The Nigeria Centre for Disease Control has expressed fears that the number of coronavirus cases in the country will continue to rise for the next few months.
This hint came as the lockdown imposed on the Federal Capital Territory, Lagos and Ogun states ends at 11:59pm Sunday night.
The Director General, NCDC, Dr Chikwe Ihekweazu, told Sunday PUNCH in an interview that the number of cases was likely to increase given the increasing capacity to find and test more cases.
There were 220 new cases on Saturday as the total rose to 2, 388. The number of discharged persons rose to 385 while the number of deaths increased to 85.
The new cases were 62 in Lagos; 52 in FCT; 31 in Kaduna; 13 in Sokoto; 10 in Kebbi; 9 in Yobe; 6 in Borno; 5 in each of Edo and Bauchi; 4 in each of Gombe, Enugu, Oyo; 3 in Zamfara and 2 in each of Nasarawa, Osun, Ebonyi, Kwara, Kano and Plateau states.
Earlier, as part of measures to contain the rising spread of the virus in the country, the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), on March 30 imposed a 14-day lockdown on the FCT, Lagos and Ogun states, followed by a two-week extension. He noted that the extension became necessary as the pandemic was no longer a joke and had become a matter of life and death.
At the expiration of the extension on April 27, the President, in a nationwide broadcast on Monday, again extended the lockdown by one week, which terminates today. The President, however, said a nationwide curfew between 8pm and 6am would follow as a further measure to contain the spread of the virus.
Many state governors also introduced similar restrictions in their states, even though some have begun easing the lockdown despite the rising number of cases across the country.
Asked about his projection on when Nigeria would likely reach its peak and how prepared the nation was for it, the NCDC DG said, “There are various projections that have been developed based on various contexts. With the increasing capacity to find and test more cases, we will continue to see an increase in cases in the next few months.
“Our strategy is to test quickly, detect confirmed cases, isolate and manage cases to recovery and follow up with contacts to reduce the risk of spread.
“In the absence of a vaccine for this disease, we must continue to adhere strictly to directives from the Federal Government on non-pharmaceutical interventions such as closure of large gatherings and physical distancing. By doing these, we have a better chance of reducing the risk of spread of this disease quickly.”
When reminded that despite setting up 15 COVID-19 testing laboratories, less than 20,000 tests had been carried out so far, Ihekweazu said people could access the situation report on the NCDC website. “On the 1st of May alone, we recorded over 2,000 cases and this will continue to increase,” he added.
He added that in preparing for the increase in cases, the NCDC was working closely with state governments to rapidly scale up the capacity in treatment centres, even as he had hinted previously that the virus would eventually spread to all the states.
Notably, there has been an astronomical increase in the number of cases in the past few days. Since February 27 when Nigeria recorded its first case, the nation didn’t hit the 1,000 mark until about two months after, April 24 specifically when the number of cases rose from 981 to 1,095. The number of deaths then was 32.
But, barely one week after hitting the 1,000 mark, the number of cases reached the 2,000 mark on May 1, when the cases rose by 238 to hit 2,170. The number of deaths also more than doubled as the casualty figure rose to 85 within the period.
The Lagos State Commissioner for Health, Prof Akin Abayomi, had recently warned that the state, which is the epicentre of the deadly virus, had yet to reach its COVID-19 peak. He had also warned on March 27 that the state might see up to 39,000 cases but that if everyone practised good social distancing, the figure would be limited to about 13,000.
Prior to the President’s latest broadcast on Monday, the Nigerian Medical Association warned that lifting or easing the lockdown was premature, given the “exponential” rise in the number of cases on a daily basis. It also warned that with the rate at which the virus was spreading, the consequence of lifting the lockdown could be tragic.
The World Health Organisation has also warned repeatedly that it would be hasty for countries to start lifting lockdowns. “No country is safe from potentially overwhelming outbreaks as long as the coronavirus is circulating,” it added.
Despite the warnings not to lift the lockdown, the Federal Government however said it had put in place measures to contain the transmission of the disease.
The Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 announced on Wednesday during its media briefing that the use of face masks had become mandatory, noting that despite the directive that government offices and banks could resume operations from Monday, maintaining physical distancing and personal hygiene remained necessary.
“The restrictions on social and religious gatherings shall remain in place; state governments, corporate organisations and philanthropists are encouraged to support the production of cloth masks for citizens,” it added.
The National Coordinator of the task force, Dr Aliyu Sani, noted that to reduce the congestion, banks could only open between 8am and 2pm while civil servants on specific grade levels would be allowed to resume in their offices at specific times.
He stressed that all staff and bank customers must adhere to the personal hygiene and social distancing safety protocols, adding that all movements would be prohibited during the period except for essential services. He added that the ban on non-essential inter-state passenger travel remained until further notice.
But in a statement on Friday night, the NMA President, Dr Francis Faduyile, stressed that the timing for lifting the lockdown was premature because the nation was still battling with inadequate Personal Protective Equipment for health workers, lack of enough bed spaces in states for infected people and rising infections across the country, amongst others.
He added, “The easing of the lockdown even in phases is very premature. Nigeria should learn from her neighbour, Ghana, where the same action produced 100 per cent increase in infection rate in just a week.”
We won’t return to normalcy until 2021, says NCDC DG
Meanwhile, the NCDC DG has said the country, like the rest of the world, will not return to life as it was before the coronavirus pandemic until 2021.
Ihekweazu, who spoke on Saturday on The Platform, an annual event of Covenant Christian Centre, explained that though mass gatherings could be difficult to avoid, it would be for the best.
According to him, it is a sacrifice “we will have to make as a people to get over this.”
He highlighted that members of the public would have to rethink how they conducted businesses, social gatherings such as weddings and religious gatherings in the short term.
The NCDC boss said, “We are faced with a difficult reality and we are not unique in this. Every country is, right now, looking at the same challenge and how to get us back to some level of normalcy.
“But the reality is that we are going to live with COVID-19 for the next year, at the very least. So, we have to start thinking about how to live safely with COVID-19.
“Some of the changes we will need to make are actually good things to have forever. With the emphasis on hand washing, (use of) sanitisers and respiratory hygiene, my goal as the leader of the NCDC is that we continue doing this forever.”
He added that the habits would also prevent the spread of COVID-19, but also many other diseases.
“I hope we don’t go back, like we did post-Ebola, to an era of not washing our hands. Who would want that? So, we really want some of these measures to go on,” Ihekweazu said.
While fielding a question on the daily fight against COVID-19, the infectious diseases expert hinted that the worst had yet to come. “We really are at the beginning of this outbreak globally,” he said.
Ihekweazu added, “The point where we will assess how many people died in Nigeria versus everywhere else — it may be a year or two when we look back to the evolution of this outbreak. You can see that the outbreak comes in waves. We are not sure where we are on our own trajectory at the moment. It’s early days to reach conclusions around mortality.”
The NCDC DG noted that his team and many others across the country were working hard, adding that the state government and their care facilities were providing care for all those infected.
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