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Kano under siege of COVID-19, mysterious mass deaths

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Perhaps apart from the 1980 Maitatsine religious unrest, where thousands of people were killed, the ancient city of Kano and indeed Kano State has not, at least in recent times, witnessed any mass deaths as has been happening in the last three weeks.

For obvious reasons, Kano has been in the eye of the storm on several occasions in the country, but the recent spate of terrifying events in northern Nigeria’s largest city have left many still confused.

In the midst of the siege brought about by the ravaging COVID-19 pandemic, intermittent strange deaths and recent interjection of “verbal autopsy” adopted by the state to unravel the mystery behind the trend, Kano residents currently live in a state of uncertainty.

The city has recorded over 600 deaths in one week, including its best brains in the academia, business moguls, captain of industries and the highs and lows of society, including the father of Dr. Sani Aliyu, Coordinator of Presidential Taskforce on COVID-19; mother of Yusuf Magaji Bichi, Director General of Department of State Service (DSS) and parents of Professor Abdallah Uba, Vice Chancellor, National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN).

Although there are claims and insinuation regarding the cause(s) of these deaths, no epidemiological proof has so far justified or debunked the street claims. Yet, the state government recently released a preliminary report suggesting that majority of the deceased might have suffered from illnesses, such as malaria, diabetes, hypertension and other underlining factors.

The government had publicly debunked media reports of strange and massive deaths since the state recorded its first COVID-19 case, insisting that no unusual number of burials had taken place in the state. The government specifically denounced accounts of local undertakers, who put the number of bodies interred at three cemeteries at 150, all in three days.

Until recently, the government in a release by the Commissioner for Information, Mohammad Garba, acknowledged the strange incidents and directed the Ministry of Health to investigate the remote cause(s).

According to the statement: “Although investigation into the cause of the deaths is still ongoing, preliminary report from the state Ministry of Health indicated that the deaths are not connected to the COVID-19 pandemic. From the report, it shows that most of the deaths were caused by complications arising from hypertension, diabetes, meningitis and acute malaria.

“While Governor Abdullahi Umar Ganduje earnestly awaits the final report for necessary action, the government, at the onset, has demonstrated the zeal and political will to curb the spread of COVID-19 in the state.”

Again, there are worries in many quarters over government’s reluctance to admit what had since manifested in public domain. Besides, it equally started a needless controversy with a statement, which, on one hand, directed investigation to unravel the cause of the mysterious deaths, and on another, attributed the deaths to other chronic ailments.

The mass deaths first came to public notice when a video clip went viral on social media, showing a crowd of sympathisers conveying bodies to Dandolo Cemetery in densely populated Gwale Council of the metropolis at a time the state recorded an index case of COVID-19 pandemic, specifically on Saturday, April 11.

Reports of strange deaths escalated subsequently when the state government issued a stay-at-home order on April 14 to curtail the looming community transmission of the virus, as well enable its taskforce ample opportunity to trace suspected cases.

Unfortunately, positive cases of COVID-19 have since skyrocketed from a single incident reported three weeks ago to 219 confirmed cases, with five mortalities as at yesterday.

So far, the presidential delegation deployed by the Nigeria Centre for Diseases Control (NCDC) was in town to accomplish the marching order received from Abuja.

Leader of the delegation and Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Industry, Trade and Investment, Dr. Nasiru Sani Gwarzo, told Ganduje on Tuesday that his team was detailed to unravel the mystery behind the prevailing mass deaths, as well as the rising cases of COVID-19 in the state.

While the authorities broaden the searchlight to unearth the underlying factors, there are divergent opinions among medical practitioners on whether the mass deaths could be linked to COVID-19.

Director of Centre for Infectious Diseases and Research, Bayero University, Kano (BUK), Professor Isa Abubakar Sadiq, said the cause of mass deaths might not necessarily be COVID-19 related, citing the outcome of the short survey conducted by the centre.

While the professor of Public Health confirmed increase of bodies being buried across the metropolis, he, however, disclosed that samples collected from local undertakers revealed that majority of the deceased were elderly, who has suffered one form of chronic ailment or the other.

He stated: “You cannot rule out sentiment in this entire situation, because some people are just fond of creating sensational stories and spreading false information with the intension of causing panic in Kano. Yes, there is increase in the number of deaths in recent times, but we are yet to prove that such has anything to do with COVID-19.

“A lot of interest has been generated in the last few days on this unfortunate development in Kano and that was why government ordered an investigation to unravel the cause of this mystery.

“In our little effort at the centre, we have conducted a quick survey on the prevailing issue to give an ideal of what is going on. But the important thing we found out at the cemetery, which I will want people to know, are that there are increases in the number of bodies being buried daily, but no case has been attributed to COVID-19. From comment obtained from people at the site, those deceased are aged from 70 and above.

“Another thing is that we gathered some of the deceased have had one form of chronic diseases or another.”

But a consultant in Haematology and Blood Transfusion at the Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital, Dr. Ibrahim Musa, believed until the final evidence is brought to the public domain, it would be difficult to dismiss the nexus between the mass deaths and COVID-19 in Kano.

Musa, who drew similarities between Kano and Kaduna States, wondered why the neighbouring state was still immune to the strange deaths, saying: “We are not sure of what is going on presently, but no doubt, there is a trend.

“Kano and Kaduna has so many things in common, in terms of culture, tradition, poverty and other demographic factors. Kaduna even declared a lockdown earlier before Kano. Now, the question is: If Kaduna, a neighbouring state, is not recording higher mortality this time, there must be an explanation to what is currently happening in Kano.

“The government has attributed the cause to chronic diseases, such pneumonia, hypertension and diabetes, but I want to believe this is rather too early to conclude. There are many patients of this ailments who are very much okay, with their medications.

“What we are saying is that we need to find out if there are other underlying factors, like cough, inability to breathe well and other symptoms of COVID-19 added to this peculiar ailment.

“In a nutshell, we cannot entirely rule out the possibility of COVID-19 in the whole scene, because even globally, the pattern is changing. We have seen patients of these chronic diseases taking three to six month’s appointments and they are taking their medications without seeing the doctors and without any complication.

“How come the incident became complicated and leading to multiple deaths in just three weeks of this lockdown? So, until the final investigation is revealed, nobody can say whether it is COVID-19 or not.”

Already, public and private hospitals in Kano are scaling down clinical services, except on emergency. For instance, Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital and other tertiary facilities have shut down specialty clinics, including those seeing patients of these chronic diseases, making it difficult to meet their doctors for regular consultation, a development that is already devastating enough to wreck untold havoc.

Meanwhile, Ganduje has directed the state Ministry of Health to work with the presidential delegation to carry out ‘verbal autopsy’ to determine the cause of the recent wave of strange deaths. ‘Verbal autopsy’ is a method of gathering information about symptoms and circumstances of deceased individual to determine their cause of death.

This epidemiological practice implies that health information and a description of events prior to death are acquired from conversations or interviews with a person or persons familiar with the deceased. And until the technical people fulfill all righteousness and furnish the world with the necessary evidence, associating COVID-19 with mass deaths would remain an issue in Kano.


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