Nigeria has a total of 5,783 bank branches with 1,766 in Lagos alone, as at 2010. Behind open markets and public transportation, banks are the next potential super-spreaders of the Coronavirus. Even in the less populated, upscale parts of Lagos and Abuja, banks are usually full. There are many things even very well-to-do people have to visit bank branches to do that cannot be delegated. The low-income-market-women, artisans, etc., also flock banks for all sorts of purposes. Covid-19 is very likely to be with us for a while. As Nigeria reopens the economy, we have to think of ways to decongest banking halls and make visiting banks safe. Here are a few ideas.
No Mask, No Entry: This has become a part of public life in many countries where the economy is being slowly reopened – no mask, no participation in public life. Continue to stay at home. Widespread use of masks helped in limiting the spread of the coronavirus in Asian countries like South Korea and Singapore. Now countries like France have woken up to the potency of masks in containing infection and have made them compulsory. Staff and customers in banks should be made to wear them. The banks should have supplies to distribute to customers. Bank staff seen lowering and hanging facemasks on their chins should be sent home, and it should be applied to customers indulging in this practice.
Limited in-Branch Services: Too many Nigerians go into bank branches for extremely frivolous reasons. These include trying to find out if they could recall funds they have transferred or confirm if funds their customers claim to have sent have been truly transferred to their account! (Traders are said to be particularly guilty – perhaps they want to leave their shops and enjoy the air conditioners in the banking halls). The banks should seriously limit what people come into the branches to do and vigorously communicate them.
Universal E-Banking: Banks should aggressively migrate customers to online platforms. These platforms should be redesigned for less-educated Nigerians. They should now come with “video manuals” in Pidgin English and Nigerian languages training people how to use them and how not to become a victim of fraud. This will be a good business for Nigerian programmers and communication agencies.
Roll-Out E-Branches: The branches will be dedicated solely to onboarding customers to electronic platforms.
Collective Liability Social Distancing: From what we have garnered talking to people who work in banks, it seems anyone with at least a balance of at least N2, 000 feels highly insulted if security staff try and tell them what to do e.g. keep social distancing or use sanitizers. Banks have had a very difficult time getting customers to behave safely in branches. Drastically cutting the number of customers who can come in will help. Banks also should let customers know that branches will be closed once the security men at the bank have to step in to enforce social distancing more than once in an hour. Everyone hates a wasted trip, so the customers will learn to police each other.
These measures may have to stay with us for a long time. They may end up being permanent and making banking more efficient and profitable. The customer desk of banks may never have to deal again with customers who come in to ask them to confirm if their business partners have truly transferred money into their accounts from a different bank.
Apart from reopening the banking halls, this approach can also provide a clue, if not a model, for reopening the wider economy, at least some sectors, if not all.