When COVID-19 sways cash-strapped Cameroon into debt relief

Prior to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Cameroon, an oil exporter with a bloated bureaucracy, was still reeling from the 2014-2016 oil price collapse – one of the most significant oil price slumps in modern times.

The country had also increased security spending countering Boko Haram incursions in the north since 2014, while battling to quell an armed secessionist struggle in its English-speaking regions since 2017. The economic shock and insecurity were already a burden, but were compounded by necessary increases in humanitarian spending. Then, the coronavirus struck.

The economic shock and insecurity were already a burden, but were compounded by necessary increases in humanitarian spending. Then, the coronavirus struck.

In five months, following the outbreak of the coronavirus in Cameroon on 6 March, 2020, the government has spent slightly over 21.9 billion francs CFA (circa $54.1 million) in its response to the pandemic, according to a report on reliefweb on 29 July, 2020.

The money was used to construct isolation units, finance communication campaigns, purchase PPEs, rapid diagnostic kits and drugs for the management of patients, provide resources for the free treatment and management of patients, amongst others. The government would continue to spend “along these budget lines” while the virus pandemic continued.

The government has spent slightly over 21.9 billion francs CFA (circa $54.1 million) in its response to the pandemic.

As mentioned, the government was incurring this unforeseen expenditure at a time state revenue was shrinking. Now, the closure of borders and the introduction of restrictions on movement and other measures to slow down the spread of the coronavirus has meant a reduction in customs and tax revenues – two important income streams. In a 7 May interview with the state-owned Cameroon Tribune newspaper, Director General of Taxation Modeste Mopa Fatoing said it was certain the health crisis would mean the loss of a projected 2,103 billion francs CFA (circa $3.8 billion) in taxes this year.

Taxes are a prime source of revenue for the government and were projected to cover half of the 2020 state budget. By May, Cameroon had lost 22 billion francs CFA ($39.7 million) in projected customs duty and 92 billion francs CFA ($166 million) in tax revenue due to tax relief granted by the state to economic operators.

In the midst of the ravaging coronavirus, the World Bank’s Development Committee and the G20 finance ministers rolled out a Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI) to help the governments of some of the world’s poor countries to free up financial resources they could use to respond to Covid-19. Cameroon was one of the countries that indicated it had a problem simultaneously managing its debt burden and the unprecedented health crisis. It applied for the debt relief, which has helped it mobilise 0.5% of GDP in DSSI savings.

Taxes are a prime source of revenue for the government and were projected to cover half of the 2020 state budget.

According to Misheck Mutize, a post-doctoral researcher at the Graduate School of Business, University of Cape Town, participating in the debt suspension comes at a cost. In a 28 july article in The Conversation, he argued that such countries could be viewed as defaulting, which might result in an investment rating downgrade. “A rating downgrade would erode the benefits accrued from the debt relief as countries would have to pay more interest on the same volume of debt,” Misheck posited.

Fiscal deficits caused by the need of governments to respond to the coronavirus have been a global phenomenon, according to Prof. Kelly Mua Kingsley, a Harvard-trained expert in financial engineering. He told Africa in Fact that the situation made it difficult for many countries, including Cameroon, to keep up with both internal and external debts.

“It was obvious for Cameroon to seek the debt relief in order to keep the economy going,” Kingsley said. Cameroon and other eligible countries have different options in negotiating their debt relief, varying from full cancellation of debt to rescheduling datelines for debt servicing, with or without additional interest paid, among others, according to Kingsley.

Participating in the debt suspension comes at a cost.

Despite the risk, Cameroon decided to take debt relief. And for the time being, it hasn’t suffered any ratings downgrade.

On 7 August, 2020, rating agency Moody’s confirmed Cameroon’s B2 (stable) rating, but expressed concerns that the country’s ongoing participation in the DSSI posed risks to private creditors. The rating agency said it would reflect any related changes in risk should the probability of losses to private sector creditors increase and become clearer.

“The stable outlook reflects Moody’s view that the pressures the sovereign faces in the wake of the coronavirus shock, and prospects for its credit metrics in general, are likely to remain consistent with the current rating level, given Cameroon’s comparatively more diversified economy relative to neighbours, the anticipated renewal of the IMF programme providing a backstop, and Cameroon’s membership of the Central African Economic and Monetary Union (CEMAC) attenuating external vulnerability risks,” Moody’s highlighted.

