Nigeria: Taking Covid-19 Vaccination Seriously Amidst 2023 Election Campaigns

Nigeria’s National Orientation Agency should use this electioneering period, amidst the national drive to tame the virus, to demonstrate its relevance by launching an aggressive public enlightenment campaign.

The build-up to the 2023 general elections will witness a sea change as from 28 September, when campaigns will officially begin. Nigerians have so far demonstrated considerable interest in the political transition, with massive turnouts for fresh voters’ registration and polemical exchanges by political parties and interest groups that are eager to beat the gun.

More than 12 million voters have been added to the erstwhile 84 million voters, who the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) registered for the 2019 polls. Clearly, Nigerians have turned back on the growing political apathy observed in recent years and are resolute in engaging actively with the campaigns and voting process. In this context, it is important to remind all citizens that we are not completely out of the public health hazard posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Political rallies pull large crowds to the point that sometimes even candidates find it difficult to snake through to the soapbox. Pushing and shoving, jumping, shouting and wild gyrations are hallmarks of such events. Physical distancing is rarely observed at mass meetings and town hall meetings. This situation is worrying as multiple mass opportunities are being created for vectors of the disease to infect massive numbers of people.

Taking the world by storm in 2019 before becoming a public health emergency in 2020, with millions of infected people, COVID-19 had a mass impact, leading to drastic protocols to forestall physical contact, the imposition of total lockdowns and therefrom a global economic meltdown. COVID-19 is, however, now being contained through massive vaccination drives, although it remains a severe public health concern. Nations that have achieved herd immunity – i.e. resistance to its contagion or spread within a given population – did so through aggressive vaccination. To reach this critical threshold, the World Health Organisation (WHO), recommends 70 per cent vaccination of a given population.

Unfortunately, Nigeria is quite far away from this comfort zone, with only 14.1 per cent fully vaccinated as of August 8, according to the Executive Director, National Primary Healthcare Development Agency (NPHCDA), Faisal Shuaib. This represents just 29 million out of about 200 million people. Consequently, the agency has just launched the SCALE 3.0 strategy to ramp up vaccination. Nigeria missed its 40 per cent 2021 vaccination target and has set a 70 per cent target by the end of the year to achieve herd immunity. Apparently, this is a tall order, given the prevailing state of affairs in the country. Hesitancy and conspiracy theories about the vaccines are encumbrances towards this goal.

As the efficacy of the vaccines wanes with time, about 157 countries have moved on to the vaccine booster jab levels. Mauritania and Seychelles are the only countries in Africa to have met the WHO prescription of 70 per cent vaccination, as of June this year.

Since 2 April, The Presidential Steering Committee (TPSC) on COVID-19 reviewed Nigeria’s general response to the health concern and relaxed some of the measures, like the rest of the world. Restrictions on movements and nationwide curfews from 12 a.m. to 4 a.m. have been lifted. The use of face masks for outdoor activities has been made discretionary, while it is mandatory for indoor activities. Mandatory temperature checks and use of hand sanitisers at events remain sacrosanct.

Instructively, the TPSC prescribes that political activities involving large gatherings should be held under strict adherence to the COVID-19 guidelines issued by INEC. Political parties bear the responsibility of compliance to safety measures. Since political rallies fall within this context, PREMIUM TIMES strongly urges the Electoral Commission to release its guidelines to parties, so they may begin to prepare within its framework. The chairman of TPSC and Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Boss Mustapha, was correct to state that, “We should not lower our guard(s) or give in to complacency as the virus is still very much around and can mutate. We must encourage all around us to get vaccinated.”

Indeed, the mutations of the virus, typified in the Omicron variant, which began in the twilight of 2021, the Delta variant and the decreasing efficacy of the vaccines, demonstrate the fact that full knowledge of the disease is beyond the ken of medical sciences for now. Therefore, national and individual consciousness of the scourge should be sustained, in spite of the disease being now more of an epidemic, than a pandemic.

As of 5 July, the global COVID-19 mortality figure stood at 6.3 million; 550 million confirmed cases; 5.3 million new cases and 9,177 new deaths, according to John Hopkins University’s National Public Health Agencies data. But WHO believes that these figures do not tell the whole story or magnitude of the danger the world is still confronted with. It estimates that more than 15 million people might have died from the virus. These variables and uncertainties have forced many countries to take serious measures to mitigate the hazards of the virus in their respective jurisdictions.

In Nigeria, official data reveal 3,147 deaths, 5,441,162 samples tested, and 262,664 confirmed cases, as of 17 August. Lagos has 102,849 cases; the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, 29,070 cases; and Rivers State with 17,656 cases, to top the chart among the 36 states of the federation and the FCT. These figures are mere cold comfort, as records of deaths and autopsies are not an established health regimen or culture in the country.

While the Western world had gone very far in COVID-19 testing to know its depth of infection and transmission in the first half of 2020, Nigeria struggled to set up a few molecular biological laboratories for testing, while some states governments and individuals lived in denial of the virus’ existence. Late national response to the disease outbreak and other shortcomings in handling it, explain why South Africa, for instance, has 102,066 deaths and Brazil, with a comparable population size to Nigeria, has 682,549 deaths, as against the mortality figures here.

Therefore, nobody should be deceived by Nigeria’s low tallies. Experts continue to warn that the virus is more dangerous to the unvaccinated than the vaccinated. This is why states should embrace the SCALE 3 vaccination scheme with vigour as it is entirely their responsibility to monitor the spread and risk of transmission. Persons above the age of 60, especially those with underlying health conditions like diabetes, hypertension and asthma are the most vulnerable.

Undoubtedly, humanity has come to terms with the reality that the disease will continue to burn through populations for more years to come until a permanent cure is found. Consequently, the advisory from the US Centre for Disease Control that the mix of vaccination and observing COVID-19 safety protocols offers the best protection, remains the best bet. Nigeria’s National Orientation Agency should use this electioneering period, amidst the national drive to tame the virus, to demonstrate its relevance by launching an aggressive public enlightenment campaign.

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