By Obinna Chima, Kunle Aderinokun and Martins Ifijeh
Contrary to the projections of some foreign opinion molders that by now bodies would have littered the streets of Nigeria and indeed, many parts of Africa, as a result of the stings of the COVID-19 pandemic, Nigeria, as with many African countries, has thus far defied the odds, and has done relatively well in managing the pandemic since the first index case recorded some 186 days ago in Lagos.
This, according to THISDAY’s special report on the pandemic, was made possible by the patriotic and humanitarian intervention of some individuals and corporate bodies many analysts said had became heroes of the nation’s battle against the ravaging virus.
The Minister of Health, Dr. Osagie Ehanire, had on February 27 announced that the country had confirmed a case in an Italian man, who flew into the country from Turkey three days earlier.
To compound issues, the Italian index case had met a couple of Nigerians both in Lagos and Ogun States before he fell ill and was tested for the virus.
That announcement threw the nation into panic mode the next morning, with many Nigerians fearing that the worst could happen. To them, it was a no-brainer that Nigeria was going to be hard hit considering the poor state of its health sector and the citizens’ attitude to health protocols.
In fairness to a majority of Nigerians, all they could see were the devastation, tears and sorrows that COVID-19 was leaving behind in many nations, including China, Spain and Italy at the time. It appeared the country would have no shot at managing the virus.
The years of neglect of the health sector began to stare in the face of Nigerians and the international organisations, which on many occasions clamoured for the prioritisation of the health sector as a buffer against prospective pandemics like the coronavirus.
But against all odds, some Nigerians and institutions rose to the challenge. They hurriedly took up leadership roles to ensure the country did not only mitigate the impact of the outbreak, but also managed community spread of the disease, which was clear, was going to be experienced in the country.
From the Lagos State Governor, Mr. Babajide Sanwo-Olu, to Ehanire, up to the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Mr. Boss Mustapha, the private sector and other foresighted governors, an endless pool of Nigerians rose to the challenge, and so far, the country has done relatively well in managing the virus as against initial thoughts that bodies would be littering the streets due to complications that were to arise from the pandemic.
As a matter of fact, the devastating effect in other climes and the severe limitation of healthcare resources available in Nigeria – such as laboratory testing capacity rouse the private sector to step up and help the government to fight the virus.
On March 26, the Coalition Against COVID-19, known as CACOVID, was formed. Led by Africa’s wealthiest man, Alhaji Aliko Dangote, the coalition is backed by Access Bank Group, Zenith Bank, Guaranty Trust Bank, and several others.
The mission is to mobilise private-sector leadership and resources to support health facilities to respond to the crisis but also to use their reach to increase awareness about the pandemic.
The group, a mix of corporations, philanthropists and donors, has provided thousands of beds to Lagos, Kano, Rivers, Abuja, Enugu and Borno States, amongst others and has set up testing facilities and treatment centres in some states.
The idea is to get private labs involved in testing to speed up the process. The ultimate goal is to test at least two million people, the group’s website notes. Total donation to the CACOVID relief fund is over $55.7m as of April 6, with Dangote and the Central bank donating $5.1m each.
Other major private players such as Segun Agbaje (Guaranty Trust Bank), Jim Ovia (Zenith Bank), Herbert Wigwe (Access Bank), Tony Elumelu (United Bank for Africa), Abdulsamad Rabiu of BUA Group, Folorunsho Alakija of Famfa Oil Limited, Oba Otudeko (First Bank), Femi Otedola of Amperion Power, billionaire businessman Mike Adenuga of Globacom and the Nigeria Deposit Insurance Corporation have provided $2.59m each. The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation and some oil companies have pledged $30m to the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control to improve patient care, medical supplies and equipment.
THISDAY celebrates these individuals and institutions who have dedicated themselves to selfless service to Nigerians and humanity.
Prior to the start of the pandemic in Lagos, not many residents believed the Lagos State Governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, was working enough to address the myriads of economic, infrastructural and human development challenges faced by Lagosians.
To some, he was only a motivational speaker, who for nine months since his inauguration had not addressed some of the rudimentary governance issues he said he was going to fix in a hurry once inaugurated. From the Apapa gridlock to the dilapidated roads, to the environmental challenges – the list was endless.
But Lagos residents saw the other side of the governor, when it was clear the state was hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, which at the time was causing devastation in many countries, especially in cities with a dense population like Lagos, however, with better healthcare system.
