HIV Aids

COVID-19 Has Created Serious Challenges for Nigeria’s HIV Organizations

Nigeria recorded its first confirmed COVID-19 case on Feb. 27 in Lagos, in an Italian national on a business venture to Nigeria. Once news circulated, fear crept throughout Lagos and neighboring states. The government initiated preventive policies of quarantining and social distancing and deeply punished those in violation of these orders.

As each day passed, the number of confirmed cases continued to reveal a growing virus concentration in three major cities: Lagos, Abuja, and Kaduna. The time came when it could no longer be contained, and the government had to implement a stay-at-home order in these cities.

However, the combat against HIV in Nigeria has always been a stifled one filled with minimum control of the virus. And on the intrusion of the novel coronavirus pandemic into the country, the matter became even more exacerbated, with fear and questions lingering among Nigerians living with HIV on whether the COVID-19 virus will worsen their quality of life.

Nigeria reeks of many things, but particularly of corruption. A 2019 report by Transparency International ranks the country in 146th place for least corrupt nation in the world. Funds meant to build and enhance the health care system both in matters of infrastructure and health care are on a regular basis embezzled with impunity. Government health policies are absent or stagnant, so many health non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been the available sources for most Nigerians, particularly those living with HIV. With most of these NGOs providing aid to those living with HIV through their personal pockets and small sponsors, they were more vulnerable to the pandemic once COVID-19 intruded in Nigeria, forcing all their resources and businesses to a halt.

When I asked Luke Onu, associate director of human resources at the AIDS Prevention Initiative in Nigeria (APIN), how they felt about the lockdown news, his answer confirmed that it was an enormous shock. “The lockdown announcement was a fierce one,” Onu told TheBody. For the team at APIN, the lockdown meant they had to surpass the struggle of getting antiretroviral (ARV) drugs to their clients who had arrived on time—and for the few who came late, they had to improvise.

“With the few who came towards closure, when our staff must have closed for the day, we asked them to pay a fine of N2,000 ($5) so we could distribute the drugs later to them on an emergency formality,” Onu said. However, with strict military patrol everywhere in Abuja, enforcing stay-at-home orders and bullying and punishing offenders, it was difficult for APIN’s distributor to do his job without being tagged as an offender in the eyes of the military. Though there was harassment, it wasn’t as severe compared to that experienced by ordinary civilians, as the distributor was also a military officer. “I feel the only way the pandemic affected us was financially. We didn’t have enough funds to pay our staff before the lockdown, and we thought we could get to it, but we failed—and even after the lockdown was relieved, it still was our greatest threat.”

APIN wasn’t the only team deeply affected by the pandemic. For the team at AIDS Healthcare Foundation Nigeria, the lockdown strained business operations. “At first, we were struggling to get the free package delivery that was sent to us from our sponsor abroad. The packages included most of the antiretroviral drugs for our regular patients,” AHF Nigeria director Echey Ijezie, M.D., told TheBody. However, with the delay of ARV drugs, the team at AHF had to create a way to get drugs to their clients whom their records indicated would need a refill. As soon as the ARV drugs arrived weeks later, they sent messages to those residing in Abuja about it. But this was only available to those who felt they could take the risk and disregard lockdown orders. With only a few patients able to comply, things were not able to go smoothly for the organization.

PATA (Positive Action for Treatment Access) is one the NGOs in Nigeria caring for the health of women and girls. Their usual routine involves going to schools and communities to educate girls and women on health issues, particularly sexual and reproductive health. They also provide sanitary pads. But on lockdown orders, their activities changed. Schools were closed, and movements were restricted. “The little we could do was move into villages and communities and distribute free sanitary pads and face masks and deliver important knowledge about protecting each other from the virus that had at that time recorded like six to seven cases,” Ify Onyia of PATA told TheBody. However, as the lockdown began to ease gradually, the organization’s mission had to change from seeing to the health of women and girls to actually providing food for communities who were unable to feed themselves, as the lockdown thrust poverty on every low-income family.

Furthermore, as a psychology and mental health organization, the team at Gede Foundation should have been facing psychological issues, especially for people with HIV. But because of lockdown orders, their office had to be shut. For the team at Gede, it wasn’t a big deal anyway. “The only thing lockdown did was to move all our sessions to digital,” Godwin Etim, Gede’s performance director, told TheBody. They only had to improvise and conduct all their consulting sessions on Zoom and WhatsApp video calls. Aside from that, the pandemic still didn’t stop them from doing their jobs.

RedAid Nigeria is one of the NGOs based in the eastern part of Nigeria. Initially, the lockdown orders were announced in only three states in the country, and strict orders were enforced, but with COVID-19 spreading to other states, the government saw a necessity to enact stay-at-home orders there, as well. Enugu was one of these states that decided to go on stay-at-home laws with no strict, militarized enforcement of the law. But despite that, the RedAid organization still met some problems, especially financially. “We are financially unstable, both before the COVID-19 and now, but the COVID-19 made the matter worse,” managing director Obiora Chikwendu told TheBody. However, to solve their issue, they have been applying for grants and conducting donation fundraisers for the organization to come back to full operation. Though they haven’t found something productive, they are still holding on tight and focusing their hopes on getting their stack of emails replied to before the year runs out.

With lockdown eased all over Nigeria since late June and early July, things have evolved and returned to a new normal; a moment of safety precautions. However, these NGOs are figuring out ways to make up the time already spent, so the future of their businesses doesn’t get choked.

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