Fear, panic as Coronavirus hits Nigeria


Up until Wednesday night, February 26, the novel and devastating COVID-19 outbreak, popularly known as coronavirus illness, was a distant phenomenon, monitored remotely by Nigerians on TV and the Internet.

As it spread from China, its country of origin, across central Asia and to Europe, there were fears for Africa, a continent with poor health system.

The Nigerian government joined other African countries to announce its preparedness for any eventuality. On the afternoon of Thursday, February 27, the country’s worst fear was confirmed. Nigeria recorded its first coronavirus case, the first case in Sub-Saharan Africa. Patient Zero turned out to be an Italian who recently returned from Milan, a city that is about an hour from the Lombardy region, currently the country’s red zone and the area worst hit by the contagion in Europe.

There has been a growing fear since the news broke. For instance, traders to market on Lagos Island were surprised to find people in the market wearing nose masks.

By midday, a growing panic was fuelled by news circulated on social media that Agip Saipem, purportedly the office of the Italian located on the highbrow Banana Island, Lagos, was on lockdown.

Banana Island Property Owners Resident (BIPORAL), however, put down the rumour with a quick-fire statement: “We are pleased to report that from our findings this report appears to be false. Firstly, no such organization as Agip Saipem on the estate. There is Saipem, which is located in the Lake Point complex and the whole of that building is not involved in the said COVID-19 case and remains fully open for business, as we have this morning formally confirmed from the Lagos State Health Authorities. We have also been in touch with the management of SAIPEM and they assure us that none of their staff or known visitor to their offices have has exhibited any symptom of CODIV-19 illness.”

Saipem Contracting Nigeria also refuted the story. “I wish to confirm that this person has never been in Saipem offices and that Saipem is continuing its own operations normally,” says a statement signed by Walter Peviani, the company’s managing directors

Panic buying of nose masks and sanitizers

In the meantime, panic is gradually spreading through the populace. The biggest indicator was the sudden increase in the demand for nose masks and hand sanitizers.

Prior to the outbreak, one-use disposable nose masks were easily available by the roadside at the rate of N50 per unit. Since the afternoon of Thursday, it has become a scarce item in Lagos.

On Jumia, online retail store, a pack of the normal nose mask is sold at N6, 990 for 50 pieces at a unit price of N139.8.

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A social media user confirmed the usual nose mask is sold for N500 for one and had been informed by a pharmacist of the likelihood of not getting one to buy soon due to scarcity of nose masks in the international market.

Already, Nigerians have begun to feel the heat. Getting N95, the recommended nose mask, is becoming difficult.

A respondent confirmed to Saturday Sun on twitter that the N95 mask was being sold at N3, 000 in a Lagos pharmacy with limited supplies.

“It’s N3, 000 since; it will soon be sold at N10, 000,” he tweeted.

The same panic buying also applies to hand sanitizers.

A twitter user @Akmonabiodun tweeted early on Friday: don’t know the reason why we are so wicked in this country…how can the price of hand sanitizer skyrocket overnight, the 50ml I priced N200 last week is now N400, while the 100ml is now N800

Enenche James, a Lagos resident confirmed he had to pay more to purchase a 60ml bottle of hand sanitizer that he bought just last month at N350.

“I was told that the price is N2000 and I was confused. I had to state that the size is 60ml so the sales person would know what I was talking about and he still insisted on that price. I just had to buy when I saw that another person came in and bought more than one.”

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He berated pharmacies exploiting the fearful atmosphere created by the deadly contagion.

Doctor Gabriel Omonaiye of God’s Goal Hospital, Ojo-Alaba, Lagos, further confirmed this. One of his staff who went to get more sanitizers ran into a difficulty when all the pharmacies claimed they were out of stock. Although she got two big bottles of sanitizers to add to the ones the hospital already has, she came back with the disturbing news that some hospitals were mopping up sanitizers from different pharmacies and supermarkets.

In Lagos, which has become the cynosure of COVID-19 in Nigerians, citizens have started thinking of precautions.

