AS the world struggles to come to terms with the seemingly intractable nature of the current coronavirus pandemic, the Nigerian authorities are only just waking up to the realities of the challenge posed by the disease. Three months after the first cases were reported in China, the Nigerian government, in a more or less tentative move, on Wednesday, rolled out a raft of measures aimed at containing its spread, even though eight cases of infection had already been confirmed in the country as of then. On Thursday, the number rose to 12.
In a moment of looming crisis, experts say, there are two reactions that should be avoided. The first is panic. The second is complacency. But faced with the ravaging coronavirus pandemic, the President, many governors, other public officials and the general public avoided the first mistake by falling into the second. The consequences of the disastrous slowness in rolling out drastic preventive measures are becoming too ghastly for the country to handle. What is obvious about the Covid-19 (another name for coronavirus) is that the more the tests are carried out, the more new cases are discovered. Already, only five testing centres are said to be available in the entire country of over 200 million people. None is available in the whole of the northern and eastern parts of the country, which is not good enough.
Prominent among the measures taken so far include a ban on flights from 13 countries worst hit by the virus and the postponement of events likely to attract a large gathering such as the National Sports Festival earlier scheduled to begin at the weekend and other sport events. The National Youth Service Corps orientation camps have also been disbanded, just as schools in some parts of the country have been closed until further notice, and places of worship also advised in some states against going ahead with their usual activities that attract large crowds.
While these measures are appreciated, and even commendable, it should still be noted that some of them have come a bit too late. When dealing with a deadly disease of the nature of the coronavirus, which has no cure and has already accounted for close to 10,000 deaths across the world, with confirmed cases of infection topping 220,000, prevention is usually a better and most effective response than containment. Nigeria has already failed that test of prevention. What is currently going on is damage control; reactive measures are now speedily tumbling out when being proactive should have produced a better result.
Failing to roll out preventive measures early enough raises questions about Nigeria’s capacity to cope with an epidemic of the disease that has a very high rate of contagion. This is a disease that has defied countries with far better health infrastructure and public administration skills. Some of them have been literally overwhelmed, with Italy, the eighth largest economy in the world, now looking up to China for assistance. With all the European countries currently engulfed in a survival struggle that the French President, Emmanuel Macron, described as a war, Africa will have no usual partner to run to but will have to depend on herself.
Nigeria is still foolishly basking in the euphoria of the praise that followed the way she handled the Ebola outbreak of 2014. However, while the world may have witnessed many wars and outbreaks of killer diseases, the Covid-19 has presented a challenge unlike any other before. This is why the message of the head of the World Health Organisation, Tedros Adhanom Gabreyesus, is anything but cheery. He tells the continent, “The best advice for Africa is to prepare for the worst and prepare for today.”
It is indeed galling that Nigerian officials are still trying to be tentative on this issue of life and death, when all other countries of the world are going all out to contain the menacing approach of the disease. At a time when many countries, including China, where the outbreak originated, are virtually applying blanket ban on visitors, Nigeria is still selective of the countries to ban. Even when prompted by journalists to address the issue of flights from the high-risk countries, the Minister of State for Health, Olorunnimbe Mamora, said such a decision would be taken after a periodic review of the situation.
It is difficult to understand what he meant by “periodic review.” Did he mean that until cases of the disease run into their hundreds or thousands before such an action is taken? Why did the government have to wait till the confirmed cases of the virus jumped to three before announcing the ban on 13 countries? As an example, why did the Nigerian authorities turn a blind eye to a Turkish flight that entered the country en route from Italy, when Italy had already become a high-risk country? Today, Italy has the highest number of deaths, over 3,000, after China.
The case for border closure has been amply made by the Nigerian Medical Association. The NMA said 730 people from high-risk countries entered Nigeria on a daily basis, providing enough reason for a total shutdown of the country’s borders. African countries such as Ghana, South Africa, Kenya and Angola are among those that have shut out other countries, including Nigeria, from entering their countries.
Failure to take these simple steps of locking out people with the disease from entering the country has wider implications, which Nigeria might not be in a position to handle. For instance, can Nigeria handle a lockdown of a megacity like Lagos? The implication for the economy would be unimaginable. In addition to locking out those likely to import the disease into the country, the people have to be enlightened about the need to embrace the simple hygienic practice of hand washing, using soap and running water. People should also cultivate the culture of social distancing, keeping a safe distance from other people, and ensuring they cover their mouths and noses while sneezing or coughing.
Also, for Nigerians entering the country after a period of sojourn in high-risk countries, efforts should be made to quarantine them or ensure that they go into self-isolation for two weeks, whether they show signs of the disease or not. That is what obtains in the United States and China, which has miraculously turned its situation around. For a country that exported Covid-19 to the world, China has been able to record a zero case of new infection, except those imported from outside the country. Above all, there should be a daily briefing of Nigerians by the government in order to carry them along.