It’s been half a year since the first signs of COVID-19 surfaced. It has taken away hundreds of thousands of lives and destroyed the livelihood of millions, but we’re finally beginning to recover.
As the pandemic slowly and painfully subsides, it is worth noting that we cannot return to business as usual.
Where it began
The black swan had flown into the economic and health waters in China, and with one giant splash, it had caused ripples that would disrupt lives and businesses all over the world. China had been struggling with this for months and it only needed time to spread all over the world, becoming a full-blown pandemic. The domino effect took different times to get to different countries, sparking widespread panic and disorientation that crippled businesses all over the world, from East Asia, to the West, then to other regions including sub-Saharan Africa. The devastation and the rising fatalities in the developed world left emerging markets embracing the conclusion that they were not immune. Nobody was; the world had become too open, too interconnected, that a virus that emanated from Asia could have all of us, from all corners of the planet, washing our hands.
The fight against COVID-19 was a World War because it was everyone’s fight and the playbook was largely similar, all over the globe: close borders and shut down airports, enforce compulsory lockdowns, let people stay home while health workers battle to carter to the sick, as the efforts to develop a vaccine continue; just shut down everything and reduce human-to-human contact as much as possible in order to contain the spread of the virus. Compound nouns like ‘machine learning’ and ‘trade wars’ were quickly replaced by new ones such as ‘social distancing’ and ‘hand sanitizers’. It was a World War and we all needed to fight together.
COVID-19 in Nigeria
In Nigeria, the fear gradually trickled in as we registered our first cases of the virus. We adopted what seemed like it was the accepted approach worldwide: force people to stay in their homes, then shut down airports and businesses while the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and other essential workers attempt to contain the spread of the novel virus.
However, this was not enough to quench the air of pessimism amongst Nigerians. It was not enough because the circumstances had shone a blacklight over our failures as a Nation, causing our faults to glow with different colours before our faces. First, our health sector, through years of neglect and underfunding, was not adequately armed to handle a pandemic of this magnitude. Then, with a shutdown of economies around the world, the demand of crude slumped significantly, leading to an oil glut around the world.
The resulting effect of this drop in demand, combined with the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) Plus disagreement and the consequent price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia, was a sharp decline in oil prices. Brent Crude Oil prices, at some point, traded at $16 per barrel while West Texas Intermediate (WTI) plunged into the negative. This kind of shock in the international oil market, as expected for Nigeria, would always be a nightmare for both our reserves and the real sector. It also meant that the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) would no longer sustain the use of external buffers to support the value of the Naira.
In the face of declining oil prices, depleting reserves and seemingly inevitable Naira depreciation, Nigerians believed that the doomsday was closer than we had thought. Also, there was pressure on the Government to support the citizenry that it had ordered to stay indoors as a result of the pandemic. This support was expected to come in the form of security of lives, financial handouts or transparent and nationwide distribution of staples and items with intrinsic value to its poor masses.
Despite the Federal Government’s claims that the needed palliatives were being distributed to the ‘poorest of the poor’, a high percentage of the population still harboured a lot of misgivings as they had neither received any support directly from the Government nor had they come across someone who had. With these unwavering challenges, well-meaning individuals and corporate bodies stepped in to make contributions to support the NCDC and the Federal Government in combating the virus and supporting Nigerians.
How We Reacted to the Pandemic
For us at Zedcrest Group, it was a time for us to put our 2020 plans, all the business growth projections, all the technological plans, aside and focus on this important task: to be responsible to the communities we do business in. Yes, businesses were being affected, including ours. Yes, our expectations for the year are being hindered. But it just appeared that the most important task at this moment was to support as many lives as possible, to contribute to this monumental fight against the coronavirus outbreak and its impact on lives and safety. It was a journey we needed to embark on, a call of duty we needed to answer; a responsibility we needed to be alive to.
This journey began on the streets of Lagos, with our Management Team, through our Employee Volunteer Scheme (EVS) initiative, taking the risk to reach out to as many people as possible in the slums of Lagos, donating over 10,000 food boxes to the less privileged, as well as some of our frontline medical personnel. When it mattered the most, during the lockdown, leaders of the Zedcrest Capital Group led by example, armed with only facemasks and hand gloves, driving through Lagos, visiting inner-city slums, distributing essentials to the poor whose meagre income streams have been further strained by the national lockdown.
