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Nigeria Shuts Out Travellers From 13 Countries As Domestic Coronavirus Cases Increase

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… Follows example of other African countries

… Schools, public events and gatherings begin to be shuttered

… ANSG launches sensitization, bans public assembly from 23rd March

… CBN cuts interest rate and will inject ₦1 trillion into economy

By Chudi Okoye and Stella Nzekwe

Out of an abundance of caution, Nigeria is placing travel restrictions, starting Saturday 21 March 2020, on travellers from 13 countries with high incidence of coronavirus afflictions.

The restricted originations include some of the world’s largest economies which are currently clobbered by high levels of coronavirus exposure: United States, China, Iran, South Korea, Germany, Italy, United Kingdom, Switzerland, Norway, Netherlands, Spain, France and Japan.

Nigeria also announced a temporary suspension of its visa-on-arrival policy.

These decisions came as Nigeria announced five new cases of coronavirus as of 18th March which brought the official total to eight. The latest announced cases include a 30 year-old female that flew back from the United Kingdom on 13th March who observed self-isolation when she tested positive. She is now receiving treatment at Mainland General Hospital, Yaba, Lagos.

Africa Responds

With its announced travel restrictions, Nigeria is following the precedence of some other African countries which had earlier imposed inbound restrictions against the countries most exposed to the coronavirus disease. Although the African incidence level is beginning to rise, the continent seems so far spared the most pernicious scourge of the strange virus. A few reasons have been adduced for the seeming low incidence of coronavirus in Africa and elsewhere. These include weak travel connections to the originating centres of the virus and local climate conditions. There has been some skepticism about the quality of screening and even the authenticity of reporting coming out of Africa and other areas with low incidence of local transmissions. But it is unclear if this is genuine scientific concern or merely prejudiced bafflement. Be that as it may, continental officials are beginning to ramp up on containment measures to prevent an insidious spread, including the imposition of travel restrictions and other stringent measures.

From Tunisia to Sudan to Egypt in North Africa all the way down to South Africa, African countries are taking any combination of the following measures: suspension of some or all international flights, closure of territorial borders, social distancing including closure of public institutions, restriction of public gatherings, and even night-time curfew.

Countries like Kenya have banned inbound travellers from countries reporting any case of coronavirus, not just travellers from high-risk origins. Some African countries have already declared a national emergency, similar to the steps taken in some high-risk countries outside the African continent.

On Sunday, 15th March, the South African head of state, Cyril Ramaphosa, projecting poise and presidential aplomb, addressed his country for about 20 minutes on the pandemic, announcing that his government was declaring a “national state of disaster”. He laid out the steps his government was taking to contain the spread of the virus in his country.

South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa

Nigeria Follows Suit

The president of Nigeria, Major-General Muhammadu Buhari, has yet to address the country on the scare of coronavirus. The Nigerian head of state has however set up a Presidential Task Force (PTF), inaugurated on 17th March, to manage government response. The PTF immediately announced a ban on all forms of travels by public officers and civil servants until further notice. The next day, 18th March, saying that it had further assessed the global situation, the PTF announced the following measures:

  • “The Federal Government of Nigeria is restricting entry into the country for travellers from the following thirteen (13) countries; China, Italy, Iran, South Korea, Spain, Japan, France, Germany, Norway, the United States of America, the United Kingdom, Netherlands and Switzerland. These are all countries with over 1,000 [coronavirus] case domestically;”
  • “All persons arriving in Nigeria who might have visited these countries, often days prior to such arrival, will be subjected to supervised self-isolation and testing for 14 days;”
  • “The Federal Government is temporarily suspending the issuance of all visas on arrival;”
  • “The Federal Government is also counseling all Nigerians to cancel or postpone all non-essential travels to these countries; and”
  • “The Federal Government urges Public Health Authorities of countries with high burden to conduct diligent departure screening of passengers and also endorses this travel advisories to their nationals to postpone travels to Nigeria.”

These restrictions will be in force for four weeks beginning 21st March, subject to review, the PTF assured.

The measures so far floated by Nigeria appear less emphatic than what obtains in some other African countries. Djibouti, with no reported coronavirus case so far, has suspended all international flights to the country, according to its US embassy. Morocco too has suspended all international flights “until further notice”; while Ghana, according to the country’s Information Minister, Kojo Oppong Nkrumah, has said that all travel into the country “is strongly discouraged at this point in time.”

WHO’s Assessment and Pandemic History

Nigeria’s cautiousness might not be unconnected with the advice given by the World Health Organization (WHO) which is urging countries not to apply impulsive travel restrictions in a way that would impact trade and travel.

It will be recalled that WHO had on 11th March declared coronavirus (COVID-19) a global pandemic which, unlike an outbreak or an epidemic, means that the virus is spreading across countries and continents and affects large chunks of transnational populations. In the realm of infectious diseases, a pandemic is the worst case scenario.

