When Nigerian students studying in South Africa were travelling back in January after the Christmas and New Year holidays, they clearly, never knew that a global health pandemic that would shut down the entire world was lurking somewhere in the dark.
Five months and counting, South Africa, like several other countries, is still on lockdown as hopeful measure to contain the raging COVID-19 disease, which has spread across the globe after its first outbreak in Wuhan, China. The grim news of a national lockdown in South Africa came like a lightning bolt. Almost everyone was caught off-guard. It, particularly, left international students and daily income earners completely stranded, dejected and despairing.
South Africa confirmed its first case of the virus on March 5, 2020, in the KwaZulu-Natal Province after a man from Hilton town, upon his return from Italy, tested positive. Thus began the silent attack of the invisible giant in the Rainbow nation that has since claimed many lives. South Africa, currently, has the highest infection and death rates from COVID-19 related symptoms in Africa.
To fight back, the South African government, on 23 March announced an initial 21-day national lockdown from 26 March to 16 April 2020. But contrary to expectations, rate of new infections remained rather high despite the measure. Consequently, one week before the end of the lockdown, President Cyril Ramaphosa, announced a further extension ofthe total lockdown by two weeks. He highlighted that the spread of the virus had slowed but cautioned that a premature end to the lockdown would have a ripple effect on the country’s health facilities and people at large. “We risk reversing the gains we have made over the last few weeks, and rendering meaningless the great sacrifice we have all made,” Ramaphosa had pleaded.
The message was very clear; even to the blind. Figures of new infections soared globally. Epicentre of the virus had just moved from China to Italy; Britain and the U.S were already recording heavy casualties. With no hope of possible vaccine in sight, death toll skyrocketed; nations shut their borders; the world had been brought to an abrupt stop.
Miles away from home, Nigerian petty traders who live from hand to mouth and students in South Africa could only hope it was just a dream. But, no; the rude reality struck violently like the flash of lightning in a stormy dark night.Hostels became prison yards; rooms, cells. Stepping out of the house meant going to buy food or medicine. Occasionally, bland eyes peered vacuously from tightly shut windowpanes,like an eagle in a cage, into the deserted streets. No more were the usual screech of car tyres rustling angrily on the asphalt roads heard; the only familiar sound was silence.
Since the lockdown is being implemented not only in South Africa but across other countries including Nigeria, many parents who are self-employed or work in the private sector could no longer send money to their children. The experience was not different for majority of other Nigerians in South Africa who depend on their small businesses that have remained closed to survive. As days turned into weeks and weeks into months, it became difficult for them, at least, to feed. They had been plunged into ‘hunger pandemic’ right in the heat of the steep and dreary COVID-19 tunnel.
But, somehow, light found them right in the middle of that tunnel rather than at the usual end of it when the Nigerian Union in South Africa, NUSA, under the leadership of Hon. Adetola Olubajo, rolled out the NUSA national lockdown relief programme.
Coordinated by the national leadership of the union, the relief programme, which is on-going, first took off in May through direct contact distribution of food items to most needy Nigerians living across the nine South African Provinces.
But when the president, Olubajo, who was in the frontline of the distribution contracted the virus in the process, the team devised a safer strategy to protect other members from also getting infected with the virus. They adopted the use of shopping vouchers which were sent to the people in need.
Describing their motivation to engage in the programme as purely humanitarian, Olubajo, in a telephone interview said the project and funds for it were strictly the responsibility of their union without any external assistance or partnership.
“We identified the needs of our people based on their SOS call and we raised money from our board of trustees and other members to feed families during the COVID-19 lockdown,” he said.
But for how long will NUSA continue to feed families of petty traders whose businesses have closed down as a result of the long unanticipated COVID-19 lockdown? The need to begin to fish for themselves again and how this could be made possible was, obviously, the greatest concern for many. NUSA seemed prepared, also, to lend them a helping hand.
“We have a programme in the pipeline which is headed by our BoT chairman. It is called economic team, wherein we get the statistics in terms of the negative impacts on the petty traders, those at the lowest level of the economy. Then we are able to extend a take-off grant to them,” Olubajo revealed.
Meanwhile, NUSA’s acting secretary general, Hon. Collins Thomas Mgbo, said the sacrifice the union had made and was still making even at the risk of their own lives was worth it.
According to him: “our major objective is the welfare of Nigerians in South Africa. It is our responsibility that whenever Nigerians are in any kind of difficulty that we step in as an organised structure to help alleviate that problem.”
Another official of the union, Mr Buchi Okoli, assistant general secretary, Pietermaritzburg Ward in the KwaZulu-Natal Province, expressed optimism that with more funds, many more Nigerians whose livelihoods have been badly affected by the COVID-19 lockdown would be reached and helped to bounce back. He said: “The union, unfortunately could not roll out this initiative on a scale as wide as it desires as a result of financial constraints”.
To ensure accountability and promote transparency, beneficiaries were required to do an audio or video message of the items bought and send back to the officials for proper documentation. Some beneficiaries who spoke to THISDAY via telephone calls confirmed they received the vouchers.
Choosing to remain unnamed, a middle aged man with a wife and three kids who operates a Nigerian restaurant in Pietermaritzburg said he was very grateful that “this favour located me.” A student at the University of KwaZulu-Natalwho identified himself simply as Tayo called it the selfless Nigerian community spirit. “If politicians and those in government at home would selflessly look out for those who had trusted and elected them like NUSA has done, we all would be very proud of being Nigerians,” he added.
While Nigerians in South Africa have remained resilient in the face of COVID-19, reports say that quite a number have, nonetheless, bowed to the overpowering might of thecowardly giant. With announcement of the move to alert level two of the lockdown from Monday, August 17, by PresideintRamaphosa on Saturday night, 15 August, a lot moreeconomic and social activities are expected to pick up again in earnest.
Although an upsurge in new infections is predicted, yet, the streets of South Africa are starting to hum with life again even as the government has assured citizens of its firm resolveto keep fighting to flatten the curve.