He rose up to the challenge; got a brush up of the nature of the pandemic quickly assumed the role of incident commander, and went to work. He deployed the state’s resources to fixing healthcare loopholes and logistical challenges made tough economic decisions by locking down the state, started massive training of health personnel and championed daily enlightenment campaigns to educate the over 23 million residents on what was coming.
Sanwo-Olu saw the future and was determined to stop it. From the records of the few cases of COVID-19, the state started seeing tens and hundreds of cases. By June, it peaked to the point over 400 confirmed cases announced daily in the state. However, through his management of the virus, the state is having a deep slope of cases with the last four days recording 26, 17, 21 and 27. Many people, including experts, had thought by now bodies would be littering the streets with millions of infections recorded, but 186 days into the outbreak, the state still has below 20,000 cases of infection.
“I am happy to have Prof. Akin Abayomi as the Commissioner for Health at this point in our lives, when we are being threatened by the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of people. As early as December 2019, he had told me this virus was coming, he suggested to me all that we needed to put in place to mitigate the impact.”
These were the words of Governor Sanwo-Olu to Prof. Abayomi, who has brought to bear his wealth of experience as a biosecurity expert in managing COVID-19 in Nigeria.
To be fair, many of the protocols and policies being implemented against COVID-19 in the country were the brainchild of the virology professor; a development that made Lagos a model state for the nation and other states in the fight against the pandemic.
Abayomi, who is Lagos’s Deputy Incident Commander on COVID-19, played a prominent role in the defeat of Ebola Viral Disease in 2014, and many virologists believed he has the wealth of experience to manage this present pandemic in the state. He was recently confirmed positive to the virus and has been on isolation since last week. He is said to be responding well to treatment.
When President Muhammadu Buhari set up the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 in March and made the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Boss Mustapha the chairman of the taskforce, several health experts raised concerns that the position should have been given to an epidemiologist or at best a public health expert, who understood outbreaks of the COVID-19 magnitude.
But five months down the line, the leadership skill of the SGF has become a template to many countries that also set up presidential taskforce against the pandemic.
From the initial belief that Nigeria was going to be hard hit by the virus due to the population and the poor healthcare system in the country, Mustapha has been able to lead the country through testing, dissemination of information, management of the disease, among others. When the history of how COVID-19 was defeated in Nigeria will be told, his name will be imposingly cited.
If Nigeria is to fail in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, one person that would easily be blamed is the Director General of the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu as his agency is the government’s body Nigerians depend on for prevention and management of all forms of disease outbreaks.
To be clear, just as the Nigerian military is responsible for the protection of the country against wars and terrorism, the NCDC under the watch of Ihekweazu is responsible for the health security of the nation.
But while many ‘centres for disease control’ in many countries, including that of the United States, Russia, Italy, Spain, Mexico, Brazil and a host of others have not done much to keep the COVID-19 cases in their nations minimal, that of Nigeria has done relatively well so far.
Ihekweazu’s quest for data, transparency and teamwork has seen the centre’s acceptability even in otherwise difficult states in the country – an attitude that has helped in the management of cases across the country. He is one of the brains behind the imminent victory against Covid-19.
Prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Federal Ministry of Health, headed by Dr. Osagie Ehanire did not get the much-needed attention it deserved, a situation that could partly be blamed for the poor healthcare currently suffered by Nigerians in the country. But since the start of the pandemic, the minister has stepped up his game, pushing for attention to the ministry, especially in the area of disease outbreaks, with major focus on COVID-19.
Through his goodwill, influence and leadership, he has been able to rally many political, religious and business leaders into supporting the fight against COVID-19; a move that has ensured the country has so far not lacked the requisite facilities and equipment needed for the management of the pandemic in the country. He has also used his goodwill to push for international support against the pandemic. He is one of the heroes of COVID-19 in the last 185 days.
The Governor of Kaduna State, Nasir el-Rufai was the first to get the COVID-19 bug in the state. To, however, ensure it did not spread round the entire state, he instituted the longest lockdown in the country.
While other states were having lockdown fatigue and opening up for movements despite the rise in cases, el-Rufai insisted he was not going to open up the state’s economy till it was relatively safe to do so – an action he took at the detriment of the economy. To him it was health first. Through his leadership, the state’s COVID-19 cases have remained relatively low despite having a high influx of infected almajiris from mostly Kano.
Ekiti State under Governor Kayode Fayemi was rated a couple of months ago as second to Lagos in terms of response to the pandemic, a rating informed solely by smart leadership and the capacity to lead through personal examples.
