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Since the COVID-19 pandemic, palliatives, often used by governments as a stop-gap measure to support the most vulnerable in society, are now becoming permanent fixtures in Nigeria’s economy, writes EDIDIONG IKPOTO

In February, about seven people reportedly lost their lives in a stampede at the Nigeria Customs Service office in Yaba, Lagos, during the sale of 25kg bags of rice to Lagos residents.

The victims of the stampede had thronged to the venue of the sale after the NCS announced that it would slash the price of staple food as a palliative measure to assuage rising food inflation in the country.

Unbeknownst to them, the rage-laced ambience of the current economic hardship was going to trigger a state of anarchy, which led to a stampede that brought their lives to a screeching halt.

On its part, the NCS blamed impatience for the fatalities that transpired on the day. While speaking with our correspondent, the spokesperson for customs, Abdullahi Maiwada, described how the crowd threw all known decorum to the wind.

He said, “At a point, they decided to be impatient. When we saw the crowd, we even suspended the collection of forms and said, ‘Let’s give them for free’. We did that, we exhausted everything.

“After exhausting everything and telling them everything had finished, and that they could go, that we did not have any more, they persisted. Some of them broke the fence around the place. We had to put up some barricades to cover the area. Some of them went and entered the container. At one point, we used our ambulance, and took them to the hospital.”

The tragedy sparked fierce criticism from many quarters of society, who believed that the unprecedented level of hardship had created a situation where the citizenry could only resort to a last-ditch survival measure, named palliative.

Other critics said that the incident laid bare the state of despair and hopelessness that Nigerians had been subjected to.

Only last week, the founder and President of the Anap Foundation, Atedo Peterside, condemned the recent trend of asking Nigerians to queue up at warehouses for palliatives.

While speaking at the 4th Nigerian Leadership Colloquium in honour of Ituah Ighodalo’s 63rd birthday, Peterside, who is also the founder of Stanbic IBTC Bank, described the way palliatives were dangled before hungry Nigerians as ‘wickedness’.

He said, “What is it that we need to do for the majority of Nigeria’s 200 million population? They are not direct beneficiaries of state capture; indeed, they are the victims.

“If you look at the way we are distributing the so-called palliatives, how can you send 100,000 bags of rice and beans to Kano, which has 10–15 million hungry people, and you say you are doing something?”

The leading economist was not the only one who believed that offering a meagre amount of food items to hungry Nigerians did not reflect well on the government’s performance.

In recent months, economic experts and analysts have expressed worry that Africa’s largest economy was degenerating at a sprinter’s pace, a development that had forced the government to paper over the cracks by providing the people with palliatives to cushion the attendant hardship.

While speaking in an exclusive interview with The According, a renowned economist, Professor Akpan Ekpo, condemned the gradual drift of the economy to a palliative-based one.

Ekpo, a former Vice Chancellor of the University of Uyo, warned that any culture that promotes handouts would negatively affect production.

He said, “It is not the right thing to do because if you keep doing that, a large chunk of people will become lazy.

“Those palliatives are not dropping from the sky. The government is buying them somewhere. When they spend to buy all these palliatives, it will increase inflation because people are not producing, they are just waiting to get palliatives.

“The best thing would have been, instead of giving out palliatives, they should have done what Soludo did in Anambra. He called the farmers and told them, I have this money for palliatives, but I will give you tractors to go and farm. That way, the economy can be productive.”

Ekpo’s statement is based on the premise that an economy overly reliant on aid can lead to laziness and a lack of creativity and drive necessary for productivity.

The economist’s argument is also instructive to the point that the current trend may prefigure a new normal for an economy that has learned to weather adversity rather than yield to cheap handouts from the government and its institutions.

Before the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, many Nigerians had never heard the word ‘palliative’ in their whole lives. Many who did had little understanding of its meaning or real-world manifestation.

Given the devastating economic consequences of the pandemic, governments all over the world dug deep and tapped reserves to support their citizens, who were holed up in their homes and unable to work.

This move to support the incapacitated citizens was viewed as an attractive notion considering the effect the pandemic had on economic activities.

However, three years after the COVID-19 pandemic, the word ‘palliative’ is still being thrown around in Nigeria like a norm that has become par for the course. At a time when economies all over the world are getting back to optimum strength, the Nigerian government has continued to dish out palliatives as a stop-gap measure for protracted economic hardship.

In different parts of the world, central governments deploy palliative measures to support the most vulnerable in society.

However, the one thing that is common to these palliatives is that they usually do not come in the form of food items or basic supplies, as prevalent in this part of the world.

In May 2016, the Australian government published a document, “Australian Government Response to the Senate Community Affairs References Committee Report: Palliative Care in Australia”.

The second paragraph of its introduction said, “The Australian Government recognises the importance of helping people who are terminally ill access the best care and support available to maintain their dignity and quality of life” and it makes reference to the existence of a National Palliative Care Project as well as a Palliative Approach Toolkit.”

In reaction to a committee’s recommendation, the document stated, “The Australian Government notes that state and territory governments operate palliative care services, a form of sub-acute care, as part of their health and community service provision responsibilities.”

Similarly, the Canadian government has an official document, Framework on Palliative Care, which, among other clarifications and specifications, shows that the term “palliative care” emerged in Canada in the mid-1970s, initially as a medical speciality serving primarily cancer patients in hospitals.

However, since then, the scope of palliative care has expanded to include all people living with life-limiting illnesses. With an ageing population, the demand for palliative care, delivered by a range of providers, has grown.

Palliative care is an approach that aims to reduce suffering and improve the quality of life for people who are living with life-limiting illnesses through the provision of; a) pain and symptom management; b) psychological, social, emotional, spiritual, and practical support; and c) support for caregivers during the illness and after the death of the person they are caring for.

While advanced economies have been known to provide cash-based palliatives to citizens, such instances have been few and far between. Typically, these palliative measures are rolled into social services tailored to serve the most vulnerable quarters of society.

Conversely, the Nigerian version of palliative measures has mostly boiled down to food items and basic groceries.

A professor of economics at Olabisi Onabanjo University, Sheriffdeen Tella, warned in an interview with The According that the protracted trend of distributing palliatives to cushion the current hardship was doing the economy more harm than good.

According to him, conducting an informed review of labour’s wages and providing an enabling environment for productivity to thrive should constitute the priority of the government, as opposed to mere charity.

He said, “It has been almost eight months since the subsidy was removed. By now, they ought to have resolved the issue of paying the appropriate wages for workers, because if they were paying the appropriate wages for workers, there would be no need for palliatives.

“We should stop this issue of palliatives and let people work and be paid appropriately for their work so that the mentality of palliatives will not be there, because even people who are not working, will now be looking towards the government to give them something, and that is not how it is supposed to be. That will not encourage them to work.”

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