One of the respondents, Glory Ibeneme said: “If you sneeze near me and I move to another seat, don’t take it personal. If you are feeling sick, don’t come near me or attempt to hug me, I am not going to expose myself because I want to appear like a nice person.”

Another lady, Augusta Oluoma-Njoku said her children who currently are at home for the mid-term break will not be going back to school on Monday.”

Njoku said: “When it comes to life and health, prevention is better than cure. My children will be safe with me at home until further notice. I won’t put their lives at risk because of school.”

The case of Patient Zero

Further insight about the 44-year-old Italian who is now Nigeria’s Patient Zero of the coronavirus illness emerged on Friday during a press briefing held variously in Abeokuta, by the Ogun State Commissioner for Health, Tomi Coker, and in Lagos by the state authorities.

The patient, a consultant to Lafarge Africa Plc, who was at the cement’s factory in Ewekoro Local Government Area of Ogun State, on Tuesday, came into the country from Milan, Italy on Monday, February 24, by Turkish airline through Istanbul.

Upon his arrival in Lagos at 9 pm, he spent the night in the hotel located in the airport vicinity before proceeding to Ogun State that Tuesday morning. He reportedly spent the day at the Lafarge premises in Ewekoro until Wednesday morning, having spent the night at the company’s guest house within the complex.

Health personnel who treated him for high fever and body ache at the clinic within the Lafarge facility, factored in the significance of the COVID-19 in the country and raised the alarm.

Coker explained further that the Italian was transported to Lagos in a closed ambulance on Wednesday morning when his case grew worse.

The Virology Laboratory of the Lagos University Teaching Hospital, part of the Laboratory Network of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), subsequently confirmed him positive. The news caused ripples around the country.

The victim made three contacts before his arrival in Ogun on Tuesday, Coker hinted. She, however, asserted that it would be premature to put number to the contacts he made in Ogun “since the case was just confirmed on Friday.”

By Friday, evening the patient is clinically stable, with no serious symptoms at the Infectious Disease Hospital in Yaba, Lagos, where he is quarantined.

In the meantime, a team of epidemiologists have commenced work to detect number of contacts the victim had during his stay in the state.

While imploring residents of the state to take precautions seriously, Coker vowed that every single contact with the victim would be identified and quarantined for a period of two weeks.

The Lagos responses

Since the biosecurity unit of Lagos State was contacted, the state authorities have revved up its efforts to contain the deadly contagion. Governor Sanwo-Olu is Incident Commander of the fight to contain the spread of the contagion.

No cause for alarm, that is the message from the state government.

“He [Patient Zero] was diagnosed within four hours. So our diagnostic tools work,” said Lagos Deputy Governor Dr Obafemi Hamzat. “So we are ready. We are well equipped. He is getting better.”

He detailed the ongoing effort: “As of now, we have started to trace the movement from the airport through Lagos to Ogun State. And we are busy identifying any possible persons that may have come in contact with him, so that we can start our isolation and containment exercise to ensure we break the circle of transmission.”

At a press briefing on Thursday the state of readiness of Lagos State was unveiled:

“In Lagos, we have been building capacity steadily, fortified support at the airport and sending state health personnel to support federal authorities. A form has been developed and all travellers are to fill the form as they arrived. At our infectious facility, we have ramped up our capacity to isolate cases. We are now sitting on an 80-bed facility because of the urgency fund that has been released by the incident commander.”

According to Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu: “We are continuing to build more capacity, should in case we have an increase number of cases in Lagos.”

In addition to an ongoing aggressive public awareness campaign and extensive training across the hierarchy of health professionals in the state, effort is also going on pari pasu to build capacity to diagnose the case in the state. “We can run the test in two centres; one in our biosecurity facility and the other at the Lagos Teaching Hospital,” the governor disclosed.

“The important thing is that the patient is confined and we have aggressively started to identify all his contacts all the way to the airline and that process started around 3 am this morning and it continues as we speak. We like to ensure everybody that we are on this case that we can identify everybody that comes in contact with.

