ONE OF Nigeria’s leading public health campaigners has told The Voice that Africa’s leaders have to do more to prevent the possibility of the coronavirus rapidly spreading on the continent.
In recent years Niniola Williams, managing director of the DRASA Health Trust charity, has won a reputation as a trusted health expert in Nigeria and across Africa for the work that she and colleagues have done to prevent the spread of Ebola.
However, speaking to The Voice, Williams said that even though governments and health professionals had learned lessons after the recent outbreak of the Ebola virus, Africa was still unprepared for the potentially devastating impact of coronavirus – known as Covid-19.
There have been confirmed cases of the virus in at least 48 countries around the world, with an estimated 80,000 infections.
Covid-19, which originated in the city of Wuhan in China, has resulted in the deaths of an estimated 2,788 people in the country. Numbers continue to rise.
To date there have been three cases confirmed in Africa. Today Nigeria became the latest country on the continent and the first in sub-Saharan Africa to report confirmation of a case of coronavirus.
According to Williams, the continent is the least equipped among the world’s regions to deal with a possible epidemic.
She said: “It’s a massive concern. It’s a shame because those of us in West Africa who lived through the Ebola crisis feel we have improved. We’re better than where we were but there is still a long way to go.
“There’s still a lot that we need to do and it’s a shame that we haven’t put those things in place.
“We don’t have the infrastructure that we need, health systems are weak, we don’t have the funding in place that would help prevent the spread of disease.”
Williams said that one important factor adding to the lack of resources were cultural issues, found in Nigeria but common across the continent.
“A lot of people don’t trust modern medicine, they don’t go to the hospitals, they go to their local traditional healers who will give them some concoctions or drinks, and say some incantations and prayers,” she explained.
“And why would they trust doctors? They go to their local healthcare facility and often there’s no doctor available, or there are no medical supplies. You tell them you’re sick and they’ll tell you ‘go and buy gloves, go and buy this, go and buy that’ before they can attend to you. So why wouldn’t you just go to your local healer who will tell you that if you just bury a feather and pour some blood you’ll be healed?
“It’s a concern for the African continent because we have all these various factors that play into the spread of disease and can really make coronavirus blow up should it come here. But we’re just praying that it doesn’t and we’re trying to prepare for it if it does.
“We saw that during Ebola across west Africa, this was what fuelled the outbreak and made it so much worse.”
Williams’ concerns echo those of other health experts and commentators who are bracing themselves for the worst should coronavirus spread in Africa.
One factor they point to is that over the past decade China has invested time and resources into strengthening its economic relationship with the continent, a fact that has seen the number of flights between the two dramatically increase by 600 per cent.
Thirteen nations, including Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, are seen as especially at risk and have been identified by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as priority zones for containing the spread of the virus, in part due to the high volumes of travel between them and China.
While the WHO declared coronavirus a public health emergency, it hasn’t recommended restrictions on trade with or travel to and from China. However, the WHO has also expressed concern that a widespread outbreak would overwhelm fragile African health systems. At least 20 nations have already issued alerts of possible cases.
Amadou Sall, a director at Institut Pasteur de Dakar, a biomedical research centre in Senegal, said: “We’re not waiting for an outbreak. We’re anticipating it.”
And billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates, speaking during a keynote address at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said that if Covid-19 reaches Africa, the continent could be looking at a death toll in the millions.
Despite the concerns, Williams said she was optimistic that public information campaigns the DRASA Health Trust have been working on in recent months are having an impact.
“A lot of people don’t trust modern medicine or go to hospitals”
She said: “Education and awareness is so important. They really contribute to Africans understanding what this coronavirus is and how to protect themselves so they’re not operating from a place of fear. Yes, these things are scary, but there are things we can do and there are simple steps we can take to protect ourselves.”
One of her recent initiatives is a public health campaign centred around IPC – which stands for “infection prevention and control”.
She said: “It’s basically simple strategies that can be implemented in the hospital environment to reduce the chance of a virus spreading.
“For example, the same way you or I might wash our hands before a meal is not the same way a doctor should be washing their hands in hospital.
“There’s a completely different method and practice to how they do it. This is important because the way you take that glove off, the way you dispose of it, the way you wash the linen, the way you wash the bedsheets that come into contact with patients, the way you clean the environment, these are factors that can either stop or facilitate the spread of germs, bacteria or viruses.
“So when we do our training we don’t just train the clinical staff, such as doctors and nurses, we train the admin staff, we train the cleaners as well, we train the people that manage the waste.”
She continued: “We’ve had cases here in Nigeria where cleaners have spread infections through an entire hospital because they cleaned up an area where there was an infected patient with a mop, so you can easily see how these things can spread, especially if people haven’t been trained.
“The fact that we work with government has allowed us to reach as many people as possible.”
In a bid to support underfunded health systems such as Nigeria’s, the WHO is sending kits to 29 laboratories on the continent to ensure they have the capacity to deal with the virus and test samples from other countries.
Also, financial backing to tackle the disease may come in the form of the World Bank’s Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility which can provide an additional source of financing to help the world’s poorest countries respond to large-scale outbreaks in the event of a pandemic. However, the coronavirus outbreak is not yet considered a pandemic.