Six takeaways on Nigeria’s response to COVID-19 and poor sanitation

Date: 26th May 2020

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By Olajide Adelana

In the fight against the spread of the coronavirus in a context of poor sanitation, Nigeria and many countries around the world are confronted with enormous challenges at every turn. A critical look at national response plans offers much to be learned in terms of what is working and what is not, whether with a view to immediate course correction or the illumination of the path forward in the long term. With this in mind, WSSCC offers six takeaways from the experience in Nigeria in its response to the dual dangers of the COVID-19 pandemic and the prevalence of poor sanitation.

1. Epidemic Preparedness Response Plan must include WASH

As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates, it is estimated that an outbreak can spread worldwide in just 36 hours, given the high volume of global travel, making epidemic preparedness a top priority for any government. Epidemic preparedness is referred to as the sum of all activities expected to be undertaken by a country to be ready and able to respond effectively to disease outbreaks.

While Nigeria’s response to COVID-19 has been widely commended, its preparedness is still fraught with obvious gaps relating to the prevalence of poor sanitation and lack of access to hygiene facilities. Ifeanyi Nsofor, an advocate for epidemic preparedness and WASH in Nigeria, tells WSSCC that the Nigerian government must go beyond intervening in the health sector to include social determinants of health such as sanitation and hygiene in its approach to curbing the spread of COVID-19 and other preventable diseases.

2. Liberalized risk communication to the unscientific and unenlightened

In times of crisis such as the current COVID-19 pandemic, high levels of anxiety and information shock are not unusual. Invariably, this courts misinformation which Nigeria, with support from stakeholders and partners, including WSSCC, has been tackling headlong. While Nigeria is deploying its polio vaccination programme infrastructure in the battle against COVID-19, WSSCC members and partners in Nigeria have ramped up the existing advocacy and communications machinery of the Rural Sanitation and Hygiene Programme in Nigeria (RUSHPIN) Programme. RUSHPIN has been effective in breaking down scientific information into graspable formats, and debunking myths concerning COVID-19, sanitation and hygiene in rural and hard to reach areas in Nigeria. WSSCC-supported organizations have also been making use of music and drama to court the attention of the citizenry while subtly passing along factual information about COVID-19, sanitation and hygiene.

3. Provision of water and sanitation services can’t be overemphasized

The response to COVID-19 in Nigeria has significantly highlighted the importance of clean water, hygiene and sanitation (WASH) services across different sectors.

“In addressing COVID-19 in Nigeria, more attention is being paid to sanitation and hygiene, but will the successful handling of the pandemic create opportunities for sustainable service provision around WASH?” asks Elizabeth Jeiyol, WSSCC National Coordinator for Nigeria. Ms Jeiyol expects that the COVID-19 response will, in the long run, help address gaps and institutionalize resilience by providing access to WASH services by urban and rural populations, as well as people with disabilities and the vulnerable in conflict situations across the country. Nigeria’s sanitation and hygiene statistics are dire, but reality hits even more at this time. “Will Nigeria retain this memory post-COVID-19? This is the big question that only time will answer,” she said.

4. COVID-19 has adverse impact on menstrual hygiene

The lockdown imposed by the Nigerian government as a measure to curb the spread of Coronavirus has seen schools shutdown and attention diverted from routine health services to emergency response. This further exacerbates the barriers encountered by girls and women due to poor menstrual hygiene. Due to COVID-19, young girls in rural Nigeria who are experiencing their first menstruation are largely cut off from Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) tips and interventions often provided by government agencies and international partners such as UNICEF and WSSCC-supported organizations. With poor access to clean water for drinking and handwashing, and the unavailability of separate latrines in rural areas and densely populated slums, young girls and women are disproportionately affected by COVID-19 in Nigeria.

5. Solidarity is key

Comradeship, communal empathy and the ability of Nigerians to respond collectively in times of crisis have been acknowledged locally and internationally. The consciousness of private sector organizations and the United Nations to rise to the occasion by contributing financial and material resources to the fight against COVID-19 has been remarkable. Private-sector partners under the auspices of the Coalition Against COVID-19 (CACOVID) are rallying around to provide necessary food support, information, communication and educational (ICE) materials on hygiene and sanitation to poor masses adversely affected by the pandemic.

6. Religious beliefs that run contrary to emergency response deserve attention

Nigeria had to address religious beliefs that run contrary to current emergency response efforts. At the onset of COVID-19 fight in Nigeria, many religious adherents were critical of the government’s efforts and even questioned the reality of the Coronavirus. It took the combined efforts of regulatory agencies, religious leaders and traditional institutions to make a convincing fact-based case that curbing the spread of COVID-19 would require the maintenance of social distancing and the practice of personal hygiene, among other measures stipulated by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) to curb the spread of COVID-19.

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