Queen Wisdom is a petty trader who had come to buy some food items for her business at the Rumuokoro Market in Port Harcourt. She was seen wearing a face mask. When she heard of the coronavirus outbreak from international news channels, she was skeptical, and she felt coronavirus won't affect people in Nigeria because of unverified rumours that hot weather kills the virus. She said she got the shock of her life when Nigeria's index case was announced on radio and television, and she became more concerned due to the way it was reported in the media.
She says she wasn't sure what to do until she began to hear messages about how to protect herself and her family from being infected. "I became relieved when I started hearing messaging on why we should wash our hands, use hand sanitizers, wear our face mask and also observe social distancing," she says, adding, "I wear a mask everywhere I go and I have even called my family members at the village to often wash their hands with soap and running water, and for now avoid crowded places like burials and weddings".
A state-led COVID-19 sensitisation campaign
Wisdom was able to hear these messages as a result of a massive sensitisation campaign that the Rivers State Government implemented at the beginning of the outbreak. The campaign was spearheaded by a five-man committee instituted by Governor Nyesom Wike in March 2020 and was made up of several state commissioners. These include Commissioner for Information, Mr. Paulinus Nsirim, Commissioner for Health, Professor Princewill Chike, Commissioner for Environment, Dr Igbkis Tamuno, Commissioner for Chieftaincy and Community Affairs, Barrister Olisa Tasie-Amadi and Commissioner for Youth, Mr. Ohia Prince.
Nsirim, who chairs the committee, said that there was no index case in the state when it was set up. The committee is saddled with the responsibility of educatung citizens with accurate information, and enlightening the general public on COVID-19 and its preventive measures.
To ensure that the proper messaging reached the target audience, Nsirim said the committee engaged a cross-section of major stakeholders in the state, including the media, traditional and religious leaders, heads and principals of schools, the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW), traders, the military, paramilitary, police, oil companies, Local Government Chairmen and Secretaries. These were provided with the right information and materials and asked to send to their various community members.
"We did not stop there, we had radio jingles, in English, pidgin and local languages. We had billboards all over the streets. Right now we have car stickers; as cars are driving around you will see COVID-19 messaging on the cars," Nsirim said, adding that the committee also sent out bulk SMS messaging to phone users to sensitise the people.
To reach those at the grassroots, the committee utilizes the Community Development Committees (CDCs). These use town criers to spread COVID-19 information to their communities. Town criers reiterate the preventive measures such as constant washing of hands under a running tap, the use of hand sanitizers, observing social distancing, and enhanced home and personal hygiene. The Rivers State emergency numbers are also displayed for anyone with COVID-19 symptoms to call.
Dr.Tamuno said the committee drove the process to push information to the doorsteps of the people. "Today, wherever you go in the State, people know about coronavirus, they know what to do and what not to do and as a result we are satisfied. Residents now wash their hands more than in the past, even churches in my Local Government, Okrika now observe social distancing. We have been successful to an extent," he said.
The committee also set up social media handles on platforms including Twitter and Facebook and ran challenges such as the face mask challenge to encourage people to wear face masks. "The state government recently made the wearing of face masks compulsory in all public places, and we included the face mask challenge in our campaign. We believe this helped to ensure that residents comply more easily," Tamuno said.
Controlling movement to limit the spread of COVID-19
The Rivers State Government officially closed its borders shortly after the state had its first index case. Yet Tamuno concedes that porous borders continue to be a challenge to the state's efforts. "There are a lot of informal borders which is a challenge and a number of the recorded COVID-19 cases are people who sneaked into the state, but the state government is not relenting," he said.
Another measure the state government initially put in place to flatten the curve was the lockdown of two cosmopolitan Local Government Areas in the state; Obio/Akpor and Port Harcourt City. These areas were locked down from May 7, 2020. Governor Wike and his security council have worked to monitor the level of compliance from citizens via random inspections. Residents who failed to stay at home were prosecuted and vehicles seen on the roads were auctioned, as measures to enhance compliance, Tamuno said, adding, "All these actions are taken to ensure residents are safe and protected from the coronavirus that has killed thousands and has affected millions of people around the world." Tamuno said the compliance of residents within these local government areas earned them the commendation of the state governor.
