By Beti Baiye and Ibukun Oguntola (Lead Writers)
“People who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.” Rob Siltanen.
Over the years, Nigeria has recorded several disease outbreaks — Lassa fever, Cholera, Yellow fever, Monkey pox and others. The country has also been impacted by global disease outbreaks such as the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) and, more recently, COVID-19. These outbreaks have resulted in the loss of many lives and have also exposed the weaknesses in the country’s healthcare system, including inadequate funding, lack of necessary medical equipment and supplies, and insufficient healthcare personnel.
The #PreventEpidemicsNaija project
Since 2018, through the ‘Preventing epidemics through public awareness and advocacy for sustained funding to improve epidemic preparedness in Nigeria’ project, Nigeria Health Watch has been working with the Global Health Advocacy Incubator (GHAI) to raise public and policymaker awareness and to demand funds for epidemic preparedness to ensure a sustained and stable funding mechanism for the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (NCDC) — Nigeria’s national public health institute with the mandate to lead the preparedness, detection, and response to infectious disease outbreaks and public health emergencies.
From inception, the #PreventEpidemicsNaija project has advocated for the sustained funding of the NCDC to ensure financial support for disease surveillance and preparedness. The project also seeks to increase public and policy maker knowledge and understanding of epidemic preparedness and raise awareness about Nigeria’s epidemic preparedness level through a robust media engagement strategy.
The media engagement strategy
Previously, media coverage of disease outbreaks was largely reactionary, with almost no coverage of epidemic preparedness. There was very little in the news about epidemic preparedness funding, and apart from op-eds from skilled and passionate professionals that helped to dissect the issues and identify the gaps that Nigeria faced with epidemic preparedness, general media coverage was outbreak focused.
The project therefore adopted a multi-pronged strategy to strengthen media capacity for epidemic preparedness reportage by engaging with journalists around the country through journalism masterclasses, media roundtables, journalism fellowships, and awards. Journalists took part in general activities such as power mapping workshops, field trips, engagement with lawmakers, and social media advocacy, including tweet chats and twitter spaces.
The aim was to equip journalists and media outlets with timely, accessible, accurate, and relevant information, as well as the resources and support to produce well-researched and rounded stories that encompass all issues around epidemic preparedness, paramount of which is funding. Journalists were encouraged to own and drive the conversation about the need for epidemic preparedness at national and subnational levels, even when there was no support.
Roundtables, Masterclasses, Fellowships, and Awards
The #PreventEpidemicsNaija project has trained over 70 Journalists, produced 7 fellows, and supported the production of over 100 stories. The first Epidemic Preparedness Journalism Masterclass in 2019 was an eye-opener. Journalists across Nigeria attended the two-day training and by the end of the training, they were excited about the fresh knowledge gained. They understood the need for dedicated and sustained funding for epidemics in Nigeria, how to source for and develop stories that focus on making a case for epidemic preparedness, and understanding the value of promoting increased reportage of key issues even when they are not trending. Today, a quick google search of an arbitrary set of words like, ‘funding epidemic preparedness in Nigeria’ will reveal a vast collection of articles where there was previously none.
During the media roundtables and policy dialogues, journalists networked with notable personnel in the health security space within and outside Nigeria which sometimes provided them access to critical information from expert sources. For instance, Nigeria Health Watch organised a media roundtable with Dr. Tom Frieden, CEO of Resolve to Save Lives during his visit to Nigeria in August 2019 where the impact of infectious diseases and how the media can pull their influence to promote the call for epidemic preparedness was discussed.
Social media is a powerful tool for advocacy and leveraging Nigeria Health Watch’s large following on platforms like Twitter and Facebook, the project raised awareness and mobilised public support to put pressure on policymakers to dedicate funds to epidemic preparedness. Within three years, the #PreventEpidemicsNaija campaign garnered about half a billion impressions on social media; online engagement increased significantly with the spread of COVID-19, making the campaign hashtag one of the most popular hashtags in social media conversations about the pandemic.
The Prevent Epidemics Journalism Awards (PEJA) has become an annual event that journalists eagerly anticipate and since 2020, ten outstanding awards have been received. The award recognises journalists who have done exceptional work in reporting on epidemic preparedness and response. Since its inception, the award has been a significant catalyst for media advocacy for epidemic preparedness. It not only recognises outstanding reporting on epidemic preparedness issues, but it has also encouraged more journalists to focus on this critical topic therefore achieving the aim of fostering ownership.
When health doesn’t sell
Varying commitment levels of different stakeholders, including journalists and fellows, was a major challenge. The goal of the project was to have as many stakeholders as possible become advocates for increased funding for epidemic preparedness. However, while some were fully committed to the cause and worked tirelessly to promote it, others were less engaged and had competing priorities that made it challenging to build consensus and support.
Another challenge was having to deal with the belief that health doesn’t sell. The media often prioritises sensational stories over more seemingly mundane issues like epidemic preparedness, which can make it challenging to secure media coverage and public attention. However, working with journalists to create compelling news stories that highlight the need for more funding for epidemic preparedness aided in achieving the widespread desired coverage.
Never again Nigeria
Like other countries, Nigeria is recovering from the long-lasting economic and social impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the threat of pandemics and other health emergencies has increased globally, therefore, the momentum must be sustained, and every opportunity taken to report on and highlight Nigeria’s ability to respond to and prepare for future infectious disease threats, if adequately funded.
By reporting on the importance of health security funding and the potential consequences of inadequate funding, the media can help increase awareness and influence community opinions and actions around health in the country. This can help build political will and support for increased funding for health security programmes, which can ultimately lead to a more robust and prepared healthcare system.
Presently, epidemic preparedness and response systems remain focused at the national level. This is a challenge for a country that has political structures, with decentralised decision-making. Therefore, the current goal of the #PreventEpidemicsNaija project is to build awareness and demand for epidemic preparedness funding increases and to strengthen reportage of epidemic preparedness and response, not just at the national level but also at sub national level in Lagos and Kano States where the project is currently being implemented.