Port Harcourt — The Coronavirus scourge is a spoiler and dampener, and I hereby declare it public enemy No 1! “It speaks to the fluidity of the outbreak that, as I started this piece, news broke that a second person in Nigeria had tested positive, and I won’t be surprised if the count went up by the time you read me.”. Since 24th February 2020, when a 44-year old Italian man landed in Lagos on a flight from Milan, Italy, there has been a lot of higgledy-piggledy on what to wear, who to shake and what to touch. We are to wash our hands regularly with soap; each time as long as it takes us to sing the “Happy birthday” song twice! We should catch our sneezes and coughs, and most illogically, we should not touch our faces. As if this is not enough trouble, pocket-sized comedians now take unconscionable delight in spreading videos of disinformation and misinformation on Coronavirus (which the World Health Organisation (WHO) has named COVID-19) stoking fears, heightening anxiety and spreading rumours. As at 7th March 2020, the total number of confirmed cases around the world was 101,927 with 3,486 deaths.
What is really happening? “Nigeria is ready,” the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) says as it assures all is well and under control. The agency said Nigeria “successfully managed” Ebola and currently containing Lassa fever. The NCDC highlights the establishment of “a multi-sectoral National Coronavirus Preparedness Group” on January 7, 2020, seven days after China first reported cases. Treatment centres have been set up in the five states with international airports – Lagos, Rivers, Enugu, Kano, and the Federal Capital Territory. Nigeria has four laboratories in Abuja, Lagos, Irrua in Edo State and Ede in Osun State can diagnose COVID-19. The NCDC credited the “quick” confirmation of the second positive case – a contact with the Italian – to the robustness of the detection system. Indeed, the Director-General of the WHO, Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus has commended Nigeria for its handling of the situation, but frankly, we are not prepared if the epidemic breaks in our country.
As Coronavirus is spread easily from person-to-person it won’t require any warning to see a massive outbreak within a short period. Therefore, early detection through testing and self-or-forced isolation are key. How can a country of 200 million people feel good about four testing laboratories and five treatment centres? These facilities and those who man them will break down in the kind of rush witnessed in Wuhan, which forced the Chinese Government to construct hospitals and treatment centres overnight. In China and Italy, cities and regions were locked down, restricting movement of people and stopping transmission. The best way to deal with an outbreak of this type is to assume the worst and prepare accordingly. Countries with weak health care systems and poor amenities – and Nigeria proudly leads this pack – stand to suffer the most in a large-scale outbreak, and this is what the WHO fears most. The advice to wash hands regularly with soap and water cannot work in a country that failed the MDG targets for water supply and sanitation that ended in 2015. Only 69 percent of the population “has access to improved water supply from all sources,” while only 29 percent of the population has access to improved sanitation.
The sad and bad thing about epidemics is that they affect individuals and societies socially and economically. In badly hit countries, shares tumble, markets tank and economic output plunges as schools, factories and offices shut down. For Nigeria, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has cut its growth forecast for 2020 from 2.5 to 2 per cent. This comes as OPEC wages a crude oil price war with Russia and other non-cartel members. Oil prices fell to their lowest in 30 years on 8th March 2020, an ominous trend for Nigeria and others at a time revenues are needed. As the Federal Government works to combat COVID-19, it cannot lose sight of the economic fallout.
It is everybody’s prayer and wish that Nigeria will be spared the nightmare of a full-blown COVID-19 outbreak. Experts say a vaccine is some 18 months away, and this is a very optimistic forecast. So, in planning for the short and long term, Nigeria must be clear-eyed on its choices, actions and strategies. We must cut through the layers of bureaucracy and spin and think outside the box. Many people, for instance, shudder even to imagine the potential impact of a lockdown in Lagos, Port Harcourt, Benin, Enugu, Kaduna, Kano, Maiduguri, Calabar etc but, to corner Coronavirus, we must begin to think the unthinkable.