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Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari addresses the nation on the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Abuja, Nigeria March 29, 2020. Nigeria Presidency/Handout via REUTERS

With travel restricted, Nigeria’s elite face coronavirus at home

3 April 2020

Nigeria’s elites would seem to be already disproportionately affected by the coronavirus. As of April 2, there are reported 184 cases of the virus in the country. This includes 162 active, 20 recovered, and 2 dead. These are still early days for the disease in Nigeria. But, of the relatively small number of cases in Nigeria, one is Abba Kyari, President Muhammadu Buhari’s chief of staff, four are state governors, and one is the son of former Vice President Atiku Abubakar. The first death attributed to Coronavirus was that of a senior executive at the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation. Nigerian elites love to travel, and some of the victims appear to have been infected in Egypt and Europe.

It is also plausible that there are many more than the reported number of cases, some going undetected because of limited testing facilities, others of people not deemed newsworthy. As of March 26, Nigeria had conducted tests on just 846 people, according to the most recent data available. On April 1, the Nigerian Center for Disease Control indicated that it had expanded testing capacity to 1,500 per day across seven laboratories. 

The Nigerian medical and public health systems were a shambles long before the coronavirus. It is estimated that half of Nigeria’s physicians practice medicine outside of the country, as a visit to the emergency room of urban hospitals in the United States or the United Kingdom will show. Nigerian doctors are also found in Canada, Australia, and any place else that needs medical personnel. For years, Nigeria spent perhaps 5 percent of its budget on health, far less than in other African countries. Contributing to the poor medical and health system, rich Nigerians routinely go abroad for medical treatment. A popular saying is, “I get my teeth cleaned in Johannesburg.” President Buhari spent around six months in London for a medical condition that was never shared with the public. 

Now, however, Nigerian medical tourism faces a new wrinkle. No matter how rich a Nigerian is, or how important they are, the United Kingdom, the United States, South Africa, and other favorite destinations are now closed as part of the effort to contain the spread of coronavirus. For the first time, Nigeria’s rich and powerful are dependent on the same inadequate medical and health facilities as everybody else, though their wealth and influence may buy them preferential access. It remains to be seen whether this will result in a reassessment of Nigeria’s healthcare system.

By John Campbell. A version of this piece was first published by the Council on Foreign Relations.

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