“A Week In The Life” is a weekly Zikoko series that explores the working-class struggles of Nigerians. It captures the very spirit of what it means to hustle in Nigeria and puts you in the shoes of the subject for a week.
Today’s subject is Joke, a call centre agent at the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC). She tells us how her life has changed since Coronavirus was first announced and what she looks forward to the most after this is over.
I stand up from bed by 5 am today. I say “stand up” because it’s not voluntary. I prepare my kids for school, cook their breakfast and pack their lunch boxes. My husband drops the children at school, while I prepare for work. All this happens before 8 am, which is my resumption time.
There was a time I was sure of closing by 4 pm, but since the outbreak of Covid-19, I get off work by 8 pm and I still take work home. I now work round the clock. This means that even when I get home, I still receive messages from people on the night shift asking for help in sieving calls from work. I have to prioritize and ask for further clarification from each caller, before determining whether to escalate the issue to the people on the field or not. So, I get off work physically by 8 pm, but I just replace it with working from home.
Today is a rollercoaster because we are working hard to keep up with the number of calls. My colleague who worked the Sunday shift hasn’t been able to go home because his conscience can’t stand leaving us with such a large workload. So, somehow, he stays to support us and ends up working a 48-hour shift. This would have been strange to us in the past, but we are living in strange times.
When I get home, my husband has cooked for the children and I am thankful for that. I am one of the lucky ones who has a husband who is understanding. During this period, he has been extremely supportive and I don’t know how I would cope if he wasn’t. All I do is prepare stew for the week and he cooks and takes care of the children before I get back from work.
I am too tired to eat. I just want whatever sleep I can get. If I go to bed now, at least when someone at work calls me by 10 pm, I would have gotten 2 hours of uninterrupted sleep.
Every job has its ups and downs. It’s easy to envy other jobs from afar but if they tell you what their job entails, it wouldn’t look so glamorous. I studied Microbiology in university; I was looking for a job relevant to my field of study and that’s why I took this job.
This job gives you a thick skin. In a day, you can get up to 40 calls with people just calling to ask if the number is working. Today, I got a call where the person on the other end of the line was quiet. The person listened to me talk without saying anything. Another person called and said: “So, the line is even working. Una well done.”
Over the years, you learn not to throw stones at the person, to just laugh it off. As part of the customer service training, you learn that you can’t talk back to the person at the other end of the line, and they have a right to their opinion. No matter how annoying. So, I share the “joke” with my colleague and we laugh over it.
I have barely slept for 3 hours. I have been writing and coordinating reports about the outbreak and possible cases to send to the field agents. There was a time that I could go to sleep by 8:30 pm or 9:00 pm with no worries. Nowadays, I’m always worried that if I fall asleep, I will miss any call that comes in. And calls come in at odd times.
Today, I wake up feeling lethargic. My husband encourages me to get out of bed and to start preparing for work. He has been supportive even though my laptop has literally taken his place for now. He knows that I must show up whether I feel up to it or not…
I try not to think about how long I have to do this. I am just going to take this situation one day at a time for my own sake. Although, I am worried that despite all our efforts and advice at the NCDC, Nigerians will not adhere to instructions and the infection will spread and all this stress will be for nothing.
Today, I received a call that made my day at work. Someone called saying: “God will bless you, I just want to appreciate the work you people are doing for Nigeria.” I thanked the person on behalf of NCDC but the person added: “I am not praying for NCDC, I am praying for you.” This made me happy. At least someone somewhere appreciates what I am doing and my sleepless nights are not in vain.
Another thing I have also learned in this job is to separate home personality from work personality. At home, I am a mother, a wife. At work, I am a worker. I give each part its due diligence and that’s why today is painful for me because I know how much I give for each role.
I got a call and in between all the pleasantries and asking how I could be of assistance, the caller goes: “Please, don’t ask me what you can do for me. You and the government are wicked and stupid. I know there is no Coronavirus and you are joining the government to eat money when people are dying of hunger. Thunder fire your mouth.”
The worst part for me was how helpless I was. I could neither cut the call nor respond. I had to calmly sit through the insults until the caller was done.
After the call was over, I went out of the connect centre to the corridor and started to scream. “What sort of rubbish is this? Why would someone be so mean when I am just trying to do my best? Even as I am on the frontline, I am not sure whether I will get this illness or not, yet I still show up to play my part. Why would someone think this is a joke?” I let it all out before returning to the connect center calmer and lighter.
I scream because I can’t take the anger home. Over the years, I have learned to separate both lives if I want to strike a balance. I have little children at home aged 11, 8 and 6 who don’t know better. I don’t want to go back home as a different person from the one that left in the morning. I don’t want to be the person that was all smiles and cracking jokes in the morning and is now blank and edgy after work. If I am always angry and irritable, my children will run away from me once I get home.
These days I don’t even think of unwinding. In the past, I would relax by either going to watch a movie, going to visit a friend, or playing with my kids. Even if there was no social distancing, where is the time?
There’s no time to unwind because when I get even small breathing space from work, I am thinking of my family. How to make sure they aren’t affected too much by my current busy schedule. What should I buy in the house? The children, how will they survive this week? I am trying to make things as “normal” as I possibly can.
I don’t even have the time to be afraid because fear can even kill more than the disease. Over time, I have learned that whatever will happen will happen regardless of whether you are afraid or not. All you can do is get as much information as you can on prevention, adhere to it, and trust God.
Also, because of the kind of person that I am, I don’t like things that I do to fail. This means panic comes last to my mind and I just do whatever needs to be done because my job is duty calling. I just know that I won’t always do this forever and there will come a time when I will rest and unwind.
But right now, I just want to go home and take a cold shower.
There’s training at work today. We are bringing on more people to help with the call centre effort and managing the numerous calls we receive every day. Before this outbreak, we could conveniently handle the workload, but now, we need more hands so we don’t burn out.
There is a chain of reporting which we follow. The other call centre agents compile their reports to me along with suspected cases who have called in and have been thoroughly vetted based on travel history and symptoms. I then compile and escalate this report to the state epidemiologist. Every state has an epidemiologist who then notifies the Disease Surveillance and Notification Officer at the local government level. This is the person who goes to the house address to verify the claims and then reports to the state epidemiologist who then reports back to the NCDC.
I am still on duty today even after the training and will probably take work home. Thank goodness I don’t have to come in tomorrow.
Well, there is no church service today so I can cook for the week. Sundays used to be my day of rest. I could afford to sleep in the afternoon after church. But now, I use it to prepare meals for the week so that my family will not be stranded.
What I most look forward to when this is all over is going on leave for like 2 weeks. Just travelling to a place where all I have to do is sleep, wake, eat and not talk too much. All this talking every day at work is making my throat pain me already; I need to rest.
I’m going to the market to buy ingredients for my meal preparation. I am back to work again tomorrow until when all this blows over. Then I can finally get to rest my throat and my eyes.
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