By Onyekachi Anichukwu
Once upon a time, the tortoise migrated to a distant land, but told his kinsmen never to come looking for him unless something strange happened. Therefore, when his mother died, death not being a strange event, his kinsmen put heads together and dispatched emissaries to tortoise with this message: A man is heavily pregnant, a boiled tuber of yam has grown a stem, while palm nuts have ripened on palm fronds.
For the world, it is one of those never-seen diseases as the Coronavirus, a very contagious and deadly viral infection, threatens mankind. The virus can be transmitted from one person to another by respiratory droplets from infected persons by directly inhaling the virus or by touching the eyes, mouth or nose with hands or objects that have been contaminated by the virus. The new strain of Coronavirus, which has been officially named as COVID-19 is causing illness such as the common cold and pneumonia. The symptoms include coughing, fatigue, fever and shortness of breath. But the virus is tricky enough that it may be transmitted even before the patient shows any symptoms. The number of cases and death toll are increasing daily, whereas there has not been any vaccine or known cure for the deadly virus. Worse, unlike Ebola, this disease is highly infectious even in its dormant state.
Most cases and deaths occur in mainland China where it originated from. However, the rate at which the virus is spreading globally has led to the World Health Organisation (WHO) declaring the COVID-19 a global emergency. Perhaps, China being among the six most visited countries in the world contributes to the quick spread of the virus globally. China is one of the top tourist destinations in the world, thanks to her ancient treasures, breadth of cultures and industrial prowess and business opportunities that have the world, especially African, converging on her as ants to sugar.
Nigeria, being the most populous country in Africa, has the highest number of frequent visitors to China. Many Nigerians return, on daily basis, from China and other countries where the virus has been confirmed. The WHO reported that as of 18 February 2020, there were about 73,332 confirmed cases and 1,873 death in 26 countries with most cases and deaths occurring in China. The high number of traffic between China and Nigeria puts Nigeria at grave risk of a potential destination country for the dreaded virus. In other words, there is a high potential outbreak of the virus in Nigeria.
This brings us to the main concern of the WHO chief, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who confessed, “Our greatest concern is the potential for the virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems”. China, with her advanced and strong health system is having so much difficulties preventing and treating the coronavirus disease. The important question now is, how prepared is Nigeria regarding preventing, identifying and treating the virus in the country?
Nigeria health system has a big task at hand. Nigeria is well known for its very weak and, in fact, broken health system. For instance, it is struggling with the control of Lassa Fever, which has claimed about 103 lives with at least 115 cases in Nigeria, according to Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC). One would, therefore, wonder how Nigeria would cope should the Coronavirus find its way into the country, God forbid.
The Minister of Health, Dr. Osagie Ehanire, has promised Nigerians that they had put in place facilities to checkmate the Coronavirus and also to care for possible victims. Instructively, these facilities are only situated at the Mainland Hospital, in Lagos state. Also, the hospital has a laboratory for conducting tests regarding the COVID-19. Well, kudos to the Lagos State Ministry of Health.
Also, the Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) has instituted “thorough surveillance and screening” at all three main functional airports namely, Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos; Nnamdi Azikwe International Airport, Abuja; and Port Harcourt International Airport. Passengers are instructed to fill out forms concerning their travel history and health condition. Passengers are also screened for fever at the point of entrance at all the international airports.
Although the screening may not be able to stop the virus from entering the country, it will at least reduce the chances. Egypt has been able to prevent the virus from spreading in the country after the first coronavirus case was confirmed in that country. Thanks to Egypt´s good health monitoring regarding the COVID-19. The Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) has equally advised all travellers entering Nigeria from China to seek medical help if they feel unwell. The goal is to prevent the virus, identify cases quickly and give proper treatment at the right time. The federal government is indeed putting much effort in the right direction.
Nevertheless, a lot needs to be done to be able to fight the virus. Nigeria should monitor the situation in the country and in other countries closely. Much attention should focus on other African countries, especially the neighbouring countries since the land borders with these countries are extremely porous. There should be no dependence on the preparedness of neighbouring countries to prevent the disease from entering their own countries considering the high traffic between Africa and China coupled with the weak health system in sub-Saharan Africa. Instead, Nigeria should cooperate with other African countries as well as local and international health organisations to avert a Coranavirus outbreak.
Another important measure is to implement public awareness campaign across the nation. Sadly, this is not really happening yet. Both governmental and non-governmental organisations have important roles to play in this regard. The public should be educated on the mild and severe symptoms of the virus, how it is transmitted, and measures to prevent the spread.
The NCDC has recommended some preventive measure, which include avoiding close contact with people who cough, sneeze or have other flu symptoms such as fever; covering one’s nose and mouth when one sneezes or coughs; practicing good hand hygiene by washing the hands with soap and water for about 20 seconds and/or disinfecting the hands with alcohol-based solution, especially after coughing, sneezing and touching dirty objects; avoiding touching the eyes, nose and mouth so as not to transfer the virus to oneself; and using masks and seeking medical help immediately at the slightest suspicion of contracting Coronavirus symptoms.
However, with every sense of patriotism, truth is that Nigerians haven’t seen that intensive and fervent enlightenment campaign or preparedness in term of health infrastructure. The only available facility is in Lagos. So, beyond the assurances by Nigerian officials on the nation’s preparedness, Nigeria should roll up her sleeves and go to serious work. It beats imagination that while naturally fast animals with longer legs have since started their journey at cockcrow, the snail is yet to set out even at almost noon. For a country with a notoriously weak health system like ours; for a country perennially among the worst in virtually every health-related global rating, prevention is our best bet, especially given the death toll in China despite her advanced healthcare system. How is the fowl with a feathered gown supposed to cope with a fire that licked up the tortoise and his hard shell?
Nigerian government and all stakeholders must, therefore, join hands, investing heavily in the resources and campaigns needed to keep this killer at bay. The evil mushroom must not be allowed to germinate on our land, for we have no baskets that can contain it.
––Anichukwu, BHC, MMSc., is a Europe-based Public Health practitioner