SULEIMAN ADAMU:Personal Hygiene Crucial to Surviving Covid-19

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ENCOUNTER

It has not been easy for states and local governments to fully inculcate the personal hygiene culture into many Nigerians. Thus, while some states had declared states of emergency on open defecation, others are still toying and tottering with idea. But the Minister of Water Resources, Suleiman Adamu, in this encounter with Stanley Nkwazema, explains that with the Covid-19 pandemic and its attendant consequences, going forward, Nigerians must embrace a high level of personal hygiene. Excerpts:

Can you attribute the relatively low numbers of Covid-19 infections in Nigeria, when compared to other countries of the world, to your ministry’s on-going campaigns on WASH and open defecation?

Well, I don’t have the empirical evidence but I wish it were so, because you can see clearly that there is a strong connection between the COVID-19 pandemic and sanitation. The first thing that everybody tells you, including the most sophisticated countries in the world, is that you should wash your hands and keep to basic sanitation.

I have been thinking, what are the lessons we learnt from this pandemic? And I have reflected so much on our campaigns against open defecation and on the need for people to wash their hands. You know, we also observe the UN designated World Hand Washing Day every year. I just hope that going forward, people will now see the real importance of personal hygiene and sanitation.

I don’t pray that this pandemic stays for too long but beyond this, I hope that people will take the issue of personal hygiene much more seriously, especially, in the rural communities and urban slums where people take sanitation and hygiene for granted. I am also hoping that our states and local governments that we have been passing this message to in the last four and a half years will begin to invest more on water supply and sanitation. They have seen the need now, the importance of doing that now and should accord water and sanitation the highest priority, going forward.

Before the COVID-19 Pandemic, how many states had keyed into the WASH Action Plan and Clean Nigeria Campaign for eradication of Open Defecation?
Many states have actually keyed into the programmes in various ways but I think the most interesting ones have been those that went ahead to declare a state of emergency as was requested under the WASH Action Plan. You know states like Ekiti, Plateau, Katsina and about 13 others, or there about, have declared a state of emergency on Water and Sanitation.

And we have also seen a surge of states that are trying to get into the PEWASH programme. At the end of the first term of this Administration in May 2019, we had 22 states that signed the PEWASH protocol, and in the last six months of this second term, we have another 11 states, which bring the total number to 33. I am quite optimistic that other states will join the train.

I am also particularly happy that on our Open Defecation Free Nigeria campaign, there is even some kind of subtle competition between some states on which would be first to be open defecation free before 2025. I would like to give kudos to Ekiti State that has already set its own agenda that it wants to end open defecation by the year 2023, two years ahead of the national target.

This is the spirit that I like to see bubbling among the states. They have to ginger up and I do sincerely believe they will prosecute the campaign seriously.

Beyond rhetoric, how would you sincerely assess the Open Defecation Programmes so far?
You know we are still at an early stage. But if you look back, as at 2017, we had only one local government: Obanliku Local Government in Cross River State that was open defecation free. Today, we have about 27 already. I am awaiting the latest verification results. You can see that progress is being made, but I still think the progress is rather slow. We have 774 local governments, so we have a long way to go.

I can tell you now that the rate at which communities are achieving ODF status is becoming faster, because people are getting the message properly. We are making slow progress but I am hopeful that with more advocacies and with the state governments waking up and getting more involved, with the highest political support given, very soon, this campaign on sanitation and water will go on auto-pilot.

People will now understand the need to do the needful themselves without being coerced or being nudged. This Covid-19 pandemic has brought the issue of sanitation to the front burner. You know, people are now being compelled to wash their hands, because they can see the threat. Before now, people have been dying of cholera, typhoid and other diseases associated with poor sanitation and lack of proper hygiene in large numbers, but due to lack of awareness, it goes unnoticed.

Maybe people don’t know because here it is hardly news that somebody died of cholera except if there is an epidemic. But a lot of people have been dying, especially children under the age of five, though the rate of infection and spread has not been as alarming as with Covid-19. This Covid-19 pandemic is therefore a wakeup call to Nigerians.

And I pray that our activities such as World Water Day, World Hand washing Day and World Toilet Day, which we observe every year will be taken more seriously. You know we have been hammering on things and people should not take these observances for granted. It should be part of our daily lives. Honestly, we don’t even need to be told to observe high level of hygiene at a one-off annual event. It should be an everyday thing for every individual.

Let me now tell you something very interesting to note, that according to scientific journals, “besides the already known measures such as avoidance of close contact, social distancing, observing cough/sneeze, hygiene etiquette and wearing personal protective gear, the importance of a proper hand washing protocol, especially after bowel movements, must be stressed.

“Since there is a likelihood of bio-aerosols being released in the air during flushing of the toilet (toilet plume), it is advisable to ensure that the commode lid is closed before flushing. Avoiding the lavatory immediately after use by another may also reduce exposure to the virus. Since infected individuals may be asymptomatic and testing everyone would not be feasible, assuming everyone to be potentially ineffective and observing the mentioned personal hygiene measures universally may be the best way to break the chain of infection”.

