemic nature of inequalities, between countries, and within countries; in the specific instance of Nigeria, it has not only exposed the underbelly of grave inequalities in the country, it has further made manifest the glaring historic failure of governance and parlous state of social services delivery and access in the country.
COVID 19 AND THE WORLD OF WORK:
Globally, the ravaging impact of the pandemic, as well as the impact of the public health measures in response to the pandemic on workers and on the world of work, in both formal and informal sectors of the economy, have been quite severe, and of near calamitous proportion.
In Nigeria for instance, the National Bureau of Statistics [NBS] had projected in May 2020 that unemployment would increase from 23.1% [that is 20.9m people] at the end of 2018, to 33.6% [about 39.4m people] by the end of 2020.
In specific terms, according to the Q2 2020 unemployment report of the NBS, unemployment rose from 23.1% in Q3 2018 to 27.1% in Q2 2020, while underemployment rose from 20.1% in Q3 2018 to 28.6% in Q2 2020.
Amongst youth aged 15 to 34 years however, unemployment was even more severe, with the unemployment rate for this age group rising from 29.7% in Q3 2018 to 34.9% in Q2 2020; while underemployment equally rose from 25.7% in Q3 2018 to 28.2% in Q2 2020.
The implication of the foregoing is that the pandemic continued and worsened the rising unemployment rate in the country, and that already by the end of June 2020, composite unemployment rate [unemployment and underemployment rates combined] in the general population had shot up from 43.2% in Q3 2018 to 55.7% in Q2 2020 [a rise of 8.5%] – that is more than 2 out of every 5 persons unemployed; while composite unemployment rate among youths had shot up to 55.4% in Q3 2018 to 63.1% in Q2 2020 [a rise of 7.6%] – meaning over 3 out of every 5 young persons unemployed.
The UNDP in a 2020 Human Development Perspectives report titled COVID 19 and Human Development: Assessing the crisis and Envisioning the Recovery, had described the crisis engendered by the pandemic as a systemic crisis in human development, and while noting that this is not the first pandemic to be faced by humanity, had however noted that “But this pandemic has been unprecedented because of its evolution from a health shock to an economic and social crisis. Social distancing and the pause in nonessential business have slowed human activities. The International Labour Organization projects that in the second quarter of 2020, working hours will fall by the equivalent of 195 million full-time workers.19 Unlike other crises, employment is being hit through two main channels. A contraction in labour demand comes from reduced human activity and the wealth effects of the global recession. And a short-term drop in labour supply comes from the suspension of nonessential productive activities in several countries.”
The pandemic has impacted on and affected the world of work in varying ways. There are the direct health related impact with respect to illnesses and getting sick, as well as fatalities among workers, on the one hand.
There are also the impact associated with job loses, livelihoods loses, income loses, and massive income reductions, that result from partial to full shutdowns of economies, affecting production value chains, and severely constraining supply and demand for goods and services across the world.
In the 7th edition of the ILO Monitor, titled ‘COVID 19 and the World of Work’, and published on the 25th of January 2021, the ILO has the following key messages around which it proposed that urgent action was needed;
“Latest labour market developments
The share of workers living in countries with COVID-19‑related restrictions has remained high, with 93 per cent of the world’s workersresiding in countries with some form of workplaceclosure measures in place in early January2021. Within countries, more geographically targeted and sector-specific measures have gradually become the norm over the courseof the pandemic, and these were still affecting77 per cent of workers at the start of the year (closeto the peak of 85 per cent reached in late July 2020).
Working-hour losses in 2020:
New annual estimates confirm that labour markets around the world were disrupted in 2020 on a
historically unprecedented scale. In 2020, 8.8 per cent of global working hours were lost relative to the fourth quarter of 2019, equivalent to 255 million full-time jobs. Working-hour losses were particularly high in Latin America and the Caribbean, Southern Europe and Southern Asia. Working-hour losses in 2020 were approximately four times greater than during the global financial crisis in 2009. Breaking down these annual figures, revised quarterly estimates reveal how the situation evolved throughout the year. Estimates of working-hour losses in the third quarter of 2020 have been revised substantially downwards to 7.2 per cent (from 12.1 per cent in the sixth edition of the ILO Monitor), reflecting a stronger-than-expected rebound in working hours, especially in lower-middle-income
countries. In the fourth quarter, global working hours declined by 4.6 per cent, equivalent to 130 million full-time jobs.”
