Editorial: Nigeria’s chaotic response to the Coronavirus

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On the day the Senate observed that Nigeria was not prepared for the outbreak of coronavirus, the dreaded virus hit the country, with the confirmed case of an Italian on business trip to Ogun State.


On the floor of the Senate on that Thursday, members of the hallowed chamber had argued that contrary to claims by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) that it had put in place preventive measures against the disease, Nigeria, despite being a country with the largest economy in Africa, is yet to have a completed isolation center in any of the geo-political zones that would provide emergency response to coronavirus outbreak in the country. As official rhetoric and public grandstanding drives fear into the complex matrix over the unfolding coronavirus crisis, reports that some hospitals are sending away patients, who exhibit coronavirus symptoms to go home and manage their illness; leaving the patients with no option than self-medication; is most pathetic and tragic! The gravity of the epidemic demands an urgent and robust national response, and the time for action is now!




Even more disheartening, amid all the fear, confusion and chaos, the official response points to the fact that empty bureaucratic noises in high places have taken the place of a concerted strategy to prepare to tackle the coronavirus challenge that has become a global health emergency. Senate President Ahmad Lawan noted that while returning from South Africa, that there were no efforts to screen if passengers arriving Nigeria were sick and exhibited any symptoms of the coronavirus. Lawan express shock that contrary to what he experienced at the airport in South Africa, where no passenger was allowed to alight from the aircraft until they had been screened, not a single passenger was screened by health workers at the Nnamdi Azikiwe international airport in Abuja. Worse even, he expressed concern that even after the first case of coronavirus had been confirmed in Nigeria, the two isolation centers meant for the treatment of coronavirus patients in the FCT were yet to be ready. As if that was not enough, Finance Minister, Zainab Ahmed, was yet to release the N620 million approved by the federal government to the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), for the emergency response to the coronavirus outbreak.




The Senate President, who spoke after inspecting facilities at the two isolation centres at the University of Abuja Teaching Hospital in Gwagwalada, stated that the isolation centres were far from ready going by what he saw. He stressed that “from our inspection here, the temporary isolation centre is really not in good shape, it doesn’t look ready to receive any patient...we are in an emergency; we have to do everything and anything possible to fix that temporary isolation centre to be prepared to receive anyone who falls sick.” Lawan charged those saddled with leadership responsibilities to live up to expectations. His words: “There’s no way that Nigeria, the largest economy in Africa, with a population of two hundred million, and yet the Federal Capital and six surrounding states of the North Central, you don’t have one room that you can call an isolation centre, where anyone who unfortunately falls into this crisis will be taken to. There’s no generator, no electricity, nothing. There were two or three air conditioners brought this morning, maybe because yesterday we said we were coming here. This is not acceptable. I also believe that we should have a replication of the permanent site, we should be able to complete this and then have five others across the remaining geo-political zones of the country.”




The coronavirus is sufficiently serious a disease as to warrant the declaration of an emergency by the government, wherein all hospitals (public and private), and health personnel across the country ought to be put on red alert. Unfortunately, Nigeria officials with their remarkable genius for travesty have gone to town grandstanding and seeking to make money from what portends to be a disaster waiting to happen. The conferences, meetings and press statements, by federal and state government officials have not ceased even as more coronavirus cases are identified. The rumor mill has spun beyond reason, misinforming the public with all manner of unfounded cures and remedies that have no scientific basis. It has been claimed in some quarters that drinking beer and eating bitter kola was a potent remedy and Nigerians promptly descended on beer and bitter kola, until the rumor was debunked. Thereafter came another buzz that drinking ginger tea or bathing with hot water mixed with salt provided a remedy, a spurious claim that some gullible Nigerians actually believed and resorted to until, they were saved from the tragedy of falling prey to ignorance.




