By Azuka Onwuka
Since the novel coronavirus disease began wreaking havoc in China in January, one wish many Nigerians had nursed was that it would not come into Nigeria. But because of the affinity between China and Nigeria, many knew it was a pipe dream. The interconnectivity within the world also worsened the situation. It was only a matter of time for coronavirus to enter Nigeria. Indeed, on Thursday, February 27, the Minister of Health, Dr Osagie Ehanire, announced that the first case of coronavirus had been confirmed in Nigeria.
Ironically, it did not come in through someone travelling to Nigeria from China. It came in through someone that arrived from Milan, Italy.
According to the details released by government spokespersons, the Italian arrived Lagos on February 24 aboard a Turkish Airlines flight which had a stopover in Istanbul, Turkey. He spent the night in a hotel close to the airport. The next day, he left Lagos for his workplace in neighbouring Ogun State.
On the afternoon of February 26, he developed a fever and body aches. The medical staff of his company contacted the biosecurity authorities, who transferred him to a containment facility in Yaba, Lagos State. On February 27, the Virology Laboratory of the Lagos University Teaching Hospital, which is an arm of the laboratory network of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, confirmed that the Italian had contracted the coronavirus disease. He was then quarantined.
However, there have been fears that he could have infected other people he came in contact with within the aeroplane, Lagos State and Ogun State. The authorities have tried to contact as many people as possible that had contact with him. Luckily, none has tested positive. The hope is that it should remain so.
While all eyes were on China as the possible channel of infection, the virus came in through Italy. Ironically, in Europe, Italy is the country most hit by the outbreak of the coronavirus. According to the Italian authorities, by March 1, the number of cases of coronavirus had exceeded 1,000, with the death toll rising to 29. By Friday, February 28, the figure of those infected in Italy stood at 888. But by Saturday, the figure had risen to 1,128.
In reaction to the rapid spread of the virus, some countries have adopted stiff measures. For example, Turkey announced that from last Sunday, all passenger flights to and from Italy, Iraq and South Korea had been halted. This follows the suspension of all passenger flights between Turkey and Iran and China. In addition, land crossings between Turkey and neighbouring Iraq had also been closed. According to the head of the Emilia Romagna region, schools and universities in three northern Italian regions will stay closed for a second consecutive week as part of measures to contain the coronavirus outbreak. These steps may sound too hard, but desperate situations require desperate actions.
In spite of the importance placed on religion, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia last week announced the temporary suspension of entry to the kingdom for Umrah and visiting of the Prophet Mohammed’s Mosque. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that Saudi Arabia suspended the entry of tourist visa holders coming from countries where the new coronavirus is spreading dangerously, according to the criteria determined by the competent health authorities in the kingdom.
In spite of these signs and steps taken by Italy and other countries, Nigeria did not see flights from Italy as potential threats. The question to ask is what pre-emptive measures has Nigeria put in place against this disease that is spreading across the world like wildfire? Is the Federal Government waiting till it becomes an epidemic within the country before stiff measures are taken? If land borders can be closed against the importation of rice, vehicles and other goods, what stops the country from suspending passenger flights from some countries?
It was not surprising that last week the Senate alleged that the Federal Ministry of Health and other relevant agencies were taking things for granted on the issue of coronavirus. It warned that Nigeria could not afford to be caught unawares before waking up to take the right preventive steps.
The Senate President, Ahmad Lawan, said: “While the Federal Ministry of Health and the associated agencies may be doing their best, this best is not good enough and we should not take anything for granted. We must be prepared. We must take all the necessary measures at our ports — airports, seaports. If someone is coming from China, he should be quarantined, not self-isolation.
“I urge the committees on primary health care and health to engage with the Federal Ministry of Health once again. We want to see every possible effort done in our airports or seaport.”
Sharing his experiences, Senator Ajayi Boroffice, who introduced the motion, compared what he saw in Nigeria with what he witnessed in South Africa. “I was in South Africa on Friday. I came back yesterday. Because of the issue of coronavirus, every country in the world is taking preventive measures because the wisdom is that prevention is better than cure. In South Africa, we were not allowed to leave the aircraft for 30 minutes. Officers of the medical corps came into the aircraft and screened everybody before we were allowed to go out, but I arrived yesterday at the Nnamdi Azikiwe Airport and there was no screening.
“All we were given was a sheet of paper to indicate whether we were sick and whether we had been to one country or the other and how we would be contacted in the event of an emergency. How will you try me? How do you know if I have fallen sick? This is very frightening.
“Something has to be done to ensure that we do not give way to a situation, which we will not be able to control. Countries that have adequate medical facilities are working hard to ensure that they contain the spread of coronavirus. From what I saw yesterday, I am afraid.”
Interestingly, while the Senate was discussing the issue and issuing the red alert, the first victim of coronavirus had already passed through the airport in Lagos and was resting comfortably in Nigeria, without anyone knowing. The fear now is that more carriers of the virus may come into Nigeria through different countries and routes in the days ahead. It seems Nigeria prefers fire-fighting to fire prevention.
Interestingly, from different quarters Nigeria has been commended for its ability to respond to epidemics. Its swift reaction to the Ebola virus in 2014 is still used as a reference point. Nigeria wiped out the deadly virus within three months. The Centre for Disease Control responsible for the whole of West Africa and Central Africa is located in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, which is a testimony to the stature of Nigeria in such matters.
There is also a factor that nobody has been able to explain about the coronavirus and Africa. In spite of the fear that the virus will have a devastating effect in Africa, which has strong ties with China and is low in health facilities, only three cases have been recorded in Africa: one in Egypt, one in Algeria and one in Nigeria. There has been no death yet from coronavirus in Africa. No concrete reason has been found for this. It just seems that the virus is shy of Africa. With the deluge of human-made disasters bedevilling Africa, the continent should be spared a coronavirus epidemic.
Another comforting point is that the survival rate from coronavirus infection is high. By March 1, 89,847 people had been infected, out of which 3,069 people died and 45,636 survived. That means that only three per cent of infected people died. In comparison to Ebola, the survival rate is soothing.
Our people should not panic. Even if profit-crazy people have jacked up the prices of hand sanitisers and masks out of the reach of the common people, liquid soap will still be within reach and even more reliable. Let us just learn to periodically wash our hands thoroughly, avoid close contact with sick people, keep away from large crowds and wait for coronavirus to go like other epidemics.
We shall see the end of the coronavirus the same way we saw the end of the Ebola virus.
*** Twitter @BrandAzuka