27th February 2020 will go down in the history books as the day Nigeria succumbed to record its very first confirmed case of the 2019 coronavirus “COVID-19” throwing the nation into uncertainty, fear and turmoil.
The Nigeria Centre For Disease Control (NCDC), in its address, assured citizens that the government was prepared and ready to contain the spread of the virus.
Unfortunately, following global trends and case reports, the World Health Organization (WHO) on 12th March 2020, declared the disease a global pandemic due to an unprecedented global spread and rise in cases. This emergence of information prompted nations across the world, including Nigeria, to adopt lockdown measures to significantly diminish the risk of contagion. Yet, with rising incidences and death rates, there are concerns about Nigeria’s ability to contain the virus.
The COVID-19 pandemic has left people anxious, with unanswered questions like; when will this end? When will we find a vaccine? How are vulnerable people affected? Findings indicate that
individual’s living with Sickle Cell Disease (SCD) are at a higher-risk of being predisposed to severe complication in the occurrence of a COVID-19 infection. A major challenge arises from misdiagnosis due to the similarities with several symptoms associated with COVID-19 and SCD Acute Chest Syndrome (ACS) crisis. ACS is a complication of sickle cell disease characterized by fever and respiratory symptoms such as chest pain, cough, fever, hypoxia (low oxygen level) and lung infiltrates. Interestingly, this mimics the COVID-19 symptoms; an imitation that can lead to misdiagnosis at healthcare facilities or centers which can be life threatening.
To address this devastating reality, Sickle Cell Aid Foundation (SCAF) built the Warrior Fund Initiative (WFI) a technology enabled database solution for SCD patients in Nigeria. This database enables SCAF to reach out to SCD warriors across Nigeria with the aim of providing support and adequate information needed to engage in shielding. Shielding is a measure to protect extremely vulnerable people by minimising interaction between those who are extremely vulnerable and others. It is the globally accepted method of protection and safety assurance for individuals living with SCD. The WHO standards imply that these individuals are advised to stay indoors avoiding any face-to-face contact or interactions for the period where the pandemic is in effect. However, the vulnerable cannot do this without community support aimed at curtailing uncivil isolation, stigmatization, increased vulnerability or limited access to basic provisions and social care.
The peculiar conditions introduced from SCD in Nigeria coupled with the statistics at 69% of Nigerians living below the poverty line, highlights a significant challenge with the feasibility of the nationwide lockdown putting individuals living with the condition in a quagmire. In light of these challenges, the WFI primarily explores safe methods of providing “shielding” support to sickle cell warriors through its technological capacity, leveraged on human accessibility for functionality. Additionally, this database enables SCAF provide free mental health support, routine medications, relief materials and access to remote medical consultations.
In this short time, the WFI has shed light on the complex, yet real nature of SCD prevalence in Nigeria with testimonies pouring in from
There is minimal clarity on the effects the proposed ease of lockdown will have on the economy, but a continuous increase in cases requires the government/NCDC to recognize the gaps in policies that affect high risk groups especially during this period. There is a need to bring to focus, plans for special care at isolation and health facilities to prevent a situation of “survival of the fittest” triggered by overburdened facilities a strong indicator of neglect by the nation. Mandatory policy of shielding needs to be put in place to protect individuals categorized as high risk. It is important to note that though the lockdown (shielding) has been far from easy for individuals living with SCD it is a necessary evil and if evaluated should be a continuous safety practice/requirement for high risk groups pending the decline and or end of the pandemic. individuals across the country. This solution during the lockdown will provide support to hundreds of individuals living with SCD in Nigeria. Beyond the lockdown the WFI is predicated to provide useful tools to support governments and other stakeholders in relentless SCD advocacy, treatment and community improvements across the country.
For employers, understand that if you have employees with SCD that will require more time easing out of the lockdown to prevent exposure to risk, hence, be open to digital solutions and work from home arrangements. Universities and schools should be open to online learning and or institutional accepted methods of distance learning for individual categorized as high risk without prejudice.
The WFI has shown us that the SCD community can be shielded and supported adequately if all stakeholders rally around vulnerable groups and the organizations that support them to provide stability in these uncertain climes.
Elmer C. Aluge