News24.com | Black market for coronavirus test kits flourishes in climate of mistrust, stigma in Nigeria

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Lagos – A black market in coronavirus test kits is
flourishing in Nigeria, spurred in part by negligible faith in the country’s
health system to defeat an emerging threat.

Testing is a crucial weapon in combatting Covid-19.
It not only identifies where the stealthy virus has invaded – it also helps to
prevent frontline workers, in healthcare and the economy, from falling sick in
turn.

Every country is struggling to carry out sufficient
testing, but in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, the situation is dire.

Just 7 100 tests have officially been carried out
in a population of around 200 million people.

By comparison, neighbouring Ghana, which has a
population of 30 million, has carried out 68 000 tests, while South Africa, with
58 million people, has conducted nearly 114 000.

Right now, Nigeria’s 36 states have 12 official
coronavirus labs, which together have a capacity to test 1 500 people per day.

“We have no idea of the status of propagation
of Covid-19 in Nigeria,” a representative of a private medical lab told
AFP.

The lab is awaiting government approval to purchase
thousands of test kits and a machine able to carry out several hundred tests
per hour.

But “demand for these tests on the black
market is off the scale, off the scale,” the source said.

Lacking the equipment, the lab had to turn away a
request from a foreign embassy to carry out tests for its citizens.

Nigeria’s extreme need and its dextrous
entrepreneurs have unsurprisingly combined to create an instant black market.

Aware of the danger that this represents, the
government has warned Nigerians against fake do-it-yourself kits that are
emerging online.

Mistrust

The Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) is
carrying out doorstep testing in Abuja and the state of Lagos – the epicentres
of the country’s 627 infections, of which 21 have been fatal.

The authorities are also putting boots on the
ground, in the form of neighbourhood virus tracers, and opening brand-new
quarantine centres in their show of diligence.

But they are facing a deep lack of faith in a
public health system left crippled by decades of neglect.

Nearly four of every five public health facilities
across Nigeria do not even have running water, Dr Francis Faduyile, president
of the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), said last month.

Thousands of Nigerian doctors work in Europe’s
well-funded health services but at home, there are just 0.4 physicians per 1 000
people.

Mistrust of the public health system is such that
many patients are terrified of being declared to the NCDC, a physician in a
private medical clinic said.

“My patients don’t want to come to the
hospital, they think we are the NCDC police who will take them to Yaba,”
the source said, referring to a government-run facility for Covid-19 patients.

“They tell me on the phone, ‘If we come, you
don’t send us to Yaba!'”

The doctor recounted that, at the start of the
month, he had already seen half a dozen patients with coronavirus.

Just one of them consented to being tested, which
entailed notification to the NCDC.

The authorities carried out the test, but the
exercise was a waste of time. The test was eventually carried out more than two
weeks after the doctor alerted the NCDC – a period longer than the virus’s
incubation period.

Since then, the doctor has gone through back
channels to procure around 20 test kits for his patients.

Official testing is “too slow”, said
Zouera Issoufou, head of the Dangote Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Aliko
Dangote, Africa’s wealthiest man.

The foundation has partnered with the government in
the fight against coronavirus and ordered 250 000 test kits.

But world demand for the kits has exploded,
Issoufou said. “They are arriving in drips and drabs.”

Stigma

Richard Banda, acting Team Lead for the Expanded
Programme on Immunisation in Nigeria at the UN’s World Health Organisation
(WHO), said the use of dubious virus test kits was not the only problem.

Many tests are being done privately, and their
results are not being shared with the authorities, he said – which means that
cases may not be properly traced and isolated.

“The biggest challenge we face in the fight
against Covid in Nigeria is that people are not giving accurate information in
the traceability process,” he said. “There is still an issue of
stigma.”

A doctor at Lagos University Teaching Hospital told
AFP that a patient had been admitted there at the end of March with coronavirus
symptoms, but his relatives lied about his condition, omitting to say that he
had already tested positive.

“They were afraid that we wouldn’t admit him
if we knew he was positive,” the source said.

The patient eventually died – and four doctors who
had been unwittingly exposed to the virus he was carrying had to be placed in
quarantine.

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