Fayemi, who just came out of the infection too, not only kept the numbers low through close monitoring, the provision of palliatives, which came with money to the vulnerable also stood his state out in the management of Covid-19.
As the Chairman of Nigeria Governors’ Forum (NGF), Fayemi also used his office to interface with his colleagues by way of comparing notes and improving their lots of the people, he also stood efficiently as the gap between them and the federal government.
Enugu is another state with impressively low cases of Covid-19, courtesy Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, because he understood what was coming and took no prisoners in warding off the avoidable outbreaks.
Like his colleague in Ekiti, Ugwuanyi personally implemented the safety protocols every day during the lockdown as he moved from places to places and offices to offices, making sure community spread of the virus was effectively prevented.
Today, the result of that feat is evident in the state, as it remains relatively low in terms of the number of cases recorded, even though he has refused to rest on his oars because he is not convinced yet that the battle is over.
Perhaps, it is by providence that Delta State is under the leadership of a medical doctor, who did not need anyone explaining the possible weight of the effect of the pandemic if allowed to have a free ride in the state. And from the word go, Okowa set up a capable task force directly overseen by him and went to work.
Interestingly, too, supports from different quarters came the way of Delta State, possibly because the governor leveraged his contacts as donations from far and near kept coming in to assist in the fight against Covid-19.
Today, Delta is one of the few states that could boast of a controlled rate of infection with the lowest numbers, because a man, who knows the name of the game, is the governor and in charge of the supervision of the situation.
The CACOVID Team
The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) Governor, Mr. Godwin Emefiele, has earned his stripes as one of the heroes of the country’s efforts to contain the Covid-19.
In line with the first-responder approach the CBN has continued to display when it comes to issues involving the economy, immediately the first Covid-19 case was recorded in Lagos, the Emefiele-led CBN took decisive actions and unfolded raft of measures to moderate the impact of the virus on households, businesses as well as the economy.
In addition, Emefiele was also instrumental to the formation of the private-sector-led Coalition Against Covid-19 (Covid-19), which was able to mobilise billions of naira and has immensely supported the country’s Covid-19 fight by setting healthcare facilities across the country as well as in distributing palliatives to states.
In terms of specific CBN’s interventions, as part of efforts to cushion its impact on households and SMEs, the CBN immediately announced an extension of the moratorium on the apex bank’s interventions programmes, created a N50 billion targeted credit facility and credit support for the healthcare industry; introduced a N100 billion healthcare intervention to support operators in the sector; also made available N1 trillion in loans to boost local manufacturing and production across critical sectors; established health sector grant, to promote research in the development of vaccines, among other policy measures.
The health sector facility has provided loans to pharmaceutical companies to expand/open their drug manufacturing plants in the country and also for hospitals and healthcare practitioners to expand/build health facilities.
As part of efforts to stimulate infrastructural development across the country, the CBN, working with the fiscal authorities has concluded plan to establish a N15 trillion infrastructure development company (Infraco).
Herbert Wigwe is one of the heroes in Nigeria’s COVID-19 fight. He is a leading member of the CACOVID. Being the Chairman of Body of Bank CEOs in the country, he was also helpful in mobilising his colleagues in the banking industry towards actualising the goals of the private sector coalition. CACOVID has sustained public awareness about the pathogen, has supported the health sector by building medical tents, isolation and treatment centres as well as in providing palliatives to the vulnerable across the country. Through his HOW Foundation, he has also supported vulnerable Nigerians whose livelihoods were affected by the pandemic.
Jim Ovia, the founder and chairman of Zenith Bank Plc is a prominent member of the CACOVID funding committee and hero of COVID-19 fight. His contribution towards the containment of COVID-19 is immense. Ovia, who is also the founder and Chairman of Mankind United to Support Total Education (MUSTE), a philanthropic organization focused on providing scholarships for the less privileged, has headed numerous Non-Governmental Organisations [NGO]. In addition, he is the founder of the Youth Empowerment / ICT Foundation, which focuses on improving the socioeconomic welfare of Nigerian youths by inspiring and motivating them to embrace Information and communication technology.
He helped positioned Zenith Bank as one of the largest and most profitable in Africa within his two decades of leadership.
