COVID-19 prevention measures: Implications for the poorest communities in Rivers State

Annie Maurice Ekanem Ph.D. (UNICEF, Social Policy Officer – Port Harcourt), Dr. Guy Yogo (UNICEF, Chief of Field Office - Port Harcourt), and Dr. Maurice Ekwuluo (Coordinator – Rivers State Operating Coordination Unit for the Cash Transfers Program)
Publication Year:
  • SDG 1 - No Poverty
  • SDG 3 - Good Health and Well-Being
  • SDG 5 - Gender Equality
  • SDG 6 - Clean Water and Sanitation
  • SDG 10 - Reduced Inequalities
  • SDG 16 - Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions

COVID-19 preventive measures have been labelled a luxury the poor cannot afford. Rivers is one of the states in Nigeria implementing these policies; with the greatest impact on its most vulnerable populations. This blog post assesses the readiness status of the poorest households in Rivers State in view of the implementation of COVID-19 preventive measures to shed light on the poorest of the poor population, the severity of their suffering during COVID-19 pandemic, and implications for future resilience, recovery and development. Based on available evidence, we make recommendations on how the poor population can be supported to cope with the challenges brought about by COVID-19.



The UN’s Global Humanitarian Overview 2019 states that conflicts and natural disasters exacerbate gender inequalities, against women and girls (OCHA, 2019). This statement is applicable in the COVID-19 context, where preventive measures have been labelled a luxury the poor cannot afford (Middle East Eye, 16 April 2020). Rivers State, one of the southern states in Nigeria, is implementing WHO recommended guidelines for COVID-19 prevention, including a lockdown policy to curtail transmission. Consequently, public places including schools are closed with dire consequences for children and the informal economy, which is home to the most vulnerable populations; contributing an estimated 65% to Nigeria’s GDP (IMF blog, 8 August 2017). Incidentally, evidence generated on the impact of COVID-19 broadly highlights challenges faced at the national level; with composite representation of data on the impact of containment measures on the general population. The generalization of the subject is not targeted and does not allow for future learning by development practitioners or policymakers who often must deliver targeted results for specific populations. This blog post therefore intends to shed light on the implications for advancing containment measures and how they affect the poorest of the poor in the State; to inform policymaking and increase knowledge on the challenges faced by those who are often left behind, like children.


Who are the most vulnerable populations in Rivers State?

Recent data from the National Bureau of Statistics, shows that 1,914,023 (23.9%) out of a total population of 8,008,465 people live below the poverty line in Rivers State. Notably, poverty is rife in rural areas (53.1%) compared to urban (18%) (National Bureau of Statistics, 2019).  At the decentralized level, a 2007 World Bank Poverty Mapping exercise for states in Nigeria, lists Akuku-Toru, Degema, Khana, Ogu-Bolo, Okirika and Tai as the poorest out of 23 local government areas (LGAs) in Rivers State. This informed the pilot of ongoing Federal Government’s cash transfer programme, which transfers N5,000 monthly to each benefiting poor household, identified through a community-based targeting method. So far, 73,601 households and 267,812 individuals[5] are benefiting from the programme; representing 13.9% of poor people (1,914,023) in Rivers State.


Situation of children in the poorest LGAs

An estimated 21% children out of the total child population of 3,830,488 live in the poorest LGAs. The graph below enunciates conditions under which these children live and have continued to live through the implementation of COVID-19 containment measures. As evidenced in the assessment, these conditions are antithetical to the effective mitigation of COVID-19. Experts say handwashing with soap is a key component of sanitation and can reduce the incidence of diarrhoea by up to 47% and improve sanitation by 36% (Ejemot‐Nwadiaro et al., 2015). This is the recommended first line of defence against COVID-19. In contrast, options for sanitation facilities in the poorest LGAs include pit latrine with slab, pit latrine without slab, compositing toilet, bucket system, hanging and floating latrines. Access to water is limited to rivers, streams, surface water, unprotected stream, unprotected dug wells and small drums. Children living in these conditions risk contacting COVID-19.

Fig 1: The living conditions of children in the poorest LGAs in Rivers State

Source: Rivers State Operating Coordination Unit

Similarly, access to good housing conditions necessary to promote social distancing is non-existent in most of the households. The six LGAs assessed show children living in overcrowded households (i.e. a dwelling with five or more people per room), a mud floor, or one made of waste material. Additionally, school closures intensify challenges for children in households with no access to information. For example, 48% of children in Khana LGA lack access to television, radio, phone, newspaper or a learning device like a computer. This impacts continuous learning and puts the State at the risk of increasing the number of out-of-school children, in addition to learning and intergenerational poverty.

