Senator Utazi: A Second Shut Down of Our Economy Over COVID-19 Will Be Disastrous

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The Chairman of the Senate Committee on Primary Healthcare and Communicable Diseases and the Senator representing Enugu North in the National Assembly, Senator Chukwuka Utazi says Nigeria should apply tact in implementing restrictions over the second wave of COVID-19. In this interview with Onyebuchi Ezigbo, the legislator bares his mind on the legislative efforts to tame the pandemic

As a very critical stakeholder in the country’s health sector what do you think should be done to deal with the second wave of COVID-19?

First of all, we thank God who has helped us to suppress the onslaught of this COVID-19 that most of the first world countries are still battling with to no avail. But one way or the other God has a way of doing things for people who are disadvantaged rightly or wrongly. There were scenarios of what was happening in the Western countries and people expected it would be worse off here because of our usual lack of preparedness and our response mechanism. Our weather contributed immensely and the timely shutdown of the country also contributed immensely too in controlling things. That is just where we are today and the second wave is now giving everybody cause for concern . On this second wave, we have been talking with the leadership of the Presidential Taskforce on COVID-19 that we really have to sit up. Shutting down the economy is a problem like we did in the past, the side effect of the first shutdown are still here with us, we are yet to recover from it and to go ahead with a second shutdown will be bad but we must be creative with the way we go about it. Trying to show that the economy is still working, the picking up after the first wave then we also have to be very careful about the security and life of people; these are the issues. The reason why we are thinking so is because the people in Europe and America that shutdown initially are shutting their country down because of the effect of the pandemic but they haven’t allowed the economy to be shutdown because their flights are still moving in and out even when they are on the red line. So what that means is that they are fighting for survival and that was why we allowed Lagos and Abuja for international flights, we wanted to do that of Kano and Port Harcourt but along the line we saw some reasons and said the take off would be next year and there is this fear that if we open all the international airports we are going to expose ourselves to danger that is why we restricted it to Lagos and Abuja and the two we had approved would be coming next year towards March. When we did this many people wanted the Enugu Airport open. You know our people in the South East travel a lot but I looked at all those issues and I told our people in the South East to take it easy, let’s manage with :Lagos and Abuja for now and it helped because as the Enugu Airport wasn’t opened, people in the South East didn’t have that upsurge in COVID-19 because the airline that used to come to Enugu was not forthcoming so we took advantage of that. Yes we suffered because our airport was closed so we had to update it and upgrade and we will do that. So what we are saying and praying now for is safety all the way and we will not shut the economy and also prepare for our people who are coming into the country especially during the Christmas season where the people in Southern Nigeria this period means so much to them because most of them have brothers and sisters that are outside the country and use that opportunity to visit their people once a year. They look towards travelling towards Christmas to interact and mix up with people. We have also telling our people over there too ”if you don’t have any need to come, please don’t come” if it is all about sending money and goods please parcel them, do weigh bill to your brothers and sisters and the will come to the airport to pick them. There is that media publicity that if you must come there is that urgent need that you just have to be in your place, all the gifts you have parcel to make sure it reaches your people; get them . Those of us in the South East and South South use this period for development programs for our areas, send those monies to the areas of need so that your people can represent you but don’t come because those people have closed their shops and airport but they are doing business because they know the effect on the airlines worldwide is something that in the next four to five years the airlines will still feel the effect, so they are managing. These have opened their communication with the rest of the world but are you taking it? We are advising our people not to take it because that is the only way we can fight this second wave of COVID-19 because most of these things are coming from outside but we are also warning our people over here to be alert because people are feeling that now that we have been able to control it many people go out without their face mask, many people walk around without sanitizer and washing of hands and the areas you find this mainly is the urban areas espeially Lagos and Abuja. If you move to the other Geopolitical zones you don’t see anybody wearing mask, they see it as an elite thing but we are still insisting that prevention is better than cure and it is cheaper.

Are you not worried that with the opening of the inland borders, it could increase the risk of people bringing in this COVID-19 into Nigeria?

The opening of the land borders is surely economic and also for security reasons because most of the West African countries depends on Nigeria for business, this is their own America. We have the capacity to get all those things down here, they come here to do their own small businesses across the border and go but now that we shutdown they are all crying and then we are depending on the same people to help us in fighting Boko Haram Insurgents and I think it is for strategic reasons we are doing that because all the people that we do business with have being crying that the closure of our land border has been hurting them and I think government just want to open the borders knowing fully well that this period of the year people do business, we want to open it and allow those people a breather for some time and then we will come back to close the border but for the North because if you say closure of border is in Nigeria, it is only effective in Southern Nigeria and those of us who go to the North know that there is nothing you can do about it because in the north there is free trade.