Lagos State Commissioner for Health, Prof Akin Abayomi gave further assurance on Friday morning that the government is on top of the situation.

“The Government of Lagos State under the Governor as the COVID-19 Incident Commander, through the Lagos State Ministry of Health, has been strengthening measures to ensure that any outbreak in Lagos is controlled and contained quickly in collaboration with the multi-sectoral Coronavirus Preparedness Group, led by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC),” he said.

The government, Prof Abayomi affirmed, has activated the State Emergency Operations Centre (SEOC) to respond to the case and implement firm control measures.

“We will use all the resources made available by the State and the Federal Government to respond to this case,” he avowed.

Action from Federal Government

Health Minister, Dr Osagie Ehanire, who confirmed the case in a statement issued in the early hours of Friday, February 28, 2020, said the federal government has quickly dispatched a team of surveillance and rapid response officials across the country following the confirmation.

He reassured Nigerians that its monitoring systems would strongly ensure that the virus does not spread beyond the first patient or possibly, few other people that came in contact with the Italian patient.

In his words: “The Federal Ministry of Health, through NCDC, will continue to provide updates and will continuously initiate Nigerians on measures required to prevent the spread of any outbreak in Nigeria.”

He further disclosed that a multi-sectoral coronavirus preparedness team led by NCDC has activated the national Emergency Operations Centre (EOC), and would work closely with Lagos state health authorities to respond to the confirmed case and implement firm control measures.

“We have beefed up our preparedness capabilities since the first confirmation of cases in China, and we would use available resources to respond to the case,” he stated.

The minister urged Nigerians to take care of their health and maintain hand and respiratory hygiene to protect themselves and others, including their own families.

The Director-General of NCDC, Chikwe Ihekweazu, reiterating the minister’s statement that a rapid response team had also been deployed to Lagos state where the first case of coronavirus was detected and other parts of the country to manage the situation adequately, said: “We would continue to keep Nigerians informed. However, it’s important for Nigerians to be focused on facts and not fear. Nigerians should protect themselves by staying calm, drink lots of water.”

Situation report

Saturday Sun visited the Isolation Infectious Unit of the Mainland Hospital, Yaba, on Friday morning and ascertained that the Italian citizen infected with coronavirus is quarantined at Ward C of Out Patient Department (OPD/casualty).

The Infectious Unit area was cordoned as few healthcare workers are seen wearing masks while attending to other patients who were also on masks that came for screening for other infectious diseases.

The Managing Director, Infectious Disease Mainland Hospital, Dr Abimbola Bowale, who spoke on the development said that the Italian national is clinically stable and responding to treatment.

Confirming that the patient is being managed and quarantined in accordance with health safety standard, Dr Bowale further asserted that an operation is going on to trace and monitoring those who came in contact with the patient. He however, admitted that it is difficult to estimate how many people the patient must have come in contact with.

He concluded with an assurance: “We are on top of the situation and all necessary precautions are being put in place,” he said.

A medical staff, however, pointed out that the isolation centre is still under renovation, hence the reason for admitting the patience in Ward C.

Pointing at the building (still under construction), he said: “We are using one of the rooms used to admit patients with TB and other infectious disease to quarantine the patient, which is not supposed to be. What if more victims are brought in, how, and where are we going to quarantine them?”

Definitive actions have also been taken by Lafarge Africa Plc. This was contained in a statement issued on Friday confirming that its complex visited by the Italian has been quarantined. The statement, signed by its Director, Communications, Public Affairs and Sustainable Development, Folashade Ambrose-Medebem, said: “The individual concerned works for a vendor that provides services to Lafarge Africa Plc in Ogun State. As a business, we have immediately identified the persons who had direct contact with the concerned individual. We have equally initiated isolation, quarantine and disinfection protocol.

“We thank the exemplary leadership of the federal ministry of health, Ogun and Lagos State Governments for swiftly providing response and testing facilities and we are working in full co-operation with all local authorities. Lafarge Africa is also working in close partnership with International SOS, our medical service provider, a leading global health company.”