According to Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the 55 year-old Ethiopian academic who heads WHO as Director General, “we have rung the alarm bell loud and clear.” The director called on countries to act together to combat a common threat and to learn from one another’s containment and attenuation successes. He urged countries to “find, isolate, test and treat every case and trace every contact.” Dr. Tedros added: “Ready your hospitals. Protect and train your health workers. Let’s all look out for each other because we are in this together to do the right thing with calm and to protect the citizens of the world.”

The WHO director noted that “although this is the first pandemic caused by coronavirus, we also believe that this is the first pandemic that is able to be controlled.”

World history is dotted with pandemic outbreaks. According to the website of the TV network, History, the earliest recorded pandemic happened during the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) between Athens and Sparta, with an outbreak of typhoid fever which had spread from Libya, Ethiopia and Egypt into Athens around 430 BC.

According to the public health resource, MHP Online and also the US Centre for Disease Control (CDC), the pandemics in world history with the greatest fatalities include: the bubonic plague of 541-542 with a death toll of 25 million; another bubonic plague, the Black Death, occurring in 1346-1353 which originated in Asia but reached Europe and Africa, killing about 75 to 200 million people (wiping out, according to some estimates, as much as one-third of the world population); the 1918 pandemic (H1N1 virus) known as Spanish Flu, theorized to have originated from China (like the current coronavirus), which ultimately claimed an estimated 50 million lives; and HIV/AIDS, first observed in American gay communities in 1981, which to date has claimed an estimated 36 million lives.

There have been several other pandemics, among them: the Antonine Plague of 165 AD bearing what was thought to be smallpox or measles; the leprosy outbreak that grew into a pandemic in Europe in 11th century; the Russian Flu of 1889-1890; the Indian cholera pandemics of 1852–1860 and later 1910-1911; the Asian Flu of 1956-1958; and the Hong Kong Flu of 1968.

The above shows that coronavirus does have a long line of preceding pandemics. The world’s last known pandemic broke out in June 2009 when WHO declared H1N1 (swine flu) a pandemic. That case lasted for over a year, with a “post-pandemic period” announced by August 2010.

Specific Adjustments

The trajectory for the current pandemic, coronavirus, is still steeply upward. WHO warns that “in the days and weeks ahead, we expect to see many cases, many deaths and the number of affected countries climb even higher.” WHO’s director, Tedros, says the organization is “deeply concerned… by the alarming levels of spread and severity…” In response, perhaps, to WHO’s warning, across nations furious efforts are underway to “flatten the curve” of escalation. In Africa too, where it seems the curve of escalation is less steep, containment measures are being mounted in addition to the travel restrictions.

In Nigeria, social distancing measures, already widespread in more afflicted environs, are slowly being put into place. A growing number of public events are being cancelled. For instance, the management of the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) has cancelled the Batch A orientation programme for students across the country. The camps which started on 10th March were supposed to last for 21 days. Corps members in the camps were, however, informed on 18th March that the camps were being closed and that they would receive posting letters to proceed to their places of primary assignment. The corps members said they were told this was due to the coronavirus crisis.

Earlier, the Nigerian federal government had approved the postponement of the 20th National Sports Festival which had been due to start this weekend in Benin City, Edo State. The Minister for Youth and Sports, Mr. Sunday Dare, made the announcement on Tuesday 17 March 2020.

Several other public institutions may become candidates of social distancing measures.

The Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) offers guidelines for self-isolation and preventive measures which consist largely in practicing personal hygiene. The Presidential Task Force (PTF), in its public briefing, also issued a practical advisory with a To-Do list for Nigerians:

  • Stock up on essentials  – food , water, tissues, fruits, sanitizers, handwash, disinfectant
  • Avoid frivolous spending
  • Practice good personal hygiene and avoid crowded areas
  • Where possible limit physical meetings: use virtual meeting tools (email, Skype or phone)
  • Drink plenty of fluids, get a lot of rest and sleep as much as possible
  • Make sure surfaces (e.g. desks and tables) and objects (e.g. telephones, keyboards) are regularly wiped with disinfectant
  • Wash hands with soap and running water when hands are visibly dirty
  • Boost immune system: Take vitamin C –  particularly oranges.

Sensitization in Anambra State

At a local level, the Anambra State Ministry of Information and Public Enlightenment has embarked on an enlightenment campaign taken to public places to provide awareness about coronavirus as well as the lassa fever pandemic.

Earlier, on Friday, 6th March, the Anambra State Commissioner for Information and Public Enlightenment, Mr. C. Don Adinuba, led a sensitization campaign team to New Tyre Market, Nkpor in Idemili North Local Government Area. The commissioner said that the enlightenment campaign was part of the state government’s concern to protect the health of its people. He stressed that although Anambra State remained free of lassa virus and coronavirus, “we are [working] with development partners to strengthen proactive measures against the two viruses in the state. As such, we are here to sensitize traders and tyre vendors on precautionary measures in order to avoid the risk of the diseases in the state.”

