By Doyin Odubanjo*
Cases of COVID-19 are rising in Nigeria. Although the federal government hasn’t announced a firm plan to lock down, individual states have started to take steps such as closing markets, schools and places of worship. Accompanying daily developments has been a rise in panic levels fuelled in many cases by misinformation. The Conversation Africa’s West Africa regional editor, Adejuwon Soyinka, put questions to Dr Doyin Odubanjo about the biggest threats to Nigeria’s war against the pandemic.
How much of a threat is misinformation and panic in Nigeria?
Perhaps the biggest danger faced at the moment is panic. To control diseases such as COVID-19, it is critical that human behaviour is controlled in a way that inhibits the spread of the disease. The challenge with panic is that people change their behaviour erratically. They might even behave in a way that leads to the disease spreading, or poses a different risk entirely to them and their communities.
Misinformation can lead to panic. In fact it does more than create panic. It can lead to wrong actions. We have already seen people come down with chloroquine toxicity in this pandemic when they heard the drug might be effective.
Misinformation can also lead to complacency. There are people who believe that black people can’t have the COVID-19 infection.
Given the current situation, what are the biggest threats?
Right now, I would say the biggest threats are panic, politics and indecision. While COVID-19 is a serious disease and we should tackle it as such, we must do so with calmness and focus. We should never forget that, if the situation is handled right, most people are not expected to die.
But that’s also the tricky nature of the disease. Most people will be asymptomatic or with mild illness. But they will nevertheless pose a great risk to those who are more susceptible to severe disease and death – the elderly and those with other underlying diseases.
There are already more people dead and dying from other diseases. But COVID-19 has gained notoriety to such an extent that it cannot be ignored. Panic leads to knee-jerk responses that are not likely to effectively curtail the spread of the disease.
Rather, what is needed is the calm implementation of a clear and effective strategy.
Politics should have some boundaries. One such boundary is the containment of a pandemic. This is no time to make promises that are not immediately fulfilled. I was alarmed at the disparity between the public statements about Nigeria’s preparedness and the reality on the ground as revealed by ordinary people. An example is the accounts given by people who passed through Nigeria’s airports before they were shut down. While the politicians talked about money that had been assigned, two weeks later the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control said that no money had been released .
Lastly, we need to know that not making a decision is a decision itself. The rate at which this disease has spread has shown that we must be thinking on our feet. There is no time to waste. We must think, act, think again, and act again. We must be ready to make hard decisions if the situation requires it.
What is missing in the current narrative around COVID-19 and its handling in Nigeria?
A coordinated response across the federation is really missing.
The Federal Ministry of Health and the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control are supposed to be the national coordinators. But states seem to be making individual decisions. Some states shut down schools last week with the dramatic rise in the number of confirmed cases. Others looked on. We have seen that diseases don’t know boundaries (not even international ones) so the best thing to do is to have a synchronised response. For example, most countries have found that locking down only parts of their countries was ineffective and had to do a total lock down eventually.
That does not mean that exactly the same thing is done at all the places at the same time. But it does mean that you have an eye on how every place is faring at once and are able to make all respond appropriately.
A lot has been said about what Nigeria does not have in combating the pandemic. What does it have at its disposal?
Nigeria has been ‘haemorrhaging’ health care workers in recent years. But, thankfully, the country still has some dedicated and innovative health care workers left. Its health workers are nothing short of heroes given the environment in which they work. I assume that this situation now reveals how much the country needs them and that this will inform future policies to ensure that the health system improves and health workers are retained in the country.
Nigeria also has a big economy and a strong private sector. It is time to draw on the strengths of its private sector to combat this disease. Apart from money, the private sector can drive community engagement, communication, procurement, and even the manufacturing of drugs and equipment.
Last, but not least, is that Nigeria and Nigerians are resilient. We must not forget that this is also a psychological warfare in the face of fear, socio-economic depression, and lock downs. Nigerians are fighters and can fight this off.
What can science bring to the table in managing this pandemic?
The COVID-19 virus being new means that there are many questions and few answers. Many people have information about their experience. And there’s been research. Some of the information being gathered will be found to be correct, some wrong.
There’s a need for a whole lot more research. For instance, we still need answers about how the virus behaves in a particular local environment and how long it lasts outside the human body in Nigeria.
Research has to be validated and reproducible. Even a great deal of the good research being done has to be repeated to be sure that the findings are correct.
Then, how about the near or distant future? What drugs and or vaccines can be developed? Will the virus mutate? There is a reason why the Redeemer’s University Nigeria (in collaboration with the federal government) sequenced and reported the genome of the virus in Nigeria. It will help with drug development.
* Executive Secretary, Nigerian Academy of Science