On 7 August, 2020, rating agency Moody’s confirmed Cameroon’s B2 (stable) rating.

While the government is said to be working on a comprehensive global response plan, a government official, who requested anonymity because he wasn’t mandated to talk to the press, said the government is also counting on response measures by the African Development Bank (AfDB), Central African Economic and Monetary Community (CEMAC), and other bodies.

The AfDB’s continent-wide approach is to provide monetary envelopes to fast-track budget support to ensure that countries are able to fund their response measures. It seeks to sustain growth, strengthen economic and financial governance, support policy and institutional reforms, mitigate the adverse impact of shocks, and contribute to the recovery, state building and arrears clearance in fragile states.

For its part, CEMAC’s Economic and Financial Reform Programme, which has been running since 2016, plans to “leverage industrialisation and economic diversification” for  post-Covid-19 recovery in the sub-region. This follows the desire of the six heads of state of the membership-based CEMAC to have a common destiny for the sub-region.

“There is light at the end of the tunnel,” the government official said.

“There is light at the end of the tunnel,” the government official said.

With the coronavirus showing signs of lingering in Cameroon, people are beginning to integrate the virus into their way of life. More than five months into the pandemic, things have largely gone back to business as usual.

But other than applying for debt relief, the government does seem to have learned lessons from the pandemic. Cameroon is a country prone to floods, while climate change, with rising temperatures, is seriously threatening public health, agriculture and livestock production. These threats are well-known, and could significantly alter Cameroon’s growth prospects.

The country also suffers institutional challenges, corruption and public financial management key weaknesses, according to Worldwide Governance Indicators. Moreover, its internal stability is remains affected by the ongoing sectarian struggle in the north and a separatist conflict in the south-west, with continuing violence. Press freedom is also under attack. Clearly, the government is also returning to “business as usual”.

 

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Amindeh Blaise Atabong is a Cameroonian freelance journalist. His interests include gender, human rights, climate change, environment, tech, conflict, peace-building and global development. In 2019, he was a finalist in the inaugural True Story Award, and also won a prestigious Kurt Schork Award in International Journalism.  His works have been published by independent regional and international outlets, including Quartz, Mail & Guardian, Reuters, Jeune Afrique, Epoch Times, African Arguments and Equal Times. 

Cameroon: Covid-19 worsens pre-existing vulnerabilities for some

Even before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, persons living with disabilities in Cameroon had a peculiar problem – they lacked adequate social support and service delivery. Then, the coronavirus emerged and compounded pre-existing vulnerabilities for them.

There are about three million people, out of 26.5 million, living with various forms of disabilities in Cameroon, according to the Club for Young Rehabilitated Blind People (Club des Jeunes Aveugles Rehabilités du Cameroun- CJARC). The most common forms of disabilities are orthopaedic problems, infectious diseases and neurological disabilities. A 2017 study found out that the principal causes of disability were trauma due to traffic accidents and inappropriate medical interventions. These could partly be attributed to poor government policies over the years, as well as family neglect.

There are about three million people, out of 26.5 million, living with various forms of disabilities in Cameroon.

Yet given the economic hardship orchestrated by the pandemic, and less-than-adequate government social support for the poor, life has become especially difficult for many persons living with disabilities. There appears to be little or no provision of appropriate information to keep them safe from the deadly virus.

After Cameroon recorded its first confirmed case of the coronavirus on 6 March 2020, the government issued a set of guidelines. It made the wearing of masks in public mandatory, limited the number of people in gatherings to 50, employed physical distancing, reduced the number of people in a bus or taxi per time, and ordered bars, restaurants and other leisure spots to stop operations by 6pm, among other measures. But these regulations aimed at influencing social interactions to limit the spread of the virus have yet to be properly communicated to persons living with disabilities.

There appears to be little or no provision of appropriate information to keep them safe from the deadly virus.

