Nigeria, like other countries across the world, is facing new realities. COVID-19 has forced us as individuals and countries to make difficult choices to protect ourselves and our loved ones.
The Federal Government has banned interstate travel for commuters who are not providing essential services. Since the first case of COVID-19 appeared in February, the number of confirmed cases in Nigeria has grown exponentially in three months. Presently, there are reported cases of COVID-19 across all the states in Nigeria apart from Cross Rivers and Kogi States. The virus does not spread on its own; as people keeps moving around, the virus will keep moving with them. It is commonsensical that interstate travel has to be restricted to limit the spread of COVID-19. The only exceptions are providers of essential services such as medical personnel or those transporting agricultural products and allied food items.
The Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, NCDC, and the Ministry of Health have continued to emphasise the need for individuals to take responsibility in restricting the spread of COVID-19 because one individual carries the virus to infect another or several others in a family, workplace or community. The repeated emphasis on taking responsibility has become even more glaring as there are clear evidence of community transmission across many of the states in Nigeria with emerging cases of coronavirus, especially in Lagos, Kano and the FCT where confirmed cases account for about two thirds of all reported cases. The active case finding in communities within these states has further shown that the continued movement of people and non-adherence to safety instructions has accelerated the spread of the virus.
The restriction on interstate travel has been in conjunction with the easing of the lockdown, and so far, adherence to the directives has been poor. This is an issue that is continually being been raised by the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19.
The Federal Ministry of Health has asked Nigerians to continue practicing the preventive public health measures already outlined, such as physical distancing, frequent handwashing, wearing of masks as well as restricting interstate travel as mandated by the government. The sooner we can halt this disease in its tracks, the better so that we can progress to the stage of rebuilding the economy, post COVID-19. Otherwise, Nigeria runs the risk of becoming overburdened by the disease with a slow and very long recovery. Ultimately, the wellbeing and economic performance of the country is dependent on the health and wellbeing of the population.
By restricting interstate travel, opportunities for the virus to spread will be limited within states and communities, where contact tracing and active case finding will seek out possible cases of COVID-19. It will also enable the government to channel resources towards states responding to a high number of confirmed cases, so that they are able to test, track and trace cases of COVID-19 and so limit the spread to other states.
In addition to the health and economic considerations of limiting the spread of the virus, there is the important need to prevent the health system in the country from becoming overwhelmed. High burden states like Lagos and Kano are already facing the challenge of meeting the growing demand for hospital beds as the number of confirmed cases continues to rise.
Evidence from Europe, North America and Asia has shown that the mortality rates were highest in the over-65 and other vulnerable groups such as people with underlying medical conditions. The easing of the lockdown will put this group at increased risk. Therefore, the restriction on interstate travel, especially where there is high ongoing community transmission is aimed at protecting this vulnerable group.
Healthcare systems outside urban areas are very limited, so if COVID-19 takes hold in rural areas, this could potentially lead to widespread deaths due to the limited health care infrastructure. We must therefore do the best we can to isolate and protect the high-risk groups, especially those over the age of 65, keeping them physically apart from populations that are most likely to spread the virus, as different parts of the economy are gradually re-opened. Those considered vulnerable are not strangers, but people within our communities and close circles i.e. family, friends, or colleagues. The government cannot do this alone. Nigerians must #TakeResponsibility and protect themselves and their loved ones.
Dr. Paul Ojowu is a public health and safety counsellor