What is important to note from these however, is that over all some of the most severe impacts have been around Workplace Closures – with 93% of global work force still living in countries with some form of work closures in January 2021; As well as Working Hour Loses – with 8.85 of global working hours lost in 2020 relative to Q4 2019, equivalent to 255 million jobs, a scale described as historically unprecedented.
The resultant effect of the loses due to work closures and working hour loses is the other dimension of labour income loses, with “Global labour income (before taking into account income support measures) in 2020 is estimated to have declined by 8.3 per cent, which amounts to US$3.7 trillion, or 4.4 per cent of global gross domestic product (GDP).”
Again, as with the impact of the pandemic on human population in general, there is also a disproportionate impact on the world of work depending on which sector of the economy, and how the sector is impacted by the public health measures resulting in work closures, and on how the socioeconomic stimulus measures in response to the impact of the pandemic has affected the different sectors of the economy.
In Nigeria for instance, the shutdown of the economy and the resultant work closures impacted the different sectors of the economy differently. The transport sector, and in particular aviation; the hospitality sector, and the education sector were for instance more severely impacted with full closures.
Similarly, the informal sector operators and operations were directly severely impacted by the closure of markets and malls, while also being indirectly severely impacted by curbs on transportation and the movement of goods, services and humans.
Other sectors in contrast were either less severely impacted, or were even boosted by the pandemic. For instance, online marketing and delivery services have grown in direct response to the impact of the pandemic.
This trend is borne out by “The latest labour force survey data (up to the third quarter of 2020) reveal the contrast between massive job losses in hard‑hit sectors (such as accommodation and food services, arts and culture, retail, and construction) and the positive job growth evident in a number of higher skilled services sectors (such as information and communication, and financial and insurance activities). This divergence will tend to increase inequality within countries. At the same time, there is considerable variation across countries with regard to the severity of the impact of the crisis on jobs in the hardest-hit sectors.”
THE POLITICS OF CURTAILMENT:
The pandemic, and the response to it by governments globally has also brought in its wake the increased tendency towards the curtailment of the right to work of citizens and residents, as well as the right of workers in the economy. Arbitrary decisions have been taken, including the unilateral, without discussion, suspension of wage payments or reduction in wages of workers. Often businesses and governments have asked workers to work from home without providing the means to make this happen, or requested certain categories of workers to continue coming to work, or placed workers on a roster ostensibly in response to physical distancing measures, without providing workers the necessary equipment and facilities to guarantee their safety.
Frontline and essential services workers have been known to be deployed without providing them with personal protective equipment [PPE], while several have had their approved allowances un paid as well. What sone employers, both private sector and public sector have tried to do is to utilise the public health emergency context and measures as the pretext to assault workers rights and violate existing conditions of service and employment contracts to the detriments of workers, without consultation, while also working to silent and punish legitimate dissent.
To curb the assault on workers rights and conditions, and to ensure the implementation of inclusive policies and measures to overcome the impact of the pandemic, workers need to remain vigilant, to increase their awareness, to intensify their organising and mobilising, and to build solidarity across the working class and between the working class and the rest of the working people in order to be able to amplify their voice and enhance their collective capacity to defend and promote their rights.
COVID 19 VACCINE JUSTICE [INJUSTICE] DIMENSION:
Before we go on to examine the proposals for measures to contain COVID 19 and overcome the impact of the pandemic, it is necessary to pause for a while to examine the justice and inequality issues around the search for and deployment of vaccines to prevent COVID 19 infection and facilitate its containment.
As soon as the infectious disease was identified, described, defined and proclaimed a pandemic by the WHO, the race to develop a vaccine against COVID 19 began in earnest. And in a little over a year since the declaration of the pandemic, there are now at least seven COVID 19 vaccines approved and in use globally now, with a further 200 in development, of which at least 60 are in various stages of clinical development.
This rate of vaccine development is in and of itself a record. The COVID 19 vaccine development process has shattered old conventions regarding vaccine development and rewritten the facts with respect to pace of development. This has happened because of concerted global effort, including the commitment of humongous sums of money in investments to finance vaccine development, manufacture and distribution. Compare this with the decades long process to develop a vaccine for Ebola, another virus infectious disease outbreak, but one that is restricted to the tropics and the developing countries of the world.