SisterSpeak237, a local civil society organisation which seeks to represent the voices of women and minority groups in Cameroon, has chronicled complaints of neglect experienced by persons with disabilities during this pandemic. Many people around the country are donating Covid-19 care packs, including buckets, soaps, and food items, according to Comfort Mussa, founder and executive director of SisterSpeak237. But in many cases, people donate what they think is needed, and it often seems that what is most important to them is to be seen donating, she says.

Moreover, the resources appropriate to helping people with disabilities are often very limited, says Mussa. The handwashing points established in public places and even in some of government hospitals are not accessible to most people on wheelchairs or to those using crutches. And disabled people often also need exemption from some pandemic-related restrictions, such as the requirement of physical distancing, since they need caregivers.

The handwashing points established in public places and even in some of government hospitals are not accessible to most people on wheelchairs or to those using crutches.

The government, through the various ministerial departments and agencies does send out communications and announcements about intervention and prevention measures.

On 30 April, Prime Minister Joseph Dion Ngute announced some measures to address the impact of the coronavirus on households. These included: an increase in family allowance from XAF 2,800 to XAF 4,500; a raise of 20% for pensions that did not benefit from a 2016 reform; continued payment of family allowances from May to July to staff of companies which are unable to pay social security contributions or which have placed their staff on technical leave due to the crisis;  spreading citizens’ payments of social security contributions for the second quarter over three instalments; and canceling late fees for payment of social security contributions.

The government has asked citizens to observe physical distancing, mandatorily wear face masks in public and frequently wash or sanitise their hands, amongst other measures to contain the spread of the virus. But these preventive measures have largely been ignored, as there is a lack of public trust in the state. It is also often difficult for people to respect these restrictive measures when their priority is simply survival.

Preventive measures have largely been ignored, as there is a lack of public trust in the state.

But these communications do not reach everybody, Mussa told Africa in Fact. Most of the materials are in print format, excluding blind people who can only read braille. “There are also major announcements on TV, but often with no sign language. This excludes people with hearing and speech challenges,” Mussa said. Sign language interpretation is provided on national TV, but it is only in French, which sidelines English-language speakers. The country is officially bilingual.

“People like us [hearing- or speech-impaired] are confused about what is happening. Preventive measures are not communicated to us [using adapted tools],” Njei Nelly Anne told NewsWatch newspaper based in the capital Yaounde, through a sign language interpreter.

The government’s interventions aimed at supporting the economy are limited to the 10% of the population which has employment in the formal sector. The 90% in the informal sector has been left without any relief. Unlike Rwanda and Tunisia, which have offered relief packages to their most vulnerable, Cameroon has yet to do so. However, the government has said it will work out a comprehensive global response plan with additional measures to alleviate the socio-economic impact on affected firms and households. But since April, the said plan is still being awaited.

Most of the materials are in print format, excluding blind people who can only read braille. “There are also major announcements on TV, but often with no sign language. This excludes people with hearing and speech challenges,” Mussa said.

Meanwhile, the three million Cameroonians with disabilities are left without information, or measures to alleviate their plight. The UN points out that persons with disabilities generally have more healthcare needs than others and are therefore more vulnerable to the impacts of low quality or inaccessible healthcare services than others. The world body says this applies to both their “standard needs” and “needs linked to impairments”, which presumably means that they suffer disadvantage both with regard to their ordinary needs, such as access to food, housing and education, and with regard to their special needs, such as special access facilities and appropriate means of communication.

As it is, Cameroon’s response to the social conditions of the general populace has been wanting in significance and impact.

The 90% in the informal sector has been left without any relief.

Since the response was made, the spread of the virus has been consistently on the rise. By 28 July 2020, Cameroon had 17,110 confirmed coronavirus cases, with close to 400 deaths. This accounts for about 2% of cases in Africa, according to a report published on 27 July 2020 by EXX Africa. This trend is likely due to the easing of restrictions, which have given people a false sense of security.

Yet the country’s approach to dealing with the fairly large sector of the population who have special needs has been even worse. The UN has called on governments to ensure the rights of disabled people through a range of measures, including strengthening healthcare policy, providing appropriate access to healthcare facilities for the disabled, improving funding and training healthcare staff. But so far, the government has yet to extend any special social assistance to this special group of people.

