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WhatsApp for Social Good: How Nigerians used the platform to show care during the COVID-19 lockdown

As a strategy to control the spread of COVID-19 in Nigeria, volunteers sensitised community members on ways to protect themselves and their families from being infected. Photo source: NCDC

Quiet streets. Closed office buildings. Empty public spaces.

This was the reality for many Nigerian cities from March 30 to May 4, 2020, during the total lockdown put in place by Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari in a bid to slow down the spread of the novel Coronavirus.

The month-long lockdown order was focused on Lagos, Ogun, and the Federal Capital Territory. Still, many other states followed suit. The lockdown revealed many things about Nigeria’s economic, political, religious and social life. It exposed in many ways the fragility of the nation’s existing social safety nets. Government, both at federal and state levels, announced plans to provide palliatives to the most vulnerable populations.

But the term “vulnerable” almost became relative. Stories of Nigerians struggling to take care of basic needs during the lockdown became common. No movement meant no income for many. Some offices had to lay off staff members.

Companies, faith-based organisations and philanthropic individuals worked to organise help for their communities. Nigerians were struggling, and Nigerians reached out to help.

Social mobilising for social good
With over two billion users worldwide, WhatsApp’s messaging platform is one of the most popular social media tools in Nigeria. It is used by 85% of Nigeria’s 122 million internet users. The end-to-end encryption of the platform means that its use as a social share tool goes largely unmonitored. The conversation around the spread of false information via WhatsApp and other social media platforms of recent has tended to paint the platform in a negative light.

Yet, in the midst of the difficulties facing Nigerians in light of COVID-19, WhatsApp also became a platform to reach out and help others get through hard times. Both individuals and organisations used the platform to mobilise financial support for members, and for the less privileged.

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In the Government Secondary School Owerri Old Boys Class of 1997 WhatsApp group, during the initial lockdown, a member decided to share N45,000 among his classmates. Other members joined in. Seeing these acts of generosity, the chairman of the set, Chidi Uchegbulam, decided to coordinate it better. He setup a welfare committee with a simple task — to mobilise more, to screen members who really needed the support and disburse funds.

The group encouraged members willing to support to send them the funds. They setup a temporary WhatsApp group and invited members to join the group for screening, after which the funds would be disbursed to those who had genuine needs and whose sources of income were affected negatively by the lockdown.

One of the members who benefitted from this had just completed his mom’s burial and was stuck in the village taking care of his ill dad when the lockdown directives came. He provided event management services so the lockdown and suspension of social gatherings meant no income and most of his savings had gone into the burial. He came to the main group to thank members for helping to temporarily ease off some of his financial stress.

Networking online to reach the vulnerable
In the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders alumni WhatsApp group, members depended on other fellows’ network to identify people in need of financial support. Trust is an important factor in palliative distribution, so it’s important for people who decide to help to be sure their funds are getting to the those most in need. Being in a community of people involved in social impact work made it easier to identify and fill such needs.

A member and former president of the alumni association, Olumide Lawal reached out to ask for recommendations from the WhatsApp group. He did this because he knew a lot of the fellows worked with vulnerable families in underserved communities. He requested for 30 women especially those with children who would need funds to purchase foods and other basic items at the peak of the lockdown. A few days later, he came back to acknowledge and thank members for sending in their recommendations and to confirm that all the funds were successfully disbursed.

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The alumni association’s Vice President, Folajogun Akinlami, said it’s important for groups to support government’s efforts to provide palliatives because most times, it doesn’t reach the grassroots. “As leaders, it’s important that we support each other in trying times. I wish other groups will find ways within themselves to help each other too,” Akinlami said.

A group that plays together stays together
Finding ways to support each other was exactly what the social group MONSTA TRIBE did. MONSTA is an acronym that means Movement for the Obliteration of Negativity, Stereotypes, Tribalism and Acrimony. Based in Nigeria’s capital, the group organises outdoor events to build social and business networks among members. They maintain an active WhatsApp group to constantly communicate and keep in touch with members. But these connections were threatened once the pandemic hit.

One of the group’s admin, Max Omar, said when the lockdown came, it was obvious that some members were caught off guard and needed assistance. The admins had a meeting and decided to take care of members who needed help to mitigate the adverse economic effects of the pandemic.

They decided to create an “assist purse” to address this challenge. The group’s communication unit drafted a copy to call for donations from members, who were encouraged to give as much as they could. Members in need were encouraged to reach out to designated admin members.

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Three admins managed the entire process. Two handled verification of requests and advised on disbursements while the other handled actual funds disbursement. Omar said this helped to keep both donors and beneficiaries anonymous to avoid any negative social backlash. “This gave confidence to both parties. We supported single members, single members with children. We also supported married members,” he said.

He added that their needs came in various categories and it was easy for them to manage because they had planned and made provisions accordingly. “We had enough funds to go around as members gave generously and cheerfully. We realised a good sum and a lot of beneficiaries reached out for assistance,” he said.

Members got a minimum of N4000 per request and N8000 and more in some special cases. “Ultimately, the joy that we were able to reach out during the lockdown was an awesome privilege and an experience of a lifetime! And as our saying goes, we love changing the narrative”, Omar cheerfully added.

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Even though they weren’t mandated to do so, one of the beneficiaries came to the group to express his gratitude because the support he received helped him and his family.

More than a catch phrase; We must #TakeResponsibility
In one of his public comments, the Director General of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, Dr Chikwe Ihekweazu said the #TakeResponsibility campaign by his agency is not a catch phrase. Efforts to flatten the COVID-19 curve requires everyone to be involved and contribute.

In providing support via platforms like WhatsApp, there is the major challenge of ensuring that people who receive the assistance genuinely need it. It can become easy for some to see the generosity of others as a means to collect funds, depriving those who genuinely need assistance.

Another challenge is that support is limited to what the group and its members can offer, and if there is an expensive health expenditure or if someone loses their job, members of the group may not be able to provide sustained financial assistance. As Nigerians, we must begin to put in place viable social safety nets that can help citizens during times of financial hardship. One such safety net is a health financing model that protects Nigerians from healthcare expenses that can lead to poverty.

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This is a component of achieving Universal Health Coverage (UHC), by ensuring everyone has access to quality healthcare when they need it without suffering financial hardships.

The government has continued to ease the lockdown across the country not because infection rates are going down but because the economy cannot be at a standstill indefinitely. This means that more than ever, Nigeria is dependent on its citizens to help flatten the curve by taking the personal decision and responsibility to adhere to all public health guidelines to protect themselves and others.

The fact that these groups took responsibility and used WhatsApp to mobilise support to help those in need demonstrates that it is possible for citizens to take action concerning issues that affect them. This collaborative spirit should not only be the case in the provision of financial support but should also translate to citizens holding each other to account by taking responsibility for their public health safety.

As Nigeria’s COVID-19 response continues to evolve, one thing is constant; Everyone must play their part to win this fight.
In what other ways have you seen social media used for social good during the COVID-19 pandemic in Nigeria? Share with us on social media, @nighealthwatch on Twitter and @nigeriahealthwatch on Facebook and Instagram.

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