Another dimension of the COVID 19 enhanced inequality and social injustice can be glimpsed from the types of countries that have had a head start with respect to access to the approved vaccines.
As of March 7th 2021, globally more than 304 million doses of the approved vaccines have been given, at a rate of 7.93 million doses per day, with 65.4 million people already fully vaccinated with two doses of the two dose vaccines.
Of this amount 90.4 million doses have been administered in the US at a current rate of 2.16 million doses per day. A further 22 million doses have been administered in the UK, 22 million in the EU, and a record 73 million in India, where 15% of the population have received the first dose, and 7% of the population of have received the full two doses of the two homegrown approved vaccines.
Of the two approved vaccines in India, both of which are manufactured in facilities in India, one is on license from AzraZeneca, while the other is fully home developed.
And whereas Cuba, a small island country, but one with a robust people centered and people driven governance system, has two vaccine candidates in development, with one already in phase 3 clinical trials, and showing promising results with more than 85% efficacy in trials; Nigeria, and the entire continent of Africa is dependent almost entirely on the global COVAX facility led by the WHO which is committed to securing 600 million doses of various Vaccines to Africa by the end of 2021, with 12 million doses already shipped to various African countries, including the 3.9 million doses that arrived in Nigeria on March 2nd, 2021.
Additionally, the African Union through its African vaccines acquisition task team [AVATT], is also committed to securing additional supply of 670 million doses of vaccines to Africa by the end of 2021. Together the commitments from the WHO led COVAX facility and the AU led AVATT will deliver some 1.2b doses of vaccines covering 600 million Africans, about 45% of the African population of 1.3b by the end of 2021.
The unequal nature of the access is manifest in the fact that by the end of 2021, the US, the UK, and the EU would have fully vaccinated between at least 80% of their populations, with countries like the US projecting 100% vaccination of the population.
Yet, while the case of unequal relations between the developed and the developing nations is made more glaring by this skewed COVID 19 vaccine development, production and distribution process, what is also clear is the absence of active agency of the African leadership, the inherent incompetence, as well as the congenital selfishness of the African ruling class.
If Cuba and India can invest in vaccine development, what stopped African leaders and the AU, in addition to participating in the COVAX facility and establishing the AVATT mechanism [both of which are for purchase of vaccines], from establishing a Common African Vaccine Development Task Team [CAVDETT] facility to pool their resources and investment together towards developing African COVID 19 Vaccine candidates?
This fact of the interplay of imperialist domination and neocolonial subordination of the African ruling class is brought out even more forcefully by the active agency of the India and Cuban ruling classes.
WHAT SHOULD BE DONE?
The 7th Edition of the ILO Monitor notes that, “There are signs of a recovery on the horizon, with evidence of a significant rebound in economic activity and labour markets in the second half of 2020. However, the recovery will continue to beuneven and subject to great uncertainties, threateningto increase inequality within and between countries.The actual speed and quality of the recovery in 2021will depend on a wide range of political, economic andhealth‑related factors.”
It goes on to state that, “Policy interventions must focus on robust and broad‑based recovery by addressing employment, income, workers’ rights and social dialogue: a human-centered recovery.”
To achieve this and make this possible, the ILO recommends that five interrelated issues need to be at the forefront of policy makers considerations in 2021;
- Macroeconomic policy will need to remain accommodative in 2021 and beyond to combat thelarge work deficit and income losses generated bythe pandemic. Fiscal stimulus packages, particularlyincome support measures, continue to be necessaryto protect households and businesses and to boostaggregate demand. Investment, spurred by publicinvestment, is crucial to rebuilding economies andcreating jobs.
- International action to support low- and middle-income countries will continue to be critical. Many developing countries not only have limited financial means to buy vaccines, but are also constrained in implementing the economic and employment policies needed to support the recovery. The continued impact of the crisis in particular on young people in these countries can undermine growth, and potentially cause long-term structural damage and increasing informality. All this threatens to undo the significant achievements in poverty reduction made over the past decades. A widening gap between developed and developing countries would result, reversing the trend of global economic convergence. For this reason, international solidarity in rolling out vaccines (as exemplified by the COVID‑19 Vaccine Global Access (COVAX) Facility) and financial and policy support to counter the ongoing employment effects of the crisis, including debt relief, are urgently needed.
