COVID-19 : Providing Relief Intervention for Vulnerable Population

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The COVID-19 pandemic has no doubt taken a toll on the world’s economy but one of the hardest hit are the vulnerable, especially those living with HIV/AIDS in Nigeria and the continent who suffered interruptions in their anti-retroviral therapy. To provide relief intervention for such persons, the United Nations in conjunction with the European Union, Federal Ministry of Women Affairs in Conjunction and National Agency for the Control of AIDS, recently supported the National COVID-19 Multi-Sectoral Pandemic Response, writes Onyebuchi Ezigbo

The COVID-19 pandemic has no doubt taken its toll on the world’s economy. The situation has hugely disrupted economic activities in Nigeria, thereby causing loss of jobs among citizens, most especially the vulnerable segment of the population in Nigeria. Among the hardest hit were those living with HIV/AIDS in Nigeria and the African continent.

Interruptions in Anti-retroviral Therapy

The National Agency for the Control of AIDS (NACA) said some 430,000 HIV/AIDS patients in sub-Saharan Africa may have died over the past six months owing to interruptions in treatment due to COVID-19 lockdowns.

Citing statistics from UNAIDS, Director General of NACA, Gambo Gumel Aliyu, said the rise in deaths of HIV/AIDS patients was due to a decline in antiretroviral therapy during the virus lockdown. At a news conference in Abuja, Aliyu said there are currently 1.8 million people living with HIV/AIDS in the country.

Earlier this year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNAIDS also warned that a six-month disruption in antiretroviral therapy could lead to more than 500,000 extra deaths in the region from AIDS-related illnesses.The global agencies urged countries to take action to mitigate treatment interruptions, adding that failure to do so could raise AIDS-related deaths up to the level seen in 2008, when more than 950,000 died in the region. WHO and UNAIDS said the disruption could lead to an annual death rate of 40 per cent over the next half a decade.

Nigeria’s Effort in Containing COVID-19

Nigeria has done fairly well in the effort to contain the ravaging COVID-19 pandemic in the face of obvious challenges of abysmally weak healthcare infrastructure. The immediate response of the federal and state government when the first case of COVID-19 was detected in the country in February was swift.

It mounted an offensive to check the spread of the virus infection in the country by designating hospitals, isolation centres and treatment centres. To a large extent, the various medical Interventions undertaken by the authorities paid off despite the obvious weak healthcare infrastructure. There was some measure of effective coordination by Presidential Taskforce headed by the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Mr. Boss Mustapha in driving the health protocols needed to curtail the COVID-19 infection.

Lapses in Economic, Social Impact

But the same could not be said of the response to the accompanying economic and social impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country. The response to help mitigate the negative impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable segment of society was to say, a massive failure.

For instance, the distribution of government’s palliative was done in a half-hazard manner, mostly not well targeted to get to the actual needy persons. The implementation was riddled with the usual corrupt practices associated with similar social empowerment programmes in the past. The mind boggling discovery of large quantities of food items stashed away in warehouses across the country during the recent EndSARS protests showed how slow and perhaps ineffective the distribution of relief packages had been.

Multi-Sectoral Response

It is for this reason that the move by United Nations to provide a Basket Fund in conjunction with the European Union (EU), Federal Ministry of Women Affairs in Conjunction and National Agency for the Control of AIDS (NACA) to support the National COVID-19 Multi-Sectoral pandemic response was viewed as a welcome development.

The key institutions involved in the implementation of the project are the Federal Ministry of Women Affairs and NACA with technical support of UN Women, UNAIDS under the EU supported UN Joint Basket Fund for COVID- 19.

The team recently unveiled what was tagged, ‘Risk Communication and Community Engagement project’. The project is set up to help mitigate the negative impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable household and women living with HIV/AIDS in Nigeria.

Speaking at the official flag-off the project, the Director General of NACA, Dr. Gambo Aliyu lamented that COVID-19 pandemic has impacted on all aspects of human life including social, economic, religious and psychological wellbeing.

Aliyu said: “The devastating effects on other comorbidities such as hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and HIV/AIDS is a major health concern. Hence, it requires an integrated, multi–sectoral approach from government and civil society actors for an effective response.

“It is on this note that Nigeria has identified prevention interventions to limit the spread of the virus by involving the community in the fight against the spread of the virus through improving risk communication, social mobilisation and community engagement.

“The preventive interventions seeks to protect the most vulnerable – women including those living with HIV from the effects of COVID-19 such as loss of income due to loss of jobs and livelihood, increasing gender based violence, insecurity amongst others”.

According to Aliyu, the National COVID-19 Multi-sectoral Pandemic Response Plan is the federal government’s framework for a robust response to the pandemic. It consists of ten functional areas – one of which is Risk Communication and Community Engagement (RCCE).

He explained that a three-pronged approach would be deployed to support the implementation of the RCCE which includes, a broader risk communication and community engagement and sensitisation for social and behavioral change, participation of women, adolescent, youth and PLHIV constituencies in monitoring the overall pandemic response and its appropriateness for their communities, and alleviating the economic impact for the most vulnerable women and girls and their households.

The intervention programme is to be carried out in selected states and local government areas in the country.

Minister for Women Affairs and Co-Chair of the project, Dame Mrs. Pauline Tallen said key stakeholders are working towards a common goal of reaching the downtrodden vulnerable women and households in 15 selected high burden COVID-19 states of Lagos, FCT, Kano, Sokoto, Oyo, Edo, Rivers, Ogun, Kaduna, Borno, Gombe, Bauchi, Akwa-ibom, Delta and Ebonyi states.

“The Ministry of Women Affairs will work with UN Women, the State Ministries of Women Affairs and selected NGO’s including other implementing partners to ensure the cash palliatives reach various indigent’s women in the targeted communities in addition to monitoring of its utilisation by beneficiaries,” said Mrs.Tallen.

It is gathered that the project will in these 15 selected states, support the two worst hit local government areas by COVID-19 pandemic, rape/sexual and other forms of violence, HIV/AIDS and women living with disabilities.

Overview

Presenting the overview of the project, the Head Gender and Human Right Unit of NACA, Dr. Yinka Falola-Anoemwah, said that “the goal is to support the national multi-sectoral COVID-19 pandemic response through risk communication, social mobilisation and communication engagement”.

One aspect of the preventive interventions seeks to protect the most vulnerable women including those living with HIV/AIDS from the effects of COVID-19 such as loss of income due to loss of jobs and livelihood, increasing gender based violence, insecurity amongst others.

Tallen further explained that the project will provide relief assistance – cash and hygiene materials (face masks, sanitizers, soaps) to 18,000 women, girls and young people worst affected by the knock-on effects of the covid 19 crisis.

With the effective implementation of the project, most vulnerable households: poor households which include those headed by widows, children, elderly women, women suffering from chronic sickness, women and girls living with disabilities, HIV/AIDS, survivors of SGBV and early marriage, genital mutilation.

The collaboration of government institutions, development partners, civil society organisations and community structure is an innovative and valuable strategy to respond pragmatically to the COVID-19 pandemic. This will facilitate social mobilisation for community engagement in containing the pandemic as being demonstrated in the global and national HIV/AIDS response in Nigeria especially among the indigent and vulnerable populations.

It is expected that the interventions would lead to increased risk awareness about COVID-19, mitigate economic impact of COVID-19, mobilise people to adopt appropriate hygiene habits and engage the community to ensure the effectiveness of the implementation of these interventions.

At the end of the project implementation by April 2021, it is also expected that increased women’s awareness of sexual violence and COVID-19 will be achieved as well as improved women’s livelihood to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 amongst others.