Mystery Deaths Thrust Kano Into Epicentre of Nigeria Coronavirus Fight

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Kano State Governor Abdullahi Ganduje

By William Clowes and Mustapha Adamu

Presidential task force pins extra deaths on coronavirus

Rising cases of unexplained deaths have put Kano at the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak in Nigeria.

Local news reports citing cemetery workers that emerged last month revealed a spike in mysterious deaths in the city with an estimated eight million residents. Kano State Governor Abdullahi Ganduje initially blamed ailments such as diabetes and malaria. President Muhammadu Buhari extended the lockdown in the city, while loosening restrictions on the biggest urban area, Lagos, and the capital, Abuja. An emergency team he sent to assess the situation pointed to the pandemic.

“Our careful observation and understanding indicated that coronavirus is the cause of the mass deaths,” Nasiru Gwarzo, the head of the presidential task force, told reporters on Sunday in the city.

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Kano is becoming new focus of outbreak

While fewer than 50,000 of the approximately 3.5 million confirmed cases of coronavirus worldwide are in Africa, the speed with which the situation unraveled in Kano has heightened concern the virus has spread undetected in other crowded cities on the continent.

Home Deaths

Some hospitals in Kano have closed because health workers fear contracting the disease as they lack protective equipment, while others are taking in an increasing number of people with symptoms of the virus, said Isa Abubakar, the director of the Centre for Infectious Diseases and Research at Kano’s Bayero University. People with other conditions, either unwilling or unable to seek medical care, are dying at home.

“This disease has spread among almost every strata of our society,” Abubakar said.

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Lagos remains the hardest-hit part of Nigeria, recording 1,100 confirmed coronavirus cases as of Monday, about a third of the nation’s total and three times as many as in Kano. But there isn’t enough testing capacity in the city, which is a trade hub for northern Nigeria and the Sahel, an arid area on the southern fringe of the Sahara.

After Kano recorded its first case on April 11, testing was slow to gain traction, with the lone laboratory testing for the virus closed for five days after one of the workers was infected. Two sites are now able to process about 300 samples a day, according to Abubakar, and Aliko Dangote, Africa’s richest man, has donated a clinic supposed to perform 1,000 tests by May 10.

“If Kano had the capacity of testing of Lagos, Kano would probably surpass Lagos” in the number of cases, Abubakar said.

Critics of the state government say Governor Ganduje was slow to shutter markets and mosques in the predominantly Muslim city at a time when the central government and other regional authorities imposed movement restrictions and social distancing. Even as Abuja and Lagos went into lockdown on March 30, many people were still able to travel to Kano city with the state government “evidently unprepared to deal with a Covid-19 outbreak,” the Abuja-based Centre for Democracy and Development said in a report.

Now the coronavirus has been detected even among the city’s street kids, known as “almajiris,” who attend Islamic schools and often beg for a living. The Kano authorities have responded by sending many of these children back to their home states, a move that has raised fears the infections may be spreading further.

“We are now at great risk from what is happening in Kano,” said Kaduna Governor Nasir el-Rufai, who recovered from Covid-19 last week. He said 21 street boys sent to the state from Kano tested positive for the virus.

A lack of record keeping and the speed with which burials take place add to the difficulty of tracking the coronavirus in Kano, according to Zainab Mahmoud, a Nigerian cardiology fellow at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri, who is part of a team that investigated deaths in Kano between April 18-25.

The authorities are also struggling to persuade Kano’s inhabitants of the seriousness of the outbreak and the need to change social norms.

“Part of the contributing factors in Kano is that people don’t really believe that Covid-19 exists,” she said. (Bloomberg)

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