The year 2020a had scarcely began when America took out a top Iranian general and Iran unwisely took down a Ukrainian passenger airplane with 176 lives. While the world tried to come to terms with the risk of increased chaos or even World War III, 2020a was quickly cast aside by news that 2020b had begun with a new illness springing out of some hitherto “unknown” place in China. In the numerous months since the year 2020b started, we have seen name changes from “Wuhan Coronavirus” to “Chinese Coronavirus” to “SARS-CoV-2” and the most infamous of them all, “COVID-19”. This seemed to be an event in a distant land, until the first case in Lagos, and then someone close contracted the virus.
As I was getting ready to log off my church’s online service on Sunday, 22 March 2020, my phone suddenly rang. Who could be calling me this early on a Sunday? A glance at my phone screen showed a friend, XY was the caller. I quickly asked XY what must have triggered them to call at this time, and they began admonishing me to take good care of myself. XY told me they had recently returned from the UK, felt unwell within a few days, contacted the Government of Nigeria, whose officials collected samples. XY’s test results came out positive days later and XY was admitted at an isolation facility in Lagos. After XY and I finished speaking, I decided I had to give procrastination the middle finger and write an article I had been considering for some time.
The previous Thursday, while cases of COVID-19 were rising in Lagos, my firm had informed employees that we may have to work from home from the coming week. By the next day, as confirmed cases increased, the firm instructed all of us to stay home until further notice. As I headed back home that evening, I thought about the situation in Nigeria and our preparedness for the pending pandemic. If I did not have any power to change Nigeria’s fate, I could at least try to keep my family and close persons off the victims’ list, especially since we have quite a number of senior citizens in the family.
Despite the apparent efforts of the National Centre for Disease Control / Federal Ministry of Health, one telephone call with my parents in Port Harcourt was enough to confirm the information silos prevalent in Nigeria. While Lagos gets somewhat prepared for a shitstorm, I was shocked to find out my own State Government was doing little to get Rivers residents aware of and prepared for COVID-19. Apart from the nationally-mandated closure of schools from Monday the 23rd, the Rivers State Government (like most other State Governments) did not seem to think that this was a crisis that needed preparing for. It’s as if each state is waiting to confirm a case before starting any preventative measures and beginning serious public awareness campaigns.
The refusal to move quickly is irresponsible and foolish. For the avoidance of doubt, that a state does not yet have a “confirmed case”, does not absolutely mean that COVID-19 is not present in that state. To get a confirmed case, you have to test a person, but with limited testing facilities, one has to have credible symptoms before being tested. Those who have travelled from high-risk countries are merely asked to self-isolate until symptoms show. In addition, even persons with symptoms but without any risky travel history may seek treatment for a different illness, and worst of all, a carrier of the virus may not have any symptoms but can reliably transmit it to others. Why then are more State Governments not making practicable moves to protect their people?
Still talking about information silos, I had cause to speak with a random Lagos resident and decided to quickly gauge her knowledge of COVID-19. Shockingly, at a time when over 20 cases had been confirmed in Nigeria, this lady boldly told me there were no more cases in Nigeria, that she heard all those with the virus had been healed. It appears the recovery of Nigeria’s index case, the Italian male, had been misunderstood by this lady (and possibly many others) to mean that the disease had been eradicated just as Ebola was banished in 2014. My fear is that if a young, educated Lagosian thinks COVID-19 is not longer a problem, what would the uneducated pepper seller at Ajegunle think? Clearly, information from official sources is not reaching the nooks and crannies of Lagos, and this would affect any proclamation about social distancing.
Back to my friend who used to have COVID-19, I advised them to keep their spirits up and begin logging their experience in a daily journal, until like the Italian they are declared free of the virus, so they can someday tell the story of how they beat COVID-19. I am confident that XY will beat it, regardless of the poor state of healthcare delivery in Nigeria. It’s instructive how COVID-19 has gone from some distant disease to something personal. You can spew all the data you want about the number infected globally, mortality rates, age-adjusted risk, etc., but when a friend gets COVID-19, you realise the data is now human.
Image Credit: Sky News