Dr E. Osagie Ehanire is the Minister of Health of Nigeria and was appointed to President Buhari’s cabinet as Nigeria’s Minister of State for Health in 2015 and to the President’s second cabinet in 2019 as Minister of Health. He is passionate about advancing Universal Health Coverage and Emergency Medical Services is presently the captain, steering Nigeria’s COVID-19 response ship. The Minister’s narrates Nigeria’s COVID-19 response in his words:
Prior to confirmation of Nigeria’s first case of COVID-19 on 27th of February 2020, the Federal Ministry of Health had begun monitoring the COVID-19 outbreak in China and conducted risk assessments of the threat to the country, which revealed the Points of Entry, especially by air as key risk areas, along with logistics, surveillance, laboratory assets upgrade, infection prevention and control and case management. Thermal screening and a protocol for contact tracing were introduced at our points of entry.
We began a targeted approach to strengthen capacity across these areas. The Federal Ministry of Health established a multisectoral National Coronavirus Preparedness Group (NCPG) to ensure a cohesive coordination of the country’s preparedness efforts. To harness relevant support, an Inter-Ministerial Committee on COVID-19 (IMC COVID-19), was established, chaired by the Hon Minister of Health with relevant Ministers including Aviation, Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management & Social Development and Information & Culture in addition to agencies such as NEMA, NCDC. This initial response which was replaced by the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19, built around a unified command and resulting in the level of containment recorded in the fight against the virus.
On the 22nd of January 2020, more than a month before the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in Nigeria, the first public health advisory was published and disseminated, using traditional and social media. We increased molecular laboratory network and testing capacity. We worked with states and tertiary hospitals to establish isolation centres for treatment of COVID-19 cases. In addition, we began training health workers across all states on case management, infection prevention & control, surveillance and risk communication as well as other areas of epidemic preparedness. The Ministry of Health prepositioned medical supplies such as personal protective equipment in all states and developed guidelines and protocols. By the time the first COVID-19 case was detected in Nigeria, we had established testing capacity, trained health workers for case management, identified treatment centres, prepositioned the supplies we needed and begun to raise public awareness on the risks of COVID-19 and preventive measures.
Honorable minister, what were some of the lessons learned during this massive operation to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic?
We leveraged on lessons learnt from our Ebola response which was applauded and described as a piece of epidemiological detective work to mount response. We have keenly studied the unfolding Covid-19 outbreak in other countries, to learn lessons and hone our response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Federal Government demonstrated political will to protect the Nigerian people by immediate adoption of A WHOLE OF GOVERNMENT RESPONSE, in line with recommendations of the International Health Regulations (IHR). The Presidential Task Force on COVID 19 (PTF) provided the strong leadership required for a well-coordinated multi-sectoral, inter-governmental effort to contain spread and mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic that made a difference in our response.
The reality of community transmission and disruption of essential health care services led to development of a National Health Sector COVID 19 Pandemic Response Action Plan, strategically placed to address community transmission challenges, while maintaining routine health services, so that decades of gains recorded in the health system are not lost due to the pandemic.
We have sourced vaccines from reliable sources to ensure availability to our citizens. Another key lesson learnt is how much stronger we are when we work together. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Nigeria had built strong partnerships with UN organizations including WHO, regional health institutes like the Africa CDC and West Africa Health Organization, other institutions, the media, private sector and several other groups. We have benefited from their resources, expertise and networks in mounting both the public health response and overall response.
The lesson here is that in making decisions during a pandemic, we must be guided by science and data. We have continued to make our data transparent, communicate with Nigerians and use this data in making key decisions.
Any final words of wisdom, going forward ?
Africa has not experienced the doomsday scenario predicted for our region; however, we must sustain our response now and for the future. The spread of the Delta variant and increasing vaccine inequity place us at prolonged risk. So, we must sustain gains made by ensuring coordination at national and regional levels, along with required investments. The Government of Nigeria is grateful for platforms provided through WHO AFRO, Africa CDC and WAHO in West Africa for us to share our experience and learn from other countries.