So, this is further evidence that the best way to stop this Covid-19 scourge is to maintain a high level of sanitation and hygiene practices all the time, in all respects.

Talk about the Pandemic, lifestyle and going forward thereafter.
You came in to have this chat with me, and I am sure you heard me trying to reduce the population in my office so that we can strictly observe social distancing, whereas before now, I could sit with at least 20 people. Now, I don’t sit with more than three, five people in the office. This thing cuts across all levels of the society. How many businessmen or government officials have you heard that are traveling outside the country in recent times or even within the country?

You know, for me the most important thing is that while this pandemic has affected the lives of everybody as you can see to a large extent and most unfortunately our economy, I think it is an opportunity for us Nigerians to reflect and look inwards. Now, we don’t have to spend money going to Dubai or all those places we think are exotic or have more fun. Let us invest our money into purposeful things.

We should be able to produce some of the basic things like sanitisers, masks and so on. We should have our industries being able to produce them, we must encourage SMEs and cottage industries springing up and doing some of those things. And at the local level, I know we used to produce local soap and so on. This is the time for us to support our own local economy to respond to some of the requirements in fighting this pandemic and from then on, it should become a sustainable way of doing things.

Then we must develop the culture of hand washing. We need soap; we need sanitisers and much more of these items than we have ever been buying. We need to produce more water points and facilities to support good health, hygiene and sanitation. I think it is a good time for us to really reflect. Now, we are completely disconnected from the world and so we are on our own. When is the best time for us to start doing things for ourselves than now?

What has been the support base of these programmes from the World bodies and the federal government?
We have been receiving some support mainly as it relates to capacity building, which is not bad. But for water, honestly it requires a lot of financial investment. We have been discussing with the development financing institutions like the World Bank. They are ready to support but you know that the processes take quite long.

I am happy that even some international donors that have been contemplating to reduce their funding of the sanitation sector are making a U-turn now, because of this pandemic. They could do more but I will not say they have completely neglected us. But we also know we have to look inwards and be able to provide and implement some strategies to ensure that our programmes are very effective. Again, like I said, we need the support of the states.

The people are not in Abuja. Maybe the number of persons in the entire Federal Capital Territory could be two to three million people. The bulk is in the states. The responsibility for providing water and sanitation rests squarely with the states and local governments and individuals. Whatever the federal government is doing is to complement, or to spearhead, to enable.

If we become enablers and we are not getting the necessary support from those that really need it, or from those that really need to do most of the leg walk for us to achieve our purpose, then we are not going to make much headway. So, I keep appealing to states and local governments to key in and support what we are doing so that we have a national focus on everything.

What really is the national focus in this context?
National focus means for instance, although we are a federation, Nigeria subscribed to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), on behalf of the people of Nigeria. It is the federal government that did that. But translating it now to the states, it means all the states have to move on the same page. We should try to move at the same pace, because it is a commitment Nigeria made to the World under the auspices of the United Nations.

There are 17 goals, but we are talking about goal 6 in particular. We have committed ourselves that we will provide 100 per cent water access to the population by 2030, plus one hundred per cent improved sanitation by 2030. The federal government made that commitment on behalf of Nigerians. But the main implementers are the states and the local governments. So if they don’t key in and move at the pace that is required, we may get to 2030 with some states that are 100 per cent compliant and some that are not. And there are lots of other commitments Nigeria has made in the health sector, education sector and so on.

Or the federal government subscribes to some other International agenda, because it is the federal government that represents the federation but when we come back, it is so difficult to try to implement these commitments and programmes at states level, because of, maybe difference of priorities, political parties, tenures and governing style, different interests and different attitude.

What we need is a country, where despite the political structures and inclinations that we have, when we agree to an international obligation or even within the federal structure, we must have the commitment to follow it through the various levels of government. We must all come out to embrace it wholeheartedly and work collectively at a brisk pace to ensure that we meet national objectives and targets together.

Like the Open Defecation Free programme, I told you that Ekiti state for instance is targeting to meet ODF by 2023 while our target is 2025. I hope and pray we don’t get to 2025 and six, seven states are still lagging behind. We would like to see that it is the last state that is trying to be open defecation free that we would all converge and support in 2025 to get rid of that problem.

What’s the way forward?
We have seen and appreciate the support of the private sector. They have made a lot of donations towards fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. It is important for those corporate bodies, individuals and philanthropic foundations to fully understand that this pandemic is much about water and sanitation. So, going forward, one of the key lessons to be learnt is for them to please refocus their energy to supporting our PEWASH programme, our ODF programme, because if we were able to take care of the basics, certainly we should be able to fight this pandemic and others like cholera, malaria and improve the quality of life of the people.

I believe that is what it is all about. We appreciate their donations of sanitisers, hazard suits, PPE and other medical equipment. But please, going forward let them see the importance that this crisis is much about sanitation. And sanitation cannot go without water.

They need to invest and give support in taking Nigeria to that level, where we have 100 per cent access to good sanitation and potable water by 2030. We need them to inject more of their donations and corporate social responsibility funds into water and sanitation. We are ready to collaborate in any way to achieve that.