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Special Report: Nigeria’s many COVID-19 missteps

By Ishaya Ibrahim

Minister of Health, Dr. Osagie Ehanire at the Presidential Task Force briefing on COVID-19 on 10th August, 2020

Nigeria earned its spot on the Covid-19 world map on 27 February and it changed everything going forward; until that day, people moved about their daily routine, although conscious of the fact that a virus was circulating in Wuhan (China) and in other parts of the globe.

Not quite business as usual

In Lagos, there was nothing unusual about the morning of 27 February. The typical hustle and bustle was everywhere: on the roads, at the markets, in the banking halls and the countless relaxation spots that dot the city. What residents couldn’t have known was that at the virology laboratory of the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH), an Italian who arrived in the country a few days earlier had just been diagnosed with the Coronavirus, also known as COVID-19.

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That became Nigeria’s index case and it ended the spectator posture of the Nigerian government since the virus broke out in Wuhan on 12 December 2019. It was also on that day that Nigerians came to the reality of the new normal: social distancing, virtual interactions and so on.

But despite Nigeria’s index case, it was not until March 17 that the Presidential Task Force (PTF) for the control of the Coronavirus came into force. Some Nigerians wondered why the government had to wait that long to set up such a critical committee that would provide leadership as the country looked to manage the crisis, especially since President Muhammadu Buhari wasn’t talking to the people on a regular basis.    

In fact, some Nigerians suggested that the PTF should have been inaugurated immediately after the index case was confirmed, or even when the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared Coronavirus to be an international health emergency on 23 January.

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#COVID19Nigeria situation report for 10th September, 2020 — as published by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC)

Rating the NCDC

Meanwhile, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) led the initial effort by reeling out series of health guidelines to Nigerians – washing of hands, keeping safe a distance, avoid crowded areas, et cetera. By the reckoning of many Nigerians, the NCDC was effective on dispelling misinformation, disinformation and rumour, especially about untested claims of curative treatment.

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The volume of communication from the NCDC was so much that a tech website jokingly asked if one were to get a dollar each time they received an NCDC SMS, it would earn a tonne of money.  

An Abuja based Optometrist, Dr Chukwuemeka Anene, is impressed with the information technique the NCDC adopted in waging the war against the Coronavirus.

“The COVID-19 information management was okay. It was everywhere, on TV, Radio, social media, and telecommunication. Anywhere you turn, the message on how to keep safe would stare you in the face,” Anene said.

Once the PTF got settled into leading the fight against the COVID-19, one of its major decisions was to curtail the importation of the virus from abroad.

Slacking with the airports

The closure of Nigeria’s international borders was central to the fight of the COVID-19. As of 21 March the PTF announced the closure of the Mallam Aminu International Airport (Kano), the Akanu Ibiam International Airport (Enugu) and the Port Harcourt International Airport (Rivers State). The Murtala Mohammed International Airport (Lagos) and the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport (Abuja) were later closed on 23 March.

Anene is convinced that the borders were closed a little too late. Except for the driver of the index case, all other confirmed COVID-19 infections were imported.

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“There were calls for early closure of the Airports, but it seems like the government was unsure of what to do, or perhaps, waiting for their people who had travelled out of the country to return. We, therefore, lost an opportunity to limit our exposure,” Anene argued.

Among those who made a case for a prompt closure of the airports was former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, who on 28 February, just 24 hours after Nigeria’s index case was recorded, said Nigeria should stop all flights from countries with a high prevalence of the Coronavirus.

“Recently, we closed our borders as an act against economic sabotage. Perhaps now is the time to temporarily halt flights to and from any nation with a prevalence of this scourge. It is more important to secure human lives than to secure an economy,” he said.

His counsel was not heeded – not until 25 days later.

ECOWAS/West African Health Organization (WAHO) presents medical equipment to Federal Government of Nigeria for COVID-19 Response at Premier Medical Warehouse, Jabi, Abuja on 11 July 2020

And the virus spreads

On 23 March, all of Nigeria’s airspace was closed. That same day confirmed COVID-19 cases had risen to 50; but the community spread had already begun at a scale that necessitated a national lockdown of the country. The situation was made worse, according to observers, by returnees from abroad who flouted NCDC’s guideline by not self-isolating.

Even those who returned to the country on special arrangement after the borders were closed similarly disobeyed the self-isolation policy. On May 8, the minister of health, Dr Osagie Ehanire, disclosed that such persons simply went around spreading the virus.