Tony Elumelu, economist, entrepreneur, and philanthropist is hero of COVID-19 fight. He and his bank United Bank for Africa Plc, which he chairs, donated generously to the COVID-19 fight. A significant member of CACOVID, Elumelu, is the chairman of Heirs Holdings, the United Bank for Africa, Transcorp and founder of The Tony Elumelu Foundation. Through his foundation, an Africa-based and African-funded philanthropic organization, he has empowered thousands of budding entrepreneurs across Africa
Segun Agbaje, the Managing Director of Guaranty Trust Bank (GTBank) is a hero of the fight against COVID-19. He is an active member of CACOVID. The bank, which he leads, funded the establishment of the isolation centre in Onikan, Lagos in collaboration with Lagos State government. Agbaje started his career at Ernst & Young in San Francisco and joined in GTBank 1991. He rose through the ranks to become an Executive Director in January 2000, and Deputy Managing Director in August 2002. Agbaje became GTBank’s Managing Director of GTBank in April 2011 following the death of Tayo Aderinokun. He was elected to the board of directors and audit committee of PepsiCo effective 15 July 2020.
The President of the Dangote Group, Alhaji Aliko Dangote has been playing a major role in the country’s COVID-19 fight. He is a leading member of CACOVID. Besides that, through his Dangote Foundation, he ensured that the efforts of the federal government in the COVID-19 fight got the necessary technical, operational and funding support. In addition, the Aliko Dangote Foundation partnered 54Gene, a molecular diagnostics company specialised in research, and diagnostics, to set up a 400 test/day capacity laboratory in Kano State. The Foundation also supported the Rapid Response Teams in their work to identify suspected COVID-19 cases across the healthcare centers in Kano as well as provided capacity building platforms for health workers in Kano.
Abdul Samad Rabiu
To strengthen the national response to COVID-19, an industrialist and Founder, BUA Group, Abdul Samad Rabiu has so far donated close to N7 billion to support the fight against the burden. He singlehandedly ferried equipment into Nigeria to support Lagos, Edo, Kano, Kwara, Sokoto, Akwa-Ibom, Abia, Rivers and Adamawa.
During one of the donations, he said: “This donation will not only provide additional needed funds to the government and the NCDC’s effort but will also serve to protect healthcare and medical workers on the frontline of fighting the pandemic.” Just recently, he donated three new emergency response ambulances to the Delta State Government.
The philantrophist, who is a leading member of CACOVID, is also another hero in the fight against the pandemic. Besides his financial contribution, his input in terms of strategy also ensured that the private sector led initiative achieved its target.
Raj Gupta, a member of CACOVID funding committee, is the chairman of African Industries, popularly called African Steel. African Steel is into steel milling and processing services in Nigeria. The African Steel Group, a diverse Nigerian group focused on development of steel industry in the country, currently operates in eight different locations within the country, and exports its products mainly to other West African nations.
John Coumantaros is the chairman of Flour Mills of Nigeria. Coumantaros, who is a member of the funding committee of CACOVID, is a hero of the COVID-19 fight. Born in 1961, he is the son of George S. Coumantaros, who founded FMN in 1960. Coumantaros has a bachelor’s degree in history from Yale University.
In January when the world was coming to terms with the possibility of COVID-19 becoming a full-fledged the outbreak, the Medical Director and Chief Executive Officer of First Cardiology Consultant, Dr. Yemi Johnson, already saw the future. He knew people with certain health conditions like diabetes, hypertension, and respiratory diseases, among others, were at risk of heart complications if they contract the virus. And he knew it was only a matter of time for the disease to find its way into Nigeria, and unfortunately infect the class of persons with underlying ailments.
To mitigate the looming threat, Dr. Johnson, a seasoned US-trained interventionist cardiologist, immediately set up critical care units exclusive for COVID-19 patients in the world-class hospital. Through the initiative, his hospital became the first private health facility in Nigeria to admit and manage COVID-19 patients with the permission of the federal and Lagos State governments.
By the end of March, some Nigerians whose COVID-19 cases had been complicated by their underlying illnesses started finding solace in First Cardiology Consultant with many now reunited with their families after being successfully treated. His hospital hopes to help the country reduce the mortality rate from COVID-19.
Dr. Yemi Onabowale
Dr Yemi Onabowale, who is the Chief Executive Officer of Reddington Hospital Group, is the brain behind Armoured Shield Medical Complex and Reddington Zainelab – two world class facilities for COVID-19 testing and management of the disease.
The twin facility, according to the Lagos Health Commissioner, Abayomi, is the only health facility so far that has scored 100 per cent at the end of inspection for accreditation, adding that every equipment and protocol in the facilities met all requirements set out by the state government.
Many healthcare professionals at the launch were not surprised by the commissioner’s assertion, especially because the pioneer of the initiative, Onabowale has over the years exhibited a penchant for accuracy, professionalism and world-class delivery of healthcare.
