Coordination, Collaboration And Solidarity: One Year Of COVID-19 In Nigeria
BY DR. CHIKWE IHEKWEAZU
Just as Nigerians celebrated a New Year with promising goals in 2020, a new global threat emerged. As COVID-19 spread from China to Europe and the Americas, we were uncertain about the future and anxious about our weak health system.
One year after, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken so many lives and caused massive disruptions to global economies. It has changed our way of life and interrupted our economic agenda.
On the 27th of February 2020, the first COVID-19 case was detected in Nigeria. Since then, more than 150,000 cases have been detected across all 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory.
Sadly, we have also lost more than 1,800 people, and this is most likely to be an underestimate, based on results from the recent household seroprevalence survey carried out in the country.
Beyond the statistics, these are Nigerians – mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, children, loved ones, colleagues and friends. Some were leaders in our country, others were leaders of families – all were valuable members of society.
The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered the fastest and most wide-reaching response to a global health emergency in human history. In one year, the world has come together to develop vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics for a new virus.
There has been exponential growth in the number of scientific publications related to COVID-19, including from Nigeria.
There have also been important lessons learned on the state of our health infrastructure and the need to strengthen our health security.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also triggered rapid investment in Nigeria’s health security. In one year, molecular laboratories have been established in every state in Nigeria, a digital surveillance system (SORMAS) has been implemented across all states and new standard treatment centres are being established across the country.
Almost every state in Nigeria now has a public health emergency operations centre, integrating a call centre, and other resources required to manage this outbreak. A national stockpile of response commodities has been established and new oxygen plants built. No other outbreak has led to this level of widespread investment in our health security.
But perhaps one of the biggest strengths of Nigeria’s response to this pandemic, has come from the power of coordination, collaboration, and solidarity across federal and state governments, across the public and private sectors, between the United Nations agencies and non-governmental organisations, and most critically across the government and its citizens.
Political leadership has been critical in shaping the preparedness, focus, and direction of the overall pandemic response. In March 2020, His Excellency, President Muhammadu Buhari approved the establishment of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 (PTF).
Chaired by the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Mr. Boss Mustapha, the PTF has led a powerful multi-sectoral collaboration with clarity of vision and determination in delivery.
The leadership provided by the SGF has ensured that every decision that has been made in response to the pandemic, has been with a multi-sectoral gaze. He has also ensured unparalleled accountability to citizens, with close to 100 press briefings held so far, where questions and comments are answered from around the country.
The PTF has tried hard to find the balance between protecting lives and livelihoods. Our premise has been that protecting the public and protecting the economy are not mutually exclusive goals. There have been tough decisions made, some of which have been challenged.
But every single one of them was well thought through and made in the best interest of the country. Led by the SGF, we have provided regular briefings to Mr. President on the state of the outbreak and response, and he always offered a listening ear, always empathetic to the plight of Nigerians.
There has also been strong political leadership at the state level with several states establishing a COVID-19 Task Force. The Nigerian Governors’ Forum has been closely engaged, ensuring coordination between NCDC and states.
His Excellency, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo has invited NCDC to join the regular National Economic Council (NEC) meetings, keeping the governors briefed. Regular meetings held between a subgroup of the PTF and a subgroup of NEC. These opportunities for leadership, collaboration and coordination have ensured that our political leadership mostly spoke with one voice to citizens.
The number of cases and level of response has varied across all states in Nigeria. Many state governors have risen to the challenge and invested heavily in states’ health security.
They are now very aware of the disruptive impact that outbreaks can have. This continued leadership will translate into improved health outcomes in Nigeria, even beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although the number of cases in Nigeria and Africa has been lower than initially estimated, this pandemic has had a devastating impact on our country. Millions of people have been exposed to the direct and indirect social and economic impact of the pandemic.
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Loved ones have fallen sick and died. Children lost time in school, and millions of people and businesses were affected by the lockdowns and the economic downturn. But in between all of these, there have been remarkable acts of generosity from various parts of our country.
Communities have come together to renovate and equip their hospitals, provide masks to the vulnerable, provide food for first responders, support health workers and our society’s most vulnerable through these troubled times.
One of the most unexpected acts of collaboration was seen in the corporate private sector. Companies that usually compete with one another, came together to form a coalition – the Private Sector Coalition Against COVID-19 (CACOVID).
Through this, they channeled their support to the response, reducing the bureaucracy and ensuring that their support went straight to beneficiaries as much as possible.
They have shown incredible leadership and support, pooling their support and bringing life to the phrase – “Stronger Together”. The support from the private sector has spanned through areas from the establishment of treatment centres, to providing palliatives to people through the states. In 2020, our country truly united in solidarity against the virus.
The impact of this has been obvious from small personal gestures such as sharing foodstuff, to collaboration on research and innovation – to regional and pan-African collaboration.
Every day, our 300 members of staff at the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and hundreds of State Public Health Teams are working in ways most people never imagine public servants do.
These incredibly committed staff are involved in the collection and testing of thousands of samples daily, contact tracing to prevent further spread of the virus, data collation and analysis for public communications and decision making amongst other tough but essential tasks.
They have not rested for a day. Through Sallah and Christmas, these brave colleagues have kept going to keep the country safe.
In thinking about the year ahead of us, we must be aware of various emerging scenarios, and the role we must play. There is the increasing detection of variants of concern.
The potential impact of these on vaccine efficacy, therapeutics and diagnostics are yet to be fully understood and we learn more every day. However, we can continue to protect ourselves and our country by reducing the risk of transmission. This is a challenge we must collectively rise to.
Despite the best efforts of government, it will take time to vaccinate everyone against COVID-19. We must keep adhering to the public health and social measures that keep each and all of us safe. This means maintaining physical distance, wearing face masks, practicing hand and respiratory hygiene and avoiding crowded indoor places.
As we know that we are not strong enough to do these on our own, we have to support each other on this journey, every single day.
These simple, yet effective measures will save lives and reduce the suffering that so many people encountered in 2020. Every action taken while this virus is with us, can lead to life or death. This may not be a direct impact, but the thousands of lives that have been lost, have left their loved ones behind.
We have seen how acts of kindness and care have helped us hold each other, through times of great struggle. As Nigerians, we must work with these and avoid acts of malice, and misinformation, which can lead to harm. We must continue to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper.
Finally, there is light at the end of the tunnel, and we will get there by taking the path together. We are deeply grateful to Nigerians for their resilience and support, to health workers across the country working tirelessly to fight this virus, to our partners for standing with us and to the Federal Government of Nigeria for providing the resources needed to fight this pandemic. We remember our dear colleague, Uche Njoku, who died in the line of duty. I would like to specially thank our families, whose support has enabled us to serve our country.
COVID-19 infects people when they come together but coming together is also how we will beat it. Let us continue helping each other along the way, using the lessons and reminders from the last one year.
*** Dr Ihekweazu is the Director-General of Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), Abuja