In this interview, the Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Industry, Trade and Investment, Dr. Nasir Sani-Gwarzo, told The Commerce Africa how Nigeria will come out stronger from the recession. Excerpt:
TCA: The world has experienced polio, malaria, Ebola, HIV among other deadly diseases yet the world leaders were not exceptionally disturbed as they are now in the case of Coronavirus. What is so scary about COVID-19 that economies have to shut down?
Sani-Gwarzo: The coronavirus is a new disease that has not been fully understood. Its dimensions are still emerging. In public health programming, previous experience with a disease confers some levels of understanding of another in the same family. In the case of COVID-19 the references are the past experience with the viruses of its family. Surprisingly, COVID-19 behaves differently from the members of its family; the rate at which it spreads and transmits, the level of infectivity it has on different populations and age groups. It selectively kills certain age groups faster than others. It’s so different that even the treatment response rate is different from one patient to another.
So, many economies had to shut down because of the high infectivity rate of the disease and that is one of the reasons it is the scariest disease. If you look at other diseases, some are seasonal or peculiar to certain climate but COVID-19 survives in cold and hot environments. It affects all age groups although the impact is more on the old but even the young are not spared. Also, the countries that have economic advantages and are highly industrialized are not saved from the virus. Today, one of the epicenter of people that contracted COVID-19 is the United States. So, it doesn’t respect the level of any economy be it poor or rich, developed or developing. They all get infected. Isn’t that scary?
TCA: What happened to our national medical surveillance strategy that a foreign disease like COVID-19 escaped the borders and even spread across almost the 36 states of the Federation?
Sani-Gwarzo: We have a robust system called the Nigeria Port Health Service and incidentally I was the Director of that department for three years when I was in the Ministry of Health. We have a system in every port of entry which we call the POE be it Air, Land, or Sea borders. We have over 300 POEs that are manned by officials who work every hour in their various locations. However, symptoms of COVID-19 are very dynamic and they don’t manifest instantly when somebody is infected. That makes it nearly impossible for POEs to track. Statistics have shown that 81 percent of people who contracted COVID-19 do not show any sign or symptom immediately. They don’t even get sick at all immediately. Only 19 per cent of the infected people easily fall sick with the disease. Out of this 19%, 14% will get some mild to moderate illness. Only 5% are severely sick and a few out of these 5% may die. So, if you go to the airport looking out for a COVID-19 sick person, you may not be able to pick any unlike Ebola. Immediately someone comes in with Ebola, you can easily identify him by the temperature but with COVID-19, the test takes longer. Also, you do not pick infection beyond certain parameters. For example, if someone gets infected with the virus today, he could still test negative and transmit it even before the symptoms start manifesting but the good thing is that once people observe the preventive measures, it helps in reducing the risk of infection and spread. And that is why all those preventive measures were rolled out including the lockdown and banning of interstate movements in Nigeria. The moment you come together within a certain distance or travel together or live in the same space either on the road or airport, the risk of contracting the virus is there. The risk in the airport far outweighs the risk inside the plane because within the plane, there’s a negative pressure. The air is sucked out regularly and periodically such that the air you breathed in just a few minutes ago would have been totally replaced in the cabin. The surveillance system is good but by nature of the virus, you can easily miss the infected person who can transmit the disease.
TCA: Recently, you led the presidential technical team to Kano to support the state’s response team on COVID-19. Would you share your experience?
Sani-Gwarzo: Fighting epidemic is not new to me. This is the 11th major epidemic outbreak response team I have led within and outside Nigeria. So, it was a privilege to be called upon under the Ministerial Task Team which had the approval of the President to support Kano State during COVID-19 crisis. It was an exciting exercise because I had the advantage of knowing the terrain and the disease deeply. I led a delegation to Kano when the infection and death rates were high. We did some studies and found that coronavirus had already taken almost a community dimension in Kano at that time. As God will have it, in the first two weeks my team had worked in Kano, we recorded a huge success. We were able to improve the quality of public awareness and helped in reestablishing test centers. Test is a very key component of the response requirements. The laboratory capacity and facility we met in Kano was inadequate, so we played a key role in increasing the number and test capacity of the laboratories. Also, we improved and increased the number of response teams that went out to the field i.e., the rapid response team. When we arrived in Kano, there were only 15 response teams, we helped increase the number to no fewer than 60. Each team was provided with a vehicle, driver, an environmentalist, an epidemiologist and a laboratorian who went to the field to take samples or to bring patients and take them to isolation centers. We increased the isolation centers with the holding capacity of about 200 to about 1000. The response was really good and it wasn’t just only in Kano, after working there for 2 to 3 weeks, the Minister directed us to respond to the same problem in other neighboring states. We were able to respond and correct the situations in 9 states. And with our swift interventions, the number of cases reduced drastically in these states. Note that we didn’t work directly as the Federal Government’s team. We supported the state and local governments’ response team to administer the work. So, we all shared the credit of the successes recorded.
TCA: Are you satisfied with Nigerians’ level of compliance with the COVID-19 preventive measures?
