Poor Contact Tracing Bedevils Nigeria’s War On COVID-19

Despite shutting its air borders to international aviation services the country remains unsecured while citizens feel unsafe. It appears that much is left to the discretion and sense of responsibility of Nigerians who recently returned from countries hit by the coronavirus to self-isolate.

Over 4, 370 people that had contact with index cases of coronavirus are still being traced. Many of those people have reportedly mixed in with the general public, violating the self-isolation directive.

On Thursday, Lai Mohammed, the Minister of Information said that some Nigerians arriving from overseas into the country, put incorrect addresses and phone numbers on their forms, making it difficult to trace them when the need arose.

The closure of Nigeria’s international airports, Murtala Muhammad International Airport of Lagos and the Nnamdi Azkiwe International Airport of Abuja, happened on March 23.

This comes days after the government restricted air travel from countries with over 1000 COVID-19 cases and subsequently banned international flights to Aminu Kano, Akanu-Ibiam, and the Port Harcourt international airports.

The Minister of Aviation has approved travel for flights in distress, overflights, and any flight concerning humanitarian, medical and relief efforts. These flights are exempted from the aforementioned restrictions.

The flight restrictions come amidst a rapid increase in cases of COVID-19 spreading in the country. International air travel passengers returning from infected countries and individuals exposed to these carriers comprise the recent increase in cases.

This has led the Nigerian government to track individuals returning from abroad, providing returnees with advisory guidelines on self-isolation, and mechanisms to report if they show symptoms of the coronavirus.

While the government has been successful in tracking and contacting some passengers, it has become a challenge to track everyone and ensure those quarantine procedures are followed.

This has increased the risk of community infection and placed the country on a dangerous trajectory towards a major public health crisis.

HumAngle reports that there was panic on Tuesday at Games Village in Abuja following the evacuation of a woman and her three children suspected to have flouted the 14-day self-isolation directive.

The woman, who returned from the United Kingdom in the last two weeks, was also said to have observed the Juma’at Service at the mosque in the estate last Friday.

Most residents of the village remained indoors amid fears of more residents testing positive.

The National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and health authorities were said to have ordered the fumigation of the hospital in the estate where the woman and her children were evacuated.

But most residents were advised to keep the evacuation under wraps in order to not cause a stampede.

This is one of the returnees that the government had found difficult to trace, until public outcry by neighbours. There are still more unreported cases, leaving the public vulnerable.

The inability of the government to track and ensure that returnees self-isolate is a symptom of a wider problem in the country. Nigeria does not have the capacity to implement structures that effectively check and balance the rising pandemic.

On the government’s side, trust that the public will adopt proper hygiene habits and report if they have been exposed is not there.

This breakdown highlights the deep trust deficit between the government and the public. The weak capacity and inefficiency of state institutions and processes to have garner public cooperation makes tracking impossible.

In Singapore and Ghana, travellers from affected countries were placed under mandatory quarantine in accommodations converted to isolation facilities.

In Israel, South Korea and Taiwan, authorities used a wide range of digital surveillance technologies to track travellers, enforced quarantine measures and received updates on the health status of potential carriers and low-risk patients.

In Nigeria, authorities designated the international airports as the first line of defence with health service personnel screening travellers, taking temperature readings, reviewing travel history, and persuading passengers to provide accurate information on their forms needed for tracking.

All persons returning are required to self-isolate for 14 days, even if they are asymptomatic. As it stands, a bulk of them have refused to self-isolate, putting others at mind especially since no-one can get tested until they start to show symptoms. It raises a bigger question as to the reason most of the returnees lied on their forms.

According to Mr. Cheta Nwanze, Head of Research at SBM Intelligence, Nigeria is a low-trust society. People prefer to stay as far away from the government as they can.

This usually includes giving false names and addresses so that government agents, who have a history of extorting and abusing civilians, have difficulty tracking their whereabouts.

The lack of an effective national database and identification system has exacerbated the problem, affecting the ability of NCDC and other related agencies to verify information, match travel history with a functional ID system, and track all passengers.

At least 80 percent of the 65 recorded COVID-19 cases in Nigeria are returnees from high-risk countries and the remaining are secondary contacts to the first group.

Lagos now has 44 cases; FCT- 12; Ogun- three; Ekiti- one; Oyo- one; Edo- one; Bauchi- one; Osun- one; Rivers – one. With the poor contact tracing, the discovery of more cases is inevitable.

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Murtala Abdullahi

Abdullahi Murtala is a researcher and reporter. His expertise is in conflict reporting, climate and environmental justice, and charting the security trends in Nigeria and the Lake Chad region. He founded the Goro Initiative and contributes to dialogues, publications and think-tanks that report on climate change and human security. He tweets via @murtalaibin

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