As FG ramps up response to COVID-19 pandemic 

LEON USIGBE writes on the latest measures taken by the federal government to contain the spread of COVID-19 in the country.

NIGERIA joined the rest of the world Wednesday to take drastic actions to contain coronavirus (COVID-19) by restricting entry to travelers from 13 countries considered the hotbeds of the global pandemic. The countries are China, Italy, Iran, South Korea, Spain, Japan, France, Germany, Norway, the United States, the United Kingdom, Netherlands, and Switzerland.  They are all countries with over 1,000 COVID-19 cases domestically. The restriction took effect from March 21, 2020. Minister or Interior, Rauf Aregbesola, followed up with a disclosure that Nigeria has suspended the issuance of visas and has canceled all visas already issued to citizens of these countries.

Before this, the federal government had set up a presidential task force on COVID-19 headed by the Secretary to Government of the Federation (SGF), Mr. Boss Mustapha, with 11 other members including Dr. Sani Aliyu who is the national coordinator. The task force’s terms of reference are to strengthen the national response strategy, particularly in the areas of testing, containment, and management of COVID-19; strengthen collaboration with all tiers of government, private sector, faith-based organizations, civil societies, donors and partners. build awareness among the populace; direct the deployment of any relevant national assets when necessary; lay a foundation for scientific and medical research to address all emerging infectious diseases, and advise the government on the declaration of national emergency as part of the containment measures when necessary.

After its inauguration, the task force signaled that actions to contain the spread of the disease in Nigeria would be immediately ramped up. What followed its inaugural meeting on Tuesday night was, therefore, the decision to cancel all foreign travels by officials of the federal government until further notice. By the announcement, the government canceled any prior approval to travel abroad for official assignments. It also counseled the general public to take a cue from this and cancel all travels abroad especially to all high-risk countries.

With the restrictions, according to the SGF, all persons arriving in Nigeria who might have visited these countries, 15 days before such arrival, will be subjected to a supervised self-isolation and testing for 14 days; the issuance of all visas on arrival has been suspended; all Nigerians are advised to cancel or postpone all non-essential travels to the countries affected while the government has also urged public health authorities of countries with a high burden to conduct diligent departure screening of passengers and also endorses the travel advisories to their nationals to postpone travels to Nigeria.

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Mustapha’s explanation for this action was that after due consideration and the trend of the COVID-19 and its subsequent declaration as a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO), the task force saw the need to upscale Nigeria’s health emergency system to the highest level and put in measures to curb further spread of the disease. At the time of this announcement, there were three reported cases of the virus in the country out of which two tested positive, one negative. Soon after that, same day, five new cases were confirmed, raising the frightening prospect of a geometric rise in the country.

The setting up of the task force seemed to be a direct response to the public outcry over the tardiness of government in implementing standard procedures adopted by many countries to curb the spread. With just one case of COVID-19, Sudan had declared a state of a medical emergency and formed a committee to receive citizens stranded inland crossings and prepare places for them to go into quarantine in the country.  Despite recording no case, Djibouti suspended all international flights to the country. Egypt with the highest number of coronavirus cases on the continent had stopped all international flights emanating from all its airports as well as closed its schools and universities for at least two weeks. The United States, which started with 15 cases, now has curtailing measures in place such as Medicare telehealth services, expanded public-private laboratory partnerships, more remote testing locations, massive numbers of ventilators and immediate financial relief while encouraging shelter-in-place by people living in the country.

Three of the newly confirmed COVID-19 cases in Nigeria came from the United States including a mother and child while two others came from the United Kingdom and one came in through the land borders, according to the Minister of Health, Dr. Osagie Ehanire. The federal government had initially insisted that it would adopt the recommendations by the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) in preventing the spread of the virus in the country. These include avoiding close contact with people suffering from acute respiratory infections, frequent hand-washing, especially after direct contact with ill people or their environment, avoiding unprotected contact with farm or wild animals, people with symptoms of acute respiratory infection should practice cough etiquette (maintain distance, cover coughs and sneezes with disposable tissues or clothing, and wash hands), among others. The W.H.O. has not recommended restrictions in travels, which Nigeria and other countries have now adopted.  However, the new measures adopted by the presidential task force followed an assessment of the global situation. The measures should be reviewed as the task force is expected to brief President Muhammadu Buhari regularly. But as Mustapha points out, the task of curtailing the novel coronavirus will require diligence, expertise, collaboration, and foresight.



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