Last Sunday I arrived in Seoul to the most unusual welcome. The plane docked, the doors opened and an official of the Korean government came on board and asked everyone to return to their seats. Once settled, he reeled out the names of all ten Nigerians on board the flight and asked us to follow him. We were not traveling together, so this must have been a coordinated process of sifting, between the airline and the government. The official led us to a screening desk where thermometers were inserted in each of our ears. A rather unhygienic process as the official would undo the disposable cap once both ears of each passenger was checked and then screw on another cap for the next passenger. For once, I realised how effective and hygienic the processes at Nigerian airports were and could only hope that Korean officials had not transferred germs from their masked fingers to my ears. Following this check, the health screening forms, which had been distributed while on board, were collected along with our passports and temperatures recorded on them. If I thought this was the end, I was to be shocked over the next hour.
Once all of us were certified normal, we were led by the quarantine officials to another end of the airport, where each of us was placed in front of another set of officials and provided maps to trace our journeys through West Africa. We were required to inform the official of cities we lived in and had visited across Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea over the last 21 days and the official circled the cities and made notes. This official proceeded to interrogate each one of us further about our purpose of visit to Seoul, work history, contact details in Seoul etc. Thereafter, the official made a telephone call to the contacts in Seoul that each one had listed as part of our declaration on the health screening forms. The call was placed to confirm that the host was expecting each passenger and that the address provided was indeed correct. Please note that this was not an immigration official. When we finished mapping our journeys and the telephone confirmations were concluded, we were each taken to another office and, in turns, ushered in to see the doctor on duty. The doctor checked our body temperatures as well as our declarations and travel histories. He asked us questions about our health conditions and examined us to know if we were telling the truth. I could not quite pinpoint how this process contributed to screening for Ebola, but who was I to speak. After all, I had just arrived from one of the four countries whose names were plastered all over the Incheon International Airport as ‘At Risk for Ebola.’
After the doctor had cleared us, quarantine slips were put in our passports, which indicated that we would be subject to regular monitoring by health officials in the district of our contact, to know whether we developed any symptoms of Ebola. This experience did not end here. Quarantine officials then led us to the terminal trains and took us to immigration officers. We were a spectacle. Everyone who saw the severity with which we were being ushered, looked at us strangely, perhaps already convinced of our possessing the disease. Not many people came near us on the trains but almost all around, looked at us curiously. Upon arriving at immigration, we were not allowed to join regular queues but were led to a special room, the sign for which indicated it had been prepared for those arriving on medical visas. At this point, I was furious. Wait a minute! I arrived on a tourist visa from Nigeria and not on a Medical Visa from Sierra Leone, yet I was led into this special section for further screening. One after the other, we were asked to sit in front of screening machines and asked to provide finger prints at three separate points in the interrogation process. I could not understand why we would be treated so distinctively from all other travellers, if they indeed believed that our country was Ebola-free.
The experience reinforced my worries that we were being stigmatised for being Nigerians and I knew instantly that this was not really about Ebola, but a reflection of our poor foreign relations with the rest of the world.
What I found appalling
Whilst I do not celebrate Ebola’s spread, I noticed that Spain and the United States were not listed in Seoul as countries from where travellers were to be thoroughly checked for the dreaded disease. There is a subtle assumption that countries outside Africa can handle themselves and curb the spread of Ebola. However, it is a fact today that the nurse who treated Thomas Eric Duncan has also been infected with Ebola.
Secondly, the process for screening the disease at Seoul was, at best, primitive and rather cumbersome. Putting a thermometer in passengers’ ears, makes direct contact and increases the likelihood of infection. I also wondered what exactly the doctor could certify, short of taking blood samples from each of us and testing for Ebola right at the airport. This process at the Seoul airport was unnecessarily bureaucratic, a mere waste of time, a demonstration of little understanding of the disease and a likely state policy designed to frustrate any visitor from each of the four West African countries listed.
Why did all the forms that we were required to complete, have Nigeria listed as an ‘At Risk’ country? In fact, the Mapping Centre in Seoul, had listed Lagos as a 5th country, separate from Nigeria. Surely, our government had announced that the country had curtailed its incident of Ebola, which was as a result of Patrick Sawyer’s arrival from Liberia at Murtala Mohammed Airport Lagos, on 20th July 2014. Following curtailment, the World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed that there were no more cases of Ebola in Nigeria and commended the country’s handling and curtailment of the disease. Yet, Nigeria remains listed as one of the countries where Ebola is found!
What must be done urgently?
Our government must, as a matter of urgency, advocate for the removal of ‘Nigeria’ from the list of ‘At Risk’ countries world-wide. It is extremely important that this is done swiftly as the discrimination against us, for a disease that has no origin or roots in Nigeria is very bad for image and for business. When BBC and CNN show the map of countries affected by Ebola, they must remove Nigeria from this list and be more truthful to also show Spain and the United States alongside any other country.
Our government must also not be hasty to make announcements until facts are checked and confirmed. Observers are inclined to think that the Minister of Health’s premature announcement of curtailing the disease, when this was not 100% the case at the time, has raised earlier suspicion about the credibility of information put forward by the government.
Nigerians must learn to celebrate the things that our government has done well. The nurse who contracted the disease in Spain was fully informed and fully prepared for handling the disease, before Brother Garcia Viejo was flown from Sierra Leone to Spain. Yet, this did not stop her from contracting the disease. We are yet to hear of a case of any health official who cared for the quarantined Nigerians contacting the disease. Our government swiftly purchased thermometers, quarantine suits and other sanitary wares to check and curtail the spread of this disease. I doubt that any one of us thought much about the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control before now, however, it can be said to have managed the disease better than its counterparts in any other parts of the world.
Nigeria must improve its foreign relations with other countries and let them know about latest developments that show enhanced friendly lateral and multilateral relations. Citizens must stop engaging in illegal activities and associating with crime. We must stop being aggressive, loud and evasive when we visit other countries so that they respect us and do not seek opportunities to frustrate us. The government must stand up in defense of her citizens and foreign policy champions should engage other governments to make the lives of Nigerians visiting or residing abroad free of undue harassment.
We must all remain watchful to keep Ebola out of Nigeria so that migrants from any part of the world do not reintroduce the dreaded disease to the country. It is not common for Nigerian’s to eat bats or other disease carrying animals raw, so I posit that migration remains the single most likely means of reintroducing the disease and we must remain watchful to sustain the current commendable efforts.
In conclusion, Ebola was introduced to the United States the same way that it entered Nigeria, through a visitor to the country – one index case which infected at least one. So why is Nigeria alone being stigmatized? Deaths have occurred in both Germany and Spain from patients who were flown there for treatment and at least one additional case has resulted in Spain. Nigeria’s handling of Ebola helped the United States and indeed the rest of the world to prepare. We therefore hope that by 20th October 2014, when it would be 42 days from the time that the last person with high risk exposure in Nigeria tests negative and twice the generally accepted maximum incubation period for the virus, Nigeria will be certified Ebola-free by WHO and the current stigmatization of Nigerians will stop.