By Omotoye Olorode

COVID-19 has been touted in certain quarters as “the pandemic that changed the entire World.” That world, the way it had been predominantly in the last three decades or so, had been capitalist and neoliberal with one of the notorious ideologues of the era proclaiming “the end of history!”

And the sustained power and influence of capitalist globalisation under neoliberalism’s “market forces” and “less government” notwithstanding, we have heard prominent neoliberal economists insisting, “Only government can save us…”; and “[M]arkets, as we design them, are not as resilient as is claimed…” and so on. Unfortunately, the exploited and oppressed victims of this confusion are even more confused because their organisations evolved, and had functioned, under the oppression of neoliberalism and its prescriptions. It is the dominance of this oppressive and exploitative ideology that forges the challenges that face working people, particularly in the peripheries of capitalist globalisation like Nigeria, under COVID-19 pandemic.

Consequently, the way forward for labour unions and other allies of the exploited consist in understanding and removing the class forces that created the challenges posed by COVID-19 in the first place. Nigeria’s working people have been confronted, over time, with two diseases of pandemic proportions. One of the diseases is COVID-19 which is now about seven months old and related to the other disease in the government response to it underscores the lack of attention to public-health provisioning. The other disease whose agency mutated from colonial oppression to neo-colonial oppression is the Nigerian ruling class which is a metaphor, in every way, for a virus, a virulent pathogen, like COVID-19!Challenges to the rights of workers during COVID-19 Pandemic Needless to say, we recognise the two main categories of rights for the purpose of this discussion – Basic Human Rights, and the ECOSOC Rights.

We also acknowledge the amplifications and refinements of these rights, such as African Human and Peoples Rights that have taken place regarding these categories. Below, we highlight the main disabilities or problems, now euphemistically referred to as “challenges,” that confront workers and deepen their existing disabilities during the current COVID-19 pandemic. We have not categorised these challenges; and we have not addressed them in any particular order because they are interconnected in many ways. There is the problem of inability to afford, or to have access to, facilities for the test for COVID-19, especially in asymptomatic situations and in situations where a constellation of symptoms may suggest infection. Inability to procure PPE and general absence of, or lack of access to basic facilities for hygiene like clean water, soap, and clean air and hygienic environment represents another constellation of challenges. “The Nigerian masses, the victims of Nigeria’s virus ruling-class, have of course struggled since colonial times till today to get rid of this virus. But exactly like a virus, the ruling class has managed to mutate (change, adapt) and become more dangerous and more deadly as a parasite that it is, since flag independence in 1960”. Living conditions of workers, the unemployed and marginally employed don’t permit effective physical distancing during lock-down.

These include overcrowding in public facilities, eating places, markets, hospitals, OPDs and public transport facilities that mostly the poor patronise. Lack of capacity to procure prophylactic facilities [apart from PPE] – food supplements, prevalence of nutrition regimes that compromise immunity to infections – also constitutes fundamental disability for the workers and the poor generally. Workers face job insecurity – lay-offs and unpaid salaries especially for daily-paid and casual workers. Covid-19 pandemic had become an excuse for employers of labour to abandon workers. It has been reported that under this rubric of excuses by employers of labour, the Obasanjo Presidential Library inOgun State sacked workers who are, indeed owed unpaid salaries months before the COVID -19 pandemic started. In Ondo State, lecturers and other groups of workers of Wesley University of Science and Technology, Ondo (WUSTO) complained that they are owed many months of unpaid salaries before COVID-19. Their employers were said to be blaming the epidemic! Combining demands of workplace with domestic chores during lockdown has imposed special burdens on women.

The working-from-home phenomenon has also created fluidity in working hours that overload workers. As the large majority of working people live in overcrowded conditions, a variety and escalation of domestic violence have also been reported. “The mutations and adaptability of the Nigerian ruling class had been achieved through their solidarity across regional, geopolitical, ethnic and religious boundaries to build a state with economic, social, cultural and legal instruments that maintain poverty in, and weaken the organisations of, workers, farmers, women and the youths. They did this through violent military take-overs of governments or, especially since 1999, through grouping and regrouping in what they call political parties that have now incorporated former politicians, former military dictators and their big business partners and masters at home and abroad (the IMF, World Bank and its organisations, WTO and their multinational corporations – banks, oil, telecommunication, pharmaceutical, agro-chemical, and related companies, etc.)”.

Absence of, or shoddy, state-sponsored social support: corrupt administration, absence, or shoddy deployment, of state-sponsored facilities for citizens coping with economic and related distress arising from lockdowns, job loss, etc. Necessarily forced labour under dangerous place-of-work conditions occur where appropriate hygiene and social distancing cannot be observed (because adequate conditions require extra expenditure that eat into profit) or for which there are no public provisions for regulation and supervision. There is a plethora of groups with specific vulnerability: health workers (doctors, nurses, cleaners; with absence of PPE occasioned by inability/refusal of the state/employers to provide same; inability/refusal driven by overarching interest in sustenance of levels of accumulation by state actors (stealing, embezzlement and use of state and class power to assign overly large proportions of socialsurplus to themselves as salaries, emoluments and various perks) and private sector employers need to sustain levels of profits. There is escalation in procurement of foreign debts that mortgage the future; and as usual, that has in-built encumbrances that compromise the interests of working people and enlarge those of privilegedconsultants, contractors and bureaucrats.

