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Vulnerable, Abused Nigerians Are Worst Hit By COVID-19 – OSIWA

Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA) has decried the inadequate support abuse victims, sick and vulnerable Nigerians received during the COVID-19 lockdown.

In an article titled, ‘Leaving No One Behind in our COVID-19 Response’, Tsema Okoye and Fejiro Josephine Tsekiri noted that the total lockdown raised deep concerns and debate over whether Nigeria could afford a lockdown as adopted by other countries given the struggling economy, with half of the population living below the poverty line exacerbated by the country’s weak social safety net system.

HumAngle recalls that the Federal Government ordered a total lockdown in Lagos and Ogun states as well as the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, from March 30, 2020, a step adopted by majority of the 36 states of the federation.

Okoye and Tsekiri stated that the pandemic was bound to hit Nigeria at different levels of vulnerability and fragility, and test not just healthcare and economic systems but also the social system.

They added that it became apparent to OSIWA in Nigeria that a comprehensive approach to mapping and correctly identifying the most vulnerable people in communities was critical during a health crisis of the current magnitude.

They said, “From victims of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) 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 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 of the questions we asked ourselves.

“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 recognised the challenges of designing specific messaging targeting this group of persons and factoring in much-needed support for them.

“A community of high-risk persons living with HIV and tuberculosis were faced with an impending public health crisis,” they said.

HumAngle reports that the concern was that vulnerable people needed to have safe services rendered to them within the lockdown period, which was lacking.

Persons living with HIV and AIDS needed services designed to ensure they had uninterrupted access to care and treatment.

It was also important that their health was not put at further risk while trying to access life-saving health services.

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.

Restriction of first responder organisations

OSIWA also noted that civil society organisations, who are first responders in providing critical services to them, were not recognised by the government as essential service providers.

Consequently, they faced extreme difficulty in reaching and helping victims.

Some first responders reportedly 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.

Okoye and Tsekiri said, “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.

“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,” they said.

OSIWA’s response

OSIWA revealed that its office worked with the partner to set up designated safe spaces for medication pick-ups and access to remote counselling.

As a result, medication was made available to patients, especially those with HIV and AIDS and the mental health of several vulnerable people was sustained.

Okoye and Tsekiri wrote, “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 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 to 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,” they said.

OSIWA urged the government to include the most vulnerable groups in its COVID-19 response, as organisations continue to learn through their support that the needs of citizens goes beyond the distribution of palliatives.

It noted that beyond handing out cash and food distribution, citizens mostly wanted to be heard and counted.

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