No, This Is Not Another Ebola Article. But It Could Save Your Life.
I’m a big fan of Nigerian Street Food; roasted plantain, roasted corn, roasted fish, roasted yam, shawarma, suya, puff-puff. The other day I was getting a plate of boli served Port Harcourt –style. This meant that the server had to break up a roasted plantain into smaller bits, add a piece of roasted fish and garnish the pepper sauce with freshly cut utazi leaves. I watched her carry out the operation with her bare hands.
Me: Why you no wear hand-gloves?
Her: No time. See customers everywhere.
I found it unsettling eating my meal, but I consoled myself with the fact that perhaps I was just being paranoid, or unnecessarily finicky. Is it Nigerian to be worried about a few germs?
About a week later, I ordered a shawarma and again, watched the guy assemble it with his bare hands. Cabbage, salad cream, chicken, pepper; he deftly tucked and pushed them into the pita bread. I couldn’t help it.
Me: Why you no wear hand-gloves?
Him: No time. Besides, na the same glove hand I go dey use touch everywhere.
I found myself almost begging him to wear hand-gloves. I used terms like “business’ reputation” and “word of mouth referral”. I imagined all the places his hands could have been. I thought about E. Coli. He still didn’t use hand gloves. It dawned on me that he probably had none. I should have refused the shawarma, walked away without paying for it. But I didn’t. I bought it, but couldn’t eat it so I gave it out. I could no longer deny my squeamishness.
When I voice out my worries, the typical response is Why are you worrying about the street food people? Is it because you can see them preparing your food? How do you know what happens in the kitchens of restaurants/hotels?
The truth is that I don’t. And I shouldn’t have to know/worry because it’s supposed to be someone’s job. Like it’s supposed to be someone’s job to police our markets and ensure their cleanliness. And let’s face it, our markets are dirty. I once listened to a radio program that discussed the handling of raw meat. Apparently, in the past, butchers kept their meat under mosquito nets to await buyers. The nets kept off the flies. I’ve never seen that happen in any Nigerian market and it seemed such an easy solution.
With the Ebola virus, we have a lot more to worry about than cholera, dysentery and E. Coli, you might say. But think, if we had structures in place to take care of these “common diseases”, would we be so worried about our inability to fight Ebola? Imagine how easy it would be to infect our meat in the market. All you need is one sick butcher. Imagine where your boli seller’s hands have been. Are you frightened yet?
My father tells stories of sanitary inspectors. He grew up in Obalende, Lagos, and he remembers the inspectors going from house to house, inspecting kitchens and bathrooms. They took water samples for testing, inspected drains for mosquito larvae. They were mandated to lock houses that defaulted on the standards, but they were also responsible for things like cleaning and fumigating the gutters to destroy mosquito larvae. “In the past, a restaurant would be locked down if one cockroach was found in the food store. These days, the sanitary inspectors are busy terrorizing market women and extorting fines.”
Based on articles I read on the topic, WHO mandates that there be 1 health inspector to every 8,000 people. Nigeria has a population estimated at 168.8 million and so should have 21,100 health inspectors. According to this article, John Kehinde (Director, Department of Disaster Management and Water and Sanitation) puts the number at less than 7,000. What does this mean?
It means we have, on the average, less than 9 qualified inspectors per LGA when we should have about 27. It means that the resources needed to ensure we don’t contract life-threatening, food-borne diseases like Cholera, Diarrhoea, Dysentery, Hepatitis, E. Coli, Botulism are simply not available. Where we should be preventing these diseases, we’re failing. And so our only succour is the hospitals; the under-staffed, under-equipped hospitals whose doctors go on strikes with an alarming frequency (one is too many). The results are apparent; according to this Punch article over 2700 cases of cholera were reported between September and October 2013. Care to extrapolate?
What Can You Do?
- It turns out that Sanitary Inspectors are attached to local governments; their services are the responsibility of the local government headed by the LG Chairman. He has the power to appoint, train, and empower the sanitary inspectors to police restaurants, cafeterias, bukas,. Your local government chairman o. Not the President, not the Minister of Health, but your LG Chairman. Find out who he/she is.
- Write to him/her (the LG chairman). Find out how many health inspectors police your LGA. Most sanitary inspectors have a first degree in Microbiology or Public Health, or something of the sort. Additional training qualifies them to act as Sanitary Inspectors. Ask if your LGA has a budget for training sanitary inspectors. Raise hell if there isn’t.
- It turns out that the man-power gap in recommended/actual sanitary inspector numbers is an opportunity to provide jobs in communities. With a first degree in Public Health or Microbiology, for instance, people can be trained and qualify as sanitary inspectors. Consider this career option.
- Every time you buy food, inquire about the sanitary conditions under which the food was prepared. Suggest hand-gloves to your local corn roaster. By asking questions, you can “raise the temperature” of your community’s awareness. If the corn roaster realizes that 10 people in a week have asked her about hand-gloves, it may just be the push she needs to take action.
This is our life, we must take responsibility for our health by holding our LGA chairmen/women accountable. We need a sanitary inspection system that works, and there has never been a “righter” time than now. It’s our right, and we must demand it. If we don’t, nobody will.