Abandoned to Fate

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Omolabake Fasogbon in this investigation, brings to light the helpless plight of widows and the elderly in South-west Nigeria, as they wait endlessly for government palliatives just as the sick ones battle stigmatisation

65-years-old Mrs Sola (not real name) worked in a private primary school in Lagos. She is among the 20 per cent underemployed Nigerians whose means of livelihood suffered sudden disruption as a result of the outbreak of COVID-19 in Nigeria, that put all sectors of the economy, including education on hold.

No doubt, Mrs Sola, her sick husband and two grown up unemployed children had looked up to both federal and state governments palliatives that was shared during the lockdown, at least, food items, that never came.

She is not alone. For Mrs Ganiyu who lost her husband to kidney infection early last year, she and her four children had been living on the daily returns from the tricycle that her husband left behind. However, the ban placed on tricycles by Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu of Lagos pushed her into hawking of eggs in Ile-Epo market at Agbule-egba, Lagos.

These women’s hope for survival became dashed once President Buhari announced a total lock down in Lagos, Ogun and Abuja to contain the spread of COVID-19 in Nigeria, while other state governments followed suit. But their hope was revived as soon as President Buhari announced that the lockdown would be eased with some palliative measures which included food items and cash relief.

According to the president when announcing the initial lockdown in March, government would put in place measures to preserve livelihoods of workers, business owners and the vulnerable, to ensure their families get through the difficult time of COVID-19 pandemic in dignity.

His words read in part, “For the most vulnerable in our society, I have directed that conditional cash transfers for the next two months be paid immediately. Our internally displaced persons will also receive months of food rations in the coming week.”

The Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, Sadiya Umar Farouq, equally promised that food rations would be distributed to vulnerable households, which the widow and elders belong.

As a result of the lockdown too, many organisations, foreign bodies and well to do individuals rose up to support the government so it can reach out to as many Nigerians as possible.

Indeed, the federal government fulfilled this promise as reported by the dailies but the question remains who and who benefitted from the social arrangement while many have continued to question government transparency and accountability on COVID-19 stimulus.

According to a report by The ICIR, the North-west region received the highest Conditional Cash Transfer in the country, with 561,758 households benefitting from an allocation of N500billion.

Others are North-central, 321,434; North-east, 109,442; South-south, 67,696; South-west, 37,904; and South-east, 27,977.The report further revealed that Katsina State has the highest number of beneficiaries at 133,227.

Other states with the highest number of beneficiaries were:Zamfara, 130,764; Jigawa, 99,044; Kano, 84,148; and Plateau, 78,430.

Mrs Sola, Mrs Ganiyu and many other widows and elders that THISDAY talked to in the South-west part of the country said that they only heard about the fund on TV and have waited endlessly for their share.

As to the food ration distributed by states in the region, not only were Nigerians embittered by the quantity of the food items which was not sustainable for the two months target period, the selective distribution process was also marred with several inadequacies leaving many people not catered for.

THISDAY investigation revealed that not just that the conditional cash transfer, which had been in existence before COVID-19 outbreak did not go round its target, the real COVID-19 palliatives did not also spread evenly.

Mrs Sola’s plight doubled as a widow and a furloughed employee who looked up to the government for relief. In the absence of none, she took up alms begging for survival.

“I needed to do this to put food on the table for myself and my four children”, she narrated with tears when this reporter interviewed her at the spot she was begging for alms.

Asked what intervention was provided by her employer, she said “Ever since the lockdown began, my proprietor called to inform me that my N10,000 is automatically on hold till situation normalises. Out of frustration, I visited him one day, hoping that he could help with some rations of food items, sadly, I left there the same way I got there. He told me to continue to pray that school should resume” Hearing her story, this reporter was moved to tears that she blessed her with the last N2000 on her.

A 2015 World Widow Report by the Loomba Foundation put the total number of widow around the world at 258 million out of which 3.5 million are Nigerians. A report commissioned by the United Nations submits that poverty rates tends to be higher among older people than other age groups across the globe. Studies have equally shown that some widows and elders in developing countries are economically vulnerable while others are not.

In developing countries like Nigeria, lack of social protection programme has caused most widows and older persons to look up to family members for support. Sadly, traditional supports from families are currently breaking as recent survey claimed.

No wonder these ones often take up menial jobs like gate man, cleaners and messengers while some resort to petty trading.

Although, many Nigerians had lost faith in government palliatives even before it came, this was not the case with Iya Basirat who had pinned her hope on government support as her only option for survival during the lockdown.

Iya Basirat like Mrs Ganiyu is among the 3.5 million widows in Nigeria who could not bear the long wait on government promise. Sighted at a filling station in Osun State, this reporter approached Iya Basirat where she was offering her body for sale to interested motorists who were refueling their car. In a dramatic way while flaunting her back side, she chanted in her yoruba native language, “obo re o, ta n fe ra, ebi ni pa n mi” meaning “here is my private part, who cares to buy , I am hungry”.

Iya Basirat in her late 40s’ is a pure water hawker whose livelihood depends on her daily proceeds. As a total lock down was announced in Osun State, her livelihood was automatically placed on hold. Certainly, she cannot hold her stomach and that of her three children, hence devised a survival strategy.

