Africa Defense Forum
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Nigeria Offers Many COVID-19 Lessons

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Nigeria’s approach to managing the pandemic has offered experts plenty to discuss. The continent’s most populous country is receiving both praise and criticism for its response to COVID-19.

Nigeria has recorded 256,148 COVID-19 cases and 3,143 deaths since February 27, 2020, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. While those relatively low case numbers can be partially explained by a dearth of testing — as of June 5, Nigeria had administered 5,198,572 tests — the country’s low mortality rate also has prompted much international analysis.

Recent blood studies on the continent show up to 65% of people in Africa have been infected with COVID-19.

In Nigeria, much of the scrutiny has focused on the government’s response and the capacity of its health care system.

Virologist and Nigerian government advisor Oyewale Tomori believes his country’s response and health care performance offer a mixed bag.

“The first thing that COVID did was to expose the flaws in our health system,” he said in a May 18 interview with Nature Africa online magazine, published by the science journal Nature.

“These are some of the things about our planning that we need to look at. Did we really plan properly? How many laboratories do we need? Could we have done with fewer, and improve the access of the laboratories to the states?”

In hindsight, Tomori believes Nigeria’s lockdowns and school closures were unnecessary. But his takeaway from those government responses is to advocate for African countries to customize their pandemic responses to their own infection rates, demographics and health care systems.

The Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) marked two years of its COVID-19 response with an article assessing its performance, highlighting successes and looking to the future.

Nigeria established infectious disease treatment centers, molecular laboratories and public health emergency operation centers in each state. The NCDC led the training of more than 40,000 health workers on infection prevention control and completed the digitalization of the country’s infectious disease surveillance system.

The NCDC also provided critical-care equipment to hospitals, while ensuring regular delivery of testing and treatment supplies.

“Despite this progress, it is essential that these investments in health infrastructure are sustained beyond COVID-19,” the NCDC stated on February 28, 2022. “Our priority remains to work with relevant government institutions and our partners to learn lessons from the pandemic and build back better.”

Tomori, the former president of the Nigerian Academy of Science who helped battle polio and Ebola in the region, warns that the continent must prepare for future pandemics.

“I hope we’re learning from that [COVID-19 response],” he said. “But unfortunately, many of the African countries, once the epidemic is over, we forget whatever lessons we learned. And then when your next one comes, we start all over again from scratch.”

A greater emphasis on viral surveillance is needed in Africa, Tomori said.

“Liberty from epidemics is eternal vigilance,” he said. “It’s not a holiday thing. We go on holiday from surveillance. We can’t dare to do that.

“Global health security is anchored on national health security. Epidemics don’t start all over the world at the same time. It starts from a place. Therefore, each country must prepare [as if] the epidemic is going to start from you.”

Similarly, Nigerian Academy of Science Executive Secretary Doyin Odubanjo wants to see the continent prioritize frontline health care labor as a critical aspect of pandemic preparedness.

“The health workforce in Nigeria, and indeed Africa, has to be seen as critical to national development,” he told The Conversation Africa online magazine. “Better strategies for retaining them must be implemented. There must be better welfare packages for health workers.

“Even countries with better health workforce to population ratios were readily overwhelmed and will now replenish or strengthen their health systems by drawing on the undervalued workforce of places like Africa. We must guide against this.

“It’s time to build strategically, build strong systems that also engender trust from the populace.”

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