With files from Estelle Shirbon (Reuters)
Great Britain continues to blaze the trail for many other democratic countries. Countries like Nigeria would have nothing to lose in a follow up of the example set by that champion of democracy. A year to the day after they were first ordered to stay at home to contain the spread of COVID-19, Britons on Tuesday 23 March 2021 remembered more than 126,000 people who lost their lives to the pandemic, a toll few people could have imagined in March 2020
At midday, people in parliament, hospitals, churches, public places and offices still mostly empty, with millions working at home due to social distancing rules, fell silent for a minute to honour the dead. People were also being invited to stand on their doorsteps at 8 p.m. holding candles or torches.
Official data showed that on March 23, 2020, when Prime Minister Boris Johnson stunned the nation by ordering people to stay at home and shutting down much of the economy, fewer than 1,000 Britons had succumbed to the novel coronavirus. The number of people known to have died in the United Kingdom within 28 days of testing positive for COVID-19 now stands at 126,172, the worst toll in Europe and fifth highest in the world.
Johnson, who was himself very ill with COVID-19 in April 2020 and spent three nights in intensive care, opened Tuesday’s cabinet meeting by reflecting on “a very dark and difficult year” for Britain, his Downing Street office said. Johnson told ministers the nation was mourning for those who died, and he paid tribute to health and care workers and to society as a whole for keeping the country going.
Queen Elizabeth marked the anniversary by sending spring flowers to St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London. Her husband, 99-year-old Prince Philip, underwent a heart procedure there earlier this month.
“As we look forward to a brighter future together, today we pause to reflect on the grief and loss that continues to be felt by so many people and families,” she said in a message.
In the evening, landmarks across the United Kingdom, from the London Eye, Trafalgar Square and Wembley Stadium to Cardiff Castle and Belfast City Hall were lit up in yellow as a beacon of hope and support for the bereaved. At Kew Gardens, the world-renowned botanical gardens in west London, two heart-shaped flower beds made up of yellow tulips, hyacinths and polyanthus were on display, in solidarity with the “Yellow Hearts to Remember” campaign to support the bereaved.
The past year tested the country with repeated lockdowns, forced separation on families and friends and months of home schooling on millions of children and left industries fighting for survival. After a second national lockdown kept people shut up in their homes through much of the winter, Britain gradually eased restrictions under a four-step plan underpinned by the success of the national vaccination campaign.
Close to 28 million people have each received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, offering hope of a gradual return to normality. Johnson paid tribute to scientists, saying he would not have believed 12 months ago that within a year vaccines would have been developed and half Britain’s adult population would have received at least one dose each.
For now, however, life remains far from normal. During rush hour, a small number of London commuters – all wearing face masks – had space to sit down on their way to work, where before the pandemic thousands of people would have been crammed together.
“It’s been a struggle, I’m not going to lie,” said Londoner Tom Johnson on his commute. “We can sort of see a light at the end of the tunnel now,” he added. “I think we’re quite a strong, resilient sort of country, and I reckon we’ll come back flying.”
In a related development, Nigeria’s Vice President Yemi Osinbajo (SAN) has said Nigeria’s post-COVID-19 priorities would focus on economic and health sustainability. Osinbajo said this during a virtual interactive session organized by the London-based independent policy institute, Chatham House. Speaking during the session, themed “Priorities for Nigeria’s Post-COVID-19 Recovery”, the Vice President said the priorities would include restoring economic growth in the immediate term, building resilience in the health sector and repositioning the economy on a sustainable footing in the medium term while saving jobs and building domestic capacity and local production in critical areas.
According to a statement issued by Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Office of the Vice President, Mr. Laolu Akande, the Vice President discussed the challenges posed to Nigeria by the global COVID-19 pandemic and the Nigerian government’s response aimed at ensuring lasting socio-economic recovery and growth.
Osinbajo highlighted the significant impact of the Buhari administration’s Economic Sustainability Plan (ESP) as a crucial pivot in helping the country respond to the fallouts of the pandemic. He explained that “the Buhari administration’s first priority was to protect people and their livelihoods in response to the fallout of the pandemic. One of the ways was to support the critical MSMEs sector through the Survival Fund scheme, a component under the ESP”.
According to the Vice President, “one of the specific interventions under the ESP was what we describe as the Survival Fund, which essentially was a fund to protect jobs and to ensure that during the course of the pandemic and immediately thereafter, informal workers in particular or private sector workers, especially those in the informal sector, were at least able to continue to earn some wages.”
Prof. Osinbajo stated that through the Survival Fund scheme, over 300,000 beneficiaries, as well as businesses have been supported during the pandemic “by providing salaries for three months for beneficiaries who include private school teachers, artisans, road transporters, taxi cab operators, and commercial tricycle operators in the urban areas.
“We also sought to protect the most vulnerable, in particular, the urban poor who were also hard hit. What we did was to provide direct cash transfers to the urban poor, many of them who are captured in a social register. In the first phase of that, we were able to benefit about one million beneficiaries, and we are now in a position using the same social register to scale up the programme to about 20 million beneficiaries.”
The vice president also highlighted the work being done by government in the areas of improving broadband connectivity and expanding the country’s national identity base, which he stated would help in developing the country’s existing social register and other pro-poor programmes under the Buhari administration’s Social Investment schemes.
Also, to stimulate production in the economy, Osinbajo noted that the Federal Government is “focused on energizing existing value chain in agriculture, construction and renewable energy,” even as he highlighted the impact of the ESP’s agriculture scheme and social housing programme in improving local productivity and creating jobs.
“Our agriculture programme (under the ESP) aims at expanding productivity, creating a total of about 5 million jobs. What we have done so far is that we’ve been able to register and geo-tag about 5 million new farmers to farmland areas. The programme is also supporting smallholder farmers by linking them to extension services and low-interest input financing. “We also have a mass housing programme which is designed to deliver affordable homes through direct intervention in the housing construction sector aimed at creating 1.8 million jobs together with the construction of 300,000 homes in the first phase. At the moment, the programme is ongoing in 12 states which will be expanded to all of the states in the federation.”