‘I waited for government’s promise but it didn’t get to my area. I was lucky to find a man who distributed one kongo of rice in my area but that only lasted my family for two days. My children and I can’t bear the hunger again, that is why I am doing this,” she opened up.

Sick Elders Battle Stigmatisation, Denied Healthcare

Away from hunger, the health system has equally failed the elderly this period.

The World Health Organisation, WHO, has expressed that older people are facing the most threats and challenges this time. According to the global organisation, while all age groups are at risk of contracting COVID-19, older people face significant risk of developing severe illness if they contract the disease due to physiological changes that come with ageing and potential underlying health conditions.

As a result, it implored nations to make health-care services available for senior citizens, including emergency and primary health care.

“Health-care workers, social service providers, family members and community members who provide care for older people must also be supported with the resources they need”, it added.

Unfortunately in Nigeria, not just that health workers are not provided with resources to cater for the old, elders who sought medical attention are being denied. The pandemic has brought about panic among health workers leading to distortion in the health system. This has taken a huge toll on the elders and not just the children as UNICEF recognised.

Visiting Orile Agege General Hospital, this reporter was sorry for the elders in sight as doctors walked passed them, leaving them to their fate.

The elders numbering about 30 were rather told to visit nearby health centre to lay their medical complaint while those on appointment were told to re-purchase and continue with their drugs without investigating or hearing their complaints.

THISDAY met with one of the elders, Mr Babalola, 73, who has diabetics. In his explanation, a drug was prescribed to him on his previous visit. Once he noticed that his right leg was swelling, he rushed back to the clinic but left disappointingly.

“I worry that I’m developing another ailment .My effort to see the doctor since 6:00 am has been abortive( This was exactly 2:30 pm) .Now they are telling me to go and continue with my drugs. Which drugs! Do I even know what is wrong with me? I don’t even have money to visit a private hospital. I am finished my daughter,” she mumbled as tears rolled down her cheeks.

Earlier, the nurse who addressed the elders at the General Out-patients Department mentioned that doctors cannot see them because they are vulnerable to COVID-19 and may be carrying the virus unknowingly.

While the nurse may be right afterall, this act of neglect has been widely condemned, more over that the president had promised to care for the vulnerable that the elders belong.

In another scenario, 75 year old was Mr John (not real name) was a gateman of one of orthodox churches. Baba as he his fondly called was having his breakfast when he aspirated, the situation went out of control that he had to be rushed down to hospital. Unfortunately, up to five hospitals rejected him. As at when he was taken to the sixth hospital who accepted to treat him, he passed away just before doctor commenced treatment on him.

According to the Founder of Live Abundantly, Dr Ama Onyerinma, WHO intervention to nations is being jeopardised by many factors in Nigeria.

She said, “Even with WHO plea to support the vulnerable, along with the funds dispersed for awareness and preparedness campaigns, application is hindered by the lack of adequate infrastructure, thorough assessment of needs, data, actionable implementation, accountability and reporting.”

The Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), in one of its briefings stated that it has recorded more death of COVID-19 among the elders. This has been partially linked to this neglect.

Plight Fueled by Policy Lacuna

According to the Population Division of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the proportion of older persons aged 60 years and above make up 12.3 per cent of the global population, which by 2050, the proportion will rise to almost 22 per cent.

In Nigeria, data from the National Council on Aging shows that the elders make up 3.1 per cent or 5.9 million of the country’s total population. Sociologists submit that the ageing population poses numerous social and economic challenges that can only be corrected by right set of policies.

Regrettably, functional policy on the care and welfare of older persons has always been lacking in Nigeria. This is compounded by a break up in family structure and lack of social security system.

The above situation means that the over 5.9 million elders in Nigeria are in for a hard time during and post COVID-19, safe for urgent intervention.

Just like the elders, widows have no special place in government plan, a situation that has heightened their sufferings this period. As stated in World Widows Report, they are rarely mentioned in the reports on women’s poverty, development, health or human rights published in the last 25 years.

A 2020 report put the number of widowed person globally at 350 million with 80 percent of them being widowed women.

A woman rights activist, Mimidoo Achapka argued that women were the most hit during the pandemic and lock down because of the responsibility that society has entrusted on them.

She said, “Women hold society together while many are breadwinners and the economic force of many homes. COVID-19 is no exception. They are caregivers in Nigerian society. The pandemic has had an economic, social and cultural impact on women”.

Given the exclusion of the Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development from the COVID-19 Nigerian National Response Inter-Ministerial action, the effect will be tougher on widows.

To Achapka, “Including the Women Affairs Ministry will synergise angles on social development and home-front issues of salience with our response efforts. Women are natural coordinators and should be included for more robust and effective outcomes in this pandemic”

This perhaps would also lessen the burden of these vulnerable ones this period such that Iya Basirat may not have to compromise her dignity by offering her body for men while 62 year –old Mrs Florence Onuobodo may not have to die untimely while struggling for food palliatives in Rivers state as widely reported in the media.

