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Airlines, airports buckle over ravaging costly disease

By Wole Oyebade
06 March 2020   |   4:20 am
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently explained why it has not declared the new coronavirus disease or covid-19 as a pandemic. And it made a lot of sense, especially for us in Africa.

Health workers wearing protective gears spray disinfectant inside a plane. SOURCE:AP

Coronavirus is deadly and on a long-haul. But there is a sense in which Nigerians needs not panic– if state-actors will get serious and gatekeepers sustain momentum. WOLE OYEBADE writes.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently explained why it has not declared the new coronavirus disease or covid-19 as a pandemic. And it made a lot of sense, especially for us in Africa.

The WHO Director, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, did not deny the severity of the global health emergency. But the statistic on where the world is with covid-19 spread reassures of a possible eradication – with better efforts at surveillance and improved healthcare to treat the sick.

The disease from China alone in December has presented in 68 countries this week. Ghebreyesus noted that unlike China, Italy, Iran and South Korea that have the community spread to date, over 50 per cent of infected countries, Nigeria inclusive, has just one case. Of the other half, about 80 per cent of in-country cases are mild and treatable with minimal care. Another goodnews is that about eight countries have cleared coronavirus and no longer have a new outbreak.

For global health body, it means the world needs not declare May-Day just yet. “Panic and fear are the worse. They are actually worse that the virus. The fact on ground doesn’t show community transmission in many countries. The advice is for all countries to embrace the comprehensive approach solution. We need containment and mitigation to contain the disease and there are countries that have contained it,” Ghebreyesus said.

It needs not get worst before it gets better
Since the Italian index case appeared in Nigeria a week ago, the public has gone into panic mode, and authorities, at least for once, gave priority to screening and surveillance. They have been afterthoughts until covid-19 came calling.

As at last week Wednesday when the Italian supposedly came into the country aboard a Turkish Airline flight, screening at the border-posts was almost “zero”.

A passenger that arrived aboard an Emirate flight, Olayinka Akinpelu, said: “Lagos airport had nothing on ground. It was like free entry for all passengers. The officials were just bothered about you have on you and could give them. I was even surprise that we did not have coronavirus outbreak before now.”

Recall that the Senate Committee on Health had during an inspection of Lagos airport and Apapa port about three weeks ago, raised the alarm over airlines’ poor compliance to NCAA’s advisory on screening protocol, lack of proper screening due to inadequate workforce and general poor preparedness.

It was on account of this that Aviation Security Consultant, Group Capt. John Ojikutu (rtd),
said if the airports do not have enough medical manpower to properly check travellers, then the preventive measure is to reduce access to Lagos and Abuja airports.

“If we don’t have the requisite skilled manpower for both health and national security standard checks, then close the international airports to just two. Move the number of workforce available to Lagos and Abuja airports. That alone would give the market to our own local airlines to distribute to others and protect us all.

“It is an international crisis that should not involve us, but it will if we are not very careful. We cannot afford to open all our airports to everybody and expect to monitor them properly. What we need is well-trained workforce, not all these untrained people in our airports begging for money. The agencies have a responsibility to protect us and it is most crucial now,” Ojikutu said.

But since last weekend, screening appears to have improved and passengers could see it too.

Babafemi Ojudu, a passenger aboard a Turkish Airline flight on Tuesday was impressed by the efforts on ground.

“As we entered the arrival hall, masked health officials welcomed us, collected the forms (filled onboard), scan through and ushered us to face the medical equipment that read our temperature.

“It was a notch different from the days of Ebola when you have someone pointing some equipment at your forehead. This was computer screening equipment that you stand about five feet away from and immediately capture your body temperature and possibly other indicators I may not be familiar with. I have a feeling too it captured our images.

“I was also, on inquiry, told ambulances were positioned at the airport to ferry patients to already designated points should anyone be suspected to have contracted the disease. From the screening point, and every step of the way, you find sanitizers everywhere including immigration officers desks, toilets etc.”

Costly disruption, but safety first
The rapid spread of coronavirus cases in countries globally prompted international airlines and governments to begin cancelling flights and instituting broader travel bans to the most affected areas to curb the epidemic, while demand for flights has dropped.

Indeed, the air travel industry is worst hit by the ravaging disease, with over 2500 flights cancelled and loses already estimated to about $30 billion.

Airlines in Nigeria and other African countries have been estimated to lose $40 million in revenue this year over flight disruption due to coronavirus spread. Though the losses are in varying degrees, airlines operating on the Chinese routes will bear the larger brunt.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) announced that its initial assessment of the impact of the novel coronavirus or covid-19 shows a potential 13 per cent full-year loss of passenger demand for carriers in the Asia-Pacific region.

Considering that growth for the region’s airlines was forecast to be 4.8 per cent, the net impact will be an 8.2 per cent full-year contraction compared to 2019 demand levels. In this scenario, that would translate into a $27.8 billion revenue loss in 2020 for carriers in the Asia-Pacific region—the bulk of which would be borne by carriers registered in China, with $12.8 billion lost in the China domestic market alone.

On the right seat, you are safe onboard
Just as the airlines, the passengers too should be worried about the ravaging spread. Except the travel is most necessary, this might be the time to stay back home.

And for those that cannot, there are few safety precautions to follow besides personal hygiene. Medical experts have said that the safest place to sit on a plane to avoid catching coronavirus from an infected passenger is next to the window.

Experts from Emory University modelled the movement of passengers around an aircraft to show how viruses can spread, and found that people in aisle seats are much more likely to come into contact with infected passengers.

They said that passengers who are worried about contracting coronavirus should stay in their seats. This is because the more you get up and move around the plane, the more chance you’ve got of finding yourself next to someone with the disease.

The longer you are in contact with an infected passenger and the longer you are near them, the greater the chance of becoming infected yourself.

For this reason cabin crew shouldn’t fly if they have any kind of infection – especially one like coronavirus – as they have the most contact with passengers on a flight.

The researchers studied passengers’ behaviour on flights lasting between three and five hours. They found 38 per cent left their seats once and 24 per cent more than once, but passengers by the window barely left their seat at all.

This reduced the number of contacts with other passengers from 64 for those sitting in the aisle to just 12 for window seat holders.

Get well soon
Similarly, A United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) licensed Flight Dispatcher and Ground Instructor, Victoria Adegbe, advised sick passengers to abstain from travelling to save their lives from the ravaging spread of Corona virus.

Adegbe said sick passengers manifesting symptoms of other infections were more susceptible to contract coronavirus through the air travel mode compared to other modes of transportation because of cabin pressurisation associated with air travel.

“I went on a research to see the categories of personal hygiene people infected and discovered that over 75 per cent of those infected already had a prior disease such as diabetes, pneumonia and high blood pressure.

“You shouldn’t fly if you’re sick. Go to a hospital first and get treated. You should drink lots of water, keeping your throat hydrated decreases the chance of the coronavirus infecting you. Personal hygiene such as washing your hands with soap under running water and not in a bowl. Using hand sanitisers and coughing inside a handkerchief.”

Indeed, the whole world has a duty to send to contain the new coronavirus disease. The effort has to be comprehensive and organic, before it becomes pandemic and too late.