international analysis and commentary

Nigeria and the virus: the giant on the brink


Even if the African continent as a whole manages to avoid a public health disaster from the novel coronavirus, its constituent nations will still have to navigate a set of secondary and tertiary impacts that are potentially just as destabilizing. Nowhere is this clearer than the so-called “Giant of Africa,” Nigeria.

First, there are the direct health impacts. Nigeria has a population of about 200 million, including some 20 million in its commercial capital Lagos, which is also the largest city in Africa. Most inhabitants will struggle to maintain social distancing for any meaningful period of time. Certainly there are the middle and upper classes, who live in large apartments or detached homes and can afford to shop at Western-style supermarkets (some of which offer home delivery services). But the bulk of the population – especially those living in informal settlements – live in densely-packed, frequently multi-generational homes. Furthermore, amongst the large number of Nigerians living in poverty or extreme poverty, access to running water and soap is limited. Those factors render standard advice on hygiene best practices virtually impossible to implement and make rapid community spread of the coronavirus extremely likely.

Daily life in Lagos


For those who suffer acute cases of Covid-19, access to healthcare is also starkly limited. Wealthy Nigerians – including, controversially, President Muhammadu Buhari – frequently travel overseas for medical procedures. But with airports now shut down that avenue is closed off, and private clinics will likely see a significant strain as cases increase. The public health system is far more threadbare; government spending on healthcare is limited to the equivalent of about five euros per citizen per year.

Those factors are, to a greater or lesser extent, true across West Africa as well. While population density in Lagos may be at the extreme end for the region, cramped living conditions and widespread lack of access to sanitation and healthcare are hardly unique to it. However, relatively limited mobility between population centers means that regional governments do have a chance of at least keeping the spread localized and being able to focus resources on affected areas.

As in much of the rest of the world, West African governments have been progressively shutting down international travel and subsequently imposing restrictions on commercial activity and internal movement in hopes of both reducing the probability of additional spread from travelers and preventing community spread. Nigeria, and at least some of its neighbors, can draw upon their successful record of containing a major Ebola outbreak in 2014, and can still draw upon some of the resources originally put in place in response, such as thermal cameras for screening arrivals at ports of entry. However, with many Covid-19 cases being both asymptomatic but still contagious, those measures are not likely to be sufficient.

As of May 4th, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control reported a modest toll from the disease: 2558 cases and 87 deaths. Whether that is a function of effective screening, limited testing capacity or some other factor has yet to be determined. However, the direct public health impacts of the coronavirus are not the only risk factor. Equally severe are the potential impacts from the geopolitical and geoeconomic surroundings of the crisis. Nigeria’s government is deeply dependent upon oil exports for its revenue; 86% of its revenue from exports comes from petroleum. With much of the world in lockdown, demand has plummeted. At the same time, heavyweight oil producers Saudi Arabia and Russia have refused to substantially cut production in order to put pressure on competitors.

The result has been a price crash: on New Year’s Day, a barrel of oil cost $66; four months later, on 30 April, that had fallen by more than half to just $25. As the health crisis escalated, the Nigerian government slashed its budget, which rested on the assumption of oil prices averaging $57 per barrel. With no sign that demand will rise any time soon, it is unlikely that higher prices are on the horizon. Nor is the country able to draw upon substantial foreign currency reserves to weather the storm.

Some of those risks could have been mitigated or managed had this been a localized disaster; Nigeria and its neighbors could have called upon foreign allies and creditors for aid. But this is a global pandemic; medical aid and supplies are needed everywhere, and with global trade crashing and unemployment skyrocketing, foreign lending and aid is likely to be severely curtailed in most wealthy countries, while the international monetary institutions will be coping with unprecedented numbers of requests from all around the world. The IMF , which will help mitigate some of the immediate damage, but far more will be needed before long.

Here, the downside potential is not evenly distributed across the region. Nigeria’s economy is unusually oil-dependent, so the rock-bottom hydrocarbon prices might not have the same impact on government finances in Togo or Ghana or Senegal. Nigeria also has a relatively mobile population and – at least until its international airports closed in late March – a substantial number of entrants from Europe and China, giving the virus more chances to spread there than in its smaller, less-connected neighbors.

Other West African states might have more of a chance to avoid major outbreaks, although doing so might also require them to maintain border closures for months, with unpredictable knock-on effects for the availability of consumer goods and even basic staples like rice.

There are still numerous unanswered questions about the novel coronavirus, and certainly West African governments had the advantage of not being amongst the first major outbreaks and being able to observe and learn from what China, Japan, Iran, Italy, South Korea, the US and others did right and wrong. But successfully navigating the public health, geopolitical and geoeconomic dimensions of this crisis will need not just awareness of best practices, but flexibility, creativity and not a small measure of luck.