Funding Palliatives for the most vulnerable
Another measure Rivers State deployed to ensure residents are safe was the setting aside of the NGN2 billion for the purchase of food items for vulnerable communities in the state. Tamuno said palliative committees were set up by the state Governor to take food to the vulnerable. He said the committee ensured the palliatives got to the local government and to the wards. To do so, they involved ward leaders, councilors, traditional leaders and women leaders. These representatives helped distribute the food to the most vulnerable people in their communities.
The palliative distribution is meant for the less-privileged in all the 23 Local Government Areas in the state. Asime Kalio, Community Development Chairman of Dic-Fiberesima Community in Okrika Local Government Area, said four 50kg bags of rice, 4 cartoons of spaghetti and bags of garri were sent to Dic-Fiberesima Community and each family received their portion.
"I received a cup of rice, a cup of beans, some cups of garri, and Indomie noodles", said Love Nyeche of Mgboushimini Oro-Akwor Community in Obio/Akpor Local Government Area.
Providing infrastructure and expertise for COVID-19 treatment
The state government provided isolation and treatment centres for those who were infected with COVID-19. As at publication, the state has recorded 1183 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Those who test positive are moved to the treatment centres and cared for by health workers.The state also recently had two sample testing centres accredited by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC). "One testing centre is at the University of Port Harcourt Teaching Hospital (UPTH) and the other Rivers State University Teaching Hospital," Tamuno said.
The state has received support in its response from both the Federal Government and partners. The Federal Government built the COVID-19 isolation and testing centre in the University of Port Harcourt Teaching Hospital. In collaboration with Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC), the Federal Government also provided a PCR machine at the University of Port Harcourt Teaching Hospital. The SPDC also donated two PCR machines to the Rivers State University Teaching Hospital (RSUTH), while Total E&P Nigeria Limited donated one PCR machine to the state government. The Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency, (NIMASA), individuals and organisations including churches donated ventilators and some personal protective equipment (PPE) to UPTH to support the response.
The testing centres have further enabled the state to quickly test samples, which are collected through a central response team domiciled in the state Ministry of Health. The central response team is contacted through the Rivers State hotlines for COVID-19.
Ensuring Public Health Safety Measures
The Rivers State Government began to ease its total lockdown measures on May 26. As the state and most of the country enters into the phase of community transmission, Rivers State continues to work to ensure the safety of residents by instituting public health safety measures.
Tamuno said the Government has started decontaminating all public spaces, including religious centres, and the state governor has released 28 big buses to ply on major routes in Port-Harcourt for free, to encourage proper social distancing on public transport. Temperature checks must be done for all passengers before they enter the buses, and the seating arrangements on buses adhere to social distancing rules, he said.
"The government understands that the times are difficult, and the buses are mainly released to address the issue of COVID-19 as relates to commuters. Taxis that ordinarily will carry 4 people will now carry only 2, and it makes it more difficult for people to commute from one place to another," he said.
Allwell Ene has boarded the free COVID-19 bus thrice to different locations in Rivers State. He said that before anyone will be allowed to enter the bus, they must wear a face mask and their temperature must be checked. He said passengers are asked to wear their face masks before entry, and the recommended WHO standard of social distancing is observed inside the free COVID-19 bus. "Apart from cushioning the hardship of COVID-19, whatever money you save from transportation will go a long way in meeting other needs, particularly if you are plying longer routes," he said joyfully.
Austin Isaac says he entered the free COVID-19 bus from Rumuola to Choba. He stresses that on a normal day, he would have paid N200 in a crowded vehicle but ended up paying nothing and sat comfortably. Before Austin entered the bus, his temperature was checked and he was made to sit on a single seat that would have been used by two passengers. "I witnessed a seat meant for four passengers used for only two passengers", he added.
Chinaboso Brownson said she was not allowed to enter the free COVID-19 bus for failure to wear a face mask. She said it was raining and she had forgotten her face mask at home, hoping she w be allowed, as she was with her kids, but in line with the public health measures in place, the conductor could not let her into the bus.
As the COVID-19 pandemic evolves, each state government in Nigeria must find ways to ensure that their citizens remain safe and protected from the virus. The Rivers Government has worked to employ a variety of measures, from risk communication and public health safety measures to economic palliatives and border lockdowns. While it will take time and possibly hindsight to know if the combination of these measures will be successful in controlling the spread of the coronavirus, the Rivers State example shows the importance of political will and leadership in responding decisively to protect citizens.