 

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Amindeh Blaise Atabong is a Cameroonian freelance journalist. His interests include gender, human rights, climate change, environment, tech, conflict, peace-building and global development. In 2019, he was a finalist in the inaugural True Story Award, and also won a prestigious Kurt Schork Award in International Journalism.  His works have been published by independent regional and international outlets, including Quartz, Mail & Guardian, Reuters, Jeune Afrique, Epoch Times, African Arguments and Equal Times. 

COVID-19: Cameroon adopts 3T strategy but emergency fund remains cloudy

Cameroon is one of the most badly hit countries by the coronavirus in Sub-Saharan Africa. By 11 July, the country had recorded 15,173 cases, emerging with about half of the total number of cases in the central African sub-region.

In a bid to flatten the curve of contagion following the country’s first recorded case on 6 March, the government of Cameroon put in place a strategy dubbed 3T: Track, Test, Treat. It set three strategic priorities: stop, or at least control community transmission; check morbidity and mortality, in particular for health personnel; and reduce the impact of the virus on the country’s health system.

Cameroon is one of the most badly hit countries by the coronavirus in Sub-Saharan Africa.

On 24 June, the Ministry of Public Health announced that some 10,100 out of 12,592 confirmed cases of the coronavirus had recovered. It also said it had carried out about 80,000 tests, surpassing a 50,000 target.

On 2 July, the Minister of Public Health, Dr Manaouda Malachie announced that specialised treatment centres following a standard plan would be constructed in all ten regions of the country. The aim, he said, was to strengthen Cameroon’s health system even beyond the pandemic. The centres will be added to a complement of already functional treatment centres for Covid-19, such as those set up at the Yaounde Military Stadium and ORCA Yaounde.

Like other African countries known to be notoriously poorly equipped, Cameroon’s health system was not prepared to handle a pandemic of the magnitude of the coronavirus. A Reuters survey found out that there is an average of less than one intensive care bed and one ventilator per 100,000 people in Africa, unlike 20 to 31 intensive care beds per 100,000 people in the United States. In Cameroon, the Reuters survey shows that there were just 40 ventilators in the country by 7 May, while, according to estimates by the London Imperial College, 2,422 might be needed at the peak of the pandemic which was projected to be reached around mid-June.

Dr Manaouda Malachie announced that specialised treatment centres following a standard plan would be constructed in all ten regions of the country.

To make coronavirus testing and treatment accessible to all Cameroonians, the government has made it free. However, some unscrupulous health personnel and structures have been reportedly charging vulnerable patients. This prompted the Minister of Public Health to put in place a commission, comprising officials of the Ministry of Public Health and the General Delegation for National Security, to investigate corruption in relation to the campaign against the virus.

The country is also in short supply of health personnel such as doctors, critical care nurses, anaesthesiologists and biotechnicians. For instance, Cameroon has less than one physician per 10,000 population. Recently, President Paul Biya signed a decree increasing the retirement age of civil servants of the public health corps to 60 years for categories ‘A’ and ‘B’ (senior), and 55 years for categories ‘C’ and ‘D’ (junior). The aim is to retain their skills, given the shortages of younger staff (themselves due to poor policy and implementation in the long term). Experienced staff are apparently happy to return to work. Serving longer will mean having more time to earn a public service salary before retirement.

To make coronavirus testing and treatment accessible to all Cameroonians, the government has made it free.

In a separate decree, and for the same reason, the Prime Minister Chief Dr Joseph Dion Ngute also increased by five years the retirement age of state medical and paramedical personnel governed by the Labour Code.

In addition, organisations such as the World Health Organisation and the Jack Ma Foundation have been reaching out to Cameroon with material assistance. The country’s health system received 183 oxygen concentrators, which Minister Manaouda said had been dispatched to various health facilities for the care of coronavirus patients and others suffering from respiratory illnesses. However, he did not make public the country’s current capacity to treat the virus.

To help see it through such periods of distress, Cameroon has the long-established Health Solidarity Fund, an emergency fund intended to “provide surge support during health emergencies”. Under a 1993 law, public primary healthcare establishments are compelled to deposit 10% of their monthly revenue into the Health Solidarity Fund (HSF). Hospitals are supposedly exempt, but medical staff say that they too pay into the fund, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Prime Minister Chief Dr Joseph Dion Ngute also increased by five years the retirement age of state medical and paramedical personnel.

