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By Tsema Okoye, Fejiro Josephine Tsekiri
COVID-19 has changed the world as we know it. Images of body bags, deserted streets and overflowing hospital hallways captured the attention of the world as the virus wreaked havoc through China, Europe and the United States. These events elicited frenzied responses by countries around the world. In Nigeria, the fear was palpable because of the latent inefficiencies of our healthcare system. The index case in Nigeria was announced on the 27th of February 2020.
The Government of Nigeria responded by declaring a total lockdown of three states including Abuja the Federal Capital Territory already hit by the virus on March 23, 2020. This total lockdown raised deep concerns and debate over whether Nigeria could afford a lockdown as adopted by other countries given that we have a struggling economy, with half of the population living below the poverty line exacerbated by the country’s weak social safety net system. The pandemic was bound to hit Nigeria at different levels of vulnerability and fragility, and it was going to test not just health care and economic systems but also the social system.
It became apparent to the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA) office in Nigeria that a comprehensive approach to mapping and correctly identifying the most vulnerable people in our communities was critical during a health crisis of this magnitude. This pandemic made the role of the government in providing information and services to its people even more urgent. Sadly, the failings of government in providing these basic needs became more apparent, and their absence in the life of citizens even more palpable. From victims of sexual and gender-based violence to people living with HIV and other debilitating diseases, many questions begged to be answered about the kind of support they could be given in a lockdown in a during a pandemic. Will they have access to much needed drugs and care? Will there be channels, safe spaces and support systems for victims of abuse? What safeguards would be provided for persons living with disability? These are some the questions we asked ourselves.
Our work at OSIWA focuses on providing crucial support to the diverse group of identified persons who were more at risk and who seemed to have been left out of the Government’s COVID-19 intervention plan and response strategy.
Reported cases of domestic violence began to increase just days into lockdown. This was a predictable impact of the lockdown, and most victims found themselves forced to stay in with their abusers with no means to escape and no outside support. We recognized the challenges of designing specific messaging targeting this group of persons and factoring in much-needed support for them. In addition to this predicament, Civil Society Organizations, who are first responders in providing critical services to them, were not recognized by the government as essential service providers.
Consequently, they faced extreme difficulty in reaching and helping victims. Some first responders faced harassment by security actors who could not understand their role and the essential services they were providing for victims. To address the gnawing gap, OSIWA worked with its partners to advocate the inclusion of SGBV responses as a critical service, step-up the provision of services, create awareness on the availability of support systems, activate counselling helplines and in some instances help to identify safe spaces for victims. Our partners continue to innovate in their responses and have learned to navigate the lockdown restrictions to support the communities they work for, including women with disabilities. Thanks to their resilience and consistency, a small group of people have been able to get through the lockdown without significant loss of lives, health or loved ones.
A community of high-risk persons living with HIV and tuberculosis were faced with an impending public health crisis. The concern was that these vulnerable people needed to have safe services rendered to them within the lockdown period, but this was lacking. Persons living with HIV/AIDS needed services designed to ensure they had uninterrupted access to care and treatment. It was also imperative that their health was not put at further risk while trying to access life-saving health services. Accordingly, our office worked with the partner to set up designated safe spaces for medication pick-ups and access to remote counselling. As a result, medication that was made available to them (whilst tackling the challenge of mobility), and their mental health sustained.
The government-enforced lockdown also meant that higher levels of protection was required to guarantee respect for human rights. It was necessary to re-affirm that the virus was the threat and that citizens were not the enemy. We worked to ensure that there was increased visibility for institutions with the mandate for the protection and promotion of human rights, that there was ready access to human rights defenders and that more channels were opened for citizens to report cases of rights violations.
Dealing with unprecedented situations like the outbreak of a disease certainly meant that we had to ensure that citizens had a platform to be heard. We provided this outlet through partner radio stations reaching across 11 states across the country. Citizens were calling in to ask questions, raise complaints and give insight into their lives during the lockdown. The platforms provided opportunities for people to connect with government officials. Citizens also called express concern, fear and worry and for most of them, the ability to have their concerns aired and a government representative respond to these questions was all the support they needed.
At a time when citizens world over are living in a state of fear and uncertainty, it is vital that we address the needs of vulnerable groups . Placing the ordinary citizen at the heart of our work is a principle we uphold at OSIWA. As we continue to advocate for government to include the most vulnerable groups in its COVID-19 response, we continue to learn through our support that the needs of citizens goes beyond the distribution of palliatives in terms of handing out cash and food distribution, they mostly want to be heard and counted. We hope our engagements have made them count and the government must do the same.
 Tsema and Josephine are Programme Staff of the Open Society Initiative for West Africa
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