An official takes a driver's temperature near Abuja, Nigeria. Picture: AFP/KOLA SULAIMON
An official takes a driver's temperature near Abuja, Nigeria. Picture: AFP/KOLA SULAIMON

Lagos — Nigeria defended the slow pace of testing for the coronavirus amid a lockdown that’s paralysed economic activity in its two main cities as concern over the government response to the Covid-19 pandemic grows.

The lockdown has kept more than 40-million people at home since March 30 and discontent is mounting in the country, which, in late February, became the first Sub-Saharan African country to identify a person with the virus. Health authorities have tested only 10,000 people out of a population of more than 200-million. Almost 1,000 infections have been reported, including 40 health workers, and 31 deaths, as of Friday afternoon.

Authorities have adopted a strategy of “managed acceleration” and want pool samples to multiply testing capacity as is being done in Ghana, which has rolled out one of the largest testing programmes in the region, said Chikwe Ihekweazu, director-general for the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control.

“I would rather go a little bit slower and get it right than speed into a situation that we will end up regretting,” he said during a briefing by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on Thursday.

There are signs that Nigeria’s weak health system won’t be able to cope with a larger outbreak. At least four private hospitals in the commercial hub Lagos closed temporarily or “until further notice” because they had to be decontaminated.

A laboratory in the northern city of Kano, Nigeria’s third-largest, closed after two workers tested positive. And reports that 150 people died in the state with the same name this week have added to fears that the government response is inadequate.

“Our performance has been a show of shame,” said Cheta Nwanze, lead partner with Lagos-based risk consultancy SBM Intelligence. “It’s been completely uncoordinated, with different state governments doing different things at different times. We have essentially wasted four weeks of lockdown.”

The national pandemic response is based on a mix of the CDC’s guidelines and an existing influenza outbreak preparedness plan that will be turned into a single document, according to Sani Aliyu, chair of Nigeria’s presidential task force on Covid-19. Nigeria had about 350 ventilators before the coronavirus outbreak, not all of them functional, and obtained at least 100 more in recent weeks, he said.

Still, the government is struggling to import the kits needed to enable existing TB and HIV centres to test for the coronavirus due to a global supply crisis, said Ihekweazu of the NCDC.

“Once we have these in, we will be able to quickly scale up testing across the country,” he said, without saying when they will arrive.


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