The twin-facility is the first private health institution in Nigeria to offer both testing and treatment of cases of the coronavirus. They are also the first to deliver COVID-19 test results within 24 hours of taking samples. Other institutions deliver results within two to 10 days.
Onabowale, the easy medical expert and business mogul, who often prefers to work behind the scene, has vowed that the COVID-19 facility will help both the federal and Lagos State governments mitigate the impact of COVID-19 among Nigerians. The story of Nigeria’s COVID-19 pandemic cannot be written without Onabowale playing a prominent role as a hero.
If there is one man whose job description has doubled since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic; and especially since the closure of Nigeria’s airspace on March 23, it is the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Chief Godfrey Onyema. In one breathe, he had to look out for Nigerians under lockdowns abroad, in another, he is plotting how to bring home stranded Nigerians who had been affected by abrupt international travel restrictions in countries where they were at the time. Along with the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Nigeria in Diaspora Commission, Abike Dabiri, he has successfully prosecuted both jobs.
Along the line of duty, Onyema contracted COVID-19, a development that made him take a 14 day break from his job to attend to his health. Of the 186 days since Nigeria recorded its first case of COVID-19, those 14 days are perhaps the only days he thought of himself as against 172 other days dedicated to Nigeria and diplomatic issues.
Dr. Sani Aliyu
It was no surprise to Nigerians that President Muhammadu Buhari appointed Dr. Sani Aliyu as the National Coordinator of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19. As the immediate past Director General of the National Agency for the Control of AIDS (NACA), he championed interventions that led to the drastic reduction of HIV/AIDS in Nigeria, taking the country from the second highest burden globally to fourth – just after South Africa, India and Mozambique.
His experience as an infectious disease expert has also been brought to bear in fighting COVID-19. He has been working round the clock to see that the country effectively monitor, control and proffer solutions on how to reduce the numbers – a job he successfully carried out as NACA DG when he led the agency.
Two of several decisions that have kept Nigeria’s COVID-19 cases relatively low are the timely closure of international airspace by the federal government and the insistence to follow that pronouncement to the letter.
As the Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika, he had one of the toughest jobs during the heat of the pandemic; which was to ensure the pronouncements on air travel restrictions were carried out to the letter – failure to which would have resulted in several thousands of extra COVID-19 cases from people coming into the country. Airlines that tried to circumvent these rules got his hammer. At the expense of revenue to the country, he took the health of Nigerians as priority.
He was one of the most vilified government officials on Twitter for refusing to prevail on the federal government to open international flights. But only at the right time, and after health/travel protocols had been developed, he made the announcement for the opening of the international airspace by September 5.
Dr. Abasi Ene-Obong
At the start of the pandemic, one of the obvious gaps Nigeria had was its lack of capacity to conduct high number of COVID-19 testing; a situation that was in no small measure hampering the fight against the pandemic.
To fix this, 54gene, an African genomics startup with offices in Lagos and Washington DC decided to launch a testing fund to raise cash to expand testing up to 1,000 per day. It first donated $150,000 and then secured $350,000 from other partners, including Union Bank. Dr. Abasi Ene-Obong, who is the brain behind the initiative, is the CEO of 54gene.
Today, Nigeria’s testing capacity has improved, courtesy of Ene-Obong whose 54gene technology has now been felt across the country. He has also helped in several other capacities to address challenges faced by the Nigerian government in fighting the outbreak
Tope Shonubi is the Executive Director, Sahara Group. He was one of the first Nigerians to rise to the challenge posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. He donated medical equipment worth billions of naira to the federal government, as well as several other public health institutions to help in the fight against the pandemic. He also donated state of the art equipment to THISDAY Dome in Abuja for effective treatment of COVID-19 patients. Nigeria’s COVID-19 history will not be complete without his role in tackling the pandemic.
Although THISDAY Group has the mandate to report news around Nigeria and beyond, it went out of its way to support the fight against the COVID-19 by donating one of its Abuja facilities, the THISDAY Dome, to the federal government as testing and isolation centre; one of the biggest treatment facilities in the country.
Speaking during the handing over of the facility to the federal government, Ehanire described it as the best COVID-19 isolation and treatment centre in the country.
Ehanire said: “It is the most comprehensive of our treatment centres. It is fully equipped to treat mild, severe and even critical COVID-19 cases. It has ventilators, oxygen concentrators, dialysis machines, among others.”
The facility which houses 300 bed spaces has the capacity to accommodate 200 more beds. The history of Nigeria’s fight against COVID-19 cannot be written without the mention of THISDAY in it