By Ebuka Onyeji and Nike Adebowale
Nigeria’s new COVID-19 infections have increased in the last two weeks, suggesting a possible resurgence.
To millions of Nigerians, the nation has moved past the worst of the coronavirus. That is even if the virus is “real and potent” in the country in the first place, many will argue.
After months of lockdowns with the attendant economic downturn, job losses, rise in domestic violence and health emergencies coupled with biting hunger, things appear to be fully returning to normal.
With Yuletide fast approaching, Nigerians now reckon it is safe to let their guards down – hands are no longer washed often, facemasks are almost forgotten, mass gatherings are no longer a problem, parties, weddings and even protests are back on the cards.
But it could just be a matter of small time before this comes back to bite us even harder and more devastating this time, health experts warn. As it is happening across Europe and the U.S., the dreaded second wave of coronavirus has commenced.
When it became clear that COVID-19 would be a global pandemic, public health experts warned of the devastating effect it would have on Nigeria and much of Africa. That forecast has not materialised compared to the havoc the deadly contagion is wrecking in the western world and many scientists are still struggling to figure it out.
But as the numbers begin to pick pace gradually in Nigeria, worries are rife that the second wave could be well on its way and would be more deadly especially now that we have lowered our guard.
Nigeria’s new COVID-19 infections have increased in the last two weeks, a PREMIUM TIMES review of official data shows, suggesting a possible resurgence in cases after weeks of low numbers.
Last week (November 1-7), the country recorded 937 new cases, a two per cent increase from the previous week’s record of 923 cases which was a 32 per cent increase from the preceding week.
Nigeria recorded its highest daily figure of confirmed infections in three months with the 300 reported cases on Sunday, raising the total tally to over 64, 000.
Countries across Europe are seeing a resurgence in COVID-19 cases after successfully slowing outbreaks early in the year, declaring more cases each day now than they were during the first wave earlier in the pandemic.
England, Portugal and Hungary are among nations in a second lockdown as the new wave of infections sweeps through, shattering efforts and responses to keep the contagion at bay.
Cases in the U.S. are also smashing new records with over 10 million infections thus far, a fifth of the over 50 million total global tally.
COVID-19, the potentially dangerous pneumonia-like disease caused by the coronavirus and said to have emanated from a local Wuhan market to spread to over 200 countries, has also claimed more than 1.2 million lives. This has exceeded the upper range of 290,000 to 650,000 annual deaths linked to severe influenza illnesses.
Drawing on historical pandemics, health experts believe second waves of viral infections are often more destructive.
The second wave of the Spanish flu pandemic during 1918-20 was particularly devastating and more lethal than the first, according to Full Facts, an international fact-checking network. The second wave of the H1N1 swine flu epidemic in 2009 to 2010 was also more lethal than the first.
Studies also show that natural defenses against viral infection like mucus and your nose’s cilia do not work as well in colder, dry climates, the very season we are about to enter.
Chikwe Ihekweazu, the director-general of Nigeria’s infectious disease agency, NCDC said a second wave was “inevitable” if citizens do not continue to adhere to measures put in place to contain the viral pandemic.
Both Nigerians and the government appear to be lax about adhering and enforcing COVID-19 safety protocols.
A few weeks ago, the #EndSARS protest, in which the youth demanded the disbandment of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of the Nigerian Police, erupted across the country with thousands trooping out in defiance to repeated calls by the NCDC and health experts to avoid mass gatherings.
Several COVID-19 protocols including the use of face masks and maintenance of physical distancing were breached as there were mammoth crowds of protesters packed in tight spaces without face masks.
Similar situations had occurred earlier in Ondo and Edo States where governorship elections were held and large political gatherings held without distancing and use of face masks.
Most safety protocols are now jettisoned in public places even in government establishments.
“Why I go wear that thing (mask)? Abeg coronavirus no dey for naija,” a dark-bearded passenger inside a cab moving from Apo district of Abuja, Nigeria’s capital to Area 1, told our reporter in Pidgin English.
Cabs have long resumed loading to full capacity from the days of lockdown phases when drivers were mandated to carry only three passengers – one in front, two at the back with compulsory facemasks.
This reporter was the only passenger wearing a face mask in the cab loaded with four passengers at the back, two in front.
The assertion of the bearded passenger reflects the general feeling of about 50 Nigerians engaged online by PREMIUM TIMES on Monday in a bid to gauge perceptions on the imminent second wave.
The majority believe the worst is gone, hence the safety protocols are more or less, a mere protocol.
“Coronavirus is no longer as effective as it was in Nigeria during the lockdown so I no longer observe safety protocols… “, said Emeka Anyanwu, a rights activist.
“I actually believe the coronavirus is no longer existing in Nigeria even though it is spreading in other countries. The recent rise in infections and all the noise about a second wave is just a political strategy to plunder the national treasury,” said Chinaemelum Ezeh, a musician.
Nearly three in every 10 Nigerians in a poll conducted in late April maintained that they have some form of immunity to the coronavirus.
The survey conducted by NOIPolls Limited, a country-specific polling service showed that poor knowledge and perception of the virus is capable of sabotaging gains made in keeping the contagion at bay. Fact-checkers and health officials are working furiously to provide accurate information and save lives.
In response to our questions via email on Monday, the NCDC director, Mr Ihekweazu, said the health agency also carried out its own survey.