For instance in Kano you see trucks from all parts of West Africa to buy things and it is their way of life. If you go to Niger and Chad, they come on a daily basis to Nigeria to do business and return to their country . If you also go to the Cameroon border close to Adamawa, you just walk over, do your business and return and there is nothing you can do about it, this people have been there over years but it is only in the South here that we are having this issue and that is just what we are trying to manage to ensure that things work for our people and help stabilize our economy especially in agricultural sector, most of our people are now picking up in rice interventions, poultry, fishery and all that which is what we need to improve the economy unlike when you import all the rice from Thailand, people pick up this rice and our own economy suffers at the end of it. So we are trying to control this thing at the border.

Is there anything being done to ensure that people stick to the protocols especially in the markets?

On issue of protocols in the market, I remember when the lockdown was relaxed during the first wave I told our people during a press conference that we are relaxing the shutdown doesn’t mean that COVID-19 has reduced, we are doing so because of economic reasons and the government doesn’t have all the monies to put in people’s accounts so that they can remain at home. Now that we are opening up responsibility is now in the hands of the citizens to protect themselves and how do they do that? You have to wear your face mask, you have to observe social distancing, you have to ensure you don’t shake hands and embracing people along the way, you have to wash your hands regularly, you have to check your body temperature to know if you are having any symptoms because once you have a symptom and you follow it up it is easier to cure it than when it has become serious . So what I am saying in essence is that because we relaxed the COVID-19 protocols doesn’t mean that COVID-19 has gone, the only thing is that we have transferred our responsibilities to everyone. It is our duty now to make sure that everyone handles thing properly by themselves. If you lower your guard and protective efforts to stay healthy that is your own business,no one dies for anybody, nobody gets sick for anybody and if you are staying in the isolation centre you would be there alone. No one will be there on your behalf and you won’t have free movement so we are telling our people to please make sure that they stay safe, stay out of trouble and avoid all those things that is going to expose you. Up till today so many churches still conduct their services online. If you feel that going to church will expose you please stay at home and do it online. Virtual meetings is now one of the new normals, if our head of state can be in Katsina and attending FEC meeting what else do you want the man to tell you? This is a new normal, it is safer, cheaper and keeps everyone out of trouble and let’s just continue with that.

What is the legislative input over the effort to get the vaccines in terms of budgeting?

Three days ago the Senate resolved and mandated the senate committee on primary health care in a joint committee meeting of health to spare head the issue of interrogating the government agencies as it concerns this procurement of vaccines for the country and I fixed my meeting and once the resolution of the Senate was done I took immediate action of writing the Minister for Health and all other agencies under it with PTF, the coordinator for COVID-19 and his team, the Director of NCDC, FCDC, Executive Director, CEO of National Primary Care Development Agency, Dr. Fiesa Shuabi. The preparedness for this vaccine is there and we are working hard to make sure that we get things working for our people. First of all is the vaccine there? If it is there is it also safe for use by our people because I am very careful of not trying to solve a problem and end up compounding it because of what has played out in the past about the policies of vaccines and the effort to reduce population by the first world countries and third world countries. So we have looked at all these things and we are considering them. Another issue is the budget, the issue of vaccine came when we were almost done with the budget and with my discussion with the health agencies since yesterday and today, they are all discussing how we need to find money and we agreed at the Senate and National Assembly, those of us in health are interfacing with our leadership that this is something that is very urgent and we must do something about it. The Executive Director, CEO of National Primary Health care development agency, the NCDC and Director General of NCDC and all of us, we are all making efforts. As I speak to you, the budget for the procurement of the vaccine has already been gotten, we have an idea of what it is going to take but I won’t mention it here because we are still working on it but the effort is onging and we are working hard to achieve this. We have already started discussing with the Senate President on how we can thinker this budget to ensure that we have adequate provision in it for the vaccine even if it means striking out certain other projects and ensure that this money is in the budget for the vaccine. I took this idea to him and he told me ‘No, we don’t need to do that’, as the budget has reached that stage let’s not go there and try to put a spanner in the works but what we should do is articulate our opinion at the estimate of what it will cost us to buy enough vaccines that would go round the country and make sure that the health of our citizens are protected and once we do that the leadership is going to interface with the Executive to do a special supplementary estimate purely for this which everyone is concerned about and that is the direction we are heading to and our people are working round the clock for this to workout. I spoke to the coordinator of COVID-19 and the Executive director of National Primary healthcare development agency are all working including the Director General of NCDC and the Minister for Health in order to come up with an estimate and once we are done immediately with the passage of the budget we will be returning with a supplementary estimate to take care of the vaccine. So we are assuring the country that we are working and there is no loopholes from the National Assembly in terms of making sure we have enough preparation to fund our health emergencies.