I have often wondered how long it would take many Nigerians to concede to the fact that COVID-19 is real. It is not a fiction or conspiracy crafted by some disingenuous government officials despatched to spread the message around the world. It is time many people woke up to the truth. COVID-19 has claimed far too many lives and there is no indication of the time we should expect the virus to come to an end, even with the rollout of various vaccines.
Our cavalier attitude and response to COVID-19 says a lot about our poor understanding of the epidemiology of infectious diseases, our misconceptions about how the virus is spread, our poor grasp of approaches to effective management of public health crises, our mechanistic superstitious beliefs, and our fatalistic attitude to life in general.
COVID-19 has claimed over two million lives across the world and yet, in Nigeria, it is almost as if we are shielded from its deleterious impact. There is no urgency in the country to join the global action against COVID-19. There is greater focus on creating committees rather than providing helpful services to people on the ground who need the amenities. The impression out there is that Nigerians have developed a special immunity against the virus. But that perception is delusional. It cannot be, particularly in an environment in which many high-profile and ordinary citizens have died as a result of the virus.
We are lucky in Nigeria. But the government must not depend on luck. Other countries have suffered even worse mortality rates. Nevertheless, many people claim, on the basis of idiosyncratic beliefs rather than rational arguments or scientific explanation, that the mortality rate has remained low in Nigeria because God loves Nigerians more than people in other countries. I am yet to be persuaded that this is a logical and sensible explanation.
We live in a bubble created by our own foolhardiness and ignorance. We exist in our own isolated world, completely unaware of what is happening around us, believing we are more informed than the rest of the global population.
Although statistics on the fatality rate of the disease in Nigeria is highly contested, some people still view the virus as a kind of Western disease, something that afflicts developed countries only. Strangely, the same level of idiocy that existed during the early years of the spread of HIV-AIDS is now evident. The same ill-informed arguments that were used to dismiss HIV-AIDS have been deployed this time to reject the existence of COVID-19.
The second wave of the virus has claimed many lives in the country and yet there is an unwillingness to accept the truth. There is widespread scepticism that people who died and are still dying in various Nigerian cities were victims of COVID-19. This cynicism drives many people’s careless, half-hearted, and relaxed attitude to the novel coronavirus. In Nigeria, many COVID-related deaths are attributed to malaria, typhoid, drug overdose, and other bizarre causes. Of course, these are some of the common causes of death in the country. If someone did not die from malaria, the person could die from typhoid fever. The two are always interconnected in a strange but medically unsupported and unverifiable way.
The fight against COVID-19 in Nigeria is almost lost. There are many impediments. The challenges are daunting and complicated. Public information campaigns that ought to have been mounted in the early stages of the emergence of the virus were overlooked. In a public health crisis such as this, it is important for the government to carry everyone along. Sensitisation is key. Given the high level of apathy in the general population, it is critical to engage in massive information crusade to convince people that, indeed, COVID-19 is real but it is also possible to avoid infection, if people took the following measures such as wearing face masks, observing social distancing of at least 1.5 metres, washing hands with soap and water regularly, using hand sanitisers and wipes, maintaining general hygiene, observing all the health protocols to avoid spread of the virus, and providing people with free test services so that anyone with symptoms can approach the test centres to get tested.
Perhaps, Nigeria should learn from the top eight countries in the world that successfully controlled community spread of the virus. Mention must be made of countries such as New Zealand, Australia, Vietnam, Taiwan, Thailand, Rwanda, Cyprus, and Iceland. These countries took strong and uncompromising actions to control the spread of COVID-19. They moved in fast, took hard decisions, shut borders, banned international flights, and deployed the police and soldiers to enforce the strict rules. They did not hesitate to keep their citizens indoors through lockdowns. These countries are now reaping the rewards associated with taking early action to protect the health of their citizens.
Another reason why these countries recorded major successes in reducing the spread of the virus is the effectiveness of their contact tracing. Once a coronavirus outbreak is reported in one suburb or area, public health officials make efforts to contact all the people who must have come into contact with that case. The person provides details of where they visited before they tested positive. These include restaurants, shopping centres, public transport they took (buses, trains, domestic flights, etc). Contact tracing makes it easy to track all the people who may have come into contact with the person who tested positive. Everyone is encouraged to self-isolate and to get tested.
Relative to the death rate in other parts of the world, the number of fatalities arising from COVID-19 in these countries is quite low. In fact, in the Australian state of Queensland, only six people (yes, only six) died from COVID-19 since the outbreak in 2020. As at today, there is no one in the intensive care unit (ICU) of public hospitals. This is what a responsible and active government does. It encourages people to get tested immediately there is any symptom. It moves quickly to quarantine in designated hotels for 14 days people who tested positive to COVID-19. There are many centres for people to go and get tested. How many testing centres do we have in Nigeria, a country of over 200 million people?
It took Nigeria more than one year following the outbreak of COVID-19 to make wearing of face masks mandatory. This is like shutting the farm gate long after the goats have bolted. In typical Nigerian phraseology, that kind of belated action is nothing but “medicine after death”. While other countries shut their airports to people flocking home for the Christmas and New Year festivities, we flung our airports open and welcomed everybody, including those who were infected but did not know.
One way to gauge the level of government commitment to help people ease the pain of the lockdowns and disruptions to normal life can be seen from the way the so-called palliatives were disbursed or hoarded. Food items that were meant to assist people, particularly impoverished people, to navigate the hardships caused by COVID-19, were stockpiled in warehouses where some of the food items started to rot. Obviously, government officials preferred to see people die rather than help them to survive the pangs of the pandemic. That is how insensitive, how callous, how uncaring, and how indifferent government officials have become.