When Nigeria was declared Ebola-free by the World Health Organisation last October, the news became a big story in itself, with naysayers expressing doubt, while many wanted to know how Nigeria “did it” and learn from it. New African met the man who led that ground-breaking fight against Ebola – the then minister of health, Professor Onyebuchi Chukwu – to find out just how he rose to the occasion. “I took responsibility. I did not run away from responsibility,” he tells New African’s Peter Eze, who traced him to his hometown of Afrikpo in Ebonyi State.
Professor Onyebuchi Chukwu was training would-be medical practitioners at a university teaching hospital in his home state of Ebonyi, when President Goodluck Jonathan appointed him minister of health in June 2011.
Three years later, as Ebola wreaked havoc in three West African countries, he would be credited as the man who stopped the deadly disease in its tracks and prevented its spread in Nigeria, after its first diagnosis in the case of Patrick Sawyer, a Liberian-American traveller who fell ill and died of the disease while transiting to the US via the Nigerian capital, Lagos in July.
Inevitably, in Africa’s most populous country, worries over the spread of Ebola and what that would entail, went into overdrive. The onus was on the Nigerian authorities to find solutions, especially the ministry of health.
With a crack team, Professor Chukwu put aside controversies surrounding his tenure as minister of health at the time of the outbreak, and implemented diligent efforts and protocols that halted the disease within three months of Sawyer’s diagnosis. The result: Nigeria reported only 20 cases of the disease, and by 19 October the WHO declared the country Ebola-free.
Professor Chukwu resigned his post the same month, to run as the next governor of his home state in this month’s elections. Here are excepts from his interview with New African:
New African: Professor, you were the minister of health at the time Nigeria had its Ebola challenge in July . What do you think made control of the disease possible within such a relatively short period?
Professor Chukwu: First and foremost, leadership; leadership at all levels, beginning with the president down to the local government chairs. There is no doubt about that. President [Goodluck] Jonathan, provided effective leadership. At the state level, the governors were involved, especially in those states where we had Ebola cases; Lagos, Enugu, and Rivers. So, leadership was the first success factor.
Second was co-ordination. And that was where the minister of health came in. It was the minister of health that coordinated all the actors. There is no doubt that as minister of health I took charge; I took responsibility. I did not run away from responsibility. I ensured that we were able to coordinate irrespective of party affiliations. For example, the president, from the ruling PDP [People’s Democratic Party], worked with the Governor of Lagos State [Babatunde Fashola], a member of the opposition APC [All Progressives Congress]. So, coordination was a main task for the minister of health. You need a minister of health who understands his role as the chief medical officer of the country. It will normally fall on him to take a pre-emptive step or actual control of epidemics. And he should be up and about doing it.
Thirdly, [we had] infrastructure – health infrastructure. When I came into office, for the first time in the history of Nigeria, the government established a centre for disease control. It never existed before I became minister. So, that was one critical infrastructure that we lacked in previous epidemics but this time around we already had it established, along with the Port Health Service, which we began to reform in 2011, with no particular health challenge in mind.
The fourth factor was that [the state of] epidemic is not what you toy with. It [should be] regarded as war. I remember that when I was invited to commission a DNA lab, [to be] built by the military, I made the statement that we were all combatants. It was at the height of the outbreak of Ebola in Nigeria. They were wondering what I meant. I said, “Well, you guys are combating Boko Haram, those of us in the health sector are combating Ebola virus disease.” And when the president declared Ebola a national emergency I had extra powers to exercise full control as a minister, to be able to control everyone – from governors, commissioners of health, health workers, even ordinary Nigerians – on behalf of the president.
The government was very transparent in the management of information, and the president also established a strategic inter-ministerial committee on communication, which is an important aspect when you have a problem on the scale of Ebola. You should be able to let people know, by communicating with them in the simplest of languages, and also be able to get feedback from them.
In addition, we made the media both broadcast and [use] print work and cooperate with us. However, there was also what I call an aberrant [use of] media; especially on social media platforms, where sceptics were cynical about Nigeria’s capacity to deal with the Ebola problem. From the beginning they predicted doom.
Even as we worked hard, they continued to predict doom. But again they were like children. When they saw we were winning, just like kids, they turned around and almost became the cheerleaders. And then there was the private sector. Already, even as I speak, the private sector, including the Dangote Foundation, helped us to purchase equipment. Some of this is about to be installed now in our major ports. Some took care of orphans who lost their parents to Ebola in that short time. Some of them donated vehicles, equipment, drugs or personal protective equipment.
The private sector really played a key role therefore and most of them came in strong, providing support at different levels. In any case, when a big epidemic such as Ebola hits and is not curtailed, their businesses would suffer. It was therefore, also in their own interest.
NA: Were you surprised that Nigeria had the Ebola problem in the first place?
OC: Well, not entirely surprised. I began anticipating that as soon as it broke out in Guinea. I remember that I personally signed an alert on 24 March 2014, which I sent to all governors, as well as the minister of the federal capital territory – who carries out a similar role in Abuja as state governors do in their states. It was also sent to all commissioners for health and state inspectors of public health. Then we followed it up with training for the state officials. So we were prepared. We had to be, because if you have even just one case of Ebola virus disease, anywhere in the world, in any country of the world, not just in West Africa, absolutely any place in the world where there is any form of transportation, [Ebola] can get [from] there and everyone is at risk. We therefore knew we were at risk when it broke in Guinea. To our surprise – while we were busy thinking that if it happened, the virus would enter by land due to the free movement protocol for ECOWAS citizens – Ebola entered Nigeria by air.
NA: The commissioner for health in Lagos has reportedly said the coast is not yet quite clear, is that correct?
OC: Of course! That is what I have been telling everyone around the world. I spoke at the UN and said as long as there are cases of the virus, even if it is one case anywhere, the whole world is at risk. At present there are still [known] cases in Sierra Leone and Liberia, and if there is a single case anywhere at all, the world is at risk. The commissioner for health [Dr Jide Idris] is just doing his job by sounding a routine warning.
NA: Ebola is still rife and proving difficult to contain in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. Is there something they are not getting right?
OC: I will not say that they have got anything wrong. It is just that at their level of development they don’t have certain infrastructure that Nigeria has. They don’t have the kind of personnel that we have. They are managing according to the resources they have to hand. So, let’s not blame anyone. Things are being done much better now and I believe, hopefully by the end of 2015, we should have ended this [crisis].
NA: Are you satisfied with the support the international community has provided?
Yes, I am satisfied but I would say that the help came late. The world did not respond [in time]. Again, it seems we don’t learn anything. When we had the genocide in Rwanda, the world reacted late. Now, this is not genocide by human beings. This is genocide in some other form – this time by a virus. We again responded late. But at present we are responding well.