In September 2014, the Ebola outbreak in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone was getting worse by the day. Nigeria had managed to successfully control an outbreak at home, but the rest of the continent was on edge and anxiety was sky high, especially following the few cases that had occurred in the West. Some projections estimated half a million cases before the outbreak would be brought under control. It was in this context that there was a call for volunteers to work on the newly formed African Union Support to the Ebola Outbreak in West Africa (ASEOWA).
The Nigerian government immediately offered its support and called for volunteers. Close to two hundred brave Nigerians volunteered to go into the unknown. Many did not tell their families, while others only informed them when they were already on the ground. The perception was one of extreme risk, but they braved it, answering the call to duty.
After four to six months in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone most of the contingent is back in Nigeria. One would have imagined that they would have been received with an elaborate ceremony at the airport followed by a state banquet, but that wasn’t the case. Even at the ceremony the Federal Ministry of Health did have for the last team that returned, the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Health did not attend in person, but rather sent the Director of Port Health Services to represent him.
One would have expected that their faces would be splashed on the newspapers and they would be the subjects of constant interview requests, but no, only a few newspapers in Nigeria carried the news of their return, with hardly any in-depth interviews following. One would have expected that their state governments would have followed up and received them at home. One would have imagined that they would be sharing their experience in schools of public health across the country.
Sadly, none of these have happened. Nigeria has largely ignored them. They returned unceremoniously and have slipped back into their daily mundane routines like nothing happened. That is, until Wednesday, October 7 2015.
In our first public dialogue, the Health Watch Forum brought Dr. Yahaya Disu and Amaka Onyiah, both volunteers to Liberia, together on a panel discussion in Abuja to share their experiences. Dr Joshua Obasanya, who led the Nigerian team and was also invited, could not attend as he had to stay back in Liberia to close-out the mission.
Both colleagues held the audience spellbound as they shared some incredible stories of the work they did. Yahaya shared the trajectory of the epidemic in Liberia and how colleagues from the AU formed a key part of the response, especially after the decentralisation of the response structure and intensification of case-finding and contact tracing in communities. He shared graphic details on the work done by Nigerian volunteers in hospitals and in the community and how they worked tirelessly as a team to support our colleagues in the affected countries.
Amaka Onyiah narrated her experience as a field epidemiologist, her work mapping transmission chains of cases and how this supported response activities. She especially expressed the fulfillment that she experienced not only in the work she did on the outbreak itself, but also building capacity of local colleagues to continue after she left.
For Dr. Yahaya Disu, the work in Liberia changed the way he viewed the world, his job and his life. In his words;
Amaka Onyiah elaborated on how important and uplifting it was working with other Africans on the response. In her words;
When asked if she would do it again, she answered simply “absolutely”.
During the panel, all the volunteers in the room were asked to stand up to be recognised and they received a long applause from the audience.
Many of the team then shared individual stories from the field. They were almost unanimous in their disappointment with the Nigerian government on how they were received (or not received) and noted with nostalgia the pain of receiving the news about how their colleagues from other countries were received and treated like the heroes that they were. This sentiment was shared by almost everyone in the room. Once again, our leaders have ignored some of the true heroes, but despite this, we will not forget.
After the panel, we stayed back and networked with the volunteers. They shared more their stories of return, some to the celebration of family and friends and some to lost jobs. Amos Oriakpono, a volunteer in Liberia came back to a baby girl, born in his absence. Dr Disu is back to his job as a Medical Officer for Health in Lagos, and Ms. Onyiah has just completed her exams to graduate from the Nigerian Field Epidemiology Training Programme.
Prior to the Forum, Dr. Disu joined NHW’s Ifeanyi Nsofor on Nigeria Info Abuja 95.1 FM to launch our new monthly radio programme #OpenMoH with Inya Ode. After the Forum, Volunteers Chioma Nwafor and Amos Oriakpono were invited to join our friend Laz Ude on the radio show that he hosts in “pidgin” English called TalkHealth9ja.
Like we promised at the Forum, we will not keep quiet about the things that matter in our health sector. We hope that the Federal Government of Nigeria will eventually invite our 200 volunteers and thank them profoundly. We do not have many moments to celebrate in our health sector, or many people to admire. But these 200 Nigerians deserve our thanks and praise. It’s never too late to do the right thing.
Enjoy more pictures from the Forum.
An edited version of the Forum will be available soon for all to watch.
We invited Professor Nasidi, the Director of the Nigerian Centre of Disease Control to join the panel but he informed us that he was indisposed by illness.