Shopkeeper Toyin Jacob never thought she would have to rely on handouts. Before last year, food and cash distributions were for her neighbors in Makoko, a coastal community in Nigeria’s economic hub, Lagos.
Thousands of families live in the floating slum, often in tightly packed huts with no running water or electricity.
Until recently, 60-year-old Jacob was better off, living in a concrete house connected to the grid, on a busy asphalted road. Her daughter went to university and her son had a job.
However, everything fell apart last year after her husband died, the “arrival of the coronavirus” pandemic and the economic crisis that followed.
Jacob’s small business had been just enough to get by, but could not withstand the five-week lockdown imposed at the end of March.
“With COVID-19 I couldn’t continue the business,” she said.
“There is no money to buy new provisions,” added Jacob, who has started selling household items to survive.
In a matter of weeks she became like many of her neighbors in Makoko, a person categorized by aid agencies as “extremely poor,” who depends largely on assistance.
“After the lockdown, until now, I’m not doing anything,” Jacob said.
Before the pandemic, nearly half of Nigeria’s 200 million people were living on less than US$1.90 a day, rivaling India for the world’s highest number of poor people.
Seven million more people are estimated to become poor in the West African nation this year, the World Bank said, adding that they would be “more urban” and “more educated.”
Extreme poverty is rampant in the country’s rural areas, but the lockdown has also affected city dwellers, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) said.
In the second-largest city, Kano, the number of hungry people tripled in just six months, reaching 1.5 million.
The economic situation became so dire it prompted the WFP, which usually concentrates relief efforts in the country’s conflict-hit northeast, to start delivering aid along with the government to the largest hubs of Lagos and Kano, as well as the capital, Abuja.
Jacob was among 68,000 people who have received 37,000 nairas (US$96.5) in Lagos since October last year, the equivalent of two months’ worth of food.
“We want to make sure the most vulnerable people have something to cushion the blow of COVID-19, and support them, so they’ll be able to get out and look for money, knowing they have food at home,” WFP spokeswoman Chi Lael said.
In the narrow waterways near Jacob’s home, residents were barely surviving before the pandemic struck.
However, when COVID-19, which has killed 1,319 people out of 92,705 infected in Nigeria, led to markets being shut, many were left hungry.
On a baking hot afternoon, Bidemi Aye sat in front of her house, a doorless bamboo construction elevated on stilts, with her three-year-old in her lap.
It was 1pm and neither had eaten anything yet.
With the little her husband, a fish seller, brings home, the family can normally only afford to eat one meal a day.
“With the coronavirus, it’s worse,” Aye said. “We only survive by the grace of god.”
The food distribution represents just a drop in the ocean, especially in Lagos, a megacity of 20 million people where most depend on a daily wage.
In 2016, the oil-dependent country had been starting to recover from the price of crude collapsing.
However, the pandemic and a second fall in oil prices saw Nigeria enter its second recession in four years.
Inflation is now threatening to tip people even further into poverty.
The price of millet — a staple food — has doubled over the past year, the WFP has said.
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