Investigation

Yuletide: The poor and vulnerable in the eye of COVID-19 storm

The second wave of the Coronavirus is spreading fast. The poor and vulnerable may be caught up if they remain at the end of the table. Should this happen, it will only spell doom for a country with a population of over 200 million, and a very weak health system. REGINA OTOKPA reports:

Alone on Wuye Bridge with an amputated left leg, Alice Umegbo, crawls on the pedestrian bridge with hope to evoke sympathy in passersby. It works as hardly anyone passes by without dropping money into her hands, no matter how little. She quickly tucks it in her money bag affixed to her waist.

“I have to do this; it’s not easy but God is helping me. Some days I get over N2,000. At least, it’s something. May God continue to bless all those, who have blessed me in one way or the other,” Umegbo, filled with emotions, prayed.

Incidentally, Umegbo is not alone on the streets; there are many other persons, living with one disability or the other, who depend on sweeping pedestrian bridges, poaching by the road side or moving in between traffic begging to survive. In this category are also persons whose profession is begging despite not being disabled. Tordue Tersoo is one of those with no disability.

Orphaned from a tender age, he hawks bagged sachet water commonly referred to as ‘pure water’ at the Federal Secretariat, Abuja, to fend for himself. Tersoo steps out every morning with his somewhat white plastic and begs a few passersby for money. Once he raises N200, he rushes into Eagle Square to purchase a full bag of water and resell. He uses the proceeds to feed and transport himself back home and to Secretariat the next day to continue the cycle.

Just like Tersoo, Ibrahim Tijani, a wheelbarrow pusher, resumes every day at Wuse Market to assist shoppers to convey their goods to their vehicles. The rich and the poor are his clients. Throughout the day, he toils, not minding the scorching sun burning through his back. Another, a commercial cab driver of over 10 years, identified simply as Ariyo, has his old Toyota car as his best friend.

He conveys passengers; four behind and two at the front seat with him all through each day, from 6:30 am to 5pm, except on Sundays when he rests with his family and has a friendly maintenance chat with his best friend, his Toyota. Justifying the overloading of his vehicle, Ariyo said: “Fuel is expensive ooo! If I ask passengers to pay double, they would not agree to pay. I have a family to feed, I need to also buy fuel, eat and maintain the car so that it can continue to serve me.

“Coro is not in Nigeria, so allow me to carry my passengers in peace. If you can pay for the extra passenger, it’s okay but if you can’t and you don’t want me to carry my passengers, please go down.” The woman among them, Ngozi Maduka, sells vegetables and soup condiments at Kubwa Market.

Her husband and children assist, occasionally and by so doing, at least almost all her customers are attended to satisfactorily and on time. Ejiro Osas appears like a hustler. He gets to Banex Plaza every week day and on Saturdays to scout customers on behalf of business owners. He is sure of a little percentage whenever the business deal is successful.

However, Philemon Emmanuel is in charge of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp at New Kuchingoro. Like his counterparts at the other IDPs and orphanage homes, he takes delivery of all money or item donated for the wellbeing of those quartered in the camps or homes.

Whichever the category, these Nigerians are part of the millions of people, who rarely comply with the COVID-19 protocols of hand washing, use of alcohol based sanitiser, or social distancing as the case may be. For these categories of Nigerians who make their livings on the streets, the risk of contracting the deadly Coronavirus is very high.

The scariest part is the fact that they often rub those unwashed hands on their faces, stick their fingers into their nostrils, and pick their teeth with it while having a meal or snacks.

Same goes for some of the persons they may have come in contact with directly or indirectly. With about 85 percent of vulnerable and poor persons without facemasks coupled with an alarming rate of total disregard for social distancing, the second wave of the pandemic may be worse than anticipated.

Since the virus made an inroad into the country in February, the majority of Nigerians have refused to accept the authenticity of the fatalities and infection figures released by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), on a daily basis. Luckily, public service providers, corporate organisations, religious bodies to mention but a few, made adequate provision of hand washing facilities, hand sanitisers, temperature scanners and marked the floors to enhance social distancing.

