The unsung early heroes of the battle against COVID-19 in Nigeria

With support from UNICEF, the National Orientation Agency in Lagos is training contact tracers who track ‘passengers of interest’ to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Nigeria

Blessing Ejiofor, Communication Officer, UNICEF Nigeria
Contact tracing in Lagos
UNICEF Nigeria/2020/Ojo
08 June 2020

When Mrs. Sogbola heard the phone ringing, she reached for it with a sense of trepidation. She had recently returned home to Nigeria from the United Kingdom, where COVID-19 infection rates were skyrocketing. To make matters worse, now her housekeeper was showing signs of a cough and runny nose. She felt alone and uncertain in this new reality.

But the call ended up being just what she needed. On the phone was Zarina Chidama of the National Orientation Agency (NOA), performing a contact tracing call, part of a campaign to track ‘passengers of interest’ to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Nigeria, after it first arrived in the country when someone who was infected abroad traveled to Nigeria.

For Mrs. Sogbola, simply having a conversation with someone was a comfort.

"I had been agitated and confused about what to do, but after I received a call from Zarina, I felt warmth, care and support,” she said. “The kind of support I received from her allayed my fears.”

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in Nigeria, ‘passengers of interest’ with a recent travel history from countries where there was widespread and sustained community transmission of COVID-19 needed to be traced, found and required to self-isolate for at least fourteen days. By the end of March 2020, when Nigerian airports were closed to both local and international flights, more than 6,000 passengers of interest who had spread across the country needed to be tracked down. It was a daunting task.

In Lagos State, part of this task fell on the NOA, with support from UNICEF. At the outset, the NOA had to be prepared and adequately equipped to trace almost 4,000 passengers of interest who had come into the country and were residing in Lagos.


Contact tracing in Lagos
UNICEF Nigeria/2020/Ojo
A contact tracing call, part of a campaign to track ‘passengers of interest’ to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Nigeria.

“Contact tracers need skills to identify key symptoms of COVID-19 – and they also need to have the right interpersonal skills,” said Dr. Charles Nwosisi, UNICEF’s Health Specialist in Lagos. “This is why UNICEF stepped in to provide the training - alongside the logistics - needed for the task.”

In addition to monitoring for symptoms, some of the contact tracers provided psychosocial support that helped ‘passengers of interest’ get through those harrowing 14 days of self-isolation and uncertainty, when even family members had to be kept away.

‘’After the test was done, Zarina called and supported my family and me all through the waiting period. She shared my anxiety,” said Mrs. Sogbola. “When the result was out, she was the first person I called to tell that all the tests came back negative."

A team effort

Ndubuisi Anozie, Chief Programme Officer at the NOA, until recently led a team of contact tracers for ‘passengers of interest’ in Lagos. His day began at 9am and lasted for eight hours, much of it interacting with people who were generally not very willing to divulge information about themselves. Some believed it is an invasion of their privacy. “They were quite suspicious, and I really do not blame them, given what is happening in our country today,” said Anozie.  

Contact tracing in Lagos
UNICEF Nigeria/2020/Ojo
Ndubuisi Anozie calling up his assigned contacts.

Contact tracers reach out to people assigned to them for follow up. Each tracer can have more than sixty people to monitor daily, which can be a logistical challenge.

"I needed power to charge my phone when it runs out as there are too many calls to make to trace, (and) sitting in one spot for 7 to 8 hours is quite challenging. Some contacts were not willing to divulge information, so I kept recharging my phone to speak with them to gain their trust,” said Anozie.

Nevertheless, the satisfaction of helping his country’s fight against this deadly virus kept him going. What was even more satisfying to him was the individual result that he achieved.

“So far, of all the 64 contacts I traced, none have shown signs of COVID-19,” he said.

Likewise, Mrs. Chidama, expressed satisfaction with the process of contact tracing and believed it to be a good method to slow the spread of the disease. She noted that 80 per cent of her contacts responded well, though some of the contacts did not provide the correct phone number for proper tracing, and some next of kin were difficult to reach.

"It was an honor to be part of contact tracing. For me, it was beyond the job. It was a call to serve the people and the nation at large," she said.