By Ide Owodiong-Idemeko
Setting the scene
Thank you for having me over to deliver this keynote speech at the 2021 National Convention of the Akwa Ibom State Association of Nigeria (USA), Incorporated. I had this rare privilege in 2013 when I delivered the keynote speech at the Convention held in Washington. The topic of my speech at that Convention was “Raisig the Akwa Ibom Child within the American Socio-cultural Environment.” This year, I will be speaking on the topic, “Youth Development and Empowerment in the Post COVID-19 Era: Response, Recovery and Resilience,” in line with the theme of this year’s Convention, “Celebrating our Youth and the Resilience of Akwa Ibomites in the COVID-19 Era,”
COVID-19 is a new virus and disease, which was unknown to the world before its outbreak in Wuhan, China, in December 2019.
So, it is clear, the world had to contend with a disease that was novel and unknown to mankind before now.
A World Bank (WB) report issued in April 2020 post the outbreak of the pandemic said COVID-19 will lead to an increase in poverty of about 40-60 million people, with a best estimate of about 49 million moving into extreme poverty.
The pandemic is also projected to be the likely cause of the increase in global poverty since 1998. Although Sub-Saharan Africa from a health perspective has been impacted relatively less by the virus, WB projections suggest it will be the region hit hardest in terms of increased extreme poverty.
At the country-level, the three countries with the largest change in the number of poor, according to WB estimates, are India (12 million), Nigeria (5 million) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (2 million).
Nigeria reported her first case of COVID-19 in February 2020 through an Italian who was in the country on a business trip. Since then, the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) has confirmed about 171,728 cases, of which, 2,134 cases have resulted in deaths.
For Akwa Ibom State, the number of confirmed cases has been 2,090, with 20 deaths in total.
When compared with the data being tracked for the world at 196,093,316 confirmed cases and 4,194,282 deaths we may fall under the false assumption that Nigeria’s management of the pandemic is much better than other countries. But this would be a deadly mistake, because we do know that some of the greatest problems underpinning the seemingly low number of cases in Nigeria are limited testing and myths that Africans are immune to the virus due to years of exposure to malaria treatments and our tropical climate.
Whatever that may be, it is important to note that the actual death toll from COVID-19 is likely to be higher than the number of confirmed deaths that the NCDC or the Akwa Ibom Ministry of Health may be able to track and the Nigeria Bureau of Statistics (NBS) able to report.
However, what is certain is that the effect of the pandemic has been ravaging. In fact, COVID-19 has been the singular most disruptive pandemic witnessed across the world in recent times. To say that we are living in an unprecedented time because of the COVID-19 pandemic will be an understatement. The pandemic has brought with it a myriad of complex challenges that impact a wide range of systems affecting normal living – public health, economic, social, technical, time, emotional, environmental, and many others.
All these systems are interconnected, which in turn creates even more variables as these open systems reshape constraints and possibilities. New nomenclatures have also crept into our lexicon. For example, words like lockdown, quarantine, social distancing (some have argued should be rightly called physical distancing), wearing of face masks (or is it mouth and nose covering?), sanitizing of hands, etc.
But beyond these, are the real issues of psychological distress arising from confinement-related challenges, sudden death of loved ones, minimal social engagement with family and friends, etc. This never-before-seen dynamic requires us to use a systemic approach and undertake complex analysis and decisions to address the recovery and resilience issues post COVID-19.
Nigeria has the largest youth population in Africa and since the COVID-19 pandemic erupted, Nigerian youth population has been the most negatively impacted more than any other demographic, largely due to the “disruptions of essential health, nutrition and social services.” Young people under the age of 25 account for over 60% of Nigeria’s population and of this demographic, 16 million were out of school in 2019, up from the last count of 13.2 million in 2018.
The same can be said of Akwa Ibom as a state within Nigeria – its youth population bursting out of its seam. The economic impact of the pandemic has been observed to be particularly harsh on the youth and micro and small businesses.
To worsen the situation, the growing number of uneducated youths poses a significant burden on the economy as this demography struggles amidst a back-to-back national recession and severe downturn caused by the pandemic, which has impacted most of the approximately 40 million small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in the country, where young people find employment.
In summary, Nigeria is in a precarious position with a youth unemployment crisis hanging like an albatross over her neck, she can do without the effects of COVID-19 added to her woes.
The eruption of pent up forces during the #EndSARS protests, which rocked the foundations of the country is a glaring testimony of the potency of youth disenchantment over the debilitating state of the nation. Nigerian youths defied the COVID-19 mitigation rules to protest increasing police brutality and failure of government. The resulting killings of protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate by the military which triggered massive widespread protests across the country in a magnitude like never before, brought to focus the stark power of Nigerian youths who make up more than 65% of the nation`s population, a force waiting and begging to be mobilized for the betterment of Nigerian society.