Certainly, the public was not reassured when news broke that the Director of the Nigerian Center for Disease Control (NCDC) had been infected by the coronavirus and quarantined, sparking nationwide panic and nervousness, especially among medical personnel, charged with containing the outbreak, but now shy away from their primary responsibility for fear of being infected. This came as researchers and the World Health Organization (WHO) identified Nigeria, Ethiopia, Sudan, Angola, Tanzania, Ghana and Kenya as nations with fragile healthcare platforms having high chances of importing the coronavirus. The researchers, in a study published in Nature, said they were most concerned about Nigeria, because of its population density and shambolic healthcare system, low economic status and volatile political situation which make the country highly vulnerable.




Vittoria Colizza, who models infectious diseases at the Pierre Louis Institute of Epidemiology and Public Health in Paris, France and a co-author of the Africa study with Marc Lipsitch; an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, United States has warned that Nigeria is among 14 high risk African nations without the capacity to respond effectively to an outbreak, despite receiving direct flights from China, or as a result of high volume of travelers. Against the backdrop of these dire warnings on the state of unpreparedness, the discordant notes coming from administration officials raises the question: what is this nation ever prepared for? Nigerians are left to the vagaries of life while their leaders do nothing. Not even enough work on preventive health!




Pray, how can anyone explain why the Federal Government and the Ministry of Health have failed to disclose the identities of the 156 passengers on board the aircraft that brought in the index case of the coronavirus to Nigeria? There is no beneficial value in government’s misplaced self-vindication, amid reports that the federal government was struggling to contact the passengers who were exposed to the Italian businessman who brought the coronavirus to Nigeria. Because many Nigerian hospitals know coronavirus is highly contagious, hospitals are avoiding patients because they lack facilities like isolation or quarantine units, personal protection equipment (PPE) and trained personnel to carry out the necessary care. Does the Health Minister need any reminder that laboratory confirmation of coronavirus diagnosis requires equipment, test kits and trained personnel that most hospitals don’t have? The latest practice of sending suspected patients home can only increase the risk of spreading the virus as it leaves the affected people vulnerable to self-medication and contacts with others.




The implications of the 156 passengers still roaming at large include delays in seeking medical advice when needed, infrequent but severe adverse reactions, dangerous interactions and possible infection of hundreds, if not thousands of other people, masking of a contagious disease and risk of widespread infection given that every infected person is said to infect at least two other people. There is no beneficial value in self-isolation; and for each day a coronavirus patient stays at home, family and all contacts are endangered. It is, therefore, better left to the imagination, the terrible consequences, specifically on public health and on public psyche of reports that the government has been unable to locate these passengers who were exposed to the coronavirus patient in the plane. The situation is a disaster waiting to happen!


The coronavirus is a national crisis of monumental proportion as the World Health Organization (WHO) has all but declared it a global pandemic. The deadly virus can wipe out scores of people in a matter of days if unchecked. The disease is contracted by direct contact with an infected person and the virus can remain within an infected person for as long as three weeks after exposure before manifesting. The symptoms progress from fever to nausea, headache, sore throat, tiredness, muscle pain, vomiting, diarrhea, coughing and sudden death. So far, there is no vaccine or known cure as scientists are still working on a number of trial drugs that are expected to be ready not earlier than 18 months. Therefore, governments at all levels must continue to take coronavirus seriously and sustain public enlightenment through traditional as well as the now very popular social media, on measures to prevent or contain it. Scrupulous personal hygiene, avoidance of contact with suspected victims, and immediate report of suspected cases to health authorities, are just some of the steps the public should take.   




The outbreak of the coronavirus in Nigeria, once again, presents a challenge to the authorities to address basic social amenities that make for improved living conditions for the average Nigerian. While the world struggles to develop a potent cure, the best way out now is good hygiene. Keeping the living environment clean is essential. All must be careful, people should as much as possible avoid crowded areas, while churches, mosques and other religious houses should control meetings that bring too many people into contact with one another. The same goes for political rallies. Commercial cyclists (Okada), could be at risk of the spread of the virus through body contacts. The same is true of the over-crowded Nigerian public bus transport system. The times call for a rapid holistic response, targeting short-term measures and long-term improvement in human development indices, not slogans and empty grandstanding because one thing is clear - the coronavirus puts everybody at risk.