But the global human rights watchdog says that too little information is available on the fund’s revenues, disbursement and management.

A medical doctor in the public service, who preferred anonymity, told Africa in Fact that most health facilities have for a long time been making payments into a fund that “is a big sham.” Outside commentators share his view. “Cameroon is the Central African country with the highest number of confirmed Covid-19 cases, yet the government appears not to have disbursed funds from a reserve that healthcare facilities have been paying into exactly for emergencies like this one,” wrote Lewis Mudge, Central Africa Director at HRW, in a 12 June article.

The sudden onset of the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed Cameroon’s glaring lack of resources adequate to respond such a crisis. On 31 March 2020, it launched a Coronavirus Response Special National Solidarity Fund to raise funds from public donation to treat and contain the virus. The minister of public health said about XAF 3.5 billion (about $6 million) had been raised by 14 May, 2020, according to a Business in Cameroon report.

The sudden onset of the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed Cameroon’s glaring lack of resources adequate to respond such a crisis.

Yet medical staff in the country say they have no information about disbursements from the HSF, the already existing fund, according to HRW. Healthcare workers report shortages in thermometers, disinfectants, medicines, ventilators, oxygen and protective gear for doctors and nurses. The human rights organisation says that WHO had declared Covid-19 a pandemic and that this should have been reason to “trigger disbursements”.

The question is why such a new fund is necessary, given that one already exists, and was established more than 25 years ago. This is probably a matter of corruption. Another question is why a new body has been set up to investigate corruption. The answer might be found in the fact that President Paul Biya’s administration has long been accused of using anti-corruption bodies to crack down on political opponents  and this new commission appears to be little different.

 

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Amindeh Blaise Atabong is a Cameroonian freelance journalist. His interests include gender, human rights, climate change, environment, tech, conflict, peace-building and global development. In 2019, he was a finalist in the inaugural True Story Award, and also won a prestigious Kurt Schork Award in International Journalism.  His works have been published by independent regional and international outlets, including Quartz, Mail & Guardian, Reuters, Jeune Afrique, Epoch Times, African Arguments and Equal Times. 

Nigeria: A pandemic and a weak health system

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown up challenges for Nigeria’s health system quite unlike those posed by the Ebola virus or other epidemics, and also emphasised its weaknesses, across the board.

Epidemic preparedness is not something Nigeria seems to be good at. The coronavirus pandemic has been ravaging other parts of the world, so you might think that Nigerians and the Nigerian government would see that it would only be a matter of time before it came knocking on our doorstep. Yet Covid-19 found the country asleep when it finally came.

Covid-19 found the country asleep when it finally came.

With hindsight the country was able to trace its index case to an Italian man who arrived here by air on 24 March, and apparently brought the virus not only to Lagos State where he landed, but also to neighbouring Ogun State. Four weeks later, Nigeria recorded 1,337 people infected by the virus, with 40 of them dead and 255 discharged from hospital.

A 2017, Joint External Evaluation (JEE) rated Nigeria’s preparedness at 39% stating that the country was “not ready for the next epidemic.” The JEE is usually carried out every five years by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) using a WHO-approved tool with 49 indicators to assess Nigeria’s capacity in the 19 technical areas. A mid-term review was carried out in 2019. Nigeria’s score had risen to 46%, indicating that while the country showed commitment to epidemic preparedness, it had “work to do to prepare for the next epidemic” – which we now know is Covid-19.

Against recommendations in the Abuja Declaration that governments spend at least 15% of their budgets on health, Nigeria currently spends less than 5% of its budget on it. A revised budget – proposed against the backdrop of Nigeria’s National Assembly budgeting ₦37bn for renovations – is expected to be passed into law that would see funding for local, primary healthcare services cut by more than 40%. This would also affect immunisations, childcare, maternal healthcare and family planning services.

Nigeria currently spends less than 5% of its budget on health.

Commenting on this, President of the Nigerian Medical Association, Professor Innocent Ujah, said, the proposed cut is coming at a time when Nigeria needed to invest more in health. Nigeria’s health budget was “unacceptably low, under 5%”, said Ujah, and the reduction in health funding was even more serious given the pandemic.

The reduction in health funding was even more serious given the pandemic.