However, as the months went by, the rate of compliance with these protocols gradually began to wane, especially hand washing with soap and running water. With each passing day, several arguments around the low number of infections in Africa, Nigeria inclusive, emerged. While the majority linked the low figures to the hot temperature in the region, others believed it was as a result of certain food consumed by Nigerians.

There are also those who even attributed it to divine protection. But with the yuletide came the cold weather and mass return of citizens from high burden countries to celebrate the festivities with friends and loved ones.

Despite the potential dangers associated with these, the official announcement of a second wave of the pandemic in Nigeria and the release of new guidelines for the yuletide to contain its spread, Nigerians have again thrown caution to the wind, forgetting the consequences could be devastating. For instance, the FCT COVID- 19 task force had a hectic Christmas, sensitising fun seekers at various parks before turning them back home.

Clubs, joints and other fun spots were fully operational in the suburbs, with a massive crowd all through the celebration. The departmental stores were equally not left out. Days before Christmas, they were filled to capacity with the majority of customers cramped up either without a face mask or dropped them to their chins. Same goes for stores running annual sales as Nigerians struggle to purchase goods and items at far lower prices.

Sadly, the poor and vulnerable struggling on a daily basis to survive may be worst hit this time around if care is not taken. Some of the persons, who defy the virus, mingle with many others not certified Coronavirus free, come in contact one way or the other with these set of people.

But experts have continued to argue that the Federal and State Governments are reasons behind the lackadaisical attitude of Nigerians to the virus. According to the Chairman, Expert Review Committee on COVID-19, Prof. Oyewale Tomori, insincerity and lack of unanimous decisions and misalignment of preventive messaging based on Nigeria’s peculiarities by government are some of the gaps affecting the expected responses to COVID-19 protocols and testing.

Tomori said: “Yes, there is COVID-19, but not in the magnitude of other parts of the world. Therefore our intervention should have focused on the individual; save yourself to save the public, not save the public to save yourself, safety should be me first.”

The immediate past president, Association of Medical Laboratory Scientists of Nigeria (MLSN), Dr. Godswill Okara, warns that with limited numbers of Nigerians tested since the pandemic hit Nigeria, many persons are most likely to be harbouring the virus without their knowledge.

“Laboratory testing remains a very key requirement in the identification of the disease burden, contact tracing, isolation, treatment and control measures are all very important,” Okara said.

He further harped on the need to engage communication experts and public health professionals to articulate population-specific messages to increase awareness of the serious danger facing the country and its already weak health systems in the second wave.

He added: “There is a dire need for the government to step up and intensify Information, Enlightenment and Communication (IEC) activities directed at the public for sustained control measures and behavioral changes for prevention of spread of the disease.”

However, the opposite is still the case. Little wonder the Chairman, Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), FCT Chapter and Senior Pastor, ECWA Good News, Maitama, Rev. Dr. Samson Jonah, took a swipe at the government for failing to abide by the protocols it has set up.

“We talked to ourselves that compliance should be very high during this second wave because of how dangerous and deadly the virus is. But above all, we are saying that as we continue to comply, let’s also see the government functionaries doing the same thing, because leadership should be by example.

“We don’t need an angel to tell us how dangerous the virus is. So, we summoned our pastors and talked to them,we disseminated a lot of information and text messages and told them to ensure total compliance. We as the clergy, are helping, sensitising and talking to the people. We should also see a high level of compliance when it comes to other gatherings besides the church setting, for instance, campaigns, weddings and so on.

“When you become a leader, the things you do, people will like to copy you; more than what you say. So, we want to see that replicated at a higher level. Because knowing the right thing and doing it is most important,” he said.

But compliance to the protocols can only happen when there is a shift in citizen’s perception of the virus to elicit a behavioural change. Recognising the need to carry the vulnerable along, an advocacy toolkit for COVID-19 Systems Rescue and Citizens’ Empowerment (CORECA), insists on proper engagement of citizens, messaging and dissemination of appropriate information to positively impact on citizen’s perception of Coronavirus.

The kit championed by Executive Director, International Society of Media in Public Health (ISMPH), Moji Makanjuola, equally harps on the importance of using lessons learnt from COVID-19 to improve policies around health security and health system strengthening.