- The crisis has had particularly devastating effects on many vulnerable population groups and sectors around the globe. Young people, women, the low-paid and low-skilled workers have less potential to achieve recovery quickly, and the risk of long-term scarring and detachment from the labour market is all too real in their case. Policy measures will need to be targeted at them, since general support will not automatically reach them.
- A carefully balanced sectoral policy dimension in recovery strategies is needed to support sectors that have been hit the hardest and that risk continuing to fall behind, while realizing the full potential for creating jobs in fast‑growing sectors. At the same time, measures are needed to assist businesses (especially micro, small and medium‑sized enterprises), workers and jobseekers to adjust to the post-COVID-19 economy, including employment services, active labour market programs and skilling initiatives, all adapted to the new realities.
- Against a backdrop of structural change and persisting deficits, policymakers need to seize the opportunity to develop and implement recovery strategies, through social dialogue with employers’ and workers’ organizations, that will reshape trajectories to meet longer-term goals and promote the transition to a more inclusive, fair and sustainable economy.
What the crisis has shown is just how much economies and labour markets depend on each other. Thus, this interdependence should provide the opportunity going forward for building a more inclusive and sustainable world order.
For instance, as of the end of May 2020 “Over 170 countries, for example, have allocated a total of $9 trillion to fiscal stimulus plans. Building on these steps and in order to accelerate the transition to a more inclusive, and sustainable and resilient world, large-scale and proactive policy actions should be pursued in the following three areas.”
1. PROVIDE IMMEDIATE SUPPORT FOR AT-RISK WORKERS, ENTERPRISES, JOBS AND INCOMES:
Urgent steps are required in the short-term to avoid enterprise closures, job losses and income decline and mitigate the shift in work and labour into the domestic sphere. Interventions should build on existing institutions, while steering workers and enterprises towards sustainable development for a better and stronger recovery.
2. ENSURE A COMPREHENSIVE APPROACH TO RETURNING TO WORK:
Combatting the pandemic and restarting the economy are not competing priorities. On the contrary, they must go together. Returning to work does not mean giving up on protecting the health of workers or forgoing hard-won gains to suppress the spread of the virus. And protecting health does not mean keeping enterprises and economic activity locked down. Policies should ensure that both happens at the same time.
3. CREATING DECENT AND PRODUCTIVE JOBS FOR A GREEN, INCLUSIVE, AND RESILIENT RECOVERY:
The world of work will not and should not look the same after this crisis. The fragilities and fault lines exposed by the crisis need to be tackled. What is needed is a coordinated global, regional and national effort to create decent and productive jobs for all as the foundation of a green, inclusive and resilient recovery. In doing so, demographic shifts in ageing societies as well as the transition towards climate neutral economies, which saw increased support from wide parts of societies before the crisis began, need to be considered.
Over all, it is important that steps must be taken and measures designed and implemented in consultation with workers and citizens towards ensuring, enabling and protecting the right to work, the right to decent job, the right to accessible and affordable basic social services in health, education, housing, transportation, among others, as well as the right to social protection for the vulnerable.
To conclude, as workers, as trade unions and as members of the working class, who are some of the most affected by the pandemic, and who have borne and are bearing the burden of some of the most severe impact of the responses to the pandemic, effects and impacts that are leading to some of the most unprecedented changes and transformations in, and on the world of work; we have a duty to ensure that we are actively engaged in the processes, and significantly influencing the changes and transformations in the world of work towards ensuring a more equitable, more inclusive, more socially just, and more rewarding world of work.
 Al Jazera, Jan 25, 2021
 Al Jazera, Jan 25, 2021
 The Inequality Virus; Oxfam Report, January 2021
 UNDP 2020 Human Development Perspectives
 ILO Monitor, 7th Edition
 ILO Monitor, 7th edition
 ILO Monitor, 7th Edition
 ILO Monitor, 7th Edition
 ILO Monitor, 7th Edition
 COVID 19 Pandemic and the world of work. ILO Policy Brief, June 2020