The pandemic has thrown up many inadequacies in Nigeria’s health system, including its primary health care, the president-elect of the Nigerian Academy of Sciences, Professor Ekanem Braide told Africa In Fact.

Describing the country’s primary health care system as “very weak,” Braide said, most health facilities are run-down, with health workers mostly concentrated in state and local government capitals.  “With the rising number of COVID-19 cases, the health system is overwhelmed. Routine health services are not being rendered as effectively as should be.” Some hospitals were reluctant to accept patients suffering from ailments unrelated to COVID-19.

Communities were left without access to the affordable health care which the Alma Ata declaration (1978) set out to achieve. (The Alma Ata declaration was “a major milestone of the twentieth century in the field of public health, and it identified primary health care as the key to the attainment of the goal of Health for All,” according to WHO.) Tertiary and secondary health facilities were overcrowded with patients who should have been treated either in or near their communities.

Some hospitals were reluctant to accept patients suffering from ailments unrelated to COVID-19.

Previous epidemics have brought about increased demand for “speculative therapies” in Africa, and the current epidemic is no exception, say Ejemai Eboreime, Chinwe Iwu and Aduragbemi Banke-Thomas in a July 2020 article in the Pan-African Medical Journal. The pandemic has brought a demand for alternative remedies with limited scientific evidence on their effectiveness to manage COVID-19 in Africa, they argue.

Recently, the president of Madagascar, Andry Rajoelina, elicited “heated debates” when he announced a “breakthrough herbal medicine” for COVID-19 developed from the Artemisia annua – “a medicinal plant whose use has long been reported in China, where it is locally known as qinghao, [and] now grown commercially in many African countries,” according to ScienceDirect.

Cameroon, they say, is experiencing shortages of herbal medicine due to high demand, while an undercover British Broadcasting Corporation investigation in Ghana revealed that “conmen and quacks” were selling fake and toxic substances as Covid-19 cures, sometimes for as much as $25,000. “Likewise, the current COVID-19 crisis has been associated with a covert epidemic of ‘miracle cures’ such as ingestion of bleach,” and enabled by the ubiquity of social media, they say.

An undercover British Broadcasting Corporation investigation in Ghana revealed that “conmen and quacks” were selling fake and toxic substances as Covid-19 cures, sometimes for as much as $25,000.

The pandemic is significantly shifting the dynamics of the pharmaceutical industry, including the supply and demand for unorthodox remedies, they add. The surge in demand for alternative remedies reflects badly on public health efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and the problem is likely to continue to plague health systems beyond the present outbreak.

“Africa, like China, has a broad diversity of natural pharma co-active products. But, due to poor government regulation and financing of herbal research, we are not only missing out on potential pharmaceutical and economic benefits, we are also exposed to the dangers of potential untoward effects of these substances,” one of the authors, Ejemai Eboreime told Africa In Fact.

“Governments need to strengthen regulatory processes and support clinical trials of traditional medical products,” he advises. “Policymakers must get their act together and dedicate substantial funding to health research, particularly on traditional medicines so as to establish their safety and efficacy.”

“Governments need to strengthen regulatory processes and support clinical trials of traditional medical products”

Research into and regulation of these products would need to observe the highest scientific standards, he added. This would give the world more confidence in African herbal medicines, and trigger a global demand for them, where validated. “Who knows, effective and safe treatments for Covid-19 or HIV may be hiding? somewhere in an obscure African village, waiting to be discovered.”

Eboreime,  Iwu and Banke-Thomas argue that, going forward, governments must be proactive in engaging community influencers with knowledge transfer and the implementation of targeted health interventions.

Kano State in Nigeria’s north west has set the ball rolling with this. In two pilot wards, market women, youth, religious and community leaders are driving Covid-19 testing and explaining to residents – in Zango and Dorayi – why they should cooperate and submit themselves for testing. They did this by ensuring that their own families led the way.

In two pilot wards, market women, youth, religious and community leaders are driving Covid-19 testing and explaining to residents.

“Concerted efforts” are ongoing to address the problems with Nigeria’s health care system, says Professor Braide. The poor will have easier access to health care, health workers will be better trained and motivated, communities will be more involved in decisions about their health. But it is hard to see how this can happen when the health budget is chaotically managed.

