YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – An official for a Catholic aid agency in Nigeria says international leaders “have a moral obligation to ensure that information they pass out to the public is factual, accurate and evidence-based,” after three Nigerians overdosed on chloroquine after President Donald Trump endorsed it as a treatment for COVID-19.

Dr. Emeka Anoje is the project director of the Faith-Based Action for Scaling up Testing and Treatment for the Epidemic Response (FASTER), which is co-implemented by the Catholic Relief Services, the international development agency of the U.S. bishops.

He said CRS Nigeria is being proactive in preparing for the COVID-19 coronavirus, which has already infected dozens of people in the country. He said following the announcement of the first case, CRS developed a scenario-based action plan “with clear guidelines for awareness creation, behavioral change, outbreak preparedness and stakeholders engagement.”

What follows are excerpt’s of Anoje’s conversation with Crux:

Crux: How big a problem is COVID-19 in Nigeria today?

Anoje: According to reports from the Nigeria Center for Disease Control (NCDC), on Tuesday, March 24, the total number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Nigeria is 44. Of these, 41 cases are active, two patients have been discharged and one death has been recorded.

However, what is increasingly clear is that this low number is not because the country has been lucky or particularly effective with preventing the spread of the disease — it’s more likely because local authorities are simply not testing enough people. As of March 24, Nigeria had tested less than 200 people. That’s compared with South Africa which has conducted over 15,500 tests so far, despite recording its index case a week later than Nigeria.

How prepared was the CRS to tackle the crisis when it first struck?

CRS Nigeria proactively commenced contingency planning and awareness creation for COVID-19 outbreak in Nigeria about two weeks before the first case of COVID-19 in Nigeria was announced. Following the announcement of the index case, the Country Program constituted a COVID-19 task force led by the Country Representative and which also included all the Deputy Country Representives and key staff drawn from the central offices and focal persons from the seven field offices. The task force developed a scenario-based action plan with clear guidelines for awareness creation, behavioral change, outbreak preparedness and stakeholders engagement.

 Two people have reportedly died, and another overdosed in Nigeria after using chloroquine as a possible cure for the coronavirus. U.S. President Donald Trump had tweeted on Saturday that people should use the drug as a possible treatment for COVID-19. What is your reaction?

First of all, whilst I can confirm the report from health authorities in Nigeria that following the tweet by President Trump of the U.S. which seemed to suggest that chloroquine was a cure for COVID-19, at least two persons were recently treated for severe complications arising from chloroquine overdose. I cannot confirm that any fatality arose from those incidents. That said I think leaders like President Trump have a moral obligation to ensure that information they pass out to the public is factual, accurate and evidence based. This is because people look up to them.

Typically, governments have responded to the pandemic through such measures as quarantine, basic hygiene methods as well the limiting of social gatherings. How have these measures been playing out in Africa’s most populous country?

Whilst some progress has been made across Nigeria to quarantine suspected cases of COVID-19, improve basic hygiene methods and limit social gatherings, I must however admit that these steps and the level of compliance have fallen significantly short of what is required to curtail the spread of COVID-19 in Nigeria.

There have been several reported cases of people – including senior government officials – who recently returned from high risk countries not observing the protocols for isolation. Last Sunday, despite the warning by government authorities to limit the number of persons at religious gatherings to 50 people, several places of worship recorded huge crowds of people with one of such worship arena reported to have had an attendance that exceeded fifty thousand people.

In addition, the majority of Nigerians work in the informal sector and depend on wages earned from daily activities. This has affected the level of adherence to the guidance of movement restrictions.

Public health professionals in Nigeria expressed confidence in the West African country’s ability to contain the spread of the virus. They pointed to key lessons from its successful response to an Ebola outbreak more than five years ago, as well as a series of measures already put in place before the arrival of the coronavirus. Do you think they are correct in their assessment?

No doubt the lessons from the successful response to the Ebola outbreak in 2014 have proven very useful so far in the COVID-19 response. Judging by the number of reported cases and deaths it appears the response has been successful. I must however caution that it is still early days of the COVID-19 outbreak in Nigeria and in a few weeks, we can truly understand and appreciate how successful the Nigeria response has been. 

How has CRS been responding to the pandemic?

CRS has enacted agency-wide protocols in response to COVID-19, including restricting travel to mission-critical travel only. Mission-critical travel is being assessed, on a case by case basis, with input from CRS leadership and the regional director. Concurrently, the CRS Nigeria team is working to assess potential risks to existing programs and develop plans to mitigate any identified risks.

Our aim is to minimize disruptions to program activities and maintain our commitments to the communities where we work, while simultaneously keeping staff safe and adhering to public health guidance.

There have been misconceptions in Africa that blacks are more resistant to the virus. Have you noticed this in the Nigeria and how do you deal with such an attitude?

Before the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Nigeria, a segment of the population believed strongly that the virus will not thrive in Nigeria and other African counties. This misconception was unfortunately amplified by a few religious leaders and other highly placed individuals. The government, experts, and CRS made efforts to dispel these myths and misconception.

Initially, it was quite difficult; however, when the number of reported cases began to rise and this included senior government officials, it became increasing clear that blacks also can also be infected by the virus.

Nigeria faces multiple crises, particularly refugees and Internally Displaced Persons. How does this reality pose problems to a robust response to the pandemic?

In addition to the refugee and IDP crisis in Nigeria, the country also faces security, economic and infrastructural challenges. The country’s health sector is not particularly strong enough to deal with a large disease outbreak. Nigeria’s economy is largely driven by the sale of crude oil which has been affected by COVID-19, with a reduction in price and demand for Nigeria’s crude oil at the international market.

How do you manage to respect the need for social distancing and at the same time take care of patients? In other words, what are the risks for healthcare workers and CRS staff as they battle to roll back the pandemic?

It is difficult on some occasions for a doctor to practice social distancing when treating a patient; hence the requirement to use personal protective equipment. Healthcare workers in Nigeria may be at a higher risk compared to their counterparts in other countries due to the near absence of personal protective equipment in many of the government treatment centers in the country. The real extent of this risk may become more evident in a few weeks as the numbers of new cases of COVID-19 rises.

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