Naira Scarcity and Worsening Citizens’ Health

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On 26 October 2022, Nigerians received news from the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Godwin Emefiele, that the Federal Government had concluded plans to redesign the N200, N500 and N1000 notes. The goal, according to him, was to correct certain anomalies in the circulation of money in the country.

With the new naira notes launched on 15 December, 2022, the CBN assured that both the old and the new currencies would remain in circulation till 31 January, 2023, when the old notes would cease to be legal tender. Emefiele also enlightened Nigerians on the expected benefits of the exercise, which was last conducted 20 years ago. These, he said, included enhancing economic growth, by reducing inflation; strengthening macroeconomic parameters; collapsing Illegal economic activities; and stabilising exchange rates.

Sadly, while the motives for the redesigning initiative might have been laudable, events have since turned the policy to a nightmare for many Nigerians, with virtually all the banks in the country claiming to be in short supply of the new notes. Even after the extension of the expiration date of the old notes was shifted to 10 February, 2023, Nigerian did not fare any better, as the new notes remained scarce, and consequently disrupting business activities across the country.

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As a measure to ease the hardship, the Supreme Court temporarily granted an ex parte order directing that the new naira notes and the old ones should continue to be used as legal tender until 15 February, 2023. This, again, did not achieve much in alleviating the suffering of the citizenry, leading the apex court to extend the ex parte to 22 February. President Muhammadu Buhari has also directed the CBN to reintroduce the old N200 notes into circulation to ease the implementation of the policy.

A major dimension of the crises and controversies surrounding the new cash policy that should be of concern to the government and other stakeholders in the health sector is the negative impact on the health of Nigerians. The widespread hardship foisted on Nigerians by both the unavailability of the new notes and the endless wrangling over the validity of the old notes continues to be a threat to our national psyche and wellbeing. As the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria (PSN) recently noted, when the naira redesign impasse is added to the unduly long week of prevailing fuel scarcity, “then it becomes all too obvious that these forces are conspiring to further reduce the unacceptable life expectancy of the Nigerian citizen put at 53.”

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People suffering from non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as high blood pressure, diabetes and depression are particularly at a greater risk here. Corroborating this concern, Dr Anthony Omololu, former chairman, Association of General and Private Medical Practitioners of Nigeria (AGPMPN), recently warned of a surge in the incidence of non-communicable diseases and mental disorder, with the current level of hardship and trepidation in the country.  Indeed, Nigerians have begun to witness increased manifestations of symptoms of acute mental health disorder, with viral videos showing men and women stripping themselves naked in banking halls out of frustration.

Aside from NCDs and mental disorder, many Nigerians are increasingly grappling with malnutrition and undernutrition, with many families unable to access funds to buy the food they need. Prior to this time, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) had estimated that nearly 6 million children aged 0-59 months in northwest and northeast Nigeria are likely suffering and expected to suffer from acute malnutrition from May 2022 to April 2023. With the ongoing monetary crisis, there is the inevitable reality that more children and adults will be subjected to the harsh consequences of malnutrition and undernutrition.

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The case of the man, who recently slumped and died in a commercial bank in Agbor, Delta State, readily comes to mind here. While the exact cause of death was not made known, it is arguable that whatever underlying ailment he had must have been exacerbated by the lengthy time he spent queueing in the bank to get money. There are many other similar cases that go unreported daily.

From all indications, the current situation in Nigeria is surely not in favour of the health of the Nigerian masses. We therefore call on the Federal Government and the CBN to further review the current cash policy in such a way as to mitigate suffering and reduce the chances of physical, psychological and emotional breakdown among the populace.

Moreover, as the PSN has rightly suggested, all government hospitals should be compelled to initiate treatments, especially in the Accident and Emergency Units and In-Patients department while acceptable payment modalities are being sorted.

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