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Probity drives national response on COVID-19

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It is the season of the new normal. But despite the clear and present danger on the virulence and destruction wrought by coronavirus, not a few Nigerians, including supposedly informed elites, have chosen to live in denial. It is not my portion, the fanatics will say even as many notable and ordinary families bury their loved ones daily!

The Federal Government, through President Muhammadu Buhari’s Presidential Task force, PTF on COVID-19, has toiled daily, through excruciating meetings and consultation to draw, execute and fine-tune a National Response Strategy. There is, without doubt, more work ahead.

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It is worth reiterating, to educate critics and cynics as well, that the battle against coronavirus is the responsibility of every citizen. All stakeholders, interest groups, including all tiers of government have roles to play. It is in the enlightened self-interest of the rich and the poor; the elite and the common citizen to work in harmony to defeat COVID-19.

The Nigerian Constitution has spelt out the roles of each tier of government as well as the duties and responsibilities of Nigerians, as individuals. Provision of education, healthcare and potable water, for example, are on the concurrent list of responsibilities for federal and state governments. As a matter of fact, COVID-19 has exposed the inadequacies in Nigeria’s health infrastructure. More critical are the lack of understanding and the tentative approach of many state governments in embracing the national response strategy.

Members of the PTF on COVID-19 have severally appreciated the enormity of the task ahead. Boss Mustapha, chairman of the team, has toiled day and night since President Buhari gave the marching order in March, last year. With candor, he has combined his task as Secretary to the Federal Government, building a robust and comprehensive national response strategy, already copied by many developed countries especially on the international travel protocols, as well as managing his home front, recently visited by coronavirus!

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Facts on the policy direction and management of Nigeria’s National Response Strategy speak to the articulate composition of the response team. It parades ministers in charge of critical and strategic sectors including health, environment, education, aviation, interior, foreign affairs and humanitarian affairs. There are also experts in diverse health fields - Dr. Chike Ihekweazu, director general, Nigeria Centre for Disease Control; Dr. Walter Kazadi, a public health epidemiologist, who is the country representative of the World Health Organisation (WHO); Dr. Sani Aliyu, erstwhile director general of National Agency for the Control of Aids, an expert in infectious diseases and microbiology, who was named the national coordinator of PTF.

The PTF on COVID-19 has consistently rendered reports on its activities- on its finances, collaborations with local and international agencies and organisations, among them the private sector coalition against COVID-19, CACOVID, the WHO and sundry international partners.

It is ludicrous that instead of canvassing support for the success of the national response, some misguided critics are misinforming Nigerians on the dangers of coronavirus, its prevention protocols, treatment and the potency of already discovered vaccines. Not a few analysts have beclouded the issues around testing regimen, isolation centres, availability of oxygen, and of recent, the re-opening of schools.

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One analyst has even raised mud and dirt on what he considered as unwise spending in publishing information on a six-month travel restriction against 100 travellers for non-compliance with the mandatory seven-day post-arrival COVID-19 test. When has information dissemination to citizens become a misdemeanor?

The tongue-lashing should rather be for those who defied laid down protocols and opted not to be responsible. In the words of Dr. Aliyu: “The purpose of putting travel restrictions is not to name and shame.  If we just wanted to name and shame, we would just publish the passport numbers and their name and not put any penalty. No, the purpose is to make sure that travelers change their behavior and comply with our protocol. This is enforcement; we cannot put passengers name because we would be breaching confidentiality.”

The Federal Ministry of Education has explained that the decision to allow schools resume on 18 January was reached after a comprehensive appraisal of the situation undertaken by the ministry in consultation with relevant stakeholders, including state governors, commissioners of education, proprietors and heads of institutions and the various staff unions.

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“Parents and institutions must, however, ensure full compliance with all COVID-19 protocols after taking time to explain the severity of the second wave of the pandemic to their wards and students. The minister urged all stakeholders in the school system to observe all protocols of wearing face masks by teachers, workers and students in all schools; washing of hands, which entails the provision of hand washing facilities at strategic locations within the schools and constant supply of water; use of alcohol-based sanitizers; gauging of body temperature and social distancing.

“Others are suspension of large gatherings such as assembly and visiting days, ensuring that there is no overcrowding by limiting the number of students in classrooms and hostel accommodation, resuscitation
of functional health clinics with facilities for isolation and transportation of any suspected case to appropriate medical facilities and adherence to all other non-pharmaceutical provisions. These measures will be subject to constant review,” read a statement from the ministry.

Mustapha, in an end-year report to President Buhari in December said Nigeria’s COVID-19 response, driven by science and data, was designed to achieve three primary aims of epidemic control, namely  interrupting viral transmission; reducing the risk of the health system being overwhelmed due to increased demand and minimising mortality among the most vulnerable parts of the population. 

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“The other objectives include the reinvigoration of the nation’s health   infrastructure and manpower to enable Nigeria to confront any future outbreak and also build her potentials for medical tourism which has been a source of foreign exchange and brain drain over the years.

“The operations of the PTF have been driven throughout the initial six months and the extended three months mandate, by a multi-sectoral process which facilitated expansive and in-depth consideration of issues as well as speedy decision-making,” Mustapha said.

To ensure transparency, two web portals sponsored by the Nigerian Economic Summit Group and the UNDP were opened for the tracking of resources mobilised, while a national register for such has been created and constantly updated.

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Mustapha has said repeatedly that the assignment at the PTF is work in progress but he is conscious of leaving a legacy.  His words: “The pandemic has provided a unique opportunity to x-ray the state of our healthcare sector, which is in dire need of reforms and funding. The weaknesses in our health system became more glaring as we see how more established health systems in Europe and America have buckled under pressure.

“The PTF assignment has given me further opportunity to interrogate and x-ray the system better. This pandemic has provided the unique opportunity to review the healthcare system so as a nation, we will be better prepared for future challenges.”

Part of the success story of the PTF is the approval, by the Federal Government, of –N-6.45 billion for setting up oxygen plants in 38 locations across the country. At the last count, Nigeria can boast of 114 modern infectious disease laboratories, both government and privately-owned. Early last year, there were only five.

Kareem is a public policy analyst in Abuja

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