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COVID-19 LOCKDOWN: 33 states lack testing labs but Minister says no cause for alarm

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COVID-19: Why Nigeria isn’t implementing travel bans — Health Minister
Ehanire

•Ban on flights from high-risk countries too late – Experts
•‘Staying at home does not translate to staying safe’
•Hunt for contacts on the loose intensifies

By Chioma Obinna

It is no longer news that COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic has forced nations across the world to adopt measures in a bid to contain the deadly outbreak.

The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) declaration of the outbreak as a pandemic forced many countries to review entry by travellers.

From China to the United States, Italy and other high-risk countries, authorities have continued to devise strategies to contain the spread of the virus. Unfortunately, it took Nigeria weeks, despite the clamour by many Nigerians to shut down the airspace and land borders, to take a stand. Nigeria was only able to order restrictions after recording eight confirmed COVID-19 cases.

Sunday Vanguard looks at the enforcement of restrictions, containment challenges, and measures taken by the Federal Government, and reasons Nigerians must comply.

On March 19, coronavirus cases in the world rose to 244,097, 10,005 deaths while 86,714 recovered, according to data from Worldometer. As of that date, not less than 178 countries were affected by the virus. In Nigeria, a total of 12 persons have been affected including a six-week-old baby while 1, 300 persons are under monitoring.

Following the rapid spread of the virus, many of the countries earmarked huge sums of money to fight the disease and also invoked measures to keep their people safe and bring back normalcy to their economies.

These countries went as far as limiting international travels while some restricted movement within.

For instance, China, where the virus emanated, bore the brunt for weeks.

To halt the spread, the country mandated her citizens to remain in their homes for almost 50 days.

In Iran, the government banned all public gatherings, including Friday prayers.

In South Korea, although the number of new cases has been on the decline, the authorities introduced a model of coronavirus testing.

The country has 50 drive-through screening clinics where people can get a medical examination and have a sample taken in just 10 minutes.

In Spain, there were reports that the police used drones to enforce movement restrictions in their efforts to fight the coronavirus infection.

In Australia, anyone not complying with isolation rules faced heavy fines and even jail terms.

While these countries, among others, were busy taking measures to stem the spread of coronavirus, the Nigerian government failed to heed the clamour for restrictions on travellers or ban public gatherings until the number of cases rose to eight and now 12 with over 1,300 persons under monitoring as confirmed by Lagos State Commissioner for Health Thursday.

However, the Nigeria government, on Wednesday, announced restrictions of entry into Nigeria for travellers from 13 high-risk Covid-19 countries.

The countries are China, Italy, Iran, South Korea, Spain, Japan, France, Germany, United States, Norway, the United Kingdom, Netherlands & Switzerland.

The measure came barely 12 hours after the government banned foreign travels by public officials in the country.

The Presidential Task Force on COVID-19, in a statement, said all persons arriving Nigeria who might have visited these countries, 15 days prior to such arrival, will be subjected to supervised self-isolation and testing for 14 days.

The government also suspended the issuance of visas on arrival in Nigeria while counselling Nigerians to cancel or postpone all non-essential travels to high-risk countries.

The Federal Government and several state governments, including those of Lagos, Benue, Enugu and Niger, have, meanwhile, shut schools and banned religious and public gatherings of over 50 persons.

At the weekend, the authorities announced the restriction of international flights to only two airports in the country.

Speaking on the measures amid the upsurge in coronavirus cases in the country, health watchers, however, said the government may have plunged Nigeria into a serious problem with its weak healthcare systems and grossly inadequate five testing laboratories for the disease serving a population of estimated 200 million people.

To make matters worse, the coronavirus testing laboratories are located in two of the six regions in the country, leaving out four others (33 states).

But the Minister of Health, Dr Osagie Ehanire, allayed fears over inadequate coronavirus testing laboratories in the country, saying the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, NCDC, has a very sound transport mechanism that takes samples to designated centres in good time and condition.

According to him, the Federal Government was stepping up efforts on contact tracing to halt the spread of coronavirus.

“The more we are able to find all the contacts, the more we will have fewer problems, identify those from abroad and those who have had contact with them; finding those positives and putting them in observation will reduce the risk we have currently”, he told journalists.

On why the government was not doing random laboratory testing, he explained that emphasis had been on contact tracing and identifying those that have symptoms and testing them because the country has a limitation on test kits.

“The criteria are that we have persons who travelled to high-risk countries or people who have symptoms but for random testing, we are not ready for that for now.”

Division

Nigerians are sharply divided over the ban on flights from 13 countries into Nigeria and restrictions on religious and public gatherings.

While some say it is better late than never, others see it as ‘medicine after death’.

Those in the latter group believe the steps just taken by the government should have come weeks before the nine cases were recorded within two days.

A renowned medical laboratory scientist and molecular diagnostic expert, Dr Casmir Ifeanyi, said the government was late in banning flights from the 13 high-risk countries.

