On Ebola: We Have Been Lucky


Dr. Onyebuchi, Nigeria's Health Minister. Credits: newsnigeria.com

When the current wave of ebola epidemic began to claim lives by the hour in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia around March 2014, a handful of proactive Nigerians alerted the Federal Government and sought to know what measures were being put in place to ready the nation for any occurrence. In response, the government on April 2nd, 2014 through its Minister of Information informed Nigerians that there was no cause to worry, that Nigeria had put everything necessary in place to ensure that the virus does not get into Nigeria and that, should by a stroke of highly improbable magic, a minuscule of the virus disease stray into anywhere in Nigeria, we had in stock an endless supply of vaccines to make the virus regret its mistaken entry.

On hearing Mr. Maku’s statements, one would think Nigeria was for once ready to act out of character and be a model to the world in crisis pre-emption, prevention and management. Time and happenings have of course proved the claims as not only mistaken but deliberately false, mischievous and maliciously misleading, consequently costing us the lives of five Nigerians who were diligently doing their jobs at the time they came in contact with Mr. Patrick Sawyer, the index case. As at July 20th, 2014 when Mr. Sawyer arrived Nigeria, people from ebola-stricken nations like Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea were casually strolling in and out of Nigeria with not as much as a cough test at any ports – air or sea – or our many porous borders yet it had been four full months since ebola had become a full-blown epidemic in those nations. It says a lot about our self-sacrificing approach to foreign policy, immigration control and health monitoring. It is needless to point out that all is well and dandy at the Ministry of Information, the Ministry of Interior and the Federal Government by extension, the acts of gross negligence notwithstanding.

I watched President Goodluck Jonathan making his belated but quite passionate yet un-presidential “Sawyer is crazy” speech and all I could think of was Maku’s deliberate misinformation some months earlier. Was the President aware of the position of his administration which Maku represented at the time he spoke glowingly of imagined vaccines and wasn’t there a valid link between that misrepresentation and Sawyer’s desperate quest for survival as Sawyer’s widow would later have us believe? Even if Sawyer was crazy, the President failed to own the responsibility of his administration’s failure at being proactive. Almost a week later, television reports were still showing barely protected immigration officers at the Lagos international airport screening arriving travelers and the makeshift quarantine section at the airport looked more like a waiting bed of yet undiscovered diseases.

The glaring evidence of our luck (when put in perspective) came when a nurse who attended to Mr. Sawyer was reported to have escaped the quarantine facility in Lagos to be with her family in Enugu even though she ended up infecting nobody in the process. It is baffling that we had a quarantine facility for such a deadly virus as ebola with very lax security that allowed for the supposed escape. As it turned out, what we were operating wasn’t a quarantine in the proper sense of the word. People were mostly simply told to stay back in their homes while some health officials from Lagos state visited them at home. There was no enforced isolation as a proper quarantine requires. Dennis Akagha, the fiancé of the late Ms. Justina Ejelonu, one of the nurses who attended to Mr. Sawyer, recently granted Vanguard newspapers an interview and his descriptions of the quarantine facility as well as the manner in which the nurse was often abandoned in the mess of her bodily waste will make you shudder. He even had to go in to clean her up by himself on an occasion. You then wonder how we were able to get five alleged ebola patients to recover and get discharged under the same conditions. We have been lucky no doubt.

The Minister of Health, Dr. Onyebuchi is a queer man. His inability to handle an ego clash between labour unions under the auspices of his ministry with the required diplomacy and prevent the strike (which luckily prevented higher number of primary contact with the index case) aside, his actions at this time call for concern. Beside his recurring inaccuracies with the number of ebola infected people, his ministry’s re-appropriation of the ebola intervention fund is worrisome. When the Federal Government announced through Dr. Reuben Abati the N1.9billion emergency intervention fund to tackle ebola, I felt we could give the Federal government some benefit of doubt until the Minister announced he was rather using the money to buy cars and other unstated items for the health ministry. This is shocking to say the least. I have had cause to be in a teaching hospital recently where doctors and nurses complain of not being supplied the most basic hospital materials like face masks, protective gloves, scrubbing soap among others. When I asked if they would be supplied special protective gowns, considering the ebola outbreak, they had no positive hopes of such. Yet, in the face of all these and many more dire circumstances in our hospitals, a minister of health deems it fit to divert the ebola intervention funds to the purchase of new cars for his ministry. The same minister of health and his cohorts at the top were almost going to dose patients in our ‘quarantine’ facility with Nano-silver pesticides if the United States government had not raised an alarm timeously. We were again lucky.

I will give credit to the government and all other stakeholders within the Nigerian society who have taken it upon themselves to enlighten the public about the ebola virus and how to avoid being infected. The government has not been thorough though I must confess. While huge gatherings like the Osun-Osogbo festival, Redeemed church annual convention and endorsement rallies for the president by the Transformation Ambassadors Network go on unhindered, the government announced the suspension of resumption of secondary schools till October 2014 without much empirical basis. It was perhaps premised on the assumption that the lone ebola patient at the time may have recovered and the disease declared contained. Students of the Nigerian Law School initially scheduled to return to classes after their court attachments, on September 1st, have similarly been told to wait till October possibly for similar reasons. The new cases in Port Harcourt however make me wonder if the schools will ever resume but it is good to know the decision is now being reviewed and more pragmatic measures incorporated to equip the schools with ebola prevention measures,enlightenment and tools.

While the action of the deceased doctor who chose to treat his fugitive ebola patient in the hotel is reprehensible, the farce of our surveillance and quarantine arrangement that allows for and encourages people to escape is also a source for concern. I doubt people will run from quarantine if they are convinced by the facilities and personnel on ground that they will be well taken care of. Thankfully, there has now been an upgrade of the isolation centres and the Lagos state government deserves a lot of commendation for that and other ways it has risen to the occasion. It’s a true paradox that we were lucky Sawyer arrived through Lagos and not some other states with lackadaisical approaches to everything.

We need not downplay the situation in Rivers state but rather do more than we have been doing. It is also time to ensure funds earmarked to combat ebola are immediately released for that purpose, ensure the quarantine centers being set up by different state governments meet the required standards, equip our hospitals adequately generally to deal with possible incidences of ebola as well as other ailments, procure appropriate thermal scanners for our airports, seaports and borders which also need to be immediately reformed.

It is time to double efforts all round and not to pop champagne in tear-rubber ministry cars to spurious congratulatory pieces on how we have supposedly effectively handled ebola when in actual fact we have mostly been riding our luck. We definitely don’t want to see what happens should that supply of luck run out.

Tobi Adebowale

First published on The ScoopNG


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