In eight weeks — between January and February 2020, to be specific — a disease killed 118 Nigerians. According to the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), there were 2,633 “suspected” cases, 609 “confirmed” and nine “probable” during the period. The NCDC disclosed that as at February 23, the disease had spread to 27 of Nigeria’s 36 states, affecting 115 local government areas. Fatality rate was 17.1 percent. The worst-hit states are Edo, Ondo and Ebonyi — the trio taking a 72 percent slice of the total number of cases. You are forgiven if you did not know the extent of the damage Lassa fever has done to Nigeria this year alone.
You are probably more conversant with COVID-19, the coronavirus that has not infected — much less killed — any Nigerian on this soil. But you are more likely to see COVID-19 on the front pages and as an item of discussion by the national assembly, compared to Lassa. In reality, Lassa is a bigger enemy, at least for now. The little attention to Lassa may be because poor and lowly Nigerians are the ones mostly at the receiving end, whereas COVID-19 is international and more likely to affect the big guys. Whatever the case is, COVID-19 could stretch us further. We could be dealing with, potentially, two epidemics: one local, the other global. Both certainly need attention.
Nevertheless, looking at Nigeria through the lens of the COVID-19 outbreak, I would say it has exposed, yet again, our tendency to pay less attention to tackling the diseases that regularly kill our own people. Every year, Lassa fever, cholera and meningitis kill poor and hapless Nigerians — those who cannot afford to apply for a visa, much less buy a flight ticket — but they do not get the media coverage and serious policy intervention that they deserve. You will hardly hear a senator or house member raise an issue of “urgent national importance” over cholera and Lassa fever. Let us hope that the COVID-19 situation will open our eyes to the oft-ignored dire picture around us.
Meanwhile, I would say there was an air of inevitability that the coronavirus would reach Nigeria. For one, we are an important destination in Africa. But all suspicion had been on some Chinese from the red zone bringing the ailment here. But it was a European — an Italian — that introduced it. He had returned Nigeria with a reported normal temperature on February 25 only to fall ill the following day. That is why it is very easy to spread the virus: there may be no initial symptoms, just like HIV, but the virus can be transmitted at the asymptomatic stage all the same. Conversely, Ebola is transmitted only when the patient exhibits symptoms. Viruses behave differently.
When Senator Ajayi Boroffice, a professor of zoology who holds a PhD in human genetics, takes to the floor of the national assembly to raise the alarm that there was no screening for COVID-19 at the nation’s airports, you really have to worry about his conclusions. There is no airport in the world where they test for coronavirus at entry point. The basic test is to take your body temperature, which could be indicative of a million illnesses. That your temperature is above normal does not automatically mean you have COVID-19. It could be a common cold, malaria or maybe you are heavily indebted! A senator should not be spreading panic from the hallowed legislative chambers.
All over the world, the standard protocol is self-reporting if you think you have been in contact with someone who has the virus. If you are coming from an endemic zone, you can be quarantined or advised to self-quarantine, depending on the adopted procedure. The incubation period for the virus is 14 days, but some cases have shown that it is safer to observe the potential carrier for 28 days. It is only when some symptoms begin to manifest that a test for the coronavirus will be carried out. If you are positive, you fill a form for contract tracing. The notion that anybody can be diagnosed with COVID-19 at the airport when they are not showing any symptoms is not based on science.
What I have also observed is that we are generally cynical as a people. The most common reaction when the index case was reported in Nigeria on Friday was: “We are finished!” There is this feeling that the government cannot handle it. Given the endemic incompetence, corruption and indifference in our public institutions, you cannot blame Nigerians for not having faith in the system. If the government cannot contain extrajudicial killings by SARS — ironically the name of another coronavirus — is it the more complicated COVID-19 that it can handle? The onus is on government to be aware of the cynicism, reassure the citizens and continue to engage with them.
But I am also happy to report that in spite of these obvious failings on the part of government and the negativity in the land, many Nigerians have demonstrated a very positive attitude since the news broke. On social media, I have read inspiring comments like “we tackled Ebola, we will tackle this virus too”. This is highly encouraging. It takes one positive spirit to inspire other positive-minded people. One by one, a positive message is being passed around to inspire hope and comfort. What it also means is that positive people will spread positive messages, such as what to do to avoid contracting the virus and how to react when you suspect you have it. These are problem solvers.