Ifeanyi, who is also the National Publicity Secretary of the Association of Medical Laboratory Scientists of Nigeria, AMSLN, said the Federal Government should have closed Nigeria’s borders and shut down our airports since early February or commence decontamination of passengers on arrival if it wasn’t disposed to taking those measures at that time.

“Government failed to take precautionary measures early”, he added.

Criticizing the dependence on hand sanitizers as prevention against coronavirus, the molecular diagnostic expert said decontamination does not entail the use of alcohol-based preparation.

“The truth is that alcohol-based preparation can eliminate some germs, largely bacteria from your hands but it has no legal effect on viruses”, Ifeanyi said.

“It will only help to reduce bacteria on your palm. We have now mainstreamed it as an antidote to this viral pandemic.

“We would have gone on the full-scale ban because being selective will not make any difference, some people will prefer to deal with those countries already dealing with control measures than those which status are not well described under this kind of pandemic.

“Of course, like the common saying, ‘the devil you know is better than the saint you do not know’, we consider some countries safe and, therefore, did not extend the ban to them.

“Then we profiled countries that have over 1, 000 cases and we slammed a ban on them. We need to raise our port health protocol; we should go beyond the use of a thermal thermometer and hand sanitizers.

READ ALSO: COVID-19: NOA urges Nigerians to maintain social distance, hygiene

“Why are we not doing identification, testing identification at the airport?”

He added that the country’s port health protocol was very loose.

Speaking on the ban on public gatherings, the molecular diagnostic expert said: “It is one thing to ask people to stay at home; it is another to amply educate them on how to stay safe.

“Staying at home does not translate to staying safe. As we speak now, go to the average person on the street and ask him in his language what he must do to stay safe. Can he afford to do the basic things?

“We have issues of water sanitation in Nigeria that have been with us before this outbreak”.

Enforcement of ban

Among other concerns raised by health watchers were the issue of enforcement of restrictions and other measures to check the spread of the virus.

Lagos State Chairman of the Nigerian Medical Association, NMA, Dr Saliu Oseni, acknowledged the complexity of the country, saying the imposition of fines may not be effective as it would only enrich unscrupulous security agents.

“Unfortunately, movement restrictions are of necessity only if we had the situation where government followed the advice we gave on strict surveillance at the airports with effective communication and response as required for the containment”, he said.

Appreciating the efforts of Lagos State government in containment and treatment of victims, the NMA official appealed for full support by the Federal Government so that the state is not overwhelmed if left alone to manage COVID-19, especially, with the rising number of suspected carriers with positive results.

“It is, however, extremely important that health providers are adequately protected as we remain the most vulnerable. It is also advisable to decongest hospitals and limit attention to emergencies and semi emergencies”.

Challenges

Experts also made an issue out of the inadequacy of coronavirus testing centres located only in the South-West (two in Lagos and one in Ogun), one in South-South (Edo) and one in Abuja (FCT).

In essence, there are no testing sites in the South-East, North-West, North-East and North-Central zones.

Ifeanyi, the molecular diagnostic expert, deplored the situation, saying five laboratories centres in the country were inadequate as, according to him, the health system of any country is as strong as its laboratories.

“It is a general problem as we do not have laboratory culture in Nigeria”, he added.

Social distancing

On social distancing to stem the spread of coronavirus, a professor of public health and a former Chief Medical Director of the Lagos University Teaching Hospital, LUTH, Akin Osibogun, said the objective is to limit interaction and consequently exposure to the disease.

“If there is are no restrictions, people who are positive are allowed to mingle with people who are negative and coronavirus can spread this way”, Osibogun said.

He urged Nigerians to comply with public health advisory in order to prevent the virus.

Inadequate Isolation Centres

Sunday Vanguard also found that the nation is challenged in the area of coronavirus isolation centres.

Findings showed that most of the centres currently being used as isolation centres in states across the country are facilities that had been abandoned for years by various hospitals.

As things are, only Lagos State, it was found, can boast of a functional isolation centre.

Speaking on the sorry state of isolation centres during a television programme, Ekiti State Chairman of NMA, Dr Tunji Omotayo, said what the state was using as isolation centre has only eight beds.

Omotayo stated that in the event of the escalation of coronavirus, the facility would not be adequate.

“We have enough manpower in Ekiti but we pray we don’t have more cases now. Currently we have about two people in the eight-bed facility currently being used as isolation centre”, he said.

“For now, the victims there are stable; the two people there are stable, one positive and one negative.”

According to him, the NMA had already advised the authorities to upgrade the facility.

Omotayo lamented that if the government had shut the nation’s airspace after the first case of coronavirus was recorded, things would have been different now.

“The Federal Government should be more proactive and do more to make our people are safe.

“After the index case, we should have closed the borders and Nigeria would have been a shining example to the whole world.”

Speaking on the need for random testing, the NMA official said there was no need for it, adding that testing should be concentrated on people with symptoms and those who had contact with a positive person.

Vanguard

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