THE new Coronavirus, COVID-19, pandemic which is shellacking even the most sophisticated health systems in the world has left the Nigerian health sector completely exposed. We are now left to pray that what is happening to China, Italy, Spain, France, the United States, the United Kingdom and others will not come near us. If the same happens in any part of sub-Saharan Africa, especially Nigeria, it may result in a human calamity of incalculable proportions. As of early Monday, March 23, 2020, Worldometre, the website that provides real-time statistics for diverse issues, indicated that there were 349,676 coronavirus cases in 192 countries, out of which 15,303 affected people had died while 100,338 recoveries (including the Nigerian index case) were recorded.
Italy led the chart with 5,270 fatalities out of 59,138 infections. But in Nigeria, the number of officially-recorded infections had climbed from 12 cases on Friday, March 20, 2020 to 30 by Monday (yesterday) with the first coronavirus case-specific death recoded. Nigeria’s seemingly low figure is very deceptive when put against the background of our disturbing realities. The rate of infection is rising steadily. Unless we take needful radical actions our totally inept health system might be overwhelmed in a matter of weeks, if not days. The Nigerian Centre for Disease Control, NCDC, says there are only five testing laboratories for this disease in a country of over 200 million people. They are in Lagos, Edo, Osun and Abuja. The entire 19 Northern states and the South East have none! Nigeria is simply not equipped to handle a pandemic-scale highly-infectious outbreak such as coronavirus. It is scandalous that a country that will mark its 60th independence anniversary this year lacks a health system that can respond adequately to domestic and international disease outbreaks, despite budgeting annually for health at Federal and State levels. We need to conduct a forensic audit of our healthcare system and find out how funds budgeted to the sector have been deployed and yet we cannot have a system that even our leaders can trust.
We make bold to say that the Federal Government’s initial reaction to the pandemic left much to be desired. Flights from foreign countries should have immediately been banned and our borders shut the moment the World Health Organisation, WHO, on March 11, 2020 declared the new coronavirus a worldwide pandemic, as all our Covid-19 infections came from outside the country. That was the step that many prominent world leaders took. African leaders like President Nana Akufo-Addo of Ghana, President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa and President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, among others, did the same in addition to frequent presidential briefs to the citizenry. Up till date our President, Muhammadu Buhari, has ignored calls by the Senate and well-meaning Nigerians to address the people and lead this fight from the front as the person we gave our mandate to lead us. Nigerians are thus deprived of the confidence and reassurance that leaders instill in the people in moments of national crises, fear and uncertainty. We are at war with Covid-19, but where is our Commander-in-Chief? We, however, commend the leadership provided by the Governor of Lagos State, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, which is a continuation of the frontline role the State played in our defeat of the Ebola Virus Diseases, EVD, in 2014. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for many of our religious leaders who recalcitrantly ignored the injunctions by Federal and state authorities for social distancing to be maintained to curb infection rate. Many mosques and churches entertained worshippers over the weekend, thus exposing their adherents and other Nigerians to the danger of infection. Since the calls for voluntary compliance to social distancing have failed, we call for a compulsory temporary closure of all places of worship and stricter regulation of crowds in markets and transportation hubs nationwide till we overcome the pandemic. Law enforcement agents should be deployed to enforce this without fear or favour.
It is only the living and the healthy who attend places of worship. Besides, our various holy scriptures enjoin us to respect the authority of government. We call on Nigerians to continue to close ranks with the government to fight this virus by strictly adhering to the instructions of officials and health professionals. We must practice more stringent personal hygiene, wash our hands frequently with soap under running water and use alcohol-based hand sanitizer to kill germs. We must also practice social distancing, especially for the next one month while ensuring we contact government and NCDC hotlines whenever any of us feels sick with the well-advertised symptoms. All media outfits and advocacy groups should ramp up the awareness campaign till it permeates the grassroots.
Nigerians should eschew fear but come together. Nothing can stand in the way of a united and determined people. Nigerians have frequently demonstrated their capacity for collective action when faced with threatening challenges. We will defeat Covid-19 hands-down as we did Ebola, but we have much work to do about our health system.