From when the pandemic was just news to the country until this moment, the strategy deployed by the Nigerian government to forestall the coronavirus outbreak has been “prevention via airports,” leaving the overland routes susceptible.
It started with heightened screenings at airports’ point of entry, with a particular eye on passengers from China alongside Chinese expatriates returning from holidays in January 2020. Nigeria eventually reported Sub-Saharan Africa’s first coronavirus case on Feb. 28 — an Italian citizen working in Nigeria tested positive after returning to Lagos from Milan, northern Italy, on Feb. 25. He had traveled 97 kilometres outside Lagos to the cement factory where he worked.
Since the confirmation of first cases in China, the government beefed up preventive measures by establishing a multi-sectoral Coronavirus Preparedness Group led by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) which immediately activated its National Emergency Operations Centre, four laboratories with capacities to test for the virus. It also expanded surveillance—by a team of epidemiologists—to follow up with travelers from COVID-hit countries within 14 days of arriving in the country.
To these efforts, and based on Nigeria’s reputation for containing the Ebola outbreak in 2014, health professionals, including international media, expressed confidence in Nigeria’s ability to nip the novel virus in the bud.
Dr. Ngozi Erondu, an associate fellow in the Global Health Programme at Chatham House, stated in a report by the New York Times that “Nigeria’s confirmation of the coronavirus case in just two days was a very positive reflection of the disease surveillance and laboratory capacity in Nigeria.” Nonetheless, there were warnings that the coronavirus outbreak could be devastating in Africa.
Despite these pre-emptive actions by the government, Nigeria was soaked in public fear, as millions of citizens jumped into panic buying of hand sanitizer and face masks.
Shutting the roof
On March 18, the Nigerian government announced it was restricting entry into the country for travelers from 13 countries including China, US, UK, and other high-risk countries. This restriction from countries with more than 1,000 cases is to commence on March 20. Nigerians returning from these countries are asked to go into self-isolation for 14 days.
“The Federal Government of Nigeria has also suspended the issuance of visa on arrival to travelers from these countries,” the National Centre for Disease Control said in a tweet. This decision was taken following online pressure from Nigerians.
“Praying to God that coronavirus doesn’t get into Nigeria and become as bad as what is going on in the UK, France, Spain, and Italy because it will be bloody and many lives will be unfortunately lost. The best thing is to try and keep it out. Ban flights from some countries,” tweeted Dipo Awojide, a Nigerian lecturer in the UK.
Praying to God that coronavirus doesn’t get into Nigeria and become as bad as what is going on in the UK, France, Spain and Italy because it will be bloody and many lives will be unfortunately lost. Best thing is to try and keep it out. Ban flights from some countries.
— Dr. Dípò Awójídé (Dipo Spending) (@OgbeniDipo) March 17, 2020
The eventual ban is however insufficient as a drastic measure, analysts have argued. Unlike other countries where the restriction includes complete border shutdown, Nigeria’s approach remains fixated on airports. Land entry points are not only open but also left widely porous.
The concern is starting to morph into reality. As of March 19, four new cases have been announced by the Lagos State government. A day prior, five cases were confirmed by NCDC. The Centre said all the cases had a travel history to the UK or US. On the whole, Nigeria’s cumulative number of coronavirus records has peaked to 19 with 73 people already tested across 13 states in the country as of today.
The open window
While the government’s internal ban is sweeping through public spheres including schools and places of worship, alongside flight restrictions from announced countries, the Nigerian government is facing criticism for leaving its most vulnerable communities out of the equation.
This is about citizens living in densely populated marginalized communities at border towns and its internally displaced persons who are grappling with endemic poverty and poor hygiene conditions.
“The time has come for us as a country to close our border against countries with a high level of coronavirus infection,” Francis Faduyile, president of Nigeria Medical Association, said, calling on the federal government to shut its borders. “ I can tell you if coronavirus gets loose in this country, the whole of Nigeria will suffer for it,” he said.
When NCDC made the travel ban pronouncement, Nigerians rushed online to push for border closure, but they are yet to prevail over the government. “It takes just one person to infect everybody,” one of the tweets reads.
The Niger-Nigeria border alone has more than 30 settlements that fall within Nigerian territory. Pro-border closure analysts cite the overflowing cross-border activities, both legal and illegal, in these communities as enough risk to saturate Nigeria with the pandemic.
Although Nigeria had slammed its border with a trade ban which prevented the movement of all goods since October 2019, the ban has little impact on the free movement of people across its four major borders with Cameroon in the south, Chad in the Northeast, Niger in the North and the Republic of Benin in the Southwest. In 2014, the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS) confirmed that Nigeria has more than 1,400 illegal border routes. Only 84 are approved land border control posts.
With tons of aid workers, traders and others—from countries with viral documented outbreaks—swimming across the edges of these border communities especially in the North, Nigeria might be more open to coronavirus via land routes than air.
This calls for expedient action as the virus is even more active and lingers longer on surfaces than air. “The pandemic can remain viable and infectious in droplets in the air for hours and on surfaces up to days,” a new study by scientists from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) has found.
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