As usual, there are terrible human beings out there, full of mischief and evil, doing everything to concoct and distribute fake news, to spread panic and to cause commotion. Somebody composed and distributed a message that a company in Banana Island, Lagos, “is on lock down. That is the office the Italian with the Coronavirus went to when he returned to Nigeria. Folks need to note information as this to take necessary precautions. Healthy and safe wishes to all.” They hide under the guise of helping the public! Even the devil is disguised as an angel of light! This is nothing but mischief, rebroadcast by willing tools who never bother to verify anything in their lives!
Same day, someone composed and sent this wicked lie: “BREAKING NEWS! Isaac Adewale Olorogun, taxi driver who drove the Italian man to Ogun State tested positive to corona virus. Escapes from quarantine and demands 100 million naira to be paid to his family by federal government otherwise he will spread corona virus all over Nigeria.” It was attributed to AIT, which has since denied it. But the lapdogs had quickly started sharing and re-sharing. It seems that is what gives them a sense of accomplishment in life. This group of evil doers will stop at nothing to invent lies and cause public panic. Like I told a friend on Friday, the fake news will probably kill more people than the virus itself.
As we confront this new common enemy in COVID-19, we ALL have a role to play to help contain it. The first thing is to accept that it is a threat to all of us — no matter the tongue, party and religion. If the only thing we can do is stop re-broadcasting fake news, that would be lovely. It would even be better if we can begin to question, verify, clarify and counter the fake messages being broadcast under the guise of “is it true?” Verifying and countering them would be a wonderful contribution to containing the mischief. I am genuinely impressed with public-spirited and responsible Nigerians who have been working round the clock to counter the mischief. Evil must not overcome good!
The official response has been encouraging and we must all play our part as well to make sure we avert or contain the virus from spreading. From Dr Osagie Ehanire, the minister of health, and Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu, the DG of NCDC, to top Lagos state government officials, I have been very impressed with the optics. This needs to be sustained, especially in terms of regular updates, preparedness, sensitisation and coordination. Above all, if you suspect you are infected, please call the advertised emergency numbers: 08023169485, 08033565529 and 08052817243 (Lagos state) or 0800970000-10 (NCDC). COVID-19 is NOT a death sentence.
AND FOUR OTHER THINGS…
COVID-19 is not just killing people: it is harming global economy. Stock markets are bleeding everywhere. Nigeria’s economy, hopelessly tied to the global prices of crude oil, is feeling the heat already. Demand for crude oil is dropping and prices are going south as well. As at Saturday, our Bonny light was trading at $54.93 per barrel — below Nigeria’s $57 crude oil benchmark in the 2020 budget (although, our benchmark was overambitious). In case you have forgotten, crude oil accounts for roughly 90 per cent of Nigeria’s export earnings/FX income as well as more than half of government revenue. Nobody needs to teach us to tighten our belts. Critical.
Pardon my crudeness, but I seem to have a suggestion that I believe can help reduce the incidence of extrajudicial killings by police across the country. President Muhammadu Buhari should summon the inspector-general of police and the commissioners of police and give them a simple instruction: if any police officer kills an innocent citizen, the IGP, and the CP under whose territory the killing is carried out, will be dismissed from service and put on trial for murder. Will it work? I don’t know. But let us try it. Nigeria is an unusual country and the time has come to try unusual measures in order to save Nigerians from extinction. If it doesn’t work, we can try another trick. Experimentation.
The Supreme Court has laid down the marker by refusing to review its judgment in the Bayelsa governorship case. Many Nigerians think it is a controversial judgment that should be reversed, reviewed or set aside. The day the apex court reverses itself, you can be sure there would be applications for review in every case it adjudicates on. That would definitely be disastrous for the system. In fact, knowing Nigerian politicians, I can bet that there would be further applications to review the review. After all, Zamfara APC has gone twice to the Supreme Court asking for “review”. But as Justice Amina Augie declared, there must be an end to litigation. Indisputable.
The Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), set up in 2011 to lead the preparedness, detection and response to infectious disease outbreaks, is handling one of its biggest challenges so far: COVID-19. It is reassuring to have someone like Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu at the helm. The NCDC DG is one of the very few epidemiologists certified by the World Health Organization (WHO). He inspires confidence, given his qualification, experience and performance so far. We cannot go wrong putting the right people in the right place. He needs all the support he can get at all levels in the management of the situation. We overcame Ebola. We will overcome COVID-19. Positive.