According to a 2019 peer-reviewed study by Onwujekwe and others, Nigeria’s health financing mechanisms were not functioning “optimally” before the onset of the pandemic. “Allocation and use of resources are neither evidence-based nor results-driven. Resources are not allocated equitably or in a manner that minimizes wastage and improves efficiency. None of the mechanisms effectively protects individuals/households from catastrophic health expenditure,” according to the authors. They recommended that more funds were allocated to purchasing health care services, and that such expenditures be evidence-based and strategic.

In 2001, in the Abuja declaration, AU member states committed to spending at least 15% of their annual budgets to improving health care in their countries. Yet, according to a 2019 article by Paul Adepoju, the most that Nigeria spent on health after 2001 was 6% in 2012, while in 2018 it spent only 4% of its budget on health. Nigeria’s budget allocation for health care has been “consistently below the continental average of 9.8% since the 2001 agreement,” according to a June 2020 article by Oluwatola Toluwani. The country’s total allocation to health for 2020 was 4.14%.

That was the situation when the country, like others all around the world, was suddenly confronted with the coronavirus pandemic. It was not a good place to be in.

 

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Adie Vanessa Offiong is an award-winning journalist in Abuja, Nigeria, with experience in investigative, science and development journalism. She is member of the Health Systems Global, African Investigative Publishing Collective and of the Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism. Vanessa was the winner of the 2019 Africa Media Development Foundation (AMDF) Journalists of the Year Award and was the only female finalist of the 2019 Continental Journalism Awards on the African Union Charter.

C-19 Cameroon: Coronavirus snatches scarce jobs

When Cameroon closed universities, primary and high schools on 17 March as part of preventive measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus, Tongwa Francis was left without a job. The energetic young man had been making a living by offering part-time teaching services at private high schools in the capital Yaounde. But then, the coronavirus emerged, causing Tongwa’s source of income to vanish.

Like Tongwa, many private school teachers, who are paid per hour, anxiously looked forward to the reopening of schools. But on 1 June, when schools were set to reopen, only final-year students and their teachers were allowed to return to their classrooms. Thousands of private teachers across the country remain in limbo, unsure of when they will ever recover their livelihoods, following the government’s decision not to reopen the schools completely.

But then, the coronavirus emerged, causing Tongwa’s source of income to vanish.

In Cameroon, private schools, as well as some government schools, contract teachers on a part-time, freelance basis. The teachers are assigned to teach students on their subjects of expertise for a number of hours per week, usually an average of two hours a week per subject. The average rate for an hour is $2.50, and a part-time teacher who is lucky to be allocated many sessions can make about $120 a month. This amount can support a modest life in a rural setting. But in an urban setting, it is living on a shoestring.

The average rate for an hour is $2.50, and a part-time teacher who is lucky to be allocated many sessions can make about $120 a month.

As Tongwa could no longer teach, he got hold of a motorcycle, which he has been using for commercial motorcycling. It is thanks to this new activity that Tongwa can put food on the table for himself and a younger sibling. Some of Tongwa’s colleagues who have been unable to find an alternative source of income in the city have retreated to their villages.

Jobs were scarce enough in the country even before the outbreak of the pandemic. Cameroon, as of 2014, has an unemployment rate of 3.53%. Market analysts say the country’s labour market is unable to accommodate the thousands of graduates who are produced yearly by tertiary institutions of learning. The government is always overwhelmed with applications whenever it launches a recruitment drive.

As Tongwa could no longer teach, he got hold of a motorcycle, which he has been using for commercial motorcycling. It is thanks to this new activity that Tongwa can put food on the table for himself and a younger sibling.

In one instance in 2015, when the government launched an exercise to recruit 4,700 officers into the national security corps, it received applications from over 130,000 candidates. Most young people who can’t secure formal jobs turn to the informal sector where they engage in petty trading, including operating telephone booths, car washes, house-help services and subsistence farming, among others.

According to a May 2020 study by the country’s National Institute of Statistics (NIS), the education, hotel accommodation and catering, forestry and construction sectors have been the hardest hit, with job losses of over 50%. The study, which was carried out mainly in Douala, Cameroon’s economic hub, and the capital Yaounde, showed that the loss of employment was very significant in small- and medium-sized enterprises, especially those in the modern sector. Only 16% of enterprises surveyed, mostly large companies, had embraced remote working.

