Desmond Mgboh (Kano), Paul Orude (Bauchi) and Timothy Olanrewaju (Maiduguri)
For some weeks now, the people of Kano, Bauchi, and Yobe states have been in turmoil following mysterious deaths that been ravaging the northern states.
While many believe this may not be connected with the Coronavirus pandemic, Sunday Sun investigation revealed that this belief may not be entirely true.
A visit to some of the bereaved families and leaders of the high hit communities in the states showed that they believe that the majority of their people who died were of natural occurrences, saying that mass deaths were not alien to them.
However, there are some who expressed fear, saying that the magnitude of deaths in this period appears to be unprecedented, suspecting that it may have been aggravated by COVID-19.
Residents of Azare town in Katagum Local Government Area of Bauchi State described the mysterious deaths of over 170 in the last three weeks in the area as an act of God.
While some of the bereaved families admitted that the unexpected and sudden deaths of their loved ones were painful, they said all the same they have accepted it as inevitable act of God.
They also do not believe that it is the novel Coronavirus that has been the cause of the mysterious deaths.
Our correspondent who was in Azare, on Tuesday, spoke to a cross section of bereaved families on the mysterious deaths of their loved one in the area.
The Head of Azare community, Abdulador Ali Shira, believes that the noise being raised about the deaths was unnecessary.
“Yes there have been deaths of recent, but it is not unusual. It is common to have between 10 to 14 deaths per day in Azare, or nine before. I think the fear is heightened by the Coronavirus pandemic,” he stated.
Shira said that most deaths in Azare were caused by common ailments such as hypertension, and malaria.
“It is not coming to us as a surprise and so far only one person, a female is confirmed killed by COVID-19. People who are not from Azare have been carrying rumours. I am aware of the deaths and l usually pay condolence visit to most of the bereaved families so this is not something that should disturb us,” he said.
Ibrahim Umar, son of Yakubu, the Dan Iyan Azare, one of the kingmakers, who died some days ago, said that his father, an octogenarian, had complained of headache.
“He asked me to take him to the hospital. His blood sample was taken and he was told he had typhoid. Since then he has been weak and didn’t recover,” he told Sunday Sun.
The prominent title holder was taken to the Intensive Care Unit of the Abubakar Tafawa Balewa Teaching Hospital where he gave up the ghost on Tuesday, May 12.
“No information has been given to us about his cause of death whether it was typhoid. His death left a big vacuum because he left 23 children and 26 grand-children and many great grand-children,” he said.
The Dan Iyan also believed that COVID-19 pandemic is a test from God.
“No one is sure whether it is COVID-19 that is killing people in Azare now. But l feel it is severe fever that is killing most of our people,” he said.
For him, though it is destiny, he appealed to the state government to strengthen its relationship with the people by giving them palliatives to cushion the effects, as well as to reduce the deaths, especially with the lockdown.
Auwalu Dahiru Saleh said that by the time he arrived Azare from Kaduna where he is based, his father, Justice Dahiru Saleh, a former judge who became infamous for annulling the June 12 election, was in coma.
“I am not a doctor, but before coming to Azare, I was in Zamfara for two weeks and the deaths there is also real, not rumour.
“We thought it is because of the heat and by virtue of that it could contribute to the deaths because in the last two years, Meningitis, people who have passed on are mostly elderly. We can’t say it is Coronavirus because they have not been tested. Inasmuch as COVID-19 kills, the virus seems to behave differently when it comes to Africa,” he said.
Abdullahi Mohammed, whose father Mohammed Isa , died within the period under review, said that his father’s illness began with typhoid.
“Results showed that his viral load was high. He was treated at the General Hospital Azare. He was given medication and asked to go home.
“After sometime his condition worsened and we used egg and lemon. He was better, but lost appetite. He could only take malt and milk. We took him back to the hospital and was given vitamin drugs to boost his appetite. Failure to eat worsened his condition and he developed ulcer. There was no cough or flu,” he disclosed, adding that his father died at the age of 67 years.
“People have been saying Coronavirus has entered Azare because elderly people are mostly the ones dying. Well, I am not well informed to know. But l believe my governor said that only one person died from Coronavirus. So, l believe it is a strange disease that is killing our people,” he said.
Son of Alhaji Ibrahim Naibi, head of Izala in Azare, Sani, is still bitter with medical officials for allegedly neglecting his 84-year-old father to die.