Our trip to Kano during the lockdown
During the lockdown, cases of COVID-19 infections and deaths continued to rise all over the world, especially in Italy and the United States. The pandemic had become the only news worth reporting for both domestic and foreign media. For Nigerians, we became used to people posting daily NCDC updates on their WhatsApp statuses and social media platforms. One thing that was gradually becoming obvious from the updates was the alarming rate with which the Kano cases were rising. Kano was gradually becoming a national hotspot for COVID-19. We, at Zedcrest Capital Group, found ourselves needing to do something about it. The journey had not ended, far from it.
We decided to reach out to the Kano State Government to understand what their most dire needs were. We ended up importing 10 ventilators and 1,500 face masks. But the big question remained: How do we get these items to Kano State? With the airports still closed, it was obvious to us that the only possible option at the time was to make the long road journey to Kano. Therefore, we geared up to embark on this trip. I, in the company of Lukmon Oloyede, our Head of Marketing & Communications, and Ibrahim Ibitade, head of the Group’s global payments business left Lagos on Monday, May 18, 2020. We were being conveyed by an experienced driver simply known as Wiseman, in control of the steering wheel of a Jet Mover loaded with us and our COVID materials.
Now, apart from Wiseman, none of us could remember the last time we crossed geopolitical zones by road. We were in for a difficult couple of days. The plan was to get to Abuja by Monday night and settle in for a virtual board meeting scheduled for the next day. But even getting to Abuja was a problem; the number of checkpoints was overwhelming. If we had kept count, we must have gotten to a hundred. At every stop, we had to explain to policemen and soldiers where we were headed, what our mission was, brandishing a letter from the Kano State liaison office. We only reached our destination in Abuja after midnight, way past the FCT curfew (We had begun this journey by 9am).
After our board meeting the next day, we got the news that the Kano State Governor was expecting us on Thursday, so we continued our journey the next day. The journey from Abuja to Kano was unexpectedly endless, with all the checkpoints and with the drive-through Kaduna seeming like a circumnavigation of the earth. It eventually took us about 9 hours to go from Abuja to our destination in Kano. The next day, we were received by the Kano State Governor to present our ventilators. It felt good, somewhat satisfying, to hear the Governor, the Kano State Commissioner for Health and the Chairman of the COVID-19 Task Force stress that we have helped to meet a pressing need. That was the point of the whole journey: to meet a pressing need.
The most difficult thing about long and strenuous journeys is when you have to do them all the way back. Having accomplished our mission, we needed to return to Lagos. That night, we made it back to Abuja, after midnight, against Wiseman’s warnings that it was not safe. And the next morning, we motored back south, back to Lagos. This time around, we missed our way at some point and had to pass through the inner village routes in Ondo. We are stopped numerous times by the police and vigilantes, spending time to explain ourselves over and over again. We even got to a checkpoint where we had to alight from the vehicle to have our body temperatures checked and our details recorded.
At the end of it all, we were spent and exasperated. But it had all been in the spirit of social responsibility, one of the values that drive us at the Zedcrest Group, a direct channel through which we give back to society. As we strive to achieve the required growth in our business, we are also committed to improving the wellbeing of the individuals in the communities we do business in.
Preparing for the New Normal
As countries begin to open up and the lockdown restrictions get relaxed and lifted all over the world, we can only continue to move forward and attempt to cover lost grounds. For that which we have no control over, we learn from. There are so many debates regarding how Nigeria has handled the crisis so far. While some believe that the Government and NCDC did a great job and took the right steps at the right time, others refute this and point to their handling of lockdown and not being able to test enough people. A particular group, with the benefit of hindsight, believe that it was a mistake to even mandate a lockdown, disrupting economic activities within the country. This group believe that COVID-19, for some reasons, is not as deadly in Africa as it is the other continents. But we all need to move past these debates and ensure that we truly learn from 2020.
For the Federal Government, we should deliberately pass policies that would ensure we fund and prepare our health sector for events like this. Efforts to diversify our revenue and foreign exchange sources away from oil should be heightened. Businesses should focus on building their strategies around more sustainable processes. It is a time to adjust and modify risk management frameworks, to make provisions that would address the kind of disruption COVID-19 came with.
For us at the Zedcrest Capital Group, it is time for us to go back to our plans for 2020, providing customer-centric financial solutions in the most convenient and efficient ways possible. We will continue to expand our business by building all our key results around a strong technological strategy that would not only ensure customer satisfaction but make our processes and growth sustainable. Our ambitions are still fat and we would still strive to grow significantly, ahead of our 2019 performances. And whenever our communities need us, we will be there; together we shall all “execute brilliantly, and win decisively”.
* Ever Obi, Acting Managing Director of Zedvance Finance Limited, writes from Lagos, Nigeria.