Fear, Pride Scare ‘Group’ Away from Gestures

The plight of widows and elders this period has been mostly helped by non- governmental organisations, NGOs whose objectives are driven around these groups of individual. But considering the 1,094 NGOS in Nigeria as compiled by The World Association of Non-Governmental Organisation (WANGO), of which few of them focus on widows and elders, help coming from this quarter would only capture a minute fraction of these vulnerable groups.

Some of the specialised NGOs attested to the level of impoverishment that COVID-19 has brought upon already helpless widows and elders.

While narrating her experience with these groups, Founder of one of the NGOs, Atinuke Owolabi said that the organisation had to carry out emergency food distribution seeing how hunger has dealt with these groups.

“Widows and several old people besieged our place when they heard that we have begun the house to house distribution. But we dispersed them because of the social distancing rule and told them to wait for us in their homes.

“Some of these old people are lonely and poor, some of them are abandoned because they have lost their spouses and their children live far away,’’ she said.

Also worthy of note are interventions coming from well-meaning community members and corporate bodies. But again, fear of stampede, disorderliness and rush that characterised free gesture as well as self-pride has left many in hunger and despair, even when help is right at their finger tip.

Mrs Arowona, 65, is a landlady of a four- room old­-fashioned bungalow apartment in Lagos state. Despite being hard bitten by hunger, she refused to join the long queue when a co well- to-do landlord distributed food items to the needy in his community.

Her reasons ” Not that I don’t need the food items, as a matter of fact, I need it more than anyone else. But I fear that being a landlady, people will make mockery of me, once they see me join the queue of the needy.”

Mrs Ganiyu while recounting her experience during an encounter with an NGO, said, “You will be sorry to see the elders even with their frail body struggling for free foods. I also struggled but at the end, I was only able to get a bag of pure water. I eventually sold the water and used the money to buy half Derica of rice”

Only a social protection system where older persons and widows are placed on monthly allowance institutions could save the situation of Mrs Sola and Mrs Ganiyu, as well as many others in their categories.

South Africa and Namibia are good examples of countries in Sub Saharan Africa pursuing this cause for their older persons, having established a social security system where persons aged 60years and above are entitled to a monthly pension.

A woman focused bank like the Zimbabwe Women Micro Finance Bank would also help widows greatly during the pandemic and beyond. The bank is committed to offering loans, advice and skills training to help women get the funding and access to markets that traditional banks often deny them.

Getting it Right

Lack of existing policy for elders and widows has been fingered to have worked against these groups during and even before pandemic, the presence of which is believed would improve their living conditions. Such policy, experts said, should consider restructuring the pension scheme and other social policies in Nigeria in favour of the elderly, widows and those who never worked in any government establishments.

Away from policy, Ama recognised an absolute abuse of the rights of widows and ageing that needs to be addressed.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, CEDAW, raised concern about the fact that women have the least access to food, health and education, e t c in situation of poverty. CEDAW equally identifies the right of widows for protection alongside their children and the right to be empowered

The Convention also called on states to ensure that right to social security, particularly in cases of retirement, unemployment, sickness, invalidity, old age and other incapacity to work, are being protected.

Ama noted that the event of COVID-19 has exposed the inefficiency of government to cater for citizens in times of emergency, including how human rights have been violated on for so long.

She said, “It is most unfortunate that people, particularly the vulnerable widows, elderly and many others, have lost their lives because their human rights were violated. Ensuring the availability of food, shelter, safety, health care for all citizens during a crisis should be priority for all stakeholders – government, corporations, civil society and citizens. This pandemic is a humanistic call to action, for which the government must be in the forefront and demonstrate its commitment to the people’s welfare. We must value each life, therefore we must ensure we have an entrenched functioning system to safeguard each and everyone’s human rights.”

It is imperative the government re-evaluate its role and responsibility to Nigerians. This is the time for actionable, long-range initiatives rather than ‘in-the-moment’, short-term and temporary actions for just a handful”.

She added that availability of up-to-date data would be of great assistance during the pandemic and post COVID-19.

She posited, “The most essential task is creating a data driven culture in Nigeria. Data is key to designing and implementing a transparent and functioning social welfare system. A robust welfare system accountable for the maintenance of the vulnerable – widows, elderly, victims of violence as well as those with physiological differences. It is also important to create partnerships with food producers to establish sanctioned food banks which can distribute much needed palliatives for the needy on a scheduled basis as well as support the government during such critical incidents.

“What is apparent is the urgent need to return to the drawing board and strategically identify the achievable Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The government and all stakeholders must seize this opportunity to address Poverty, Education, Health, Equality, Inequality and Climate Change. Regardless of how many roads, buildings and the likes are provided, if welfare, health, education and environmental issues are neglected, then you have a failed system”.

To the President of International Women Society (IWS), Mrs Margret Olaide Sasegbon, governments at all levels should give more attention to widows in the society, by investing more in Nigeria’s educational sector and make education affordable.

She said, “If governments would invest more in the nation’s education system and reduce the cost of education, widows would be able to sponsor their wards through school, and indigent children would have the opportunity of being educated”.