The first confirmed coronavirus case in Nigeria was in an Italian traveler who came into Lagos, Nigeria on February 25. He too ill two days later while he was in Ewekoro in Ogun State. On March 9, eleven days after the index case reported ill, one of his Nigerian contacts was laboratory confirmed positive for coronavirus infection.
On March 16, a Nigerian who had arrived Lagos from the United Kingdom (UK) became the third coronavirus virus case. Two days later, on March 18, Nigeria reported five confirmed coronavirus infections in travellers who had arrived Nigeria-four through the air route and the fifth through a land border crossing.
It was expected that sooner or later, that the coronavirus infection would arrive Nigeria, but we were looking in the direction of China as the route of entry. The lack of report of any coronavirus case was a bit of a surprise, and I thought that our porous border had allowed cases to slip through. Indeed, on two occasions on my return to Nigeria from Juba, South Sudan on January 31 and from Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) on February 22, I met two disturbing situations of unpreparedness at the Murtala airport.
The first occasion, there was one temperature monitoring operator and another staff monitoring the screen. Half the time, the person monitoring the screen was busy watching something else, and in the period of loss of concentration, between five to eight passed without his checking the screen. Who knows anyone of us could have slipped through with a low or high fever?
On the second occasion, there were two temperature guns were in use. However, close to 50 returning travellers were completing the forms handed over in the hall where the screening was being done. Needless to say, that the workers were overwhelmed and were in no position to thoroughly review the completed forms. The forms were collected faster than we could submit them. Although, the flight originated from Lomé, there were tens of us who transited from as far as New York, Addis Ababa and other towns where coronavirus was raging. I am told the situation has improved considerably.
On February 27, when we had not reported a single case of coronavirus infection, I tweeted as follows ‘SubSahara Africa – COVID-19’s black hole. Everything says it should be here, everyone says it is not here. Something is missing in the dark hole, and we must find it, before it finds everyone. I did not know then that coronavirus was already with us. Later that same day, Nigeria reported the first case of the disease. The report of the case in an expatriate sent me thinking of another scenario…. if the hospital of admission of the Italian had not informed the government, we might not have known that we had a corona case. Just imagine…. how many hospitals will bother to inform the government of such ‘mild’ illnesses. Or assume that the case was a Nigerian like me, with no association with any public company, and who is a specialist in street chemist patron and home treatment remedy. By now, thousands of Nigerians would have been drowned in coronavirus particles coughed and sneezed out of infected persons.
The report of five cases of the disease in one day gives a lot of cause for serious concern and to think that one of them came through the land border and that another one was found not in Lagos, but in Ekiti State.
It is gratifying that the Nigerian COVID19-Task Force finally sprung to action, a week after it was set up by the President. The Task Force has rightly decided to, amongst other things, restrict entry into Nigeria for travellers from 13 high incidence countries with over 1,000 domestic cases. The Task Force has advised Nigerians not to embark on non-essential travel to high incidence countries. The corona pandemic is ticking much faster than our Task Force is ticking. Even as it listed only 13 countries as having more than 1,000 domestic cases, the World Health Organisation (WHO) dashboard lists an additional four countries- Austria, Belgium Sweden and Denmark with more than 1,000 domestic cases. On self-isolation of returning travellers from foreign countries, this is hardly feasible. How do your self-isolate in a ‘face-me-I-face-you “block of flats with a common toilet and kitchen?
The government of Nigeria however deserves some credit for action taken so far, even as an alert must be raised that we have only won the first heat of the race against corona. We still have a marathon ahead of us. A review of the action taken on the first three cases should only tell us that the battle has just begun and therefore we should not feel too smug, snug and complacent about the corona menace. Right now, our approach has been too feeble in dealing with the pandemic. Our health system can certainly not deal with too many cases entering our country, as the disease will overwhelm our fragile healthcare system and make the China situation a child’s play compared to a Nigeria submerged in corona coughing and sneezing.
We need to move from sweeping out corona with APC broom & face-masking with PDP umbrella. It must be ‘Lafiya Dole’ NOW! Bring out the bazooka to stop corona entry and spread. Let us -ban religious and social gatherings. Iran banned Friday prayers after it reported more than 10,000 cases. I heard also that even the Pope suspended his weekly public prayer after Italy lost thousands of people. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia with 238 cases has already suspended Friday prayers.
Nigeria must be proactive and suspend any religious or social gatherings that could promote and escalate the spread of coronavirus. If coronavirus hits us in the face, we do not have the healthcare resources and system to cope with the accompanying disaster. Now is the time to encourage and enforce social distancing. We must take hand washing with water and soap more seriously. One more point, our Task Force must work on a daily basis, and never rest until we are totally free of coronavirus.
• Tomori is a professor of virology and former vice-Chancellor of the Redeemers University