By 7 pm on Friday, no fewer than 28 persons who had contacts with an Italian victim of Coronavirus in Ogun have so far been identified. The contacts have also been quarantined inside two clinics, which had been converted into isolation centres within the Lafarge, complex visited by the victim between Tuesday and Wednesday.

The Ogun State governor, Dapo Abiodun, gave this disclosure on Friday evening while addressing journalists on the development at his Oke-Mosan Office.

Briefing newsmen, Abiodun said efforts were ongoing to identify more persons who had contacts with the 44-year-old Italian apart from the 28 quarantined so far.

He added that the cement factory that hosted the victim of the virus had been locked down, promising all the contacts would be traced and quarantined.

Abiodun, however, said the isolation centre at the Olabisi Onabanjo Teaching Hospital, Sagamu, would be upgraded to a Biosecurity and Containment Centre, which according to him will be fourth of its kind in Nigeria.

How states are reacting

The Osun State Government has inaugurated a 15-member technical committee on Coronavirus prevention and control in the State. The committee chaired by Dr Gbenga Alabi, is tasked with a holistic response that include coordinating response in case of emergency, managing confirmed cases, ensuring an effective surveillance system and mobilizing resources towards prevention and management of the disease.

The Special Adviser to the Governor on Public Health, Dr Olasiji Olamiju, said the success recorded in the fight against Lassa fever was a manifestation that the state would succeed in the control of Coronavirus.

He also stressed that the emergency line “293” was available round the clock  to respond to any case of the Covid-19

In Rivers State, the government  has strengthened surveillance at the Port Harcourt International Airport. This was disclosed during a press briefing by Dr Chinwe Atata, Director, Planning, Research and Statistics of the Ministry of Health.

“The Rivers State Ministry of Health is working in collaboration with the Federal Ministry of Health (especially the Ports health services), the National Centre for Disease Control and other relevant stakeholders to ensure maximum surveillance at all international entry points in the State.

“Surveillance at the International Airport Omagwa has been strengthened with multiple layers of screening from inflight assessment to the use of thermal cameras for early detection of suspected cases, as well as secondary screening for selected passengers,” she disclosed.

Atata said a treatment centre has also been mapped out for the coronavirus.

“So far and for the avoidance of doubt, there is no case of COVID-19 in Rivers State”, Atata declared.

In Delta State, one of the five high-risk states for the airborne disease because of the availability of seaports and airport, the state government on Friday announced that it has placed all health-related institutions and disease control mechanisms on red alert in readiness for any possible case of the dreaded Coronavirus disease also known as COVID-19.

The state Commissioner for Health, Dr. Mordi Ononye in Asaba told journalists the state has switched from watch mode to alert mode since the Lagos case was discovered, adding that the state was prepared to curtail the disease if there is an outbreak.

The team that successfully managed Lassa fever, he asserted, has built enough capacity and shown commitment to address any health challenge.

According to Ononye, the seaports in Warri, Sapele, Koko and Ogharra have been designated as holding centres for any possible outbreak. All hospitals across the state have been mandated to designate an isolated area as detention centre for any case of COVID-19, he added.

Delta State Commissioner for Information, Charles Aniagwu said further: “We have started screening at Asaba Airport but we want to urge our people not to panic, they should go about their lawful businesses without entertaining fears.”

In Oyo State, Commissioner for Health, Dr Bashir Bello unveiled details of the state government’s partnership with the University College Hospital (UCH), Ibadan, and 2 Division of Nigerian Army for proactive measures. Bello disclosed this in Ibadan during a press briefing, stated that the two cases reported in the media were negative as the patients also did not test positive to Lassa fever.

He confirmed that the state has been on high alert as a result of the confirmed case of coronavirus in Lagos State.

“What we are trying to do is that going by our proximity to Lagos and the high level of transaction between these two urban centres, we are being very prepared because no one can tell,” he affirmed.

Move to curb misinformation on social media

In a bid to curb misinformation, the federal government of Nigeria has struck a partnership with Facebook, according to the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed.

