Dr. Akinpelu knows he’s a good doctor and has overcome every challenge he’s faced, but as I talked to him on the phone about facing a COVID-19 outbreak in Nigeria, he echoes what many of us are feeling right now: “I am afraid. I am afraid,” he says. His fear doesn’t just come from being a doctor on the frontlines fighting to keep his community healthy, it also comes from being a small business owner. Dr. Akinpelu owns a private community hospital in Lagos, which he has spent years building and improving with support from our partner Accion Microfinance Bank. Despite his fear, Dr. Akinpelu continues to serve his community every day.
Even in the healthcare industry, which is tirelessly fighting the coronavirus pandemic, businesses are struggling. Dr. Akinpelu knows his situation is not unique. “Running a business is a challenge around the world,” he says. Business owners everywhere are facing huge challenges from a sudden and dramatic decrease in revenue. Many are in desperate need of grace periods to repay their loans while their normal operations have been upended. From medical practices to restaurants to corner stores, the threat to small businesses during the COVID-19 crisis poses a grave risk to the emerging economies that rely on them. In countries like Nigeria, the informal economy — a network of small businesses and entrepreneurs — is the backbone of the national economy. Leaving these businesses and entrepreneurs defenseless in this time of economic turmoil will devastate not only the people who rely on them for income and essential services, but also to the national economies that they sustain.
Dr. Akinpelu took some time away from his vital work to talk to us about the daunting challenges that he and other businesses in Nigeria are facing right now during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Carrying on in the midst of health crisis
In recent years, Dr. Akinpelu invested in improving his hospital with support from Accion Microfinance Bank’s loans by purchasing new equipment and machines that allow him to provide better care for more patients. But once the coronavirus outbreak began, the number of patients seeking routine care from his hospital significantly decreased. Lagos is currently under a federally mandated lockdown to contain the virus and many patients have avoided leaving their homes to visit his facility. In addition to other obstacles, many people in Lagos have lost their source of income as a result of the lockdown, limiting their ability to pay for medical services.
Despite the notable decrease in regular patients — in turn reducing the income normally generated from their visits — Dr. Akinpelu and his staff of doctors know that their hospital doors must remain open for their community. Every day, Dr. Akinpelu’s hospital uses an ambulance to pick up each doctor from their home, safely transport them to the hospital for work, and transport them back home again at the end of their shift.
Like hospitals everywhere, Dr. Akinpelu and his team are struggling to secure the protective materials that they need to protect themselves and their patients. The price of face masks from his normal supplier has increased from 250 naira to 11,000 naira per pack. During the Ebola crisis in 2014, Dr. Akinpelu’s head nurse was trained on how to make her own sanitizer when that crisis led to a shortage of available supplies. Now that medical supplies have become scarce once again, she is putting her training to use by making sanitizer for the hospital.
“We have been trying to protect ourselves,” says Dr. Akinpelu, and that means arming himself and his staff with knowledge. “We have been educating nearly ten times with my staff: educating everybody on how to prevent the coronavirus, how to recognize it, and when you suspect it what you need to do,” he says. Dr. Akinpelu is also doing what he can to spread that knowledge outside of the hospital. He’s part of a community development association that’s helping to educate the community about the coronavirus pandemic and what individuals can do to protect themselves and prevent the spread of the virus while Nigeria braces for an escalation in COVID-19 cases.
A need for relief for small businesses on the front lines
Dr. Akinpelu and his team of doctors and nurses are courageously serving their community by keeping their hospital open and educating people on protecting themselves from COVID-19. As they focus on keeping people healthy, the financial inclusion industry must focus on helping businesses like Dr. Akinpelu’s so they can continue to provide essential services to people in need — and remain open after the pandemic ends. “We can survive this month with what we have saved before, but what I cannot guarantee is what happens after that,” says Dr. Akinpelu.
Small businesses have always played a crucial role in our lives and economies, and they will be critical to our recovery from this crisis. We need to work together to ensure that the businesses vital to emerging economies will survive, and hardworking entrepreneurs like Dr. Akinpelu can continue to succeed and fuel economic recovery in vulnerable communities.