Sani-Gwarzo: Certainly this is a very important and difficult question. One cannot be satisfied with what is going on especially when you look at what is happening across the globe. Many states that have successfully locked down and prevented the increase of the disease during its rising phase had relaxed their guards against the disease which is not good, people are oblivious with the fact that Nigeria is still in the rising phase of the pandemic. I am raising this point because Nigeria is still in the rapid rising phase of the epidemic and that’s why you see our figures on a daily basis are increasing. It has three phases; a rising phase, plateau phase and the decline phase. This is not the time to relax. Even if some states are experiencing a low number of cases, it is not a reflection of a reduction rather it is a reflection on the test capacity of the laboratories. If you test more you may find more cases. If you test accurately, you would find more accurate results. While Nigeria is still on the rising phase, it will be very foolhardy for us to think that the pandemic is coming down. It is not and another fear that we have is even countries that have started seeing the plateauing of their cases they are now experiencing a second wave of the disease which indicates that their efforts in the first wave helped in reducing the cases but after relaxing they got a big-bang and that’s the likely scenario that may happen in many countries. That is the fear we have in Nigeria, if care is not taken we’ll still enter a second phase. If you go to many Ministries that are just opening up, at the beginning there was some good control, staff were taking precautions but now the number of people that are using face masks and taking precautions has reduced. The fear in the mind of the people has reduced and this isn’t good for the nation because when the second wave comes, it can be devastating.
TCA: You are known for strategic and innovative public health management, what African-made approach would you suggest towards tackling coronavirus pandemic?
Sani-Gwarzo: The natural rule for fighting epidemics is not to borrow hook lines and tinker with what other countries are doing. The rule is to domestic every international approach that you see, try to apply it to your own local context. In our case, there are a few things that need to be done differently such as public sensitization, use of local language to communicate by the people to be deployed to sensitize others. In developed countries, once the doctors speak it’s understood and taken seriously. To sensitize people in African culture, you need to get through the gatekeepers; talk to the traditional and religious leaders to champion the advocacy. From my experience fighting epidemics, the moment you talk to traditional and religious leaders they will support you. If you make them experts in their own rights in the new disease control area, that is, giving them all the level of education they need; the exposure, the tools and tell them to lead the response, there will be desired outcome. Another point is the pandemic of COVID-19 is new. On a daily basis new facts are being discovered. There must be a system of understanding these new information, digesting them and making them available within the local context and I believe that’s what the COVID-19 Presidential Task Force (PTF) is doing. On a regular period they look at new information and apply it to our local context and circulate it to the states and governments to further translate it to their local context and issue out their own commitment. The coronavirus is a no respecter of temperature and weather and for which we think that as soon as the warm weathers set in it will go away. No! COVID-19 is likely to be with us for several years, in-fact the prediction is that the world will no longer be the same. So people have to be careful when handling the case of COVID-19 and not only to be careful, we need to be proactively educating ourselves on the new advances , new discoveries concerning the virus and applying it on a regular basis.
TCA: Your Ministry is a strategic driver of economic growth and prosperity of Nigeria especially through engineering of non-oil sectors and SMEs, what are your post-COVID-19 pandemic plans to put the economy back on the track of growth?
Sani-Gwarzo: The good thing was that the Ministry never went to sleep during the lockdown and Nigerians will tell you that they did not experience a total breakdown in the supply chain of any product. How did it happen? Was it a coincidence? Or did someone have sleepless nights. It was not a coincidence, it was carefully planned by this Ministry under the leadership of our two Honourable Ministers and our Directors. We constituted a team for Sustainable Production and Delivery of all essential products and pharmaceuticals in the country. We ensured that industries were able to produce during the lockdown, logistics and delivery chains were sustained. We had a good partnership with all the members of the organized private sector particularly the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria, Nigerian Chambers of Commerce, Traders Association, the Road Transport Workers and security agencies. We ensured that the manufacturers and transporters of essential commodities had 24 hours access to travel routes across the country. Immediately after two months of our successful operations, we transformed the committee from an Emergency Operation Center to Sustainable Development Center for a more challenging task. The committee is working on transforming the lessons learned from the lockdown period towards addressing challenges facing the country’s manufacturing sector. For example, we were able to stabilize the production and price of alcohol hand sanitizers through stakeholders engagement including stakeholders in the sugar production and pharmaceutical companies. Ethanol is the active ingredient of hand sanitizers so we asked the sugar companies and alcohol distillers which are the basic producers of ethanol to step up the production so that it will be abundantly available to the pharmaceutical companies that utilize it for producing hand sanitizers. With this initiative, we were able to control hand sanitizers price gouging by the retails shops. Another example of lessons learned is that Nigeria usually relies on importation of pharmaceutical ingredients and products. During the lockdown, some countries banned exportation of active pharmaceutical ingredients because they needed them also.
Now that we have learnt these lessons, we have stimulated the manufacturing sector whereby all our essential commodities will be produced locally. We are bringing together the utilizers and producers of each essential product to make sure that we exhaust local capacity and that’s one of the things that Nigerians will be very proud to see happening after the pandemic.
TCA: Do you see Nigerian economy coming out of the recession any time soon?
Sani-Gwarzo: Considering the efforts of President Muhammadu Buhari and what the Ministry is doing to sustain the economy, we are likely to come out stronger from the recession. This is because we are taking the lessons learned from the pandemic crisis to guide and define not only our immediate exit from the recession but to develop our sustainability plan for the economy. I believe with the carefully planned interventions the economy will grow stronger in the months to come.