By Peter T. Udo-Akpan
The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has caused a profound shock to Nigeria and all countries all over the world. Measures to control the spread of the virus have have had a deep impact on our lives, affecting people’s income, job security and social relationships.
Four months after recording the first case, Nigeria has recorded over 26,000 COVID-19 cases and is now in the community transmission phase. This means that the virus has spread widely, and it is increasingly difficult to trace the source of infection in most cases. Chikwe Ihekweazu, DG of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) first announced this at one of the regular press briefings convened by the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19, in April. At the time, this trend was mostly in the Federal Capital Territory, Kano and Lagos. However, as at the end of June 2020, nearly all states in Nigeria have begun to record an increasing number of cases with no link.
The grim reality of community transmission of COVID-19 calls for swift, intensive and concerted effort to contain the situation and flatten the epidemic curve. Importantly, the responsibility lies with individuals as much as it does with the government. With millions infected across the world, hundreds of thousands dead and many others in various stages of recovery, the notion that this devastating ailment is fiction is dangerous.
The COVID-19 outbreak in Nigeria can no longer be dismissed as a disease that affects only the rich who can afford to travel out of the country. It could be inferred that the pandemic is now a fabric of our lives at this point, the silent guest in homes, churches, mosques, schools, offices, factories etc. We can no longer afford to be complacent.
As it has done since COVID-19 emerged, NCDC has remained focused on scientific solutions to the problems. Under Ihekweazu, a calm medical doctor whose professional but reassuring style has helped define Nigeria’s response to the pandemic, the priority is to focus on the science and expand both NCDC’s capacity and the capacity of states in the country’s multi-faceted response.
As a practical expression of this focus, the NCDC announced on June 30 that Nigeria now has 40 testing laboratories across the country, for COVID-19 testing. This is up from only five at the beginning of the outbreak in February. The latest in Nigeria’s laboratory strategy is the use of GeneXpert technology which is more widely available and faster than the current PCR method. The urgency that defines NCDC’s strategy on expanding testing is underscored by the fact that 11 laboratories were added to the network in just one month. With over 400 GeneXpert machines across the country, the use of this technology for COVID-19 testing is likely to become a real game changer in the country’s efforts to stay ahead of the burgeoning challenge posed by Covid-19.
Additionally, NCDC is providing a significant support of N100m to all states in Nigeria. The support is the product of NCDC’s two-year engagement with the World Bank in the implementation of a surveillance strengthening project. This support was formally announced by Ihekweazu at the Nigeria Governors Forum meeting in June. The provision of these funds is to support states to take more responsibility in fighting this pandemic.
A third area that NCDC is prioritising as the pandemic enters an even more intense phase, is public engagement and communication. This has become one of the agency’s strongest assets. In terms of sheer ubiquity and effectiveness, NCDC’s top-notch media campaign is a high point in public communications in Nigeria. In one form or the other, directly and indirectly, it reaches virtually every Nigerian. Not surprisingly, it is cranking up its machine as part of its response.
The agency continues to appear on more radio and TV stations across states to provide updates on how Nigerians can protect themselves. Since the beginning of the outbreak in Nigeria, NCDC has maintained what is arguably the most active COVID-19 dedicated website in Africa. The agency publishes daily situation reports and has often stated its commitment to ensuring transparency with the numbers. In addition, NCDC has rapidly developed and updated guidelines in line with emerging scientific evidence. By working with the National Orientation Agency, NCDC is ensuring messages reach the grassroot and people who may not have regular access to social media, SMS and other means that the NCDC continues to use for public communication.
The use of technology and data remains at the centre of NCDC’s work in response to COVID-19; from tracking misinformation to logistics management. In Ihekweazu’s words: “We can tell with our logistics tool where every single mask, medical gown or hand sanitizer has gone. We have a tool called Tatafo to help us manage misinformation and develop targeted messages once we identify rumours or misinformation.”
In every real sense, the hardworking NCDC team under Ihekweazu started preparing for COVID-19 even before the disease emerged, despite its limited resources. The surveillance system, network of laboratories, emergency operations centres established at the national and state level, as well as strong financial and administrative capacity have enabled Nigeria’s COVID-19 response. This has been supported by additional resources provided by the Government, private sector and partners in response to the outbreak. The NCDC five-year strategy plan, which is available on its website, has proven to be a sturdy foundation for the country’s efforts to manage infectious diseases. Without this foundation, the nation would have been in a much worse place in its titanic battle against the unprecedented foe. The growth of NCDC is testimony to visionary leadership, a dedicated and hardworking team that continues to fight in the expanding battle against Covid-19.
As the world continues to record an increasing number of COVID-19 cases, Nigerians have to accept the phase we are and take more responsibility to stop this outbreak. This includes wearing a facemask properly when in public, avoiding large gatherings, avoiding non-essential travel and other advice provided by NCDC. The ease of lockdown measures does not mean that COVID-19 is no longer with us. Despite efforts by NCDC, the Federal Ministry of Health, PTF and other institutions, the COVID-19 outbreak cannot be stooped without individual responsibility.
NCDC’s official mission within the ‘To protect the health of Nigerians through evidence-based prevention, integrated disease surveillance and response activities, using a one health approach, guided by research and led by a skilled workforce’.