Government Response to COVID-19
Following reports of the coronavirus disease in Wuhan, China in December 2019, Nigeria launched a “swift and aggressive response to COVID-19, leveraging on existing epidemic preparedness and learning from other parts of the globe where transmission began earlier.”
The NCDC put out notification of a new virus on its website on January 7, 2020, followed by the establishment of a “multi-sectoral National Coronavirus Preparedness Group (NCPG) on January 26, 2020 to ensure a cohesive and effective coordination of the country’s preparedness efforts.”
This group later transitioned to a national multi-sectoral Emergency Operations Committee (EOC) at the NCDC and the establishment of the multi-sectoral COVID-19 Presidential Task Force (PTF), on March 9, 2020, with an “overarching mandate to coordinate and oversee the country’s multi-sectoral and inter-governmental efforts both to contain the outbreak and to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in Nigeria.
The National COVID-19 Multi-Sectoral Pandemic Response Plan was adopted by the PTF in March and served as the blueprint for the whole-of-Government response.”
Nigeria’s overall response strategy included executing several stringent non-pharmaceutical interventions, including stopping international travels and imposing a time-limited lockdown order in highly affected areas.
Laboratory capacity was also significantly scaled up across the country, although this did not translate to increased testing numbers as expected. It may rightly be said that the rapid implementation of these interventions by government “slowed down the rate of virus transmission and bought extra time to implement a robust case detection, testing, and treatment centre capacity.”
The response situation in Akwa Ibom State was no different. The State keyed into the actions that were being taken by the Federal Government to contain the spread of the virus and took additional steps to combat the COVID-19 onslaught.
This took various forms, including the following: activation of Infectious Diseases Hospital (IDH), Ikot-Ekpene; imposition of the public lockdown order to check spread of the virus; establishment of the Emergency Operations Centre ( EOC) to attend to cases; activation of the State Center for Diseases Control (SCDC); activation of additional Isolation centers at Ibom Specialist Hospital (ISH) to support IDH Ikot-Ekpene; setting up two molecular testing laboratories at ISH and Methodist General Hospital (MGH), Ituk Mbang; provision of palliatives to cushion the effects of lockdown; training of personnel for COVID-19 management; procurement of ventilators and mobile ambulance vehicles to enhance conveyance of patients in emergency situations; building of a 300-bed space Isolation Center at MGH, Ituk Mbang, to further expand the isolation capacity for patients; building and construction of Medical Gas Plant at MGH, Ituk Mbang, to maximize oxygen requirements of patients in care; providing free COVID-19 PCR testing and treatment for anybody in the state infected with COVID-19, and allowing senior civil servants to work from home during the phased reopening and easing of the lockdown order.
To complement government’s efforts in responding to the COVID-19 scourge, a not-for-profit organization, 1001+ Voices Initiative for People Empowerment founded in 2017 by like-minded individuals, with my leadership as the International Coordinator, embarked on an aggressive advocacy programme to encourage Akwa Ibom people to wear face masks to help prevent community transmission of COVID-19.
The group went across the state to deliver 1000 face masks in each of the local government areas to vulnerable members of the population, comprising students, tri-cycle riders, traders, transporters, community leaders, etc.
The group was also able to empower two young entrepreneurs, male and female, who were engaged to design and produce the face masks in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State.
Unfortunately, despite all the efforts by government and organisations, the Federal Government of Nigeria just this week declared Akwa Ibom Hotspot for the Delta Variant of COVID-19.
Disclosing the status, the Director-General, NCDC, Dr. Chike Ihekweazu stated during the national briefing of the Presidential Steering Committee on COVID-19 in Abuja on Monday August 2, 2021 that 80% of the tests conducted in Akwa Ibom State have been confirmed to be Delta variant of the deadly virus.
This variant, which is more insidious and deadlier than the previous strain, is generating a scare within the State. But I am happy with the steps taken by the administration of Governor Udom Emmanuel with the ordering of one million doses of COVID-19 vaccines to combat the Delta variant’s spread in the state. However, these efforts, especially testing, needs more private sector involvement to significantly ramp up COVID-19 diagnostic centres across the State and country.
Sensitizing and mobilizing citizens to take responsibility by strict implementation of preventive non-pharmaceutical measures is key to flattening the curve, something that I see lacking in our State, with people not caring about wearing their face masks.
A rapid, holistic, cohesive, whole-of-government approach encompassing civil society and local-communities in the response will be absolutely critical to combating the COVID-19 pandemic in Nigeria and rebuilding stronger health systems towards adjusting to a ‘new normal’.
... This is the first of a three-parts series. To be continued.
Owodiong-Idemeko, a Fellow, Chartered Institute of Personnel Management (FCIPM) and International Coordinator, 1001+ Voices for People Empowerment delivered the paper at 2021 Convention of Akwa Ibom State Association of Nigeria (USA) Incorporated(AKISAN), Atlanta, USA (August 5-7, 2021.