THE HORIZON BY KAYODE KOMOLAFE
The public health essence of the precautions taken against coronavirus is, perhaps, most exemplified by the wearing of masks.
This has been well stressed in the sensitisation carried out by public and private bodies about the spread of novel virus.
The campaign goes like this: you should wear the mask not only for your own personal protection, but also for the protection of people around you.
In other words, what is really involved is not only the personal health of the individual , but also, on a larger note, the health of all members of the community. Many lives are put at risk when an infectious disease ravages the land. That’s why it is expected of governments at all levels to take public health administration seriously with a focus on the whole community.
This is even more so in a period of emergency of the magnitude brought about by the outbreak of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China, eight months ago.
In this light, it might be unpardonable to simply dismiss as absurd the public health administration turned drama in Cross River and Kogi states because many lives are at stake.
Instead, what is taking place in the two states should be viewed as a national tragedy precisely because of the public health emergency.
Without any scientific proof, Governors Yahaya Bello and Ben Ayade of Kogi and Cross River respectively declared their states “coronavirus -free.”
The two governors have elected not to follow science on this issue.
They rather prefer to politicise public health in their states. Incidentally, Bello is a member of the All Progressives Congress (APC) while Ayade belongs to the People’s Democratic Party (PDP).
So, there is no partisan streak to this denial of coronavirus.
This drama is being staged without due sensitivity to the implications for the well-being of the people.
In making their queer declarations the governors have invoked federalist principles to rebuff legitimate interventions from federal agencies.
On Monday, the minister of health, Dr. Osagie Ehanire, made a national appeal that “politics and religion” should be taken out of the fight against the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19.
The events in Cross River and Kogi states shouldn’t be viewed merely as tragicomedy because these events are taking place at a time the nation is witnessing a spike in the spread of the disease. Three months ago, fewer than 2,000 cases of coronavirus infection were reported in Nigeria. Today, more than 29, 000 have been reported as testing positive for the virus with about 654 deaths.
This was the basis of the 17-man team of the federal ministry of health that left for Calabar two days ago to have an “appropriate technical handshake” with their state counterparts, according to the health minister. The delegation comprised experts from the departments of the ministry of health including hospital services and family health as well as the NCDC.
The minister also commendably called on doctors in Cross Rivers to suspend their strike. Earlier the doctors had addressed a petition to the minister.
According to the doctors, the public health implications of the crisis caused by coronavirus are hardly grasped with the response of the Cross River state government. The Cross River state branch of the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) protested the non-reflection of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state in the daily figures released by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC). The doctors insist that some patients have tested positive for coronavirus in the state.
Specifically, the state NMA chairman, Dr. Agam Ayuk, has accused the NCDC of withholding the reports of five cases of COVID-19 from the University of Calabar Teaching Hospital (UCTH). The test was allegedly conducted at a molecular laboratory at the Alex Ekwueme University Teaching Hospital, Abakaliki, Ebonyi State. The reports were reportedly transmitted to the UCTH. It was only on Monday that the NCDC confirmed these five cases of coronavirus in Cross River.
Besides, the doctors have also a queried the seeming clumsiness in the testing process. The current procedure is to first have epidemiological code numbers generated by the Cross River State Ministry of Health. The samples are forwarded by UCTH to a molecular laboratory approved by the NCDC.
The Cross River doctors also want isolation centres established as well as the activation of the one in Adiabo.
However, by the proclamation of Governor Ayade, no one has tested positive for coronavirus in his state.
In fact, the state health commissioner, Dr. Betta Edu, once alleged on television that officials of NCDC bribed some patients in the state to claim that they had tested positive for coronavirus. According to her, the agency wanted to generate figures by all means for its daily updates on the pandemic. You wonder what purpose exactly would be served by asking patients to make false claims of infection!
To be fair to Ayade, he is encouraging mass production of masks which are made compulsory for residents to wear in the state. The degree of compliance is yet to be determined. So enthusiastic was Ayade about masks that he once said that “with masks, you don’t need social distancing.” Yet, this is a negation of the universal protocol on mask as precaution. Ayade, a Ph.D holder in environmental microbiology, even claimed some expertise in making such a statement.
