‘Fighting the COVID-19 pandemic should not be a one-off emergency action’

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Ebele-Okeke

Interview with Nigeria’s WASH Ambassador

By Olajide Adelana

Ms Ebele Okeke, WSSCC’s WASH Ambassador in Nigeria, speaks on the novel Coronavirus disease, and what Nigeria must learn while addressing the pandemic. She shares her thoughts as to why Nigeria should use this as an opportunity to accelerate precautionary measures for stopping the spread of future infectious diseases.

WSSCC: With the number of confirmed cases of Coronavirus disease rising in Nigeria over recent weeks, do you think this pandemic has highlighted the importance of hygiene in our daily life?

Ms Ebele Okeke, WSSCC’s WASH Ambassador: The Coronavirus pandemic is basically a hygiene problem, which can be mitigated by handwashing with soap and water. This highlights the importance of hygiene in our everyday life. And if we must flatten the curve of this pandemic, we must adhere to hygiene principles as issued by the World Health Organisation and the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC).

WSSCC: How would you assess Nigeria’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and does this have any implication for Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) in stopping the spread of preventable diseases?

Ms Okeke: I must commend the Nigerian government’s response to the pandemic, but a lot still needs to be done as more cases of infection are being confirmed. Measures such as lockdown of major cities, where the pandemic rate is high, may seem harsh, but the gains make it worthwhile. In my opinion, declaring a national lockdown will also go a long way in stopping the spread of this pandemic.

Fighting this pandemic should not be a one-off emergency action. Rather, the government should use this as an opportunity to respond to WASH-related matters as a precautionary means for stopping the spread of preventable diseases.

For example, since 2018, government policymakers and key development partners have aggressively set in place structures for WASH, which the government is supporting. But it is important for us to keep on reminding the government to put more effort into streamlining WASH into governance and also increasing advocacy and dedicating more finances to WASH.

WSSCC: Hand hygiene is said to be essential in curbing the spread of the virus. What are the lessons for Nigeria in light of the campaign to end open defecation?

Ms Okeke: Yes, handwashing with soap and water is very important for containing disease outbreaks such as COVID-19, Ebola, diarrhea, dysentery, and cholera, among others. In the Clean Nigeria: Use a Toilet campaign, which is targeted at stopping open defecation within the country by 2025, the aim is to instill an understanding of proper sanitation and hygiene practices in every Nigerian in order to have a healthy populace.

The lesson, therefore, is for Nigeria as a country, and for Nigerians, to practice proper sanitation and hygiene not only when there are epidemics or pandemics. Open defecation is a clear and present danger to any country.

WSSCC: While curtailing the spread of COVID-19 has largely been the responsibility of the government, how important is the role of the citizens?

Ms Okeke: Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the government at all levels has been proactive in the fight against this pandemic. However, every Nigerian must rise up and know that this pandemic is also an individual problem.

Every citizen must show some level of responsibility by staying at home, washing hands with soap and water as many times as possible, or using hand sanitizers where there is no water. People must learn to be responsible for their lives and also show some consideration for the lives of others.

WSSCC: What do you think may be fanning the belief by some people that Coronavirus does not exist, and does this challenge shed any light on the campaign to end open defecation in Nigeria?

Ms Okeke: It is unfortunate that a number of Nigerians do not think COVID-19 is real, and some have this misconception that COVID-19 is a rich man’s disease. The reason is that over 99 percent of the cases were people flying into the country from other countries. This idea is false because diseases have no social status barriers, and anybody can be infected if you do not follow the precautionary measures.

Yes, this unfortunate ‘unbelief’ mirrors the type of challenges confronting the campaign against open defecation, which is the flip side, where the rich believe sanitation issues are specific to the poor. This is most unfortunate as no country can achieve economic growth if it neglects sanitation and good hygiene practices.