Nigeria: Preparing Against Coronavirus

Airport workers wear face masks at China's Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport.
27 January 2020

The country may do well by strengthening its health security

Nigeria woke up early last week to the scary news of an emerging epidemic, the novel Coronavirus outbreak. Although it started from Wuhan city in China, the disease has now spread to many other countries, including Australia, Malaysia, Taiwan, Republic of Korea, Thailand, Japan, France, Singapore and the United States, killing at least 50 people and infecting more than 1000 persons. The nature of the disease and its sudden spread has sparked panic across the world with many countries putting measures in place to prevent its entry into their region. The World Health Organisation (WHO), after an emergency session, has also released a travel advisory as part of efforts to mitigate the spread of the virus globally.

Although many may argue that the chances of the virus reaching Nigeria are small because of the partial lock down on over 20 million persons in China, same was said in 2014 when Ebola outbreak started, until it found its way to Nigeria, claiming eight productive lives, some $180 million in cost, and throwing the entire nation into panic. According to the WHO, Coronavirus is a virus that causes infection in the nose, sinuses or upper throat, and can be transmitted from animal to human or from human to human just like the mode of spread of the dreaded Ebola Virus Disease (EVD).

With Nigerians known for their high trading partnerships with China, the virus is closer to the country than many assume. But is our health security system strong enough to prevent the virus from entering the country? Is it strong enough to manage the virus should it find its way in? Although the federal government, through the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) said it has raised a multi-sectoral technical group to assess and manage the risk of importation of the disease, the last Joint External Evaluation (JEE) of the International Health Regulations placed Nigeria's capacity to prevent, detect, and respond to public health threats at 46 per cent. This means the country is still 54 per cent less able to protect the country from disease threats coming from other countries.

The NCDC Chief Executive Officer, Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu, announced last week that the country's Port Health Services unit has been placed on alert and has heightened screening measures at the points of entry. "NCDC and its partners are fully committed to strengthening our preparedness and response to infectious disease outbreaks. Information will be shared with the public as it becomes available. There is no specific treatment for diseases caused by the new coronavirus yet. However, many of the symptoms can be treated. Therefore, treatment is based on the patient's clinical condition. In addition, supportive care for infected persons can be highly effective. We will do our part to ensure it is prevented from entering the country," he said.

Despite this reassurance from the federal government's health security parastatal, indications on ground reveal that Nigeria is yet to prioritise health security. That means should Coronavirus, which is relatively unknown globally, finds its way into Nigeria, the country is less than half prepared to manage it. This may then throw the country into another round of panic as experienced during the Ebola era in 2014. Although Nigeria's JEE score has improved from 39 per cent in 2017 to 46 per cent in 2019, the Nigerian government needs to improve on strengthening its health security, especially now that Coronavirus is lurking around the corner.

With our health security still weak, all gains made in other sectors may come to nothing when disease outbreaks like the Coronavirus hits the country. A nation, the authorities must understand, is only as strong as its weakest link.

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