Hauwa Ibrahim is unsure when she will see her family again. Two months ago, the 29-year-old nurse volunteered to work at a COVID-19 treatment centre in Nigeria’s capital Abuja. Worried she might put her family at risk of catching the virus, she opted to stay at the centre. Like her, many health workers lending a hand to the country’s battle against the pandemic have forgone time with family.
Working up to 12 hours a day when it gets busy, Ms Ibrahim, who opted to volunteer fulltime when Asokoro hospital in Abuja was turned into a COVID-19 treatment centre, says few are willing to be in the frontlines of the pandemic response, but “if someone must be there, then I should be.”
“Sometimes one has to inconvenience themselves to make things right. I am happy with what I am doing. I have no regrets,” says Ms Ibrahim. “I haven’t seen any of my family members for the past two months. But that’s the price you pay for trying to make a difference.”
More than 12 000 doctors, pharmacists, medical students and other health workers are offering their expertise and extra time to help curb the spread of the virus in Africa’s most populous country. Nigeria detected COVID-19 in late February 2020, becoming the first to do so in sub-Saharan Africa.
To strengthen the COVID-19 response, the government launched a volunteer programme that has brought additional hands on deck. For Dr Ola Nene Okike, who heads the volunteer team at Karu General Hospital in the outskirts of Abuja, caring for COVID-19 patients “involves such sacrifice that one has to voluntarily and consciously decide on his own without persuasion.”
So far Nigeria is the second-most affected country in the World Health Organization (WHO) African Region. South Africa has reported the highest number of COVID-19 infections in the region. The two countries are similarly ranked in terms of infections among health workers.
A way to give back
Dr Cyril Chukwuemeka Ekwebelam supervises the team volunteering to care for COVID-19 patients at Asokoro hospital and ensures compliance with the infection prevention and control measures to keep health workers and patients safe. Like his colleagues, he has not been home for weeks.
“Sometimes my wife drives to the isolation centre and parks by the gate. I peep through the window and have a glance of her and the kids. That’s the closest we can see each other,” says the father of two. “I have always believed in giving back and I see this as an avenue to do so.”
The volunteers work in different areas of COVID-19 response across Nigeria’s 36 states. Many were initially shunned by relatives and friends who feared they could pass on the infection to them. WHO, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control and partner organizations embarked on public health education that has helped reduce the stigma associated with the disease.
Nigeria has so far recorded more than 22 000 cases, with over 7 600 recovered patients. A lockdown that was imposed in Lagos and Ogun states as well as in Abuja has been relaxed, but prevention measures such as handwashing and wearing masks in public places are being enforced. Interstate travel remains restricted, too.
At the Karu General Hospital, Dr Pius Wabba, a psychiatrist who has volunteered for the COVID-19 response, points out that psychosocial well-being of COVID-19 patients is as important as regaining physical health.
“Some of the patients suffer anxiety and depression. Mental health needs not to be neglected,” says Dr Wabba, who has volunteered at the hospital for more than a month.
“To see our patients being discharged is most fascinating. I feel fulfilled that I was part of someone’s recovery journey.”