Mohammed avowed that Facebook is working with the government against purveyors of fake news about the virus, even as he said Facebook has asked Nigerians to report any false or misleading report on Facebook and Instagram pages in order to immediately bring them down.

“They have also assured us that they are taking preemptive action to remove any false or harmful messages about this epidemic and public health in Nigeria 24/7. All that Nigerians are required to do is to flag any false or misleading report on the epidemic and Facebook will remove any such report,” Mohammed said.

Mohammed added that the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture is intensifying its public sensitization and enlightenment campaign on the virus.

Agencies of the ministry such as the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria (FRCN), the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN), the Voice of Nigeria (VON) and the National Orientation Agency (NOA), have been directed to intensify their ongoing sensitization and enlightenment campaign to arm Nigerians with the necessary information to stay well, he stated.

Mohammed who trumpeted government’s capability to contain the contagion said: “We know that at times like this, purveyors of fake news and disinformation usually ramp up their acts. We are therefore urging Nigerians not to fall for the antics of purveyors of fakes news and disinformation.”

What doctors’ say

In its latest address on Friday evening, World Health Organization (WHO) raised global coronavirus alert a notch from High to Very High.

Doctor Gabriel Omonaiye of God’s Goal Hospital, Ojo-Alaba, Lagos, stated that he has put some new measures in place in his hospital in Lagos.

According to him, they use non-contact thermometers for people who just enter the hospital. If the patient has fever, the health workers on duty will activate barrier nursing by wearing their gloves and nose masks before they touch the patient to find out what the problem is.

Dr. Omonaiye debunked the news making rounds that ginger, garlic and turmeric kills coronavirus. “I am not aware of any scientific evidence to back up the claims that ginger, turmeric and garlic kills coronavirus, he said.”

“If somebody coughs or sneezes around you, you can offer them a handkerchief or a face mask but if you don’t have any of these available, just walk away from the person,” he advised.

As part of the precautionary measures people should take to prevent the spread of the virus, Dr. Tuyi Olowu Medway Hospital said: “In crowded places like churches and mosques, hygienic measures should be put in place. Same thing should be applicable at bus stations, and markets. In schools, any pupil that is coughing, and having fever should be excused. Any individual having persistent cough or sneezing should not mix in a crowd. It is advisable that such individuals   seek immediate medical assistance. Nigerians should also   regularly wash their hands with soap , and water. They should also make use of alcohol-based sanitizers.”

Atiku, PDP wade in

Former Vice President, Atiku Abubakar, called on all Nigerians to rise in unity to defeat the disease even as he called for firm and decisive actions to prevent the spread of the disease.

Atiku said: “We must call upon our experience with the Wild Ebola Virus, of which we were the first nation in the world to defeat that scourge in 2014. How did Nigeria do it? We achieved it by showing unprecedented unity.

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“The federal government of the day, worked closely with the Lagos and Rivers state governments. There was complete unity, solidarity and oneness of purpose, which created the atmosphere that defeated that deadly infestation.”

The former Vice President counselled against any tendency point accusing finger at anyone, saying if fingers must be pointed, it must be to solutions.

He noted further: “Nigeria needs firm and decisive actions to prevent an escalation of the scourge. Recently, we closed our borders as an act against economic sabotage. Perhaps now is the time to temporarily halt flights to and from any nation with a prevalence of this scourge.”

He made further suggestions: “We also need to invest in early detection facilities at our airports. But above all, Nigeria must not panic. Whether at government or individual levels. We have defeated Ebola before and we can defeat this present predicament.”

In the same vein, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) also charged the federal government to adopt the proactive strategy deployed by the immediate past administration to contain the Ebola Virus in 2014  to tackle the Corona Virus. A statement signed by the party’s National Publicity Secretary, Kola Ologbondiyan stated that it is time for the government to end its “cosmetics” approach to issues and put in place measures to check the coronavirus in the country.

While berating the Buhari for what he called unnecessary showboating with false performance claims, Ologbondiyan admonished Nigerians not to despair, but to be vigilant and follow preventive measures to ensure that the disease does not spread in the country.

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