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FG under pressure to close borders over coronavirus

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PHOTO: BBC

• Nigeria gets third COVID-19 case
• Govt bans officials from foreign trips
• No flight restrictions yet, says health minister
• Nation pushing luck too far, Lawan warns
• Buhari okays suspension of Edo sports festival
• Says govt will explore ways to protect citizens
• Stakeholders seek measures to control public gatherings

The announcement by the Federal Ministry of Health yesterday of a new case of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Nigeria has