He believed with good care and attention, his father would have been alive.
“He was never sick. No sign of any illness. He complained of fever and was taken to hospital. Two days later he died,” he said.
Ahmed Sani, whose father was a successful businessman based in Azare recalled that his father attempted to take himself to hospital on the day he died.
Sani said that as soon as his father took a step, he collapsed. “We first took him to a private clinic, but there was no bed. We were told to go to FMC, but they said they too had no bed. He died in the hospital. My father did not die of Coronavirus, he had ulcer,” he said.
Samira Sulieman, a dark, chubby female activist in the ancient city of Kano, appears to have lost her glow of late. She, like several others, is troubled by the spike in the number of deaths recorded in Kano.
Several familiar names and people have passed away within the last few weeks, said the ex-media queen, who, however, added that like several others in the state, she could not say precisely what was responsible for their deaths.
“I will look at it in two ways. One way is to attest that these deaths are somehow unusual. But seen differently, one could also say that given the number of people that we have in Kano State, the figure is not as alarming as it has been sounded.”
Semira who is a native of the state and a former staff of Freedom Radio, told Sunday Sun that many of the people dying are old people and the reasons for their deaths could be old-age related ailments like diabetes, hypertension, meningitis etc.
“But looking at it from the Coronavirus pandemic, maybe too, some of the deaths could be linked to COVID-19.
“We have been told that this pandemic affects mostly the elderly and if you look at the people who had died in the state, they are within this category. They are mostly aged,” she told Sunday Sun.
Semira also highlighted the fact that the areas that had recorded these deaths were very congested, adding that a lot of people resident in these places do less of social distancing
“My final take is that it could be as a result of the pandemic, it could just be a normal situation that we found ourselves in at the moment, it could be Meningitis because of the heat and it could be that their bodies were already weak and ready to go. We don’t know…”
She advised the people of the state to treat seriously the rules of social distancing, wash their hands and wear their face masks while adding that, “we should try and avoid crowded places…. We all need to be very, very careful”.
Seventy-five-year-old Mallam Musa Abubakar, a gravedigger at Kofar Mazugal cemetery in the metropolitan area of Kano, confessed that there has been a sharp climb in the number of dead bodies they bury in the past few weeks.
Speaking, he disclosed that in the past, they usually dig a maximum of three to four graves in the cemetery on a single day” ‘ but added that, “from the beginning of the month of Ramadan to date, so many people had died and had been buried at the graveyard”.
He confessed that they as gravediggers are already getting tired of digging, given the huge number of the deceased persons.
He said that given the years of experience on the job, he had assumed that he was immune to fear, adding, however, that with the number of people being buried daily, some of his fears had returned.
“Let me tell you that this unusual death has claimed five of our colleagues. They all died after a brief illness. The situation is terrible and needs God’s Intervention,” he said.
A leading health experts currently working in support of Kano State in the fight against COVID- 19 in the state who spoke under condition of anonymity insisted that there is nothing like mystery or strange deaths in Kano State, saying that in the absence of any effective scientific investigation, the media cannot claim that there is a jump in the number of people dying in the state.
“When you say a figure is increasing, it means that you have a baseline from where you can measure. You can only talk or write of a “noticeable incident” and not a “significant increase.”
He agreed that there are incidents of deaths in the state, but said that only a scientific investigation can say whether the numbers are increasing or are not increasing as well as the nature of these deaths.
He agreed that although the causes of the deaths were not established at the time of death, it could be indicative of the presence of Coronavirus in the state.
“Like we have seen elsewhere, the virus affects the most vulnerable members of the society, and some of these deaths we are talking about are older people, who have been sick.
“The way forward is what we are doing; we are trying to find out the link between the nature of these deaths and COVID-19. That is why we are doing verbal autopsy,” he said.
Since the outbreak of the unusual deaths in the state and the media reportage, one institution that has not known sleep, not for a second, is the government of Kano State.
The government, following the scary reports, promptly ordered a probe into the nature of the “strange”deaths as well as to establish the actual number of the people who had died .
As a follow up, the government directed the state Ministry of Health to carry out verbal autopsy of all those who had lost their lives to various strange ailments in the state.
A statement, signed by the state Commissioner for Information, Malam Muhammad Garba, said that a combined team from the state Ministry of Health and the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), have been drafted to eight local government areas within the Kano Emirate Council to perform the autopsy exercise.
