Border security officers in Nigeria already contend with a raft of challenges in deterring illegal traffic and ensuring safety. In Ogun state in the country's south-west where the country's first COVID-19 case was detected, they are now also helping to curb the importation of COVID-19.
Ogun state borders Benin and has about five official border crossings. It is a priority region in the battle against the virus of which there have been over 58 000 cases nationwide since February.
Having close links with the megacity of Lagos, Nigeria's COVID-19 epicentre state accounting for a third of the country's cases, Ogun's position as a commercial hub of travel and trade makes it vulnerable to outbreaks, says Dr Adeniyi, the Officer-in-Charge at the Ogun State Port Health Service who in August led a team of health officers to step up COVID-19 prevention efforts in the state.
Over three days, the 11-member team covered about 80% of Ogun border areas educating border officers in Ayetoro, Oko Eye, Ajilete, Aja Odan, Ilaro and Owode border areas how to properly wear fabric masks, wash their hands and on the importance of physical distancing. In Ajilete, the team re-trained officers on how to properly collect COVID-19 samples for testing from suspected cases.
Among the COVID-19 prevention challenges, border officials say, is the poor access to information from online sources because of poor internet in rural border areas. They also cited the high cost of masks and sanitizers.
"The situation is that people relaxed and dropped their guards but with the coming of the health officers it woke us up again and since then we have been up and doing," says A.C Adaeze, an Assistant Superintendent Customs officer posted to in Ilaro border crossing. "The health officials took the pain of going around sensitizing people and making corrections where necessary. They even gave us masks and personal hand sanitisers. l think they did well."
Dr Adeniyi's team also held discussions with border communities where compliance is low, but infection risk is high from travellers passing through numerous illegal routes that lead directly into communities.
"We let them know the danger of someone coming in and keeping quiet about it," says Dr Sunday Dele Omoniyi Abidoye, World Health Organization (WHO) Ogun state coordinator who was also part of the advocacy team. Apart from COVID-19, Ogun is also at risk of other infectious diseases like polio, he says. In August 2020, Africa was certified free of wild polio four years after the continent's last cases were detected in Nigeria.
Teams across the south-western border states of Lagos and Oyo are doing the same on land, at airports and at sea borders, which can be overlooked but pose huge risks. In Lagos, Nigeria's economic capital, WHO official, Dr Edmund Ogbe, says his team working with Lagos Port Health Service, set up a screening system at the Apapa and Tin Can Island sea borders where cargo vessels continued to enter the country despite the border closure between March and September. His team boards a boat out to the water in the Gulf of Guinea to halt ships that have reported cases of coronavirus from docking at the ports in Lagos.
Religious and traditional leaders in border communities are cooperating, too.
"The results of the August campaign are starting to show in all south-west states," says Dr Rosemary Onyibe, the WHO Zonal Coordinator. Compliance is Ogun is now 70% up from 25% before the team visited. "We've seen officers distribute information and education materials we provided to their colleagues and travellers coming into the country. WHO will continue to support states to achieve their goal."
But a few challenges remain, according to Dr Onyibe. One of them is reaching remote border communities and convincing the many who believe that COVID-19 does not exist. Another is coordinating and harmonizing health data sent by border officials from various government security agencies, but she adds, WHO is ready to support states with sensitization, surveillance and logistics.
State officials are certain that adherence to guidelines will continue to increase with intense sensitization. Dr Adeniyi is already planning more advocacy meetings. "As long as the pandemic is still with us, we have to continue telling people that it's not over until it's over."
Dr Ibrahim Mamadu; Email: mamadui [at] who.int; Tel: +234 802 357 7377
Dr Rosemary Onyibe; Email: onyiber [at] who.int; Tel: +234 803 348 8080