By Lere Ojedokun
The outbreak of novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) and national response to it clearly exposed our ill-preparedness for its possible spread to Nigeria. Response and management of the crisis also showed our poor strategy to emergency handling as a nation.
Several months after the outbreak of the virus in faraway China’s town of Wuhan was reported, and its fast spread to other towns and cities across the Asian country and countries in other continents, it is obvious that Nigeria waited too long to initiate strategy and action plans to prevent and mitigate the pandemic.
Perhaps, until the World Health Organisation (WHO) was bold enough to declare Coronavirus a global pandemic, we appeared not to understand the magnitude of the crisis in our hand. Whereas, our response strategy should have been in place several months back even before WHO first classified COVID-19 as an epidemic.
Whichever way we look at it, the lack of preparation or inadequacy of it was manifested when the first index case slipped into the country. Combined with not taking other proactive measures as quickly as we should do, today, we have some hundreds of confirmed cases to deal with. Sadly, it’s even a sad trajectory as the chain of transmission has continued to rise geometrically.
This is partly due to the fact that we left our international airspace and seaports open, thus allowing people with travel history to countries where COVID-19 had been reported to come into our country. In spite of the closure of our land borders, which even preceded the pandemic, people were still coming into the country freely.
The lack or inadequacy of healthcare infrastructure and medical consumables was also a factor of poor response mechanism. The federal and most state governments had to hurriedly construct isolation and testing centres as well as special hospitals for the management of patients of COVID-19 because we did not have enough of such facilities.
Importantly too, there were no enough test kits that could ensure most suspected cases and the larger population undergo testing for possible Coronavirus infection. Therefore, community infection was easy thus escalating the rate of infection.
Also, the citizens were not sensitised and educated early enough to be responsive and responsible in their obligation towards maintaining social distancing that could have reduced the spread of the virus. Reports indicated that the larger percentage of our national workforce who are mainly in the informal sector, and who live on daily income, were not sufficiently educated before the imposition of lockdowns in most states of the federation. This was evident by the willful non-compliance with the presidential lockdown order in Lagos and Ogun States and the Federal Capital Territory, as well as restrictions of movement directed by state governors.
In terms of the distribution of stimulus packages or relief materials towards cushioning the effect of lockdowns, there was also poor logistics obviously due to the absence of reliable data. Many of the targeted beneficiaries reportedly complained of not being reached.
In parts of the country, residents accused the government of also violating the social distancing directive in the course of distribution of the relief items. In some instances, few state officials were accused of indulging in corruption with the stimulus packages.
I must, however, commend the Lagos State Government under Mr Babajide Olusola Sanwo-Olu for his demonstrable exemplary leadership in the excellent style he and his team have responded and managed the pandemic. Governor Sanwo-Olu’s model has inspired and served as the template for other state governments in responding and managing the COVID-19 in their respective domains.
Also, commendable is the Federal Government under President Muhammadu Buhari through the setting up of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 among other measures to combat the pandemic. Many state governments have also done very well.
The drawbacks in our response and management of Coronavirus are, however, too weighty to ignore. Let me clarify here that the objective of my submission is not to castigate anyone, but to see the lessons that we can draw from this pandemic.
There are many lessons to learn both for now and in the future. These include leveraging the experiences that have come with our response and management of this pandemic. The lapses, mistakes and missteps are good inferences that we should draw from with a view to avoiding a repeat in the future.
Looking at the huge amount of monetary, equipment and material donations to COVID-19 cause by private organisations, institutions and individuals at the federal and state levels, my advice is that these resources must be put to judicious use and well accounted for.
We must begin to invest in the upgrade of our existing healthcare infrastructure, build new ones and put those constructed under emergency for COVID-19 into permanent use. We must begin to build the local capacity of our people by strengthening our research institutions and researchers to be able to develop breakthrough vaccines and medicaments for the treatment of both known and unknown diseases ahead of time.
A group of scientists in a Senegal polytechnic produced 3-D ventilators at the cost of US$66 each and capacity to produce 50 ventilators per day. I believe Nigeria has the capacity to do the same and even surpass the feat by the Senegalese. We are blessed with an abundance of geniuses and scholars. Some of our universities are also world-class and can bring out innovative solutions that address our healthcare challenges. Increased special funding for healthcare research and development and increased capacity of our medical professionals are also proactive steps we must take.
We should uptake our emergency preparedness and response generally by ensuring regular procurement and supply of protective equipment such as hand sanitisers, nose/face masks, hand gloves, infrared and body temperature measurement equipment, test kits, protective gears for our emergency responders. The essential items should also be provided in all our health facilities, schools and public offices while private institutions should also be encouraged to do the same.
Adequate sensitisation, awareness, education and knowledge sharing for citizens should also be given adequate attention. Engagement of communication marketing professionals, strategic communications thinkers and planners, issue and crisis management experts and reputation management professionals will be my recommendation to government. No matter how the best the government is doing, low citizen education could be a disincentive.
Above all, homegrown alternatives should be encouraged. Emergency importation of equipment and supplies, and medical personnel from overseas such as China or elsewhere as in our current situation, is only an example of things we didn’t get right.
We should rather encourage our local investors, innovators and investors to come in and play active collaboration in our national search for a permanent end to Coronavirus. My reasoning is that we can leverage COVID-19 to further bolster the growth of our Micro, Medium and Small Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) sector. We would be amazed at how much App innovators can do by helping to develop surveillance and monitoring apps for contact tracing of persons that have had contacts with Coronavirus index or confirmed cases.
These are just a few among several other ways that we can turn the COVID-19 crisis to our advantage.
Lere Ojedokun is the Executive Director, Strategic Communications, Chain Reactions Nigeria, the Exclusive Nigerian Affiliate and West Africa’s Partner of Edelman, the world’s largest PR firm with presence in 65 countries across the globe.