Fred Ezeh, Abuja
As the world continues to strengthen measures to respond to Coronavirus (Covid-19), West African countries have also marshal plans to respond to the situation. Director General of West Africa Health Organization (WAHO), Prof. Stanley Okoro, highlighted some of the measures.
A meeting of health ministers under the umbrella of WAHO ended in Abuja few days ago. What were the objectives of the meeting?
The meeting was on regional preparedness and response to the ongoing Covid-19 epidemic in China which has spread to other countries. The meeting was for us to extensively discuss the issue and agree on strategies for protecting the population of the region. Presentations were made by experts on the global health situation. At the end, we resolved to strengthen coordination, communication, and collaboration among ourselves in readiness for Covid-19 epidemic. We agreed on modalities to enhance surveillance and management measures for Covid-19, particularly at entry points, notably air, land and sea. Agreement was also reached on communication channels to ensure that the public receives accurate, appropriate and timely information regarding the epidemic. In addition to that, they emphasized on urgent strengthening of critical national capacities for diagnosing and managing cases, and also develop strategic costed regional preparedness plan based on member states’ priorities for governments, partners, and the private sector to support. Howbeit, there is need for close relationship with the relevant authorities of National Governments and the Chinese Government to monitor and assure the health situation of citizens resident in China.
How true is the statement that Coronavirus doesn’t survive in tropical countries like Nigeria?
No country is immune to this virus even though it’s new virus to us here. There is so much information about the virus, and yet, so much are not know yet. However, it’s a continuous process to study and research about the virus. The most important thing for us is to adequately prepare ahead of any eventuality. Aside testing, there is need for well equipped laboratory for sequencing. This is to know about possible changes in the virus in terms of form, development and survival. There are reports that points to the fact that chances of survival for the virus is slim in hot environment like Africa even though there is scientific evidence to prove that. But we can’t rely on that and relax. Research is still ongoing to unravel more knowledge about the virus. Egypt is a tropical African country. It’s the first to have a confirmed case of the virus. We are all at alert on the matter and plans have been put in place for swift and professional response.
There are reports in social and conventional media that many Nigerians are locked up in Wuhan. Are you considering the option of evacuation?
I don’t know the source of your information but one thing I know is that social media, for now, is a free media where anybody can put anything without verification. It’s left for the consumer to believe or not. The best I can say about this information is that individual countries in the region are working closely with relevant authorities of National Governments and the Chinese Government to monitor and assure the health situation of their citizen’s resident in China. We don’t need to create unnecessary panic. As WHO had suggested, it’s not time for fear or stigmatization but time for solidarity. Meanwhile, there is a new law in China that no one leaves the country through any of its borders untested for Coronavirus. This is to reduce further spread of the virus to other parts of the world, very commendable decision.
Any need for movement restrictions?
Not yet. You must know that every step we take regarding Coronavirus or any other epidemics is dependent on what was agreed at the international level as regards management of epidemics. We don’t operate in isolation as a region or country. Besides, not all countries are suspending travels to China for some reasons. In some countries, people coming from China or other affected countries are mandatorily quarantined for 14 days which is the incubation period before they are allowed into the society.
What’s the regional financial commitment to respond to this health emergency?
At the recent meeting of health ministers, we agreed that there should be regional costed plan that is strategic. In 2014, Africa had bitter experience with the outbreak of Ebola. We have learnt our lesson from that 2014 experience. However, funding for the response is not for government alone because the devastation of the epidemics will affect everybody irrespective of location or socioeconomic status. Nevertheless, in our estimate, we need between 30 to 50 million dollars to adequately respond to the situation. That resources would be committed to human capacity development, laboratory equipment supplies, communication and coordination systems, and several other things.
There’s this fear that Coronavirus is a biological weapon. What is the level of preparedness in terms of bio-safety in the region?
Premise of the question is totally wrong. As far as I know, Coronavirus is not a biological weapon and it’s important that the population understands that. Well, I do not feel sufficiently qualified neither is it appropriate to speculate on such issues, particularly biosecurity preparedness of the region. We are currently dealing with Coronavirus, a virus that is categorised and sequenced, and we know the family of virus.
How many African countries have the capacity to test Coronavirus
For now, there are about 18 countries in Africa that have acquired the capacity to test Coronavirus. But there was rapid change in the situation recently. Three weeks ago, there were less than 18 countries with only two in West Africa. But after training in Dakar, Senegal, some weeks back, the number in West Africa increased to five. Nevertheless, there will be another training soon and it’s expected that the number of countries with capacity to test the virus will increase significantly after the training. In addition to that, we need more reagents for the testing and that is why we are soliciting for funds to enable us achieving that objective.