Photos: A ‘Behind-the-Scenes’ Look at the Experiences of Nigeria's Frontline Pandemic Workers
Photo by Femi Adewuyi

Photos: A ‘Behind-the-Scenes’ Look at the Experiences of Nigeria's Frontline Pandemic Workers

Nigerian doctor and photographer, Femi Adewuyi, set out to document the realities of essential workers and patients at the peak of Lagos' coronavirus outbreak.

The workers who have now found themselves on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic have always been essential, we just did not notice them. Rather, it has taken a worldwide health crisis for us to realize that we depended on them and that they are risking their lives to keep the world alive. With the lockdown on most nonessential work, we are now seeing the faces of the individuals we need to survive the pandemic.

Healthcare workers are more vulnerable to COVID-19 infection than the general population because they are frequently in contact with affected individuals. According to the World Health Organization, one in ten health workers is infected with coronavirus in some countries. In May, reports by the International Council of Nurses revealed that at least 90,000 healthcare workers have been infected and more than 260 nurses had died in the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Nigeria, over 800 healthcare workers have been infected with the coronavirus since the first case was confirmed in February. "We have had 812 health care workers infected, they are not just numbers, 29 of these work for NCDC, they are people I know, they have families, wives and children," said Chikwe Ihekweazu, Director General of Nigeria Centre for Disease Control.

Despite the decrepitude of the healthcare system in Nigeria which is evident from the poor welfare conditions for health workers and health service users and lack of proper equipment coupled with the explosive nature of the virus, Femi Adewuyi, a medical doctor and photographer is not deterred.

He started out as an amateur photographer in 2003, the year he gained admission into medical school. And he has since developed his expertise over the years with a number of accolades under his belt. Adewuyi finds photography equally interesting and therapeutic, he engages in nature photography during his downtime.

Photo by Femi Adewuyi

Adewuyi decided to work as a volunteer healthcare worker at the Infectious Disease Hospital, Yaba, one of the COVID-19 isolation centers in Lagos. It is one of the few times he has been able to function in both competencies. When asked why, he says, 'I am a humanitarian, that is why I studied medicine to help people and I take advantage of opportunities to do that."

'We are now at the peak of the pandemic"

Femi Adewuyi has been working at the isolation center since April and it is almost 4 months. "During my first month at the isolation centre, I was mainly taking pictures because we had largely asymptomatic patients who were in a stable condition. But from the third month, we started having increasingly critical patients, so I had to help out because the workload had doubled."

Over 100 days after the index case of Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) was announced in the country, Nigeria has become the third most impacted African country, crossing the 10,000 mark. As a healthcare worker in Lagos, the epicenter of the pandemic accounting for 44 percent of the confirmed cases nationwide, Adewuyi has his own fair share of angst and worry.

Photo by Femi Adewuyi

"I had fears about my personal safety because the isolation center is the hotbed of the COVID-19 pandemic, the density of coronavirus is higher compared to anywhere else in the society. I had to discuss the decision to volunteer at the isolation center with my wife and loved ones. For almost a month, I did not go home because I did not want to expose my wife and family to the virus. I also had concerns about if resources will be adequate because globally there was a shortage of N95 face masks which is actually the safest option. We have had to rationalize the use of resources and maximize whatever the government provides."

In spite of the daily updates by the NCDC on the increasing number of confirmed cases, recovered and deaths reported, many Nigerians still believe that the coronavirus pandemic is a hoax. Many have dismissed the reality of the disease, thereby refusing to follow precautionary measures established by the government. While others believe that the number of confirmed cases are probably exaggerated by the government in order to siphon public funds.

"Telling stories one image at a time"

Adewuyi is using photography as a tool to demystify the virus and paint the real picture of the pandemic by documenting his firsthand experience as a frontline health worker and also 'Behind-The-Scene' stories that go untold. With his Instagram page, he has been able to drive conversations about the COVID-19 response team by sharing images of the great work being done by these unsung heroes.

Photo by Femi Adewuyi

'My creative impetus is to tell stories, I have always loved stories as a child. What often attracts me is the story and there are many layers to a story. I am driven towards telling stories of humanity, also shed light on what is happening and to educate people. It is basically about showcasing the beauty of life and sharing those moments with people,' said Adewuyi.

On Saturday, June 20th, as part of his efforts to provide a narrative on COVID-19 in Lagos, Femi Adewuyi, an Arts in Medicine Fellow, cohort 2020 hosted a virtual exhibition of photography, 'The Diary of a Frontliner: COVID-19,' an Exhibition of Photography. It was a visual depiction of the daily interactions of medical personnel during the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Through his lens, Femi has been able to capture what life looks like at the Yaba isolation center for healthcare workers and patients. Many of these unsung heroes have been infected in the line of duty but they continue to work to stem the pandemic. These people work behind-the-scenes, they are hardly seen and neither do you hear about them in the news.

Some of them have not seen their families or loved ones for months because they are 'locked up' in different locations responding to the epidemic. Their families have had to endure the wait patiently for weeks and even months. He also noted that healthcare workers are becoming overwhelmed as the number of confirmed cases continues to increase. Yet, the end is still not in sight.

Photo by Femi Adewuyi

Aside from the myths and disinformation around the coronavirus pandemic, there is a rising trend of discrimination and stigmatization against COVID-19 survivors. Stigmatization of COVID-19 implies that individuals who perceive that they have been exposed to the virus would less likely want to get tested therefore increasing the rate of transmission to other people. Ironically, survivors of coronavirus, people who have won the fight against COVID-19 also face stigmatization in their communities and workplaces.

'For instance, if a person infected with COVID-19 would be taken to the isolation centre, it should be done discreetly. A patient had to ask for a letter stating that he had recovered from coronavirus because he would not be allowed back into the residential area where he lived if there was no official document to prove that he was now COVID-19 negative,' he said.

The risks of social stigmatization should not be underestimated especially for a disease whose symptoms become apparent five to seven days after exposure to an infected person. To curb the bane of COVID-19 stigmatization, a more sensitive approach in the extraction of infected persons should be deployed such as discouraging the use of marked vehicle such as ambulance. Also, allowing the patients to walk a few distance to a neutral place for pick-up will be equally effective. Many people will readily cooperate, if they are certain that their identity will be concealed.