Rising COVID-19 cases trigger concern for banks

The recent surge in the number of COVID-19 cases in the country is particularly causing anxiety in banking circles, findings by New Telegraph show. According to figures released by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), the country’s COVID-19 cases crossed the 20,000 mark on Sunday as 436 new infections brought the total number of reported cases to 20,244. However, reports on social media appear to suggest that the number of bank employees testing positive for the virus have also been on the increase in recent days. While there is no data on how many bank employees have so far tested positive for the disease, at least, three banks issued statements last week confirming reports on social media about cases in some of their branches.

For instance, a press statement issued by Tier 1 lender, Access Bank, confirming that it had lost one of its employees in Rivers State to the disease, read in part: “We have received unfortunate confirmation of the loss of our staff who, until his death, worked at our Onne Branch, Rivers State.

In line with our COVID-19 Business Continuity Plan, the branch has been shut down for immediate disinfection and will only be reopened once we certify that it is safe enough for services to resume. “Colleagues and customers who had been in contact with the late employee have also been advised to self-isolate following guidelines provided by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC).” Also, in a statement seen by New Telegraph, Tier 2 lender, Wema Bank, denied reports in some quarters that as many as 50 of its employees were recently infected, stating, however, that it was aware that two active cases of COVID-19 were reported in two separate branches across the country.

The bank statement read in part: “We have received confirmation of two positive COVID-19 cases in two of our branches nationwide. The infected staff are currently being treated after only displaying mild symptoms. “In keeping with our commitment to ensure the safety of our customers, staff and community, we have notified customers who visited those branches to get tested. “In light of this, both branches have been shut down for immediate disinfection and will only be reopened once we certify that it is safe enough for services to resume.”

Apart from the development resulting in shutting down of affected branches for disinfection as well as the isolation of colleagues of staff who tested positive, New Telegraph gathered that it was also leading to some banks considering shelving plans to reopen branches, which had been shut since late March due to measures adopted by the industry to contain the spread of the virus.

Following the outbreak of the virus in these parts in late February, banks had adopted several measures to contain it, including making the use of face masks by customers and staff mandatory; checking of temperature before admittance into their premises; provision of hand sanitisers that must be used before entering into banking halls and Automated Teller Machine (ATM) areas; frequently disinfecting teller counters and customer service tables and ensuring social distancing by staff and customers alike.

In addition, many lenders closed outlets in areas where they had well established branches and advised customers to use their alternative banking channels (electronic payments channels). Even after the authorities partially lifted lockdown measures imposed to curtail the spread of the virus, several banks embarked on a selective reopening of branches, a situation which resulted in overcrowding at opened branches, thereby leading to calls from the Federal Government and other stakeholders for the banks to reopen all their branches. Industry sources said that even though the pickup in economic activity due to the easing of the lockdown was already making some lenders to mull resuming full operations in order to ensure that they record a fair performance in Q2’20, the recent surge in cases was making them to rethink the idea.

A top banker, who did not want to be named, said: “Bankers may not be on the frontline, like health workers, in the battle against the coronavirus, but it is obvious that as providers of essential services to customers and the economy, they put themselves at risk by attending to members of the public every working day. Despite all the safety measures, some health workers still get infected in hospitals so it is not surprising that many bankers are now getting infected.” The Head of Operations at a Lagos branch of a Tier 1 bank, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, told New Telegraph that she was very scared of getting infected due to what she described as Nigerians’ refusal to comply with COVID -19 protocols, especially concerning maintaining social distancing.

The bank official said: “At my branch, we don’t even allow customers into our premises. We give them numbers and if your number is not called, you won’t be allowed in. We adopted this approach because we discovered that many of them refused to maintain social distancing.

Many are not even keen on wearing face masks. So, it does not really matter the kind of measures that banks adopt, the chances are that an employee is always likely to get infected.” However, commenting on the subject, a financial expert, Mr. Ben Odili, pointed out that bankers may not be catching the virus only from their customers. He said: “Are bankers not part of the Nigerian society? Even if a bank is very strict on compliance with coronavirus protocols, can it do anything about the kind of bus or taxi that takes its staff to the office and back home? What about our markets? Is social distancing being observed by traders? A banker may catch the virus at home or in the market and spread it in the office.” He stressed the need for more public enlightenment on the deadly disease.




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