Notably, most women in the poorest LGAs have no formal education, the capacity to therefore act on the premise of informed decision, to prevent COVID-19 is limited. The challenge with parents not being able to assist their wards with learning during school closure is also eminent.

 Fig 2: Characteristics of female-headed households in Rivers State


Source: Rivers State Operating Coordination Unit

In addition, some of the women are petty traders and operate small businesses like hairdressing and tailoring, which are currently closed due to COVID-19. The unemployed, depend on government assisted cash transfer programme. With increased responsibility due to lockdown measures and lost income, the N5,000 cash transfer is not enough to provide for an over-crowded household. These are households, already living way below the national poverty line of N137,430 a year (National Bureau of Statistics, 2019); with implications for children’s nutrition, access to health services, and the overall resilience of the household, including future recovery and development post COVID-19. Khana LGA consistently shows the worst rating across all key indicators measured for the wellbeing of children in this assessment.


Opportunities and prospects for the future

Evidence by the World Bank demonstrates that 36% of the very poor escape extreme poverty because of social safety nets programmes. These programmes  have also lowered inequality and reduced the poverty gap by 45%[8]. In Rivers State, 86% of the poor are excluded from the federal government funded cash transfer programme[9]. Expanding social protection coverage for those who are left behind and increasing the value of cash transfers currently set at N5,000 per household is key to achieving community resilience in the face of COVID-19.

Working through existing structures makes for ownership and sustainability. The Rivers State COVID-19 action plan has a Risk Communication and Community Engagement (RCCE) pillar, with presence in the community and the key mandate of creating readiness and response, to prevent and limit potential risks of COVID-19 transmission. Using this platform to identify vulnerable populations for immediate intervention could potentially play a key role in strengthening the resilience of individuals, communities, and local markets post COVID-19. This could be achieved through direct capacitation of poor households with income generating activities like soap making, farming, tailoring etc.

This platform could also be used to sensitize on the prevention measures, assess behavioural patterns across different groups, and analyse adherence to COVID-19 preventive measures in the poorest communities for evidenced-based programming; especially for decision-makers who need timely and policy-relevant information on impacts and the effectiveness of policy responses to sustain implementation. This strategy also benefits the poorest households with limited or no education, and lacking access to information required to influence adherence to containment guidelines.

To demonstrate the impact of CashPlus programmes and provide opportunity for programmatic learning, ongoing food distribution initiatives by the government and philanthropists could be incorporated into the RCCE programme to reach out to poor households in the six poorest LGAs currently benefitting from cash transfers.  This is in addition to facilitating access to handwashing facilities, which are currently lacking in these poor households.

Finally, to ensure that the needs of children are prioritized, considerations should be made to collate and generate data that are specific to children. This will ensure their issues are not shrouded in composite data (e.g. household surveys), which do nothing to shed light on the intensity of their deprivation for timely and targeted intervention.



Evidence from the six poorest LGAs in Rivers State shows that the poverty burden on children and women is exacerbated in a context where their living conditions are not in alignment with the recommended COVID-19 preventive measures. With closure of small businesses, which are sources of daily income for poor households, children and women grapple with the reality of not being able to fend for themselves. Social protection remains a veritable instrument for addressing poverty in many households, therefore this analysis recommends expanding the existing cash transfer programmes to cover the 86% poor who are left behind. This is in addition to providing supplementary programmes to increase the resilience of poor households receiving ongoing cash transfers.  More so, investing in desegregated data collection and analysis is emphasised to provide specificity to child poverty and create space for greater understanding of how poverty affects children and the implication for their future. 


You can access it here



OCHA (2019). Global Humanitarian Overview 2019, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Accessible:

Middle East Eye Correspondent in Cairo (16 April 2020). “Staying Home is for the Rich”, Accessible

IMFblog (8 August 2017). “The Potential for Growth and Africa’s Informal Economy”, Accessible:

National Bureau of Statistics (2019). Poverty and Inequality in Nigeria 2019, Accessible:[search]=poverty

[5] National Social Safety Nets Coordinating Office. March 2020

Ejemot‐Nwadiaro, R. I., Ehiri, J. E., Arikpo, D., Meremikwu, M. M., & Critchley, J. A. (2015). “Hand washing promotion for preventing diarrhoea”, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, (9), Accessible:

National Bureau of Statistics (2019). Poverty and Inequality in Nigeria 2019, Accessible:[search]=poverty

[8] World Bank. Social Safety Nets. March 28, 2019

[9] National Bureau of Statistics (2019). Poverty and Inequality in Nigeria 2019, Accessible:[search]=poverty



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