By: Kayode Odunaro
The coronavirus, (COVID-19) pandemic hits Nigeria unawares like most other nations. Not surprisingly this, as one can say the World Health Organisation (WHO) dilly-dallied in declaring a pandemic and Chinese authorities were not forthcoming on the origin and all circumstances concerning this viral outbreak and subsequent global invasion.
Following the index case in Nigeria, Nigerian authorities belatedly took several measures like closing of the airspace, shutdown of many public and private institutions and activities as well as eventual two weeks total Lockdown in Abuja, Lagos and Ogun State at the first instance. It equally set up the Presidential Taskforce on COVID-19 under the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Boss Mustapha. Efforts were also made to get palliatives to the poor and vulnerable in form of cash and basic necessities.
Furthermore the Federal Government and state governments embarked on rapid setting up of institutions like isolation centers, testing laboratories and procurement of needed consumables in efforts to fight, contain and get set for what is foreseen to be massive infections or what is regarded as possible community spread of COVID-19 with Lagos State predictably being the epicenter of the efforts, having recorded the highest number of infections, fatalities, recoveries, its status as Nigeria’s economic nerve center and its huge population.
The experience and progress recorded so far from these measures has been mixed and deserve to be reflected upon giving the fact that one accepts that we as well as the world are faced with an unprecedented novel situation and the way forward may be for us to think out of the box as going forward it is going to be a new world order in the way we live, work and generally continue as human race. On a personal level, I have been curious about the figures coming out officially on the COVID-19 from Nigerian authorities which looks, happily at variance with the shocking and saddening statistics from other jurisdictions undergoing the same pandemic as we are. So far the figure of discovered positive infections, which comes mostly from cases of foreign contacts till date are less than 500 (343 as I write from 131 at the start of lockdown) and the lockdown of 14 days, expected to reveal more of those infected in addition to being a containment measures, surprisingly has not spiked up the figures drastically relative to what has been going on in Europe particularly United Kingdom with London as epicenter, United States of America and elsewhere.
How do we explain this ‘lucky’ stride for Nigeria? Some have opined that not much tests are being done among the population with many positive cases yet to be detected.
That may well be so and one agrees that there is need for more widespread testing to really assess the extent of infections. Happily in his latest address to the nation President Mohammadu Buhari disclosed that 92% of contact tracing has been done successfully. However, we must not shut our eyes and indeed our thinking to other plausible reasons for the low figures we are having in Nigeria given some information available and swirling around on COVID-19. In this light my first take is that the symptoms of COVID-19 with a few exceptions, particularly at the critical stage are similar to the symptoms of our tropical disease, malaria.
Fever, cough, sore throat, headaches, diarrhea are all malaria related symptoms. From what we know, only respiratory symptoms of COVID-19, which is a later symptom, is unrelated to the usual diagnosis for malaria. So can we account for our low COVID-19 figures so far to infected COVID-19 positive persons simply treating malaria as most are wont to do and just getting cure of COVID-19? This is certainly not a frivolous conjecture as it is now supported by the seeming debate on the possible cure of COVID-19 being Chloroquine with active support from President Donald Trump of USA and elsewhere in France. While malaria parasites have over the years developed resistance to chloroquine therapy leading to resort to a combination therapeutic drugs, it is nevertheless a conjecture worth exploring as NAFDAC has recently approved for clinical trials.
Again, on the malaria symptoms connection as explanation for our ‘low’ infection figure is the resort of our people, particularly the poor to herbal remedies for malaria treatment. It is a well-known fact that as a result of prohibitive cost of orthodox treatment for malaria, most of our citizens rely on local herbs for treatment and a major component for this therapy is the leaves/herb of the plant ‘Dogonyaro’, the Neem tree botanically known as Azadirachta indica.
The Dogonyaro herbs is suffused with chemicals known for their known for anti-bacteria, antiviral properties as well as effective in use for yes, respiratory ailments. Could the use of this herbal remedy in association with other herbs by our alternative health practitioners be a key to our low COVID-19 infection rates?Alternatively, while not having any medical training and experience beyond some stint as a health correspondent for some years, is it not conceivable that our regular infections of the tropical malaria disease and cure thereof using different therapeutic means may have built up a reservoir of anti-bodies and immunity in our bodies as to be able to fight of any infection with similar diagnosis of malaria, such as COVID-19? Is this the explanation for the COVID-19 positive cases that are asymptomatic but can nevertheless spread the virus? So far not much is in the public domain in relations to the treatment protocols for COVID-19 positive individuals beyond the use of HIV drugs, Vitamin C and other immune boosting substances. On a shaky ground that is nevertheless plausible, one can conjecture that the recoveries recorded so far may be premised on a reservoir of anti-bodies while fatalities are explained as those with underlying ailments in our clime.
Again in relation to localizing the effect of COVID-19 to specific environment based on what we know, our environmental conditions in terms of weather, particularly as contrasted to that of Europe, USA and others like parts South Africa with similar cold weather, may account for our low figures relative to the high figures from these chilly environments. Certainly this is a worthy prism to look at the etiology of COVID-19. In the midst of all these, Mr. Boss Mustapha, the SGF and Chairman of PTF on COVID-19 came out to declare that we are unlikely to have more fatalities from COVID-19. Based on the above conjectures and not just the efforts and health infrastructures put in place in a short time, commendable as it is, I sincerely believe him and pray it is so. But we need to look at our local conditions while applying the prescribed precautionary measures of COVID-19. We may yet have a thing or two to teach the world at this point.
Going forward, one agrees with the Lockdown policy and such precautionary measures as face mask wearing, social and physical distancing as much as practicable, intermittent washing of hands as recommended and use of sanitizing agents on hands. However, in line with the argument for localization we need to modify the lockdown measures not to completely undermine our people’s ability to be economically productive and sustainable, particularly those in the informal sectors who earns daily incomes. Giving that there is no cure for COVID-19 at this moment and that a vaccine, if developed will take a fast tracked minimum of a year and half to be generally available, it is imperative for policy makers to start thinking of how we are going to live economically while the COVID-19 pandemic subsists.
Lockdown needs to be reviewed intermittently over time to give room for people to earn a living, restock essentials while observing all precautionary measures. People have to sustain themselves even in lockdown in the absence and impossibility of palliatives being a permanent solution. The example of Ogun State in Lockdown, allowing a 6-hour free period after every 48 hours’ lockdown is worth looking into and expanding in terms of hours and scope as a national policy thrust. As Abuja, Lagos, Ogun and other states enters another two weeks of lockdown, resources for basic sustenance are running low for even those that were not initially poor or vulnerable and there is a limit to endurance of what is now termed the ‘Hunger’ virus without incurring grave societal backlash. If life return to a new normal even in COVID-19 pandemic, we may equally need to develop new institutions/companies for anti-COVID-19 daily fumigation and ensuring precautionary measures before gaining entrance to work places and public arena. It is certainly going to be a new world order post COVID-19 and human race must adjust its ways of social interaction, work and governance. We are expecting a depression that is comparable to the Great Depression and all hands must creatively be on deck for survival. As the Chief Economist of International Monetary Fund (IMF) Gita Gopinath asserts at an IMF Update on COVID-19 even as I conclude this piece, there is no much choice between ‘saving lives and saving livelihoods” stressing that what is done NOW (emphasis mine) is very important to eventual economic outlook post-COVID-19.