MEDICAL experts have criticised the Nigerian government in its handling of disease outbreaks, saying that the country is not prepared for future pandemics.
Though the government at an event on Thursday listed some successes recorded in handling COVID-19 as what it would build on to reposition the health system, the experts said the country had learnt little about disease outbreaks since it got Independence in 1960.
Speakers took turns to speak on the country’s preparedness for pandemics at a webinar organised by The Conversation Africa, a platform dedicated to sharing research from and about Africa with a global non-academic audience.
The meeting, the organisation’s first science-policy dialogue, was titled ‘Nigeria and the Next Pandemic: Preparedness, Response and Vaccines.’
Professor of Virology Oyewale Tomori said he was surprised that since 60 years that the country got Independence, it could only boast of two functional laboratories that could handle a pandemic.
He said the failure to provide a functional health system was pervasive across Africa.
Tomori said though Nigeria learnt lessons from handling disease conditions, including Ebola, Lassa Fever, Monkey Pox, COVID-19, among others, the country soon disposed of such experience.
He referred to Minister of State for Health Olorunimbe Mamora, who had spoken before him, saying that government’s plans on handling future pandemics were just a scratch on the surface of Nigeria’s health crises.
“The minister told us Nigeria started building laboratories (during COVID-19). We shouldn’t be building laboratories now, 60 years after Independence. We should be ashamed of ourselves that when COVID came, we only started with two laboratories. Sixty years after Independence, we shouldn’t be talking about that. We are counting those as successes when we should be ashamed of all those little things.”
He said disunity in Africa would halt the continent’s journey towards self-sufficiency in vaccines and other medical areas.
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“There’s a frenzy now of building COVID vaccine all over Africa. Years ago, the Africa Vaccine Manufacturing Initiative set up a committee and was looking at this issue of vaccine production in Africa. They talked of regional setup, not producing the same vaccine, but different vaccine so that if A produces one type of vaccine, all of Africa will buy. What are we getting now? The European companies are coming in and disrupting all those things.”
He noted that Africa had nothing to offer the world on vaccine diplomacy because it could not produce any.
Tomori added that countries like India, China and those in Europe were threatening that anyone that did not use their COVID-19 vaccine would not come into their country, but Africa could not make such a threat.
Nigeria, Africa are backward – Prof of molecular virology and genomics
Another expert and Professor of Molecular Virology and Genomics at the Department of Biological Sciences at Redeemers University in Ogun State Christian Happi said Nigeria had administered only over three million vaccine doses to over 200 million people (at two doses for a person).
In contrast, many countries in other parts of the world had vaccinated half of their population, he said.
He explained that Nigeria was privileged to have a skeletal infrastructure to tackle COVID-19 and that the country was better than other African countries with nothing.
He said Nigerians should be concerned with the functionality of the facilities built or rehabilitated at the peak of the pandemic, so they would not break down.
According to him, it would be difficult for Africa to collaborate and achieve anything that could surprise the rest of the world.
He further said that movement within the continent had been strenuous, and any form of collaboration to do something great would not work.
“We are talking of unity in Africa. There is no unity in Africa. Let’s be factual. How do you work in a continent whereby it is easier to jet out of Africa to share knowledge in Europe and America than to go from one country in Africa to another?” he asked.
He said Africa was only good at begging the rest of the world and would not believe in what it could do.
Nigeria, Africa operate broken health, educational systems – UNILAG former VC
Former Acting Vice-Chancellor of the University of Lagos Folasade Ogunsola, a professor, said Nigeria and Africa operated broken health and educational systems.
She said the nation was also facing a lack of data for proper planning.
“The greatest problem we have is that our systems around health and education are broken. If you are going to do research in health, it requires knowledge. It requires that you have a strong educational system; it requires a strong health care system. What we see across Africa generally is that we have a reactive approach to health rather than being proactive.”
She said a breakdown in health and educational systems made it difficult for citizens to believe any given data.
She said there was a need to invest in manufacturing, research, and human development, which she said were capital intensive.
Africa needs more collaboration for breakthroughs – South-Africa-based professor
A Professor specialising in Children’s Health and HIV Medicine Glenda Gray said there had not been enough collaboration among African countries in promoting health care.
She urged the continent to be fast and put its resources together to build synergy for breakthroughs in health and other sectors.
Gray, the first female President and Chief Executive Officer of the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC), said the continent had brilliant scientists that would drive its efforts.
Nigeria ready for any pandemic – Mamora
Speaking earlier, Mamora had said Nigeria faced different outbreaks of diseases in the last decade that gave it the experience to handle COVID-19 and prepare for future pandemics.
“Almost every year, we record outbreaks of Lassa Fever, cholera, meningitis, measles and Yellow Fever. From these, we are no stranger to large infectious disease outbreaks. Our population is estimated at around 200 million people. The tropical climate we have and the high rate of travel and trips to Nigeria put us at risk of infectious diseases,” he had said.
He explained that the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) carried out a study on coronavirus in China and returned to the country to collaborate with other tiers of government and train relevant stakeholders on how to handle the disease.
He said creating the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19, which gave direction to managing the virus in the country, exemplified quality leadership in disease management.
According to him, every country did not have adequate preparation to combat the pandemic because it was a new pathogen that was never detected previously.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, various epidemiological models predicted a doomsday scenario for Nigeria and other Africa countries. This was linked to weak health systems compared to countries in other regions, high population density, notably in urban, peri-urban settlements, prevailing conflicts and humanitarian crises in a number of countries and the contending burden of other diseases such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.
“Yet, till date, Nigeria and other Africa countries have reported far few cases and deaths compared to other regions in the world. But, we must remember that it is not yet Uhuru,” he stated.
Mamora, however, admitted that Nigeria did not prepare as it should.
Five lessons the country learnt from managing COVID-19, according to the minister, included: leadership and coordination; being stronger together; transparency and trust; working on science, data and evidence; and investment in health security.
He pledged that Nigeria would use the disruption caused by COVID-19 to build a more sustainable and resilient system for health security.
“Hard as it might be to focus on future crisis, while we are still facing the present COVID-19, the World Health Organization estimates we face a pandemic threat every five years. So, we must be better prepared, and we have begun that process now.
“As most people may be aware, the world has been faced with a huge challenge of inequitable access to COVID-19 vaccines with Africa bearing the brunt of it, while countries in Europe and America have vaccinated as high as 50 per cent of their population in less than one year. Africa countries are still around one per cent and faced with a scarcity of vaccines.
“The pandemic has created a sense of urgency around vaccine development and manufacturing in the Africa region. In Nigeria, we are taking advantage of this opportunity to establish our capacity for vaccine manufacturing fully. We have been working vigorously with Bio-vaccine Nigeria Ltd, a joint venture between the Federal Government of Nigeria and May&Baker PLC.
“We are strongly aligned with the Africa CDC target that by 2040, Africa should move from manufacturing one per cent of the vaccines it uses to manufacturing at least 60 per cent. Our country has the market size and the commitment required for this,” he said.
He, however, urged that other tiers of government endeavour to invest in their health system to complement the Federal Government’s efforts.