The Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, reminded the world last week that the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic “is far from over.” He was setting down a marker to guide many countries, which are now under pressure to relax the lockdowns they had imposed to check the spread of the pandemic. Public protests against the ‘stay-at-home’ restrictions have been recorded in Nigeria, Ghana, United States, Australia and many countries in Europe. Millions of wage earners have been under hardship; businesses are on the brink and many are anxious to resume normal life after weeks of disruption.
Dr. Ghebreyesus said he was deeply worried about the normal health services for children and about trends in Africa, Eastern Europe, Latin America and some Asian countries. “We have a long road ahead of us and a lot of work to do,” he said.
We consider Dr. Ghebreyesus’s warning to be timely at a time signs of complacency appear to be setting in and the determination to fight the pandemic flagging in some places. In the particular case of Nigeria, it must be stated that the excellent record it set during the Ebola pandemic was due to its vigilance and zero tolerance. It started right from the then President Goodluck Jonathan, who readily deployed resources to tackle the disease. Everyone took a cue, including Dr. Ameyo Adedavoh, the consultant physician, who made the ultimate sacrifice to ensure Ebola did not spread in Nigeria.
But the Coronavirus is a different disease. Unlike Ebola, which spreads through body fluids, COVID-19 spreads through the air with carriers often unaware they have and are spreading the disease through breathing, sneezing, coughing and physical contact of all kinds.
In its short history, the virus has demonstrated how lethal it can be. So far, COVID-19 has claimed the lives of nearly 250,000 people and sickened over three million others. But within that history, it is clear it can be contained, even if still incurable. An all-out strategy to stop its spread tends to work. China is a resounding proof having last week gone through two weeks without a single new infection and on the contrary China has unlocked Wuhan, the city that gave birth to the virus. South Korea has also recorded no new infections in the last few days. Other parts of the world have made remarkable progress through uncompromising approach to the mitigation of the spread. Thus, the WHO DG’s warning should be heeded and this is no time to waver or waffle on tested measures that have been proved to work.
The Nigerian Task Force on COVID-19 has shown itself a determined, focused group whose handicap has been the fewness of its testing. That shortcoming makes it impossible to know where the virus is, and the extent and the degree of infection of the Nigerian population. This has raised a great deal of fear and suspicion that the figures may be masking undeclared patients. Last week, the dismal number of Nigeria’s testing showed it was five per cent of that of South Africa, six per cent of Egypt’s and 10 per cent of Ghana’s. On
May 1, African countries with big numbers of infections were South Africa, 5,647; Egypt, 5,537; Morocco, 4,423; Algeria, 4,006; Ghana, 2,074; Nigeria, 1, 932; and Cameroon, 1,832. The least infected were Lesotho, zero; Comoros, one; Mauritania eight; Gambia, 12; Angola, 27; Benin, 64; Chad, 73; Togo, 116; Niger, 719, and Kenya, 396.
The WHO insists on six conditions, which must be met to relax restrictions including the fact that the source of each infection must be clearly identified. It requires health authorities to detect and test all cases as well as ensuring that all contacts are quarantined. All confirmed cases must be effectively isolated and all close contacts must be traced and quarantined for 14 days. Places with vulnerable populations must have their risks minimised, like nursing homes. In Nigeria, the task force is encouraging the dispersal of the Almajiris and where possible inmates in correction facilities. Work places must create preventive measure. Social distancing and behavioural modifications to prevent the spread must be maintained.
Many experts continue to wonder why there had been so few infections in Africa. While many say they don’t know, others think the infections are under-reported because of the absence of testing equipment and facilities. Others, however, note that the population is much younger than in Europe and China. The median population age in the United Kingdom is 40.2 and in China it is 37, but this figure is 17.9 in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country.