A new Pandemic. A new leadership battle for the vulnerable

Imagine a time when you felt that the odds are against you and that it is unlikely that you will ever get out of a particular sticky situation. Yes? No? I was asked this question a couple of years ago and could not relate to it until I thought of my more mischievous childhood in Nigeria. There were instances mischief had got me in trouble and with no-nonsense parents – at that time, I felt that life, as I knew it, was going to end that day! So my answer to the question above was a yes, until my memories returned to the person who asked me that question. 

My questioner was a woman in her early 40s who had been thrown out of her home in Borno State – the heart of the Boko Haram insurgency. Her husband, son and father had been part of the vigilante group in her community and did not return alive after a campaign in the forest. So, there was no way I was going to share my silly childhood experience as a response to her question. 

But I did inquire more. Hassana is one of millions of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), impacted by violence from 2014. I will never forget her description of life as an inevitable wait and knowing that she faces a daily struggle for shelter, food and health care, Hassana believed that it is only a matter time before whatever the world throws at her catches up. 

The world has thrown up the Coronavirus (COVID-19), and even though I haven’t seen Hassana in two years, I wonder if it has finally caught up. 

Before COVID-19 hit Nigerian borders in March 2020, the country and its citizens were already dealing with a barrage of violent incidents. The Boko Haram insurgency and heightened Fulani Herdsmen criminality left behind a wreckage trail to guarantee that millions were displaced from their homes. These violent incidents gave Nigeria a secure spot on the map of countries pushing displacement numbers upwards and made the word “displacement” more commonplace in Nigerian development conversations than they were a decade ago. 

Thanks to International Organisation for Migration’s (IOM’s) Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM) 2019 Report, we now know the number of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in the North East is pegged at 1,948,349. To place this in context, this is almost an equivalent of Gambia’s entire population. 

Other regions of the country witnessed IDPs population explosion as well. In the South-South region, Cross River witnessed a spill out of violence from a neighbouring Cameroon, which has created 169,220 IDPs. Also, Lagos State’s March 2020 gas inferno engulfing the Abule Ado and Sabo areas, added over 200,000 persons to the IDP population. Let me be clear, this is just a frugal few of the multiple incidences (reported and unreported) that were being witnessed in different parts of the country in the past few years. 

In essence, before COVID emerged, Nigeria has gathered a steady and robust stream of IDP population and with the record of the first case in an IDP camp at Borno State, there are many reasons why we should cast a worried eye on that emerging threat. First, displacement is a major contributory factor to the expansion of Nigeria’s poor population. According to the United Nations, IDPs fall under the category of the most vulnerable population in society and are one of those likely to be hardest hit in the COVID-19 pandemic since they are less likely to have access to qualitative health care or nutrition. 

The supply side isn’t pretty either. Nigeria already grapples with major infrastructural deficits. The main question is: how do we ensure compliance to public health measures for COVID 19 prevention and control when basic amenities are absent? To put this in perspective, how do you tell a man/woman to self-isolate in a one room apartment s/he share with 12 of their family members? Also, given the importance of water sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) especially in the current era, how do we ensure that IDPs have access to WASH. Already, UNICEF has raised that WASH still a contributing factor to high morbidity and mortality rates for under 5-year olds in Nigeria. 

But it’s not all bad news. There have been commendable and philanthropic efforts to address COVID. From the government to private sector, diaspora, international development partners, well-meaning Nigerians. Isolation centres have been built, food is being distributed, masks are widely available, and the Presidential Task Force provides a daily update. In this furore of activities, I am keen to find the middle ground between the demand and supply of the resources to have people especially IDPs, protected. How are all these being coordinated? Where do we find a one goal and a single drive towards that goal? I am afraid that in the middle of these well-meaning activities, the real needs of the most vulnerable such IDPs, can easily be forgotten. 

Here is my take to duty bearers. A knee jerk reaction will end up causing chaos at best. Examples of first reactions – dig up bore holes that are not needed, share more food, build permanent isolation centres; everyone buys masks that don’t protect. The tendency is to find that everyone toes the line that the leadership (in this case government) provides. Another example, when a government reacts to the pandemic by sharing food, everyone -individual, corporates, NGOs – do the same thing. Forgetting that there are other needs such as access to clean and running water and decent housing that can be and should be met. This is a typical case of doing the same thing over and again expecting a different result. In my opinion, these reactions, although well meaning, do not only close opportunities for creativity, but is a guarantee that scarce resources will be wasted. 

A well thought out response will be to gain a bird’s eye view of enablers to help the public adhere to standard safety measures. At this time, data is king and an absolute necessity if we are to gain a near precise direction for a COVID 19 intervention – one that is home grown and locally relevant. What data is available or needs to be generated to identify technical and social cultural barriers to adherence to public health measures for the prevention and control of COVID? How can this authoritative data resource generate coordinated action and present opportunities for innovation and solutions from local governments, diaspora, international development partners and well-meaning Nigerians? I believe that with COVID 19, this generation of Nigerians is being presented with a leadership opportunity to foster a shared vision and coordinated action that could bring to fruition novel solution to a novel pandemic. 

Hassana’s perspective to life jolted me out of my comfort zone. As I am sure it did you too, readers. Now looking at Nigeria’s response to COVID19 – the confusion, the absence of leadership and the slow but certain creep into communities, I fear for Hassana, IDPs and the poor neighbourhoods that she would live in. I am also concerned for the middle class and the upper class who are not so removed and share daily interactions at the marketplaces shops etc. 

Of course, the trajectory can change when we get that leadership we need. We are not far behind. There is a lot of drive to restore our normalcy. We only need the right coordination to not just catch what the world has thrown at us and our most vulnerable; but together, throw it right back to oblivion. The ball is in our court now. 

Play your part, share till leadership pays attention. 

Dede Kadiri is passionate about people and Africa. What drives her is the opportunity to impact on lives so that people experience a new and heightened performance level for themselves, their organisations and countries. As a writer, leadership coach and analyst, Dede has applied her skills to contribute to development shifts across the continent. ”

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