Responding to COVID-19 with one voice

May 22, 2020

By Head of the UN in Nigeria, Resident Coordinator Edward Kallon

UN Resident Coordinator in Nigeria, Edward Kallon. Credit: Oluseyi Soremekun, UNIC Nigeria

Ahead of its arrival in Nigeria, a lot of people in the country had misconceptions about COVID-19. Many thought it was a disease only for advanced countries, or that black Africans were immune to it.

But as the number of infections grew from one case in Lagos on 27 February, to more than 400 by 17 April, new myths developed. For example, “Coronavirus is a disease of the rich”, and “since alcohol-based hand rub can kill the virus, drinking alcohol will prevent infection.” These, and other unverified myths, started doing the rounds on social media, spreading even faster than the virus itself. Addressing this dangerous misinformation became one of the first and most critical tasks for the UN in Nigeria.

The Nollywood factor

We quickly turned to the Nigerian film and entertainment industry, otherwise known as Nollywood, which produces some 50 movies per week, second only to India’s Bollywood (Hollywood, in the United States, is a distant third).

Nigerian stars produced powerful content with potent messages that quickly began to trend: “No shaking of hands with your neighbour; blow them a kiss from afar, use soap and water to wage war…” sings award-winning Nigerian musician Cobhams Asuquo, in his heartfelt song to contain the spread of COVID-19.

Nigerian musician Cobhams Asuquo. Credit: Kelechi Amadi Obi

Addressing the issue of coronavirus myths, popular comedian Basket Mouth, in his short video, urges everyone in pidgin English, “Abeg confam information before you share am,” meaning, “Please confirm every piece of information before you share with others.” Star actress, Toyin Abraham in her short video, advises, “Do not be terrified. Listen not to rumours about coronavirus.”

Nollywood star Toyin Abraham. Credit: Toyin Abraham

Collaboration, cooperation and funding

There are many different UN agencies, programmes and funds present in Nigeria, and we made sure the strengths of each could be used to effectively help the Government and people of Nigeria through this crisis.

At a meeting with government agencies, and donors, we discussed the unfolding emergency, and agreed on a plan of action, which included launching a fund to channel contributions to Nigeria’s Presidential COVID-19 Task Force.

Together, the different parts of the UN in Nigeria contributed US$2 million to procure essential medical supplies — including 50 ventilators that will likely double the national reserves — as well as Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), 30,000 test kits, and five ambulances with surveillance equipment.

But our work goes beyond funding. The UN in Nigeria has supported coordination at Emergency Operations Centres (EOCs), contact tracing and surveillance, logistic support for transportation and provision of materials such as PPE and much more.

The World Health Organization (WHO), which is taking the lead on the COVID-19 containment strategy, has sent staff members to the affected regions to support the response, and is helping other regions to prepare to cope, including risk communications and community engagement, with strong support from other UN Agencies.

The humanitarian consequences

Currently, we are getting ready to deal with the immediate humanitarian consequences of the pandemic, should it spread to the North-East of Nigeria. We will not wait for COVID-19 to reach camps where internally displaced people are living, before we act: they have already suffered enough from the decade-long conflict in the region.

We are supporting the authorities in the Borno, Adamawa and Yobe regions to develop emergency response plans that address the reality of the living conditions in many communities and IDP camps, and the specific needs of women and children, who often bear the biggest brunt of any crisis.

Maimuna Umar and Amina Abubakar with soap they have made with the help of the Jireh Doo foundation in an IDP camp in Maiduguri. Credit: OCHA/Eve Sabbagh.

To protect IDPs against coronavirus, we have installed handwashing stations in camps and informal settlements and are working to ensure a rapid distribution of water. Beyond the IDPs, the UN is launching a survey tool with the Network of People living with HIV to gather specific information regarding potential challenges for people living with HIV/AIDS, and how they can maintain continuous access to quality treatment, care and support in the midst of the COVID-19 response.

Looking ahead to the post-coronavirus era

Anticipating the socio-economic impact of COVID-19 in the post-coronavirus era, the UN in Nigeria has prepared an analysis of the socio-economic environment and projections post-coronavirus, and will soon draft a report to help the Government’s planning.

It is key for the different parts of the UN to act as one. Together we will achieve more. The collaboration and cooperation between the UN and the Government is clear for all to see, and is already bearing fruit in delivering an effective and coordinated national response to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.

We are committed to continuing this collaboration for the benefit of all Nigerians, as the world faces one of the biggest health crises ever seen.

Working together, we can surely win. In fact, this is the only way we can win.