Port Harcourt — I was supplicating in the evening of Monday (27 April, 2020) and the prayer point was simple: “NEPA, please don’t take light before and during Buhari’s broadcast.” It worked; power held on as the President spoke for 20 minutes, sitting, instead of standing as he did in the two previous broadcasts. NEPA – or, whatever name they call them now – struck as I was chewing over the main points of the broadcast but I couldn’t be bothered. My interest in the broadcast was on two fronts – the lockdown in Lagos, Ogun and Abuja and the katakata in Kano. While we wait for the promised freedom for those areas on May 4, the situation in Kano is still mired in confusion, if not mystery, and the bad news we heard from the city before the President came on air, has yet to clear.
The bad news is about the high number of sudden and unexplained deaths over the past two weeks in the city. Many figures are up in the air – one source said 640. A nurse working at a major hospital in Kano reportedly confided in journalists that “many of those who died recently had shown symptoms of COVID-19 such as a fever, cough and breathing difficulties.” An undertaker told reporters they were being overwhelmed by the number of corpses and burial space was becoming scarce. Adding to the challenge, the only testing centre in Kano operated by the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control, NCDC, was shut due to “contamination,” so samples had to be taken on a grueling seven-hour journey by road to Abuja. While we cannot confirm these reports we cannot ignore them either. The deaths have stoked fears that the COVID-19 pandemic could have spread far more than thought.
The Kano State Government, while acknowledging the seriousness of the situation, has tried to assuage fears that the deaths were from COVID-19, and rather blamed them on “complications from hypertension, diabetes, meningitis and acute malaria.” The NCDC said the high date rate was due to the high population density in Kano. In his broadcast, the President announced a lockdown of Kano for two weeks and said a delegation would be dispatched to the city to find out what was really happening. The delegation, led by an epidemiologist, Dr. Nasiru Gwarzo, arrived Kano 24 hours after the broadcast, with the mandate to “do everything possible to support, reinforce and mobilise support even beyond the nation.” As if to remind the delegation of the enormity of the problem, five more people have died in similar manner. They include an Islamic cleric, a former Speaker of the Jigawa State House of Assembly, a women leader and a lecturer with the Kano University of Science and Technology. Meanwhile, the NCDC has decontaminated and reopened the testing centre at Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital, and plans to quickly activate another one. The state government has also opened three isolation centres for the treatment of Covid-19 patients.
However, for these interventions to work, we must get a scientific explanation for the underlying causes of the high mortality rate in Kano. The reasons proffered by the government and the NCDC have been present all these years; why are they rearing their ugly heads at this time? Worryingly, we understand that the conclusions on the cause of death were drawn from “verbal autopsy.” But for the seriousness of the situation, one would have thought a Nollywood comedian is at it again. As the name suggests, verbal autopsy works through a standard questionnaire where family members, health care workers, religious leaders and other people in contact with the deceased give information on the symptoms and treatments they received before giving up. This method is subjective as it depends solely on the honesty and memory of the respondent. We fear that, if we do not know what killed so large a number of people within so short a time, we will be fighting an enemy that has become largely invisible.
Besides finding out the reason for the deaths in Kano, testing for the virus must be stepped up in a manner that includes all the 44 local government areas of the state. In an earlier piece on COVID-19, I argued that the key to fighting the virus is knowing the spread through testing, and in the process, targeting individuals and communities who need attention and help. The NCDC merely confirmed what we already knew when it recently admitted that Nigeria was lagging behind South Africa on testing for COVID-19. It now targets testing two million people in the next three months, meaning a minimum of 50,000 samples must be tested in Kano and each of the remaining 35 states and the Federal Capital Territory within the same period.
Nigerians have every reason to worry over the happenings in Kano. This is the second largest city in the country, the industrial and commercial capital of Northern Nigeria and a major gateway by road and air. A headache in Kano will be felt in Calabar. The Federal and Kano State governments must lead other stakeholders in word and deed in responding to this crisis with speed, imagination and single-mindedness before it gets out of hand. According to the NCDC, as at Tuesday night (28 April) Nigeria had reported 1,532 confirmed cases of COVID-19, 255 recoveries and 44 fatalities. Also as at Tuesday night, Kano State alone had recorded 38 more infections, bringing the total there to 115, the third highest in the country. The spike comes as experts warn that, the virus if not checked, could infect 60 per cent of the world’s population and kill 45 million people. We do not want Kano, or Nigeria for that matter, to be a dress rehearsal for this chilling scenario.