As the world deals with a refugee crisis arising from wars in Syria and parts of the Middle East, Nigeria is also dealing with its own internal refugee crisis. The Boko Haram insurgency has led to widespread displacement of people in the North-east of the country. Homes and whole communities have been destroyed, and survivors have had to trudge to camps set up by state and federal governments, making IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) a familiar acronym in Nigeria.
In this exclusive interview with PREMIUM TIMES’ Ebuka Onyeji, the health facilitator at the IDPs camp in New Kuchingoro, Abuja, Owhin Eguonor-Oghene, spoke about how the German Embassy set up the health clinic at the camp and the challenges of managing the facility. He also spoke about the continuing problems of unhygienic environment and inadequate health personnel at the camp.
PT: How was this clinic set up?
Eguonor-Oghene: It began as a one-man thing. At first, it was a personal CDS (community development scheme) project during my youth service. I came down here during my NYSC in 2016 and found an IDP camp containing 1,574 persons and no health care provision for them. NGOs, CSOs, groups and selfless individuals visit the camp and bring interventions from time to time but there was no structure on ground or platform for these interventions to be sustained and managed. It was always just a one-off thing; it just happens and that’s the end. It might never come again, a once in a while thing. So, the purpose of this clinic was to provide a platform, a blueprint for interventions that are sustainable and capable of transforming health care services in IDPs camps.
PT: How did you come in? What did you do about the problem at New Kuchingoro camp?
Eguonor-Oghene: I was a corps member posted to Abuja in 2015. I studied Medical Laboratory Science at the University of Benin. I am from Delta State. I thought of doing something in the health field.
During one of my visits to the camp as part of my CDS project, I met a 12-year old boy. He was seriously sick but the parents were just there watching him because they could not afford to take him to hospital or even buy common drugs for him. I felt a sense of responsibility. Since there was no health facility in the camp, a lot of children were sick, shivering and dying without healthcare and proper awareness, just like the 12-year old boy.
So, I now mapped out a plan of rendering free healthcare service to the people in the camp. Fortunately, the next time I visited, the then German President, Joachim Gauck, also visited the camp. So, I met with a member of his entourage and shared my vision. I was told to write a proposal and that was how the health clinic project was funded and executed by the German Embassy. That was how this place came to be.
The project cost N1.9 million. It was executed with the aim of providing free and sustainable solution to malaria and other healthcare diseases that prevail in the IDP camp. This project was awarded Best NYSC Project 2015/2016 and named Gauck IDP Clinic in honour of the German President.
Malaria is one of the prevalent diseases in the camp. This project came in at the right time to tackle the malaria cases head on. We treated over 100 cases, distributed mosquito nets, gave them insecticides and constructed an enclosed drainage system to eliminate breeding spots for mosquitoes. It was nationally stated that the German Embassy pioneered the malaria intervention project at the New Kuchingoro IDP camp and this project is being sustained by voluntary efforts of medical practitioners and individuals who come from time to time.
PT: Before the clinic, what was on ground when you came initially?
Eguonor-Oghene: They had a support booth out there and a retired nurse used to come once a week to administer drugs to them; render medical services and relief materials. Anybody that needed attention went to her. The camp secretary has a little bit of local basic health knowledge, so she also rendered health services voluntarily. Health management was going on here on a very small scale. There was no structure for it to be fully publicised or established so people could see it and key into it and make it expand. Since the inception of this clinic on 23rd September 2016, we have heard over 603 patients benefiting from free health care services, free consultation services, prescription and medication from our pharmacy and child delivery.
We have had four cases of delivery here. They also benefit from our laboratory investigations, everything is given to them free of charge. It is done by individuals who have a heart of giving and volunteered themselves, time and money to render such services.
PT: How is the camp and the clinic being managed?
Eguonor-Oghene: The insurgency brought many of them down here. I think they have been here for close to five years now. The people who normally occupy this place happen to have relatives affected by insurgency in the North-east, so they happen to be the ones who advised them to come down here, since there is space here to accommodate them. This place comprised the villagers who were here before the insurgency and their relatives and other outsiders; and people who came out from other disturbed areas in the North-east.
Here, we have a camp secretary. There is a vice chairman and there is a chairman in charge of the activities of the camp. When NGOs and individuals come to meet the IDPs, these are the people they meet. So, the clinic is under this IDPs camp but as an independent arm. The health arm of the IDPs camp, functioning independently on its own, because it has a different vision.
PT: With this health clinic, what has really changed in terms of providing health services in the camp?
Eguonor-Oghene: I will say achieving this clinic alone is a milestone. Because when you look at it, if you try to evaluate the amount of health services the people in the camp are getting free of charge and compare it with when they go to the hospital to receive these services, they will pay through their nose.
But it’s a privilege to them because they are not charged for these services. They come here with the IDPs camp membership card and we attend to them. This is what has been going on.