From the political arena, it demands “advocacy for inclusive decisions, policies and actions to ensure all measures to mitigate the impact of the pandemic touch on the vulnerable groups, especially, women, girls, children and the elderly.

This will address the impact of COVID-19 on livelihoods and other social services.” To say the least, the numbers are expected to rise astronomically, given the flagrant disregard for safe guidelines in the yuletide, according to medical experts.

While the rich and the middle class may recognise the need to run early tests and afford proper treatment if positive to the virus, the poor and vulnerable continue to cling on mercy and grace, with deep thoughts of where the next meal will come from.

Recall that at the wake of the lockdown, the Federal Government had rolled out a palliative scheme for the poor and vulnerable. Sadly, despite the controversies trailing the success of the scheme, orphanage homes, IDP camps, persons living with disabilities, and the poor and needy were not carried along.

At the same time, individuals, organisations and religious leaders including the operational director, Lady Helen Child Health Foundation (LHCHF), Dr. Francisca Odeka, had made a passionate appeal for orphanage homes and other vulnerable children to be captured in the scheme.

She said: “A survey to determine current awareness of COVID-19 in orphanage homes showed that the Federal Government’s conditional cash transfer to the most vulnerable and the poor as palliative for restricting movement and enforcing the stay at home directive did not put the orphanage homes into consideration. “When you have a vulnerable situation, you have a double bite for people who are vulnerable.

It is a priority area, the Coronavirus is not gone. The Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19 and the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development should make it a priority to target the vulnerable children and orphana g e s . They can do it; I see no reason they can’t.” Housed in warehouses for reasons beyond citizen’s comprehension, the #End- SARS protest sparked a hunger revolution exposing government’s insensitivity to the plight of the people.

What followed was mass looting of the palliatives in almost all the states and the Federal Capital Territory. At a webinar organised by LHCHF, the Minister of Women Affairs and Social Development, Dame Pauline Tallen, maintained that the ministry had put in place measures and interventions principally targeted at women, children and the most vulnerable groups in the society during the pandemic.

Represented by the Deputy Director, Orphans and Vulnerable Children (OVC), Andrew Madugu, she insisted that the ministry has an effective link with Non- Governmental Organisations (NGOs), and will continue to seek ways of improving engagements of the special group whose pulse she claims to feel in all her dealings.

Many have recognised the fact that the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic is here and gradually taking a toll on the country, and have said that the time for increased action from all state actors is now. One infected poor or vulnerable Nigerian, they say, has the capacity to infect a higher number of persons. Government, according to those on this divide, must begin to think out of the box towards developing a special intervention mechanism for these set of persons, and devise a more effective sensitisation platform by encouraging more COVID-19 testing among the poor and the vulnerable to further contain the virus.

In spite of all these, this season, which is a time for families to reunite and be grateful for all that they have, ought to redirect the minds of both the people in government and the citizenry towards the vulnerable in the society.

There’s no other season quite like this, many would say. Though it is a time of joy, it’s also a time of giving back to those in the society, who are less fortunate, those who are suffering from grief, and those who need the comforts of Yuletide cheer the more.

This, to many, represents the true spirit and essential meaning of the season, which is to share joy. In Nigeria, it is estimated that over 50 per cent of the population still lives well below the poverty line, with no means, no regular food at the table. Many in this class are disabled.

The term “Disability” with respect to an individual, in some societies, is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of an individual. Such impairment includes inability to speak, see, walk, hear and breath properly or care for oneself.

The less privileged are those poor people in the society, who cannot afford their daily livelihood such as clothing, food, education and healthcare. Being poor means deprived economically, politically and socially. They lack nutrition, high risk of diseases, and lack access to healthcare and basic essentials for living a comfortable life. Disability Support Services therefore are the assistance rendered to these helpless people to make them feel relevant in the society.

The less privileged in the society need assistance and support to achieve a good quality of life and to be able to participate in social and economic life on an equal basis with others. Caring for the less privileged and helping them, many believe, is a good deed and a noble endeavour. The more you give to the poor and needy, according to this school of thought, the more you make them feel loved and motivated.

Giving to others can also help protect one’s mental and physical health, they say. To this group of people, it can reduce stress, combat depression, keep one mentally stimulated, and provide a sense of purpose.

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