Sunday Sun gathered that investigation into the causes of deaths in the state was making steady progress. Only on Sunday, the team leader of the Ministerial Task Team on COVID-19 in the state, Dr Nasir Gwarzo said that all is set for the laboratory test of samples of some of the dead persons in the state in the recent times.
He explained that four medical consultants have been enlisted to organize and supervise the exercise.
“Four hospitals have been identified as the centres and four consultants, all of them – one from our side and three mobilized from within the state. The various teams are on the verge of doing the work,” he stated.
In Yobe, the move to contain the spread of the new Coronavirus in the state started in early March. The government constituted a state Committee on COVID-19 pandemic led by the Deputy Governor, Alhaji Idi Barde Gubana. The government immediately announced restriction of entry into and out of the state. It was not long when the state recorded its index case of the disease on April 29.
Gubana had disclosed at a press breifing in Damaturu that the 29-year-old index case developed symptoms of the virus on April 23 after which he presented himself to the state General Hospital in the capital with complaints of fever, cough and sore throat.
“The patient is single and resides with his parents in Damaturu. He has no history of contact with suspected or confirmed case of Coronavirus and no history of travel to high risk states,” the deputy governor disclosed.
Death on the prowl
Few days after the state reported its first COVID-19 case, residents said that they were inundated with tragic news of deaths of scores of people in different parts of the state. Some residents described the mass deaths as strange and a mystery.
“We have not experienced such thing before,” 65-year-old Aliyu Mohammed told Sunday Sun. He dismissed the claim that it could have been caused by the heat wave and severe heat in the Northeast.
“We witnssed similar weather condition over 10 years ago and people didnt die like this. It is scary,” he said.
For some of the natives, the state may be grappling with community transmission of Coronavirus since the index case has no travel history to high risk states like Borno, about 120 kilometres away on the northern side; Bauchi, over 300 kilometres, Kano and Jigawa states as well, all with COVID-19 cases.
From the first few deaths recorded in Potiskum, Yobe commercial hub and Damaturu, the capital, the figure soared higher and rose to 471 in three weeks, according to the state Commissioner for Health, Dr. Mohammed Gana. The mass deaths were also recorded at Nguru and Gashu’a.
Gana, who is also the vice chairman of the state COVID-19 Committee, traced only three of the deaths to COVID-19.
The commissioner while analyzing the mass deaths in the state, said that 90 per cent of the 471 persons that died within three weeks did not manifest symptoms of Coronavirus.
He said that investigation showed that more than half of the deaths had “underlying chronic illnesses” including, fever, hypertension, diabetes, renal disease, maternal mortality and accident victims.
He said that the deaths did not occur together either in the same place or same time. “Geospatial map shows no clustering of mortality,” he said. He disclosed that the victims who were mostly artisans and businessmen, did not have travel history which may facilitate their contact with COVID-19 patients.
“Approximate 90 per cent had no multiple symptoms consistent with case definitions of COVID-19. Male accounts for 58.5 per cent of mortality and 96 per cent had no travel history outside the state,” he said.
He explained that 16 of the 471 deceased relatives revealed that the deceased exhibited symptoms which necessitated investigation.
Three of the 16 met case definition for COVID-19, indicating three of the 16 investigated deceased tested positive for Coronavirus.
on phone from Damaturu that his uncle died of diabetics and not Coronavirus. “My uncle has been sick for some time. His time to die has come and Allah took him,” he said. He, however, said many of the deaths may be traced to the virus.
A medical personnel working in the state hospital who preferred anonymity maintained that more than half of the deaths could be “complications triggered by Coronavirus.”
“There is a link between underlying illness and Coronavirus. The problem is that many of them didn’t come to the hospitals. They died at home from conditions raging from high fever to respiratory issue, diabetics, renal problem and others, and they were buried at home. Significantly, some of the cases could be COVID-19 related,” the health worker said.
Some of the relations of the deceased contacted declined to comment while most medical experts in the state were unwilling to say anything.
Yobe is among states in the North with few cases of Coronavirus, having 20 confirmed cases and one death, according to the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) update on Tuesday. Neighbouring Adamawa State had 21; Plateau, 19; Taraba, 17; Bauchi 190; while Borno recorded 188 cases as at Tuesday.