Bringing Nollywood star power to Nigeria’s fight against COVID-19: a UN Resident Coordinator blog

All of the UN bodies in Nigeria are working closely together, to ensure that the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic is effective, and saves as many lives as possible. By the UN Resident Coordinator in Nigeria, Edward Kallon.

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 were mobilised, and 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.

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.”

Collaboration, cooperation and funding

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

At a meeting with government agencies, and key donors, we held a meeting to discuss 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 $2 million towards the procurement of essential medical supplies, including 50 ventilators that will likely double the national reserves, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), 30,000 test kits, and five ambulances with surveillance equipment.

But our work goes beyond just 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 for internally displaced persons (IDPs) 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 pay special attention to 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.

To protect the 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 (NEPWHAN) to gather specific information regarding potential challenges, and also for people living with HIV/AIDS, and how they can maintain continuous access to quality treatment, care and support in the midst of the response to the outbreak of COVID-19.
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, with a view to drafting a technical report that will help planning and decision-making by the Government.

It is key for the different parts of the UN to act as one. Togetherness achieves more. The collaboration and cooperation between the UN and the Government is clear for all to see, and is already bearing fruit in ensuring 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.

US must improve COVID-19 strategy to keep tens of millions from falling into poverty, urges rights expert

The United States must take urgent additional steps to prevent tens of millions of middle-class Americans hit by the COVID-19 pandemic from being “plunged into poverty”, according to an independent UN human rights expert.

“Low-income and poor people face far higher risks from the coronavirus due to chronic neglect and discrimination, and a muddled, corporate-driven, federal response [that] has failed them”, said Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, who made a fact-finding visit to the US in 2017.

He painted a picture of record layoffs, a weak safety net, and a Government “focusing primarily on businesses and the well-off”, saying that significant portions of the country “will soon face destitution unless Congress takes far-reaching action”.

Over a four-week period, more than 22 million people have filed for unemployment and US Federal Reserve economists reportedly project up to 47 million lost jobs through the summer.

Moreover, food bank use is skyrocketing and almost a third of housing tenants in the US reportedly did not pay April’s rent on time.

Poor inequitably endangered

The independent expert maintained that people in poverty are disproportionately threatened by the coronavirus.

“They are more likely to work in jobs with a high risk of exposure, live in crowded and insecure housing, reside in neighbourhoods that are more vulnerable because of air pollution, and lack access to healthcare”, he said. “Communities of colour, who face a persistent racial wealth gap, are at particular risk and are dying at much higher rates.”

Additionally, the poor have fewer resources to cushion economic blows and are more susceptible to mass layoffs and pay cuts. And low-income children have less capacity to access classes online.

“Despite these severe risks, federal relief is not yet reaching many people in need and is fundamentally inadequate in scope and kind given the magnitude of the crisis and its longer-term impact”, pinpointed Mr. Alston, noting that one-time payments not only provide less than a month’s living wage but also exclude millions of taxpaying undocumented immigrants.

On March 27, President Donald Trump signed into law a historic $2 trillion emergency relief package which made its way through Congress, to provide stopgap funding for workers, small businesses and industry, impacted by the need to lockdown much of the country to halt the transmission of COVID-19.

More than half of workers were left out of sick leave legislation, the Special Rapporteur highlighted; student debt relief excludes the millions who borrowed from private companies; and despite tens of millions of people lacking insurance, no comprehensive steps have been taken to cover medical treatment, added Mr. Alston.

The Special Rapporteur called for “accessible, affordable treatment” to ensure that when a coronavirus vaccine does become available, it is not rolled out first to the wealthy first and “only eventually” to those most at risk.

“Poor people will be harmed if Congress continues to deny meaningful assistance to state and local governments, which are considering cuts to services like public transportation, education, legal aid and healthcare”, he underscored.

Even before the crisis, an estimated two in five Americans could not cover a $400 expense without going into debt, and according to the US Census Bureau, in 2018, 38.1 million people lived in poverty.

Flagging that poor Americans have “abysmally insecure working conditions, low pay and unaffordable rents”, Mr. Alston also indicated that they lack guarantees normal in most developed countries, such as universal healthcare.

The independent UN expert urged the US to provide immediate further relief, such as rental assistance and debt suspension, as well as long-term solutions, including a green stimulus package and student debt cancellation.

“This is a moment to re-evaluate failing health, housing and social support systems that have made this crisis especially painful for the less well-off”, he concluded.

Special Rapporteurs are appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a specific human rights theme or a country situation. The positions are honorary, they are not UN staff nor are they paid for their work.