Most young people who can’t secure formal jobs turn to the informal sector where they engage in petty trading, including operating telephone booths, car washes, house-help services and subsistence farming, among others.

Now the coronavirus is putting strain on other formal sectors of the economy. Just recently, the national carrier, Camair-Co furloughed 371 of its workers for a period of three months, with the possibility of an extension, as the airline’s fleet remains grounded due to the coronavirus and financial constraints.

As the government-imposed restrictions have significantly disrupted economic activities, business enterprises have been forced to lay off staff – both temporary and permanent workers. The NIS survey also shows that most companies have had to slash working hours, cut salaries, cancel supplier orders and put off planned investments.

Most African economies, like that of Cameroon, remain informal and vulnerable to external shocks, according to a report by the African Union. The UN Economic Commission for Africa estimates that the continent’s average GDP growth this year will contract by 1.4% – from 3.2% to 1.8%. In a worse-case scenario, Africa’s economic growth could fall by up to 2.6%. This will be as a result of the decline in demand for African products, since manufacturing across the world is on hold.

Most African economies, like that of Cameroon, remain informal and vulnerable to external shocks, according to a report by the African Union.

Like other countries, then, Cameroon is in a fix as to how to balance the equation between lives versus livelihoods. Following pressure from economic operators, the government, by the end of April, had eased some of the restrictions enforced earlier. Catering, bars and leisure facilities are allowed to operate beyond the 6PM limit and buses and taxis can now carry passengers to their full capacity.

The Cameroonian fiscus is set to lose “about XAF 768 billion (about $1.3 billion) in revenues due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to the Ministry of Finance. However, “exceptional support from development partners” and “traditional financial support” from the IMF would reduce the shortfall to XAF 542 billion (about $930 million), the ministry said in an explanatory note on 3 June this year. The ministry projected a decline in GDP growth from 4% to -1.1%, and recession for this year. Allocations to government administrations would be reduced by 20%. Clearly, all of this will be a big loss for a lower-middle-income economy that aims to become an upper-middle-income economy by 2035.

The Cameroonian fiscus is set to lose “about XAF 768 billion (about $1.3 billion) in revenues due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to the Ministry of Finance.

As people continue to lose their jobs in Cameroon, it is pushing them and their households into poverty. In April, Cameroon announced a set of fiscal measures, including tax relief and a moratorium on the payment of certain levies by businesses, to cushion the socio-economic impact of the pandemic. But many, including the country’s main employers’ union, have criticised the measures as being largely inadequate.

The government seems to have forgotten the most vulnerable people, the rural poor and those who hustle in the informal sector. About 90% of workers in Cameroon are trapped in the informal sector (a similar figure to the situation in Zimbabwe). The 9.2 million people who work in the informal economy accounted for 50% of Cameroon’s GDP in 2015. Most people in the informal sector survive on agriculture and crafts.

The government seems to have forgotten the most vulnerable people, the rural poor and those who hustle in the informal sector. About 90% of workers in Cameroon are trapped in the informal sector.

Problems with economic governance and low productivity have been identified as the key factors supporting the overdevelopment of the country’s informal sector. To change the tide and transform the economy to a formal one will require quality, sustained education, as well as freedom of information. That is why school teachers like Tongwa are important.

Unlike South Africa, which has managed to offer Social Relief of Distress grants to unemployed individuals who do not receive any other form of social grant, Cameroon has yet to extend such relief to its most vulnerable. Instead, it has asked its 26.5 million people, including those who have lost their jobs, to contribute to a government-initiated solidarity fund to help fight the virus.

 

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Amindeh Blaise Atabong is a Cameroonian freelance journalist. His interests include gender, human rights, climate change, environment, tech, conflict, peace-building and global development. In 2019, he was a finalist in the inaugural True Story Award, and also won a prestigious Kurt Schork Award in International Journalism.  His works have been published by independent regional and international outlets, including Quartz, Mail & Guardian, Reuters, Jeune Afrique, Epoch Times, African Arguments and Equal Times.