The governor once kept vigil at the border in the bid to prevent coronavirus slipping into his state.
Now, he has requested for the services of the immigration from Abuja for border patrol in the marine area.
It is difficult to decipher any coherent public health administration in all the theatrics being staged in Cross River.
Before the mission to Calabar on Monday, there was one to Lokoja, Kogi State, in May that failed woefully.
Like Governor Ayade, Governor Bello has also insisted that Kogi Sate, as a geo-political unit, is immune to coronavirus. He once threatened to quarantine NCDC officials visiting the state for testing and contact-tracing purposes.
At least on one occasion, the events turned violent in Kogi. The security of the staff at a federal medical centre in the state is reportedly being beefed up after attacks.
Even when prominent personalities in the state were reported to have died of COVID-19, Bello has insisted that the novel virus is barred from Kogi state.
Although Bello is an accountant, he has been making authoritative statements on coronavirus as if he is a virologist or an epidemiologist. The other day he declared the pandemic a “hoax” like President Donald Trump would say in the United States.
Perhaps the most outrageous moment was on March 25, when Yahaya Bello puts the matter in a video on his Facebook page like this: “The 90% of the noise about COVID-19 is for political, economic , financial (and) material gain. The other 10% (has to do with), ordinary flu like common colds … generally.”
Yet, this is no time for shenanigans. A period of public health emergency of this nature should logically compel studious coordination among different tiers of government. After all, it is the same public that the respective governments serve with varying jurisdictions.
By the way, the NMA ought to sanction doctors holding political offices who join their governors to rubbish scientific positions.
To be sure, apart from the two state governments, the federal government is also responsible for the unacceptable state of affairs.
It is inexplicable that Abuja seems helpless as the health of the people of Kogi and Cross River are put at risk by some state governments.
Perhaps, the federal government too is shy to intervene decisively because of the material implications of such interventions. The federal government should be prepared to adequately fund its interventions in the public interest.
For clarity, the seeming lack of effective coordination of things is not for lack of enabling laws.
It is simply due to governance limitations.
Following the 1918 Flu Pandemic, the colonial government came up with the Quarantine Act of 1926. So, barely 12 years after the amalgamation, even the colonial government showed some consideration for the public health of Nigeria. The 1926 law was incorporated into the laws of Nigeria after independence in 1960.
Although the NCDC was established in 2011, it was only in 2018 that the NCDC Act came into effect with enormous responsibilities given to the agency to coordinate activities relating to the control of infectious diseases.
As a matter fact, one of most informed criticisms of the controversial Infectious Disease Bill before the National Assembly is that with the NCDC Act of 2018, there is practically enough legal basis already for a government that is serious about infectious control to act appropriately. In effect, there is no justification for the uncreative importation of a 37-year old law from Singapore.
The federal government has enough powers to mount an effective control of the spread of coronavirus in Nigeria.
In the !999 Constitution, quarantine is the 54th item on th exclusive legislative list.
When President Muhammadu Buhari issued executive orders to impose lockdowns in parts of the country, it was on the basis of the existing laws.
On the basis of the same existing laws the President could also put a stop to the drama going on Cross River and Kogi to ensure that the national public health protocols are enforced.
At least, the federal government should protect its agencies carrying out legitimate duties in states during this emergency. No one should have the right to endanger the lives of others by spreading the disease in the community. And no sub-national government should be permitted to create the atmosphere for such anarchy.
The President should muster the political will to act on the basis of the law and protect the people of Kogi and Cross River states.
The responses of Governors Bello and Ayade to this pandemic are putting the health of not only the people in their states at risk, but also the rest of the country if not humanity.
The governors should be frankly told that coronavirus is ravaging the whole world in a chilling reminder of our common humanity.
The virus doesn’t even respect the sovereignty of nations, much less the autonomy of sub-national units in a federalist arrangement.