Beyond the aforementioned challenges of COVID-19 to the poor and exploited of Nigeria, the pandemic has led to weakened social fabric, solidarity and collectivism that have enabled poor people to cope with and survive the decades of colonial and neo-colonial siege that ravaged their ranks consistently. Consequently, the poor and oppressed have responded in two dangerous and mutually reinforcing modes. First; scepticism about whether COVID-19 is real has exposed them, as a class, disproportionately more intensely to infection than the privileged groups in our society. Secondly; where the pandemic has generated fear and hysteria; it has subverted the solidarity and bonding which characterise the poor because of the constant challenge of ruling class oppression and exploitation. The inability of educational institutions to safely reopen after half a year closure, given the pressure being mounted by private and for-profit educational institutions, will further deepen educational inequalities which are already heavily skewed against the poor as a result of the four-decade old neoliberal policies of the Nigerian ruling class.

The consequences of enhanced inequality regarding the option of allowing only institutions that can finance safe reopening to do so ought to be obvious. In the circumstance, the growing likelihood that governments will reopen schools without adequate safety precautions will certainly lead to a spike in the rate of COVID-19 infection that is bound to wreak a disproportionately greater disaster among the working people and the poor generally. COVID-19 as a disease mediated by a biological agent and the metaphor of the Nigerian ruling class as a Virus! The victim of a disease suffers various disabilities that limit the capacities of the victim and creates discomfort of temporary or permanent duration or even death! When a patient, the victim, is in a health crisis, something critical needs to be done to prevent death. In the specific case of a pandemic, the entire population of victims does something critical hence the franticsearch for vaccines, lockdowns, wearing of PPEs, etc.; and massive public health campaigns and investments especially in more just polities that have always been attentive to the needs of their people especially. Nigeria’s working people have been confronted, over time, with two diseases of pandemic proportions. One of the diseases is COVID-19 which is now about seven months old and related to the other disease in the government response to it underscores the lack of attention to public-health provisioning.

The other disease whose agency mutated from colonial oppression to neo-colonial oppression is the Nigerian ruling class which is a metaphor, in every way, for a virus, a virulent pathogen, like COVID-19! The Nigerian masses, the victims of Nigeria’s virus ruling-class, have of course struggled since colonial times till today to get rid of this virus. But exactly like a virus, the ruling class has managed to mutate (change, adapt) and become more dangerous and more deadly as a parasite that it is, since flag independence in 1960. The mutations and adaptability of the Nigerian ruling class had been achieved through their solidarity across regional, geopolitical, ethnic and religious boundaries to build a state with economic, social, cultural and legal instruments that maintain poverty in, and weaken the organisations of, workers, farmers, women and the youths. They did this through violent military take-overs of governments or, especially since 1999, through grouping and regrouping in what they call political parties that have now incorporated former politicians, former military dictators and their big business partners and masters at home and abroad (the IMF, World Bank and its organisations, WTO and their multinational corporations – banks, oil, telecommunication, pharmaceutical, agro-chemical, and related companies, etc.).

The foregoing depiction of a hybrid parasite comprising the biological agent (virus – COVID-19) and the politico-economic virus (the Nigerian ruling class) is illustrated by a human emerging from a virus capsule (in this case, Covid-19 particle) in the logo of the Nigeria’s Alliance for Surviving Covid-19 and Beyond (ASCAB). Way forward for labour unions In a situation where working people are endangered as humans and as a class, the responsibility of organised formations of workers cannot be disputed.Left to the ruling class, organisations of workers that actually defend workers’ class interests are, at best, nuisances that are tolerated because they are manipulable. Consequently, many legitimate rights and activities of trade unions and workers’ organisations (such as use of union funds for seeking political power) are outside legally justified trade union rights. It is in the light of this critique of the limits of trade union rights that Nigeria’s trade unions and their class allies must respond to the two viruses – the Nigerian ruling class and COVID-19. One leg of the way forward is organising in collaboration with all allies of the oppressed to overcome the challenges iterated earlier in this submission.

By this, we meant mounting pressure, by all means necessary, on the ruling class to assuage the disabilities imposed on all the oppressed and the exploited not only by the pandemic, but by all existing political, economic, and cultural conditions that subvert the interests of the poor. The other leg of the way forward is the urgent need for Nigeria’s working class to eliminate the class power of the ruling class and replace it with the class power of the oppressed. The purpose of this is to prevent the recurrence of the economic virus, referred to by Samir Amin as the “Liberal Virus,” which mutated into Neoliberalism to impose various shades of SAP (Structural Adjustment Program) – privatisation, deregulation, removal of subsidies, currency devaluation, reduced wages, etc., reduced government spending on health, education, etc., sacking of public-sector employees and so on. It is the imposition of this economic virus by the ruling class that prevented Nigeria, especially its social (health, education, utilities, etc.) and economic sectors (jobs, industry, transport, agriculture, etc.) from responding promptly and effectively to the COVID-19 pandemic. This article is a slightly edited version of a presentation by Prof [Emeritus] Olorode at an ILAW/CLS/FES Zoom meeting on September 2, 2020.