The Coronavirus has continued to strike fear into nations as it spreads like wildfire in Asia, Europe and other parts of the world, with the death toll rising by the day. This has prompted the World Health Organization (WHO) to call on the world to prepare for a potential pandemic. Though the world health watchdog said the virus could still be stopped, it warned that the world must brace up for a potential pandemic. In other words, COVID-19 may soon become a global epidemic too hot to handle.
With more than 80,000 people all over the world already infected and a death toll of over 2,600, there is no doubt that there is a global emergency as rightly stated by the Director-General of WHO, Tedros Adhanom.
In view of this, Adhonam has admonished that countries should be “doing everything we can to prepare for a potential pandemic,” advising that the issue requires a “tailored response”.
UN Chief Antonio Guterres also spoke in the same vein last week, urging countries to do everything possible to contain the virus. He said this is a problem that is now affecting many countries in the world, and that all countries must do everything to be prepared. The latest warning by experts now is that every country should prepare as the Coronavirus will soon go round.
With these timely warnings, we are constrained to ask, to what extent is Nigeria heeding these warnings. What really is the response of Nigeria to the COVID-19 scourge? Is the country waiting with the usual over-confidence for the virus to first arrive before concerted and tailored response is articulated? Really, Nigeria cannot wait to learn by experience, but should learn from the experience of others where Coronavirus has broken out and is holding sway.
The way things are relaxed at our seaports shows that either the authorities are not monitoring the global trend of the Coronavirus or they are underestimating the virus. Nigeria should not be over-confident of what it can do considering its experience with Ebola virus. It should be noted that Ebola is quite different from Coronavirus; for while Ebola can only be contracted by contact with an infected person, Coronavirus is both contagious and air-borne. Can Nigeria control such a devastating virus that is airborne in this kind of windy and hazy weather characteristic of the current season? If better endowed and equipped countries are finding it difficult to control the virus, what is the source of Nigeria’s confidence?
In January, just before the spread of the virus to many more countries, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) said Nigeria would contain the virus if it arrives, having learnt a lesson from Ebola. The agency had issued an advisory asking Nigerians to delay travel to China unless the trip is “extremely essential”. It even said Nigerians could travel to Wuhan, the epicenter of the virus outbreak in China, but should avoid contact with sick people, animals (alive or dead), and animal markets.
It also said “travelers from Wuhan to Nigeria may be asked questions upon arrival by the Port Health Services unit at points of entry about symptoms of illness and travel history, and are advised to report immediately to NCDC, if they feel ill after a trip to Wuhan.”
Compared to other countries’ responses, the Nigeria advisory to its citizens is quite ridiculous. Other African countries like Mauritius placed a total ban on travels to Wuhan, and any passenger coming from there is simply quarantined and not just asked questions and allowed to go. Mozambique suspended visas for visitors from China and blocked travel to the country.
Undoubtedly, a country’s entry points are the most sensitive areas a country must guard. In Nigeria, some checks are going on at the airports, as new arrivals are being checked before being released to go. Even though, this is not enough, at least, something is being done at the airports. But at the seaports, which are more vulnerable, not much is going on in terms of preventing the importation of the virus into Nigeria.
In most parts of the world, some measures have been adopted to contain the spread of the virus. In some countries, seafarers entering a port are advised to wear masks, and to take precautionary measures to avoid getting infected with or spreading the coronavirus. They are also expected to remain on board their ships and disembark their vessels only where absolutely necessary.
Local ports authorities are requiring all vessels to report the temperature and condition of vessel’s crew before entry into their port, while ships’ crew members are also advised to alert the authorities in the event coronavirus is suspected on board, and take precautions to reduce the possibility of the spread of the virus, including minimal interpersonal exchanges with people from ashore, avoiding contact with people who show symptoms of flu or high temperature and taking care of personal hygiene including more frequent hand washing, etc.
As a response, the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) has implemented temperature screening at all sea checkpoints, including ferry and cruise terminals, PSA Terminals and Jurong Port, for inbound travellers. The Authority has also been sensitizing the country’s seafarers and ship crew on the precautionary measures to be taken while travelling.
But in Nigeria, not much has been heard from NPA, NIMASA, Immigration and Port Health concerning the enlightenment of seafarers, dockworkers, surveyors and their staff who are always quick to board vessels that dock at the ports for both corporate and selfish reasons.
Some countries like Kuwait require vessels coming directly from or transiting from China to provide a statement declaring if any crew onboard has a high temperature, sore throat, coughing or breathing difficulties. Upon arrival, such vessels must drop anchor at the Out of Port Limits Anchorage. The Port Medical Officer (PMO) will board to check crew for any of the above symptoms before clearing the vessel for berthing and other operations. The vessels will not be allowed to have shore leave, disembarkation for off signers, supply of provision/bond stores or any other service until cleared by Quarantine (PMO) Authorities.
This is the kind of checks that should be going on at our seaports for vessels coming from China, South Korea, Singapore and other Asian countries. It is rather unfortunate that at Nigerian ports, there are still no serious measures by the government agencies. Obviously, they are relying on the “boastings” of the NCDC to tackle any reported case of the Coronavirus in Nigeria. According to the NCDC, the Federal Ministry of Health through NCDC and its partners are fully committed to strengthening preparedness and response to infectious disease outbreaks, and that information will be shared with the public as it becomes available.
Can this be the tailored response the WHO is demanding from countries to prevent a Coronavirus pandemic? Obviously, Nigeria cannot leave anything to chance, considering the level of business interactions between Nigeria and China, and the fact that Nigerian ports receive huge ship traffic from China and the Far East which can be said to be original home of the Corona virus. Everything must, therefore, be done to prevent the entry of the virus into Nigeria. A stitch in time, they say, saves nine.
Even though, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has advised against unnecessary delays of ships at ports in the battle against COVID-19, Nigerian authorities must do everything to minimize delays while not compromising the fight against the importation of the virus into Nigeria.
- PS. Finally the arrival of Coronavirus has been confirmed in Nigeria. The confirmation was made by the Federal Ministry of Health and the Lagos State Ministry of Health on Friday. The case is an Italian citizen who returned from Milan, Italy to Lagos on the 25th of February. The coronavirus was confirmed by the Virology Laboratory of the Lagos University Teaching Hospital. The patient is said to be clinically stable and is being treated at the Infectious Disease Hospital in Yaba, Lagos.
The quick response of the Federal Ministry of Health, the Lagos State government and Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) deserves commendation. While they battle to prevent the spread, there is still need for Nigerian seaports authorities and all agencies that work in the seaports to do what their counterparts in other parts of the world are doing to prevent entry of the virus through the seaports.