State of the Nation with Olu Fasan

April 15, 2021

Nigeria’s abysmal vaccination rate won’t keep COVID-19 at bay

Bola Tinubu

By Olu Fasan

THE coronavirus is still raging across the world, and Nigeria is not immune to it. Yet, it often takes the death of a prominent person to alert Nigerians to its clear and present danger. The latest high-profile death was that of Yinka Odumakin, national publicity secretary of Afenifere, the pan-Yoruba socio-cultural group, who died from COVID-19 complications on April 2. We will never know whether his death was preventable, yet evidence shows that COVID-19 mortality is avoidable.

Worldwide, illnesses, hospitalisations and deaths from the coronavirus have reduced due to the combination of strict observance of safety protocols, effective test, trace and isolate system and, ultimately, vaccination.

Countries, such as Israel and the UK, where each of these responses is robust and effective, are already easing social and economic restrictions.

By contrast, although Nigeria has no COVID-19 social or economic restrictions in place, none of the three counter- measures – public safety protocols; test, trace and isolate system; and vaccination – is effectively in place either!

Take adherence to safety protocols. A recent study by the UK’s Office of National Statistics, ONS, found very high compliance with COVID-19 safety protocols in the UK, with 89 per cent of adults handwashing, 97 per cent using a face-covering and 86 per cent observing social distancing. But in Nigeria, thanks to widespread public apathy, the safety protocols are more honoured in the breach than in the observance.

In one editorial, this newspaper aptly highlighted the seriousness of the problem. It said: “Daily, the streets and markets are thronged by crowds that exhibit nonchalance for the safety protocols. Commercial vehicles are routinely crammed with passengers even as crowds of revellers gather at social events, all in disregard of recommended safety precautions” (Vanguard, February 2, 2021). Of course, such super-spreading events and behaviours would have caused unnecessary COVID-19 infections and deaths.

According to ReutersCOVID-19 Trackers, as of April 13 this week, Nigeria had 163,837 infections and 2,061 coronavirus-related deaths since the pandemic began. Given that the source of the COVID-19 figures was, according to Reuters, the Ministry of Health, one must, considering Nigeria’s huge data problem, take the figures with a pinch of salt.

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Which leads us to the second element of the COVID-19 response: effective test, trace, isolate and cure system. Nigeria has no effective means of testing and tracing people with COVID-19 infections, and without an effective test and trace system, you can’t know the number of COVID-19 cases. Furthermore, if the number of deaths is only derived from hospitalisations, what about the countless ordinary Nigerians who couldn’t afford to go to a hospital and probably died from COVID-19 complications without hospitalisations?

Unfortunately, Nigeria’s data problem and the absence of an effective test and trace system have led to dubious figures that suggest that COVID-19 infections and deaths are low in Nigeria and that they are even decreasing when these might not be so, thus lulling people into a false sense of protection. Sadly, it has often taken high-profile, coronavirus-related deaths, such as Odumakin’s, to create public awareness about the ever-present and ever-deadly nature of COVID-19; but there are probably thousands of ordinary Nigerians whose deaths could have been prevented with an effective test, trace, isolate and cure system.

However, while adherence to COVID-19 safety protocols and a test, trace, isolate and cure system are powerful weapons in the war against COVID-19, the pandemic can only be defeated with effective vaccines. Hence, the world hailed the development of different vaccines because effective vaccines would prevent people from catching COVID-19 and, for those who catch it, would significantly reduce hospitalisations and deaths. Even as COVID-19 mutates, with new variants, vaccines are still the answer!

Thus, it’s utterly inexcusable that Nigeria has failedabysmally to prioritise the purchase and rollout of COVID-19 vaccines; failed to give any urgency to vaccinating its citizens.

Leaving aside the fact that Nigeria has not developed and manufactured any COVID-19 vaccine that meets international standards, it’s deeply embarrassing that, as Africa’s largest economy and the world’s 27th, it cannot make independent arrangements to buy its own vaccines and had to rely solely on complex, yet uncertain, collective arrangements with the African Union and the COVAX Facility, under the auspices of GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance.

To be clear, the African Union and COVAX initiatives are commendable, and Nigeria should be part of them. But, with a population of over 200 million people, and given the need for mass vaccination to achieve herd immunity, Nigeria cannot rely on haphazard arrangements for the vaccination of its citizens. Yet, everything one hears about the availability of COVID-19 vaccines in Nigeria hinges on vague statements about millions of vaccine doses that the African Union or COVAX would deliver to Nigeria later this year. So, where is the urgency?

But what about the doses already delivered to Nigeria, what’s government doing with them? On March 2, Nigeria received 3.94million of Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine under the COVAX Facility. Dr. Walter Mulombo, WHO Representative in Nigeria, said: “This is an epoch-making event.” Yet, despite that superlative comment, only 964,387 doses were given as of April 6, representing 0.48 doses per 100 people.

According to Reuters, given the average doses of 58,335 that Nigeria administered daily, it would take 689 days, over two years, to administer doses for 10 per cent of the population. Again, where is the urgency?

President Muhammadu Buhari said on March 6 that he received his COVID-19 vaccination publicly to “demonstrate leadership”. But what leadership? He has shown absolutely none on the COVID-19 pandemic. Looking for real leadership?

Just consider how President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Boris Johnson have taken personal responsibility for the supply and rollout of vaccines in their countries, ensuring millions are vaccinated daily!

Sadly, in Nigeria, there’s the unholy trinity of failure of leadership, failure of delivery and public apathy. But Nigeria won’t be free of COVID-19 without mass vaccination. It mustn’t take the death of another prominent Nigerian to wake up to that reality!