Economic Impact of COVID-19: Legal Perspective

As various governments all over the world are relaxing lockdowns and opening up their economy, one question begs an answer, how far can the Nigerian government protect its citizens, including the employees  resuming work after the lockdown?

If given the option, some workers in Nigeria may opt not to mingle with society just yet. Unfortunately, that is a luxury many cannot afford considering the numerous economic impacts of COVID-19.

The economic impacts of COVID-19 are felt by every sector, but the medium and small scale enterprises are arguably the worst hit. The war has gone beyond health, with means of livelihood and business activities lost or threatened.

To make matters worse, the prices of foodstuffs and other essential commodities have skyrocketed. The little income available to households becomes grossly inadequate to cater for the needs of the families.

The recent gloomy predictions by the World Bank and IMF underscore the long and short-term impacts of COVID-19 on the Nigerian economy. According to World Bank, by 2022, 6 million more Nigerians will join the poverty cycle following the pandemic. Its previous projection prior to COVID-19 was that 90 million Nigerians will live below the poverty line by 2022, now the forecast is for 96 million.

Can the law protect Nigerians from the adverse impacts of COVID-19?

President Buhari, in pursuance of the Quarantine Act 1926, was able to issue lockdown orders in Lagos, Abuja, Ogun and the other states of the country. This was to forestall the spread of the virus.

Every Nigerian has the right to food, shelter, among other basic amenities. With the loss of livelihoods and businesses however, will the government be able to provide for its citizens?

So far, the distribution of palliatives and economic stimulus incentives by the federal government has been largely ineffective at solving these challenges.

The lockdown was to help protect Nigerians and curtail the spread of the virus. This measure puts more strain on the income of families and businesses. With the ease of the lockdown, workers and business owners have been offered the choice of going back to work and businesses.

However, are these workers properly protected? The law provides that an employer must provide protective essentials for its workforce. But how many private offices abide by this law?

According to a Supreme Court ruling in Iyere v Bendel Feed and Flour Mills Limited (2008) LPELR – SC. 309/2002, the Supreme Court held that:

Where there exists a service relationship between employer and employee, the former is under a duty to take reasonable care for the safety of the latter so as not to expose him to unnecessary risk.

Many employees have been laid off already while some have their salaries slashed and deducted. However, an employer does not have the right to deduct an employee’s salary/wages arbitrarily under the Labour Act. Even though COVID-19 is enough challenge to warrant these stringent measures, it must be done within the ambits of the law.

As the prices of commodities and just about everything escalate and inflation rises, it becomes more imperative to ensure that the laws protect Nigerians in all spheres of their lives.