There have been several pandemics in human history affecting people on a worldwide scale. The Bubonic plague has been the deadliest of them all. It ravaged around the 14th century and claimed more than 80 million lives worldwide. Today, we struggle with COVID-19 which has so far accounted for more than half a million deaths worldwide with no signs of abating some time soon.
In hindsight, on December 31, The Wuhan Municipal Health Commission in China reported a cluster of cases of what was first thought of as pneumonia. Series of findings eventually identified the cases as a novel virus. 142 days later after more than 118,000 cases and 4,291 deaths, on March 11, it was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO). The virus can spread by direct contact with infected persons or by contact with contaminated objects and surfaces. Within weeks, the spread was exponential and the large-scale control measures were to issue preventive guidelines, top of the list; maintaining physical distance, personal hygiene, and use of nose masks.
The issue required elaborate and emergency responses only possible to be overseen by governments. National responses to the pandemic have therefore varied from countries. It typically includes containment measures such as lockdowns, quarantines and curfews. Italy, one of the COVID-19 hotspots in the world went on a national lockdown on March 9 after 7,985 cases and 463 deaths. By the first week of April, about 4 billion people were in some form of lockdown. Just like it did in every other country, the virus set tidal waves of economic and social disruption across the board.
The level of preparedness and response to the virus in Nigeria while cannot be remarked as deficient, nonetheless, measures were mostly reactive and a great deal could have been instituted sooner. At inception, The Federal Government assured Nigerians on 28 January of its readiness to combat the virus, and on 27 February, the index case was confirmed in Lagos State – an individual who had returned from Milan, Italy. By March 9, after another case had been confirmed, The President established a 12-member Presidential Task Force (PTF) for the control of COVID 19 chaired by the Secretary to the Federal Government, Mr. Boss Mustapha. This was the president’s first definitive step, 11 days after the index case was confirmed. It was nearly on time. The membership of the task force is however notably inclusive; it includes Ministers of Health, Interior, Aviation, Humanitarian and Social Services as well as the Director-General of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control and a WHO representative. It was a progressive – top government officials and public health professionals being directly responsible for containing the spread and impact of the virus. Worthy to note that at this time, only two cases of COVID 19 have been confirmed so it didn’t have the earmarks of a step taken in desperation.
Now, there were growing calls from critics and experts for the President to issue a directive for the country to go on lockdown to prevent further spread. What followed instead was a series of rapid and significant measures; the National Sports Festival slated from 22 March to 1 April was postponed indefinitely and on 18 March, the National Youth Service Corp orientation exercise was suspended. The moves highlighted the readiness of the Nigerian Government to scale down non-essential gatherings. Cases were less than 10 by now but had gone up to 131 by 30 March when the NYSC was supposed to conclude its orientation.
Closing the camps early appeared to decrease the risk of contracting the virus by the corps members, asking them to vacate the camps early was the right call. There were also repeated calls for the government to issue a travel ban. It was due. Most countries had already begun to issue travel embargos. On 18 March after some returnees tested positive to the virus the previous day, Nigeria placed a travel ban on 13 countries with a high number of cases. The international airports in Abuja and Lagos were also closed on 23 March.
During the early days, apparent misinformation meant people classified the virus as a disease of the upper class after some high profile citizens, mostly politicians, tested positive. For some, it was recompense for their numerous misdeeds. Observably, the only set of people who got tested at this time were political elitists and returnees from overseas. The need to ramp up testing did not come to fore until community transmission was first reported on March 19. Most tests conducted beforehand were patients who exhibited symptoms or who presented themselves for tests. Cases could have further scaled down if contact tracing had been sufficient from the onset. The NCDC, however, reiterated its commitment to adequate contact tracing while soliciting the public’s cooperation having encountered some challenges.
Nigeria crossed the hundred mark on March 29 totalling 111 confirmed cases. The President followed up by announcing lockdowns in the FCT, Lagos and Ogun States. As most Nigerians live hand-to-mouth, the effects of the lockdown soon came to bear. The economy suffered even more coupled with the fall in oil prices. Going on lockdown was a worldwide trend. However, there hasn’t been any concrete proof that it has been effective in reducing the spread of the virus.
Other measures like maintaining physical distance, maintaining personal hygiene have been noted to be of rather good effects. Moreover, the developed countries could afford a lockdown, Nigeria cannot, where more than 40% of the population endure extreme poverty and even more are daily wage earners. Many have also pointed out that the lockdown wasn’t effective mostly as it was never stringent. There were reports of people bribing their ways through checkpoints, it, therefore, couldn’t do much to reduce spread.
Fears also began to stoke up when mysterious deaths were reported in Kano State. The Federal government task force sent a team to the state and investigations revealed that between 50 – 60% of the deaths may have been triggered by or due to COVID-19, in the face of pre-existing ailments according to the health ministers. The situation was salvaged by the establishment of more testing centres in the state. Kano now has 5 testing centres, the same as Lagos.
Despite the lockdown, confirmed cases of the new virus tripled. By the end of April, 1,728 cases had been confirmed and although new infections were being detected, the President announced other measures to control spread and began to ease lockdown on May 4 after about five weeks. It was evident that the lockdown continued to hurt the Nigerian economy. There has been a persistent rise in inflation. There have been job losses as most private organizations laid-off workers, others implemented salary cuts also, people’s purchasing power drastically reduced. The effects were far-reaching.
There was also an increased lockdown crime-wave mainly in Lagos and Ogun States. Something had to be done. It was more practical and logical for the economy to reopen while the government relentlessly continued to reduce spread as much as viable.
Now, Nigeria has to increase its testing capacity. Laboratories in Nigeria currently number 58. It currently does around 3,500 tests per day, we need to do more. All samples tested from the outset haven’t crossed 300,000. The total share of positive cases from tested samples has been around 15%, much better than most South American countries. More needs to be done however as it helps health workers characterize the prevalence, spread and contagiousness of the disease. The countries that have been steadily climbing their way past coronavirus all reveal one thing; widespread testing. Alongside robust testing, tracing and supported isolation infrastructure must also follow as well as further enlightening people on control measures like physical distancing and mask-wearing.
So far, the ban on interstate movement has been lifted and major sectors of the economy have been reopened since Nigeria began a gradual easing of the lockdown on May 4 with a steady lifting of restrictions. It won’t get any easier, we need to find better ways to overcome these challenges. We have been making progress but nearly enough. We must eschew laxity. The key is to continue to do more.