Nigerians are not accustomed to following orders, perhaps because they see some of the elected and appointed leaders disregard the same directives. The late chief of staff to the president, Abba Kyari, who returned from Germany on 14 March, attended high profile government meetings without self-isolating. He later died from complications arising from the virus, on 17 April.

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Kyari’s burial was also replete with the flouting of the COVID-19 safety protocol. Held at the Gudu cemetery in Abuja, it attracted large crowd of mourners. While many of them wore face masks, they did not observe the social distancing rule. And Nigerians were shocked to watch on national television instances of individuals who didn’t wear Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) handling the corpse, which was wrapped in white clothing according to Islamic burial rites.

“Yes, his corpse could have been decontaminated,” said Anene. “But the large crowd of mourners at his home and burial site was a bad example for others.”

Few days later, on April 23, another burial took place, for the father of Ali Modu Sheriff, a one-time governor of Bornu State, in North-Eastern Nigeria. This time, the rules to curtail the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic were all violated in a much larger scale.   

A lopsided social intervention

Another misstep in Nigeria’s handling of the COVID-19 was the violation of the lockdown, a measure that could have curtailed spread of the virus. It was unheeded at all levels. Transporters ferried passengers across the country while rogue security personnel aided the flouting of the interstate travel ban.

Governor of Lagos State (Where Nigeria recorded its index case), Babajide Sanwo-Olu during one of his regular press briefings on how the state is tackling the pandemic. To his left is the State Commissioner for Health, Prof. Akin Abayomi, who was at the forefront of the government’s efforts. He contracted the disease and after the necessary treatment resumed earlier this week.

During the lockdown, managing the palliatives became a big issue.  Since there was restriction on movements, it was understandable that many Nigerians would expect some form of intervention by the government on their welfare. State and Federal governments announced varied measures of responses to the situation, but the distribution was poorly handled, and lopsided.

Alex Byanyiko, a filmmaker and cinematographer based in Abuja, said nothing betrayed the Nigerian government’s lack of commitment to her people as the way it handled the palliatives.

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“There are many Nigerians who live from hand to mouth based only on what they can make in a day. They have no savings anywhere, no foodstuff stocked up anywhere. For such people, not being able to go out in search of their daily bread meant living on an empty stomach,” he pointed out.

Byanyiko said surviving in Nigeria at the time was nothing short of a miracle.

“Days ran into weeks with such Nigerians waiting on the government to provide palliatives as promised or rumoured, but that was not to be. About two months after, when the government finally managed to do something, it came in trickle-feed like from a beggar’s bowl. And it was only in a few communities,” he said.

 “The government was ashamed of their helplessness. Many Nigerians, although not surprised, have again seen how little their government can do for them,” he concluded.

State-backed dissent

But while the Presidential Task Force was dealing with how to handle the flouting of the lockdown, and also managing the anger of the people who could not get palliatives, the Kogi and Cross River state governors added a new set of problems to the list. They both claimed their states were COVID-19 free even against the scientific proof of the NCDC to the contrary.

Anene said such reckless actions of the governors further fuelled the conspiracy theory that the pandemic was a hoax, even though they later capitulated under mountain pressure.

But at the other end of enforcing the COVID-19 lockdown, Rivers State governor, Nyesom Wike, pulled down two hotels into rubble.The demolition, according to a Jigawa based travel consultant, Ayodele Olorunfemi, was unreasonable because it could only precipitate anger and not remorse.

“You need the support of the people in fighting such a war, and that can only be possible when you use moral suasion than applying punitive measures,” he said.

After six months of fighting the coronavirus pandemic, the Nigeria government opened its airports for international flights. Image, courtesy FAAN

For Olorunfemi, Nigeria’s handling of the COVID-19, which is still ongoing is commendable, especially in the area of information dissemination. He, however, lamented the poor distribution of the palliatives.

“The government did well in the area of information dissemination, sensitising the people on various preventive measures. But there is a weakness in the area of palliative. I expected the government to use the citizen’s BVN in the payment of palliatives. This would have reduced the massive corruption experienced as a result of the table payment system they deployed,” he said.

Olorunfemi, who thinks that the Nigerian government is doing well in the fight against COVID-19, says the seriousness attached is hinged on self-preservation since going abroad for treatment was out of the equation for everybody. Despite the gaps in the Nigerian government handling of the COVID-19, the buy-in of the private sector was effective in tackling the pandemic.

This is the first of a series of special reports/ news analysis commissioned by The Daily Report examining different aspects of Nigeria’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, courtesy of the Google Journalism Emergency Relief Fund (JERF).

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