The journey has not been rosy because at some point, we get short of volunteers, people that come in to cover up for certain days, and even short of drugs and materials. That also reduces the number of people we can reach out to because we are supposed to have steady presence of volunteers. We need more hands in the camp, because we can have an emergency at any time. We always need people on ground. We lack manpower and personnel. But we are still striving to see that this place is always open to the people. We welcome and handle cases we can handle.
PT: Apart from malaria, what other cases have you handled so far?
Eguonor-Oghene: From inception, the prevalence in the camp was malaria and it stands at 54 per cent. It is on the high side. But it is gradually coming down because more people are becoming aware of their health status, they are becoming more conscious, more informed on how to stay healthy. People go down with sickness mostly due to lack of information.
This infrastructure is standing as a foundation for their health awareness, so we also educate them. And the place is close to the people, so they can come anytime and get attended to. It has improved their health status. More can still happen, it is just that we are still limited by certain resources. But I believe with time, it will still come.
PT: How is the standard of living in the camp?
Eguonor-Oghene: There are currently 1,574 residents in the camp. They live in locally constructed batchers, they feed and fend for themselves. They struggle to survive. What helps them is that some have gone into handiwork. The women are into beads making and all that, and the men have gone into menial jobs, farming, taxi driving etc. They still benefit from interventions from people. Under the Nelson Mandela Institute, the women are trained in tailoring and they are empowered from time to time in the end.
PT: Tell us about the reported outbreak of chicken pox in the camp?
Eguonor-Oghene: It is actually caused by a virus and that virus can easily be found in areas where there is moisture, damp or there is poor hygienic environment, just like the camp, because they live in clusters. So, at the point of the outbreak, it started spreading. Everybody coming to the clinic were having signs and symptoms of the disease, rashes all over their body, itches and pain sores. So, it was really that bad. Because of the clinic, we were able to administer drugs to 24 patients in critical conditions. It started in January with two cases reported at the clinic, and then it broke out in February with 10 more cases. Seven more cases were treated in March and it finally dropped down to one case in May. At some point, we ran out of the calamine lotion and some other things, because they need to bath regularly with medicated soap. With the resources at hand, we saved 24 people that were infected and reduced the spread to the barest minimum. Though there are issues here and there, awareness has gone out and the affected were isolated. They don’t let them go to school so they don’t mix with the people and get them infected.
PT: What were the challenges you faced in curbing the disease and other infectious diseases?
Owhin: Generally, the environment is one major factor. No matter how you try to make them do something for their own benefit, if they don’t understand it fully, and even when they understand but because of their level of reasoning, they come down with certain sicknesses. We try to make them take precautions and be aware of their environment.
PT: what about the standard of living in the camp?
Eguonor-Oghene: It is really poor. Because, I have seen cases of two children that came here with their parents, one was having ring worm all over her head. A little girl and she was given medication, but her father ended up selling the drug to get something they would eat, neglecting the daughter’s health. So, it is that bad. They survive by looking for the next available thing to eat, even at the detriment of their own children. The condition is really terrible.
PT: Have there been other health issues in the camp, like a viral disease?
Eguonor-Oghene: There was recent immunisation that was going on for polio and meningitis. The World Health Organisation visited the camp and immunised the children.
PT: What would you want the government to do to improve the health facility and boost its services?
Eguonor-Oghene: The government cannot do everything and that is why we are actually doing what we are doing. The whole essence of taking responsibility is to make the world a better place. Because one person cannot handle it, it will have to take a collective effort of different individuals coming in from their core areas of core competence and specialty to contribute. We cannot hang it on the government alone, they (government) have not even been able to meet up with their own basic responsibilities. So, this is called corporate social responsibility. This is where the NGOs are to come in and take responsibility and give back to the world, and that is actually when you get the blessings. When you lend to the poor, you lend to God. This is something everybody should be passionate about and find a way to be relevant.
PT: Do you get paid for your services?
Eguonor-Oghene: As you can see, what we are doing is purely voluntary service. There is no medical professional that comes in here to receive pay since its inception. We don’t receive pay. The funding was to establish it and it is renewed each year. Every other thing we get are voluntary efforts from selfless individuals, NGOs and CSOs. For everything to be sustained, there must be funding. No matter how good your cause is, if it is not funded, it will not last or stand the test of time.
PT: Which effort have you made in reaching out for more volunteers in the health clinic?
Eguonor-Oghene: In the aspect of getting volunteers, I have written to the Federal Capital Development Agency, FCDA, to request for services of doctors, pharmacists and lab scientists. But they said they don’t have the resources to provide that for us right now. However, they will prioritise health care services of the IDPs and I don’t know how they intend to do that. Because when an IDP goes to government hospitals, they still pay. So, at the end of the day, it is not something you can wait for the government to handle.