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Protection of health workers pivotal to preventing second wave of Covid-19

When the World Health Organisation (WHO) alerted the world to the emergence of the novel coronavirus, there was some resignation and fear felt across every continent. It was the first time since 2009 that the entire world would confront a global pandemic. At least three existing generations must have felt a sense of novelty, with most inexperienced and some deeming it an unfathomable scenario. Eventually, WHO called a global state of emergency, calling all healthcare workers to once again don their uniforms to save the world from a global health crisis which would prove to be utterly devastating to many lives, businesses and economies in the subsequent months. 

The virus had reportedly emanated from a Wuhan lab in China with other publications linking it to the consumption of tainted bat meat. Accurate details of its origin are still unclear, but the sheer panic and fear it instilled still linger even as the number of confirmed cases appear to be on the decline. The virus had made its way from China, down to Europe and then to North America and several continents before making its stop in Africa. In Nigeria, record of the first-ever COVID-19 case was on February 27 when the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) confirmed that an Italian citizen in Nigeria had contracted the virus.

While the Nigerian government’s response to the virus was reactive, it was a response nonetheless. Airports were shut down indefinitely, lockdowns and curfews were imposed, and certain businesses ordered to shut down operations for the (un)foreseeable future. In the 9 months since the virus made its way to the country, we have witnessed different phases of contraction with regards to the virus, including a peak period, a medical phase and now, a period characterized by a reduction in infection rates across the country. 

While the world was ground to a halt due to the virus, some gears never stopped grinding to keep the wheels rolling. Our health workers were immediately thrust to the frontlines – testing, treating, and helping nurse patients to optimum health. However, their jobs were made harder than ever due to certain factors. First, they had to circumvent the poor healthcare system in the country to maximise treatment across the country. 

Also, public mistrust and misinformation took centre stage with many ignorantly dismissing the virus, describing it as the “rich man’s disease” and an embezzlement ploy for allocated response funds, resulting in non-compliance with lockdown measures and social distancing restrictions. This potentially undermined the impact of the government containment response and more specifically, it rendered the painstaking work done by health workers over the past few months almost useless. 

What was even more dispiriting was the fact that healthcare workers were subjected to prolonged isolation from their families, resulting in a considerable amount of mental stress. According to numerous research papers – depression, anxiety and stress have been prevalent among health care professionals.

Fortunately, in October, the number of confirmed cases is evidently on the decline. With each passing day, things are getting back to “normal” and life as we all knew it is gradually coming back to the fore. However, to ensure we completely defeat the current health crisis, it is important to eradicate complacency.

Nigeria can take learnings from developed countries currently experiencing a second wave. The UK, for example, received a lot of backlash with regards to its initial response to the virus. When the virus erupted, NHS workers complained that a shortage of vital personal protective equipment (PPE) put them at risk while some staff revealed they were forced to wear bin bags as makeshift protection, according to The Telegraph. At the height of the outbreak, many NHS staff were sick or forced to quarantine because of suspected exposure. Other countries across Europe currently seeing a resurgence in COVID-19 cases after successfully slowing down outbreaks include Albania, Bulgaria, Macedonia France, Poland, among others.

Health workers in Nigeria believe we are at a critical stage in the eradication of the virus, and our response to the declining numbers of confirmed cases could be a determining factor in getting us to the finish line. More importantly, health workers need to be protected now, more than ever. After all, they are first on the scene during diagnosis of the infected and have an increased risk of contracting the disease if not adequately protected. This puts these health workers in a position to eradicate the virus for good, or contribute to a renewed spate in infections. 

One entity that has identified this potential threat is The Coca-Cola Foundation (TCCF), the philanthropic arm of The Coca-Cola Company. While many entities were very blatant with the CSR initiatives and the positive optics they presented, The Coca-Cola Foundation were deliberate in their approach, devising a strategy that would directly impact the lives of those they sought to provide relief to. The exercise involved painstaking work, but it guaranteed the company’s impact in the lives of key stakeholders in the COVID-19 relief efforts.

One of the stakeholders the company identified and deemed crucial were the health workers. TCCF leveraged its longstanding relationship with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to support national efforts in the fight against the coronavirus disease through the provision of essential medical supplies, personal protective equipment (PPE) and risk communications to impacted communities, healthcare personnel on the frontlines and treatment centres across the country. 

Citing a research report on The Lancent, “in the UK and the USA, risk of reporting a positive test for COVID-19 was increased among front-line health-care workers. Health-care systems should ensure adequate availability of PPE and develop additional strategies to protect health-care workers from COVID-19 … With ongoing community transmission from asymptomatic individuals, disease burden is expected to rise. As a result, there will be an ongoing need for front-line health-care workers in patient-facing roles. Because this work requires close personal exposure to patients with SARS-CoV-2, front-line health-care workers are at high risk of infection, contributing to further spread.”

Corroborating the above excerpt is a local perspective from the Chairman, Committee on COVID-19, Nigerian Medical Association, Lagos State chapter, Dr. Japhet Olugbogi. In his words, “Health workers are like soldiers. You cannot send a soldier to the battlefront without giving him ammunition, body armor, helmet, boot and uniform. So, health workers need adequate PPE. Concerning the transmission of the virus, I have said it before, health workers are the most at risk. They are the ones that can spread the infection more than any other set of people. This is because they have direct contact with these patients. If they get infected, they can spread it to other patients. They can spread it to their colleagues and to their family members.” 

In early September, WHO revealed that over 41,000 health workers have been infected with COVID-19 in Africa. This raised concerns about the ability of countries like Nigeria — which only has about 0.4 doctors per 1,000 people — to successfully control a pandemic that has overwhelmed even better-resourced health systems, as reported by Devex. Multiple local reports in April revealed that over 40 health workers had contracted COVID-19; that number has more than quadrupled with over 1000 health workers confirmed to have contracted the virus as at September 2020. 

As the pressure increased on a handful of key health facilities across the country, so did the risk of infection for the health professionals working there. Currently, as the number of confirmed cases continues to reduce across the country, it is expected that some level of complacency will set in, with most public spaces declaring themselves open and more people choosing to ignore preventive measures.

The Coca-Cola Foundation’s intervention could not have come at a better time and points to the company’s approach to COVID-19 relief as well-informed. By providing health workers – who are at a high risk of infection and spread due to their patient-facing role – with much-needed protection at this critical stage, we are closing a loop which otherwise could devastate a country still finding her feet socially, economically, and health-wise. 

The journey to eradicating this virus is still a long one. Nigeria has done remarkably well in responding to the threat and containing it. At this critical stage, it is expedient that the public and private sector direct their resources towards ensuring the circumvention of situations that could land us in the second wave of COVID-19 – a situation which would no doubt plunge the country into unprecedented levels of crises.

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