COVID-19 : If you’re in search of a recipe for disaster, Kano’s reliance on ‘verbal autopsies’ is one

First question: why the fuss?

We get surprised easily and forget that we are still in a country where there is basically no database for anything, where ‘let’s do it anyhow‘ is the principle by which we run our government.

The Future Africa Team Lead, Bukonla Adebakin said in a Rubbin’ Minds episode: “We are paying the price of zero data.” But that’s not just about it. We also fail to remember that ‘religion’ and ‘culture’, not ‘logic’, ‘rationality’ leads us on in our decisions – and national policies.

We would prefer to allow you an outdated cultural practice – the one no one knows started and why – than to stop the spread of a pandemic that is causing the death of fellow human beings. What happened to the remaining drop of humanity in us?

Fortunately for the Coordinator of the Kano State Technical Response Team on COVID-19, Dr Tijjani Hussain, a verbal autopsy is a practice and Wikipedia says, “Verbal autopsy (VA) is a method of gathering information about symptoms and circumstances for a deceased individual to determine their cause of death. 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 analysed by health professionals or computer algorithms to assign likely cause(s) of death.”

Unfortunately for him, this is not the time to adopt this culturally-influenced practice – especially as it is already established that it is very unlikely that the ‘health professionals’ who will collect this information will not bother analysing it. I mean…where is the time to do all that?

Verbal autopsies will probably go a little something like this:

You are sure he died of malaria?”


Fine. Thanks. We will contact you if there is any other information we might need.” And that is it.

Imagine the family or friends of the deceased says he/she died of unknown causes.

He just slept and never woke up.”

This is the kind of information that the health professionals in Kano, led by our dear Umar Ganduje, will be handling and using to determine if COVID-19 is the one causing mass deaths in the state or not.

Indeed, we have largely downplayed that Nigeria is fighting not one but two epidemics. We have turned a blind eye – if we ever knew – that Lassa Fever has officially killed one hundred and eighty-eight (188) people in Nigeria than COVID-19. We ignore that Malaria is the continent’s number one killer, and poverty will be indirectly responsible of thousands of deaths.  Child mortality has not reduced either. But, at least, we have official numbers for those other causes (relatively) and understand the cause of death.

A verbal autopsy for a virus with symptoms as fever, tiredness, dry cough, and pains, nasal congestion, runny nose, sore throat or diarrhoea will only mislead health professionals, especially if the hundreds that have died actually died of COVID-19. We should also remember that some of the patients are asymptomatic.

Dr Tijjani has mentioned that the team will soon reveal findings from the verbal autopsy and we can’t wait for this revealing document. The ‘findings’ should not surprise you – it’s still Nigeria.

Meanwhile, there are seventy-seven (77) confirmed cases in Kano, with one death recorded and a testing centre that will be opened on Monday (Dr Osagie Ehanire) and Tuesday (Dr Tijjani).

See how Nigerians are reacting:

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