“In the survey we carried out, most people believe that although COVID-19 poses a significant national challenge, their perception of their own risk of catching it is much lower,” the official said.
“We must remain cognisant of the fact that we are dealing with a pandemic caused by a new virus. We still do not have all the answers we need including information on long-term effects of the disease.
“We appeal to Nigerians to adhere to all public health and safety measures. COVID-19 is real. The statistics we receive daily on the number of deaths, are people with families, friends and loved ones,” he said.
Preparation for second wave
While reaffirming that a “second wave” may be inevitable, the official said there are various strategies to take to reduce the risk of spread and loss of lives.
“Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have built on lessons learned to strengthen our response and be better prepared for an increase in cases. We have grown from five laboratories to about 80 public health laboratories across all 36 states and the FCT.
“This has enabled us improve laboratory turnaround time. We have fully our digital tool for surveillance – SORMAS – across all states and LGAs for timely reporting. We have continued to communicate with the public and share key messages through mainstream and social media.
“The introduction of the travel protocol that requires a negative COVID-19 pre-boarding and seven days post-arrival is another important strategy to minimise the risk of infection in Nigeria. We have also provided guidelines for safe reopening of schools, businesses, religious settings among others.
“We will continue improving the work we do, but our success is really dependent on collective responsibility by all Nigerians. The virus is still with us so we cannot go back to business as usual. Please wear face mask in public settings, avoid large gatherings especially where public health and safety measures are not adhered to, maintain a physical distance of at least two metres from the next person and wash your hands regularly with soap and running water.
“No country is safe until every country is safe. The fact that we have recorded fewer cases compared to countries in Europe and the USA does not mean we are safe.”
‘We are not prepared’ – Nigerians
Meanwhile, majority of those who responded to our online inquiry on Monday believe the government is not “prepared” for the much predicted second wave.
“If there is a second wave, the response at best will be feeble and reactive. There is little evidence of readiness to confront a vicious second wave if it happens. Availability of isolation centres, equipment and the inadequate testing capacity are all highly questionable”, said Nnimmo Bassey, an environmentalist.
Ibanga Isine, a journalist believe we have developed a “herd immunity” and that is why it is not hitting us hard as in other climes.
“Herd immunity is what I believe is helping us. If there’s a second wave, we are not ready to handle it,” he said.
“No”, was the answer Lanre Suraju, a rights activist gave. “Both government and citizens are pretending to live in a world different from the global village where Europe and America are fast adjusting and enforcing measures to stem the invading second waves, threatening to be more devastating than the first”, he noted.
“We still live in denials and the government lost tremendous credibility and integrity mismanaging the first wave, to announce the imminent dangers associated with a second wave. Ultimately, the lives of ordinary citizens and businesses suffer the consequences of this poorly managed situation.”
On government appearing to be lax about enforcing safety measures, the NCDC director said, “it is important to note that not every measure requires enforcement by government”.
“Several institutions have a role to play in ensuring adherence to preventive measures- business owners, religious leaders, traditional rulers, school heads among others. For example, business owners can introduce measures to ensure that people visiting their stores have their masks on throughout to protect other customers and staff.”
Meanwhile, Confidence MacHarry, health data and security analyst at SBM Intelligence, said “testing is not enough to even gauge where we stand”.
The daily figures collated from states are published by the NCDC on its microsite, which ultimately serves as the yardstick by which Nigeria’s COVID-19 outbreak is being measured, just as it is in all countries battling the contagion.
However, the reliability of these figures is in doubt due to several loopholes, including state officials not turning in enough test samples.
Health experts believe the virus must have infected more people than reported, due to limited testing and poor contact tracing mechanism, a situation they say can also mask the severity of localised outbreaks in slums and crowded cities with large clusters of people.
“The federal government has all but abandoned the states and the NCDC to do as they please, while shifting its focus to the airports. No test, no case. Reduced testing leads to reduced figures. This strategy seems to be working well unless this second comes and becomes more destructive”, said Mr MacHarry.
Also, Henry Ewononu, a public health expert said lowering our guard has adverse implications “on not just the coronavirus pandemic but also the spread of other communicable diseases.”
“The only hope now is the vaccine. It’s also advisable to ask immune-compromised individuals and those with underlying medical conditions, Sickle cell anemia patients to go for the respiratory disease vaccinations”, he said.
Glimmer of hope?
Meanwhile, as the world braces up for a more devastating second wave, the race to find a cure for the disease is also increasingly gaining momentum.
On Sunday, Pfizer announced its coronavirus vaccine candidate was more than 90 per cent effective, increasing prospects that a cure is now much around the corner.
There is no proven cure yet but preliminary results from the vaccine could be a key milestone, increasing the confidence that a vaccine can train the immune system to recognise and fight the novel coronavirus without serious side effects.
The companies developing the vaccine – drug giant, Pfizer and German biotechnology firm BioNTech are now seeking an emergency-use authorization from U.S. regulators if further research shows the shot is also safe, the report said.
The U.S authorities will authorise the vaccine on an emergency basis as early as mid-December, according to a Washington post projection.
“The only hope now is the vaccine”, Mr Ewononu said.
“It’s also advisable to ask immune-compromised individuals and those with underlying medical conditions, Sickle cell anemia patients to go for the respiratory disease vaccinations,” he said.