The state government plans to carry that message across communities in Anambra State.

Anambra State Gov., Willie Obiano

In a statement issued on 19 March 2020, the governor of Anambra State, Willie Obiano, provided the following public health advisory on coronavirus Ndi Anambra:

  • Assembly: All public gathering is banned ‪from 23rd March 2020 until further notice
  • Markets: Traders and market goers should wash their hands frequently, use sanitizers, avoid handshaking and hugging, keep 6ft distance between customers and traders. Market leaders to buy infrared thermometer to test suspect cases
  • Education: Students of Anambra tertiary institutions must proceed on vacation effective 20th of March 2020 until further notice. All primary and secondary schools in Anambra State must go on indefinite vacation effective 27th March 2020. Until then, all inter-house sports competitions are by suspended until further notice. School management to implement strict hand washing policy. Schools management should take the temperature of their day and boarding students at least once every day. Temperatures above 37.9 degrees Celsius must be reported to the nearest hospital.
  • Residents: All residents in Anambra State advised to avoid handshaking, hugging and all other forms of contact salutation. Avoid unnecessary travels. Keep reasonable social distance. All residents returning from countries and states with active COVID-19 cases must self-isolate for 14-days, taking temperatures twice daily, and contact the Anambra state Public Health Emergency Operation Center immediately (PHEOC numbers are ‪080309531; 08145434416; 0810446408).
  • Hotels, eateries and nightclubs: All hotels must provide a handwash station and sanitizers. Guests are encouraged to wash their hands with soap and running water for at least 20 seconds. Hotel management to take temperature of guests and visitors with a non-contact infra-red thermometer. Temperatures over 37.9 degrees Centigrade must be reported to the PHEOC. Hotels, restaurants and nightclubs to check temperature of all their staff on daily basis, with those exceeding 37.9 degrees Centigrade taken to hospital. Restaurants must avoid overcrowding patrons at the table. Hotels are encouraged to maintain a database of their guests.
  • Buses: Owners and operators of long-distance luxurious buses and intrastate buses to maintain inbound and outbound travel manifest, provide hand wash stations and provide hand sanitizers in their buses for passengers who must wash hands regularly.

As World Markets Tumble, CBN Reacts

Whilst healthcare measures are slowly being rolled out at national and subnational levels to mitigate the impact of coronavirus, policy measures are also being introduced to mitigate the economic impact. The economic consequences of coronavirus are already manifesting across the world. Business contraction is leading to widespread layoffs. Major global stock markets are tumbling. For instance, amid wild swings in recent trading, the United States Dow Jones Industrial Average has dropped a whopping 32%, from 29,343 as at 19 February 2020 to 19,898 by 17 March 2020. On a number of occasions during this wild trading period, the automatic circuit breaker was triggered causing regulators to stop trading to avert the dangerous trends. A deep recession is now widely expected, and authorities are scrambling to design alleviative measures, including bail-out for companies and cash payments to stricken families.

Regulatory intervention is also afoot in Nigeria. On Wednesday, 18th March, the governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Mr. Godwin Emefiele, announced at a press briefing in Abuja that CBN will inject ₦1 trillion into critical sectors of the Nigerian economy. The package will include ₦100 billion in loan facility to support health authorities, helping to ensure laboratories, researchers and innovators are able to work with global scientists to patent and produce vaccines and test kits in Nigeria to prepare for any major crises ahead.

CBN governor, Godwin Emefiele

The CBN had earlier, on 16th March, announced the slashing of interests rate on its intervention loans from 9% to 5%, as well as an extension of moratorium from one to two years, to buffer the Nigerian economy. The apex bank had said that the measures were the first set of its elaborate responses to combat the coronavirus crisis.

In his briefing on CBN plans, the governor, Mr. Emefiele, had said:

“The Coronavirus pandemic is having consequences for both the global and the Nigerian economies. It has already led to unprecedented disruptions in global supply chains, sharp reduction in crude oil prices, turmoil in the global stock and financial markets, wide spread cancellations in sporting, entertainment and business events, lockdown of large source of movement of persons, in many countries and intercontinental travel restrictions across critical air routes across the world.

“These outcomes have had adverse effects for key sector including oil and gas, airlines, manufacturing, trade and consumer markets.

“In furtherance of its financial systems stability mandate, the CBN is committed to providing support for affected households, businesses, regulated financial institutions and other stakeholders in order to cushion the adverse economic consequences of this pandemic on our people.”

From its healthcare providers and researchers to government agencies, corporate entities, civic groups and families, Nigeria – though yet to be formally addressed by its seemingly hebetudinous president – is slowly joining a world frantically groping for solutions to combat an insidious pandemic. The current outbreak, like its historical predecessors, is certain to cause long-term changes in society and economy. How much pain these changes induce, and how fast the pain will reduce, remains to be seen.

Awka Times guest reporter, Pamela Henry-Igwe, contributed to this story

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