Keeping Nigerians safe while opening international borders

NIGERIA’s international borders re-opened on September 5, 2020. This came months after international and land borders were shut down in March, to reduce the spread of COVID-19, as the media continued to report the increasing number of confirmed cases in Europe, the United States and Asia. The airports were closed in order to limit the introduction of new infections into the country. The Nigerian aviation sector had been paralysed since the closure of the border, with many domestic airlines facing significant financial losses and thousands of jobs were put at risk. The financial damage to the Nigerian aviation industry will take a long time to recover from, at the same time as the country is also struggling with the adverse economic impact from the sharp drop in global oil prices. The opening of the international borders was therefore welcomed by most Nigerians as well as corporate Nigeria, as the closure had disrupted the international flow of passengers –  many families had been separated from each other for an extended period of time – and added to the economic woes of the country. After months of protracted discussions, and multi-stakeholder consultation, measures were put in place to ensure the safe easing of restrictions and airport re-opening, so as to prevent a sharp resurgence of COVID-19 cases in Nigeria. The goal was to reopen the aviation industry while sustaining the gains of the public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Nigeria International Travel Portal (NITP) was set up by the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 (PTF-COVID-19), supported by the Coalition Against COVID (CA-COVID) with the aim of ensuring safe travel into the country. The NITP is hosted on the web portal of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and co-managed with Port Health Services of the Federal Ministry of Health and other government institutions, within PTF-COVID-19. The platform hosted by the NCDC was also developed in partnership with Access Bank. Passengers arriving in Nigeria must present a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) negative COVID-19 test, taken at least 120 hours (five days) before travel in their country of departure. The negative PCR result would then need to be uploaded onto the NITP, and evidence of the negative result provided at the time of flight check-in and upon arrival in Nigeria. Passengers are then mandated to isolate for seven days, and to take a repeat COVID-19 test on the seventh day. Following a negative test result, they are free to continue with their lives. These measures are put in place to limit the risk of further introduction of the virus into the country. The countries with the highest passenger travel to Nigeria also happen to be countries with high incidence of infections currently.

Many Nigerians have questioned why passengers returning to Nigeria must provide a PCR-negative test result before arriving in Nigeria, quarantine for seven days and then take a second COVID-19 test seven days later. Nigeria is not unique in putting in place measures to curb the spread of COVID-19.  As an initial precaution, the pre-boarding test ensures that all passengers are free from COVID-19 at the time of travel. That is why tests are required to be carried out as close as possible to the time of departure. Given that they could still have acquired the infection in the five days prior to travel, or during the flight, they are then required to test again on the seventh day after arrival in Nigeria.  Other countries that put in place re-opening plans for their international borders such as Ghana and South Africa also require arriving passengers to provide a negative PCR test result. The Ghanaian border opened on September 1 with passengers required to provide a PCR negative COVID-19 test, taken at least 72 hours before arriving in the country. The South African international borders scheduled to re-open on October 1 with incoming passengers required to present a negative COVID-19 test result that is not older than 72 hours from the time of departure, and where they do not present a COVID-19 test on arrival, they will be required to quarantine at their own cost.

So, why has the Nigerian government put in place all these arrival protocols? Nigerians have to think back to March 2020 when there was a fierce clamour for the government to close the international borders. Cases were rising in Europe, the United States and Asia and there was a lot of concern that COVID-19 cases would rise exponentially in Nigeria and put undue pressure on our domestic health system. TV screens at the time were showing people on ventilators in Europe and there were fears that Nigeria would be overwhelmed with the rising cases. Therefore, when preparations were being made for the re-opening of the international border, strict protocols were put in place as a precautionary measure.  The NITP platform has experienced some technical challenges which are being quickly addressed by the NCDC, Port Health and other relevant stakeholders. Passengers who face challenges are required to email travelportal@ncdc.gov.ng if they need further assistance. Accredited laboratories in collaboration with state governments agreed on the price of the repeat tests and are responsible for liaising with arriving passengers to remind them to come for their repeat COVID-19 test, after their seven days of quarantine. Other platforms such as the Instagram page ‘traveltonaija’ provide passengers with Nigeria related travel information. One traveler, @sassy-funke said, “You’re Godsent. Period. Honestly, I didn’t and still don’t think the process is tedious and your info has 80% to do with that. My attitude and approach is also that this is for mine & everybody else’s protection”.

Part of #TakingResponsibility is that all Nigerians play their part in stopping the spread of COVID-19. The price charged for the repeat COVID-19 test is a small price to pay to keep the wider Nigerian population safe from COVID-19, especially our most vulnerable members of the society. In addition, there needs to be stable and sustained funding made available to protect Nigeria’s health security, so that the country is better prepared for future infectious disease outbreaks. Our collective action is needed to protect every citizen, everywhere, now and in the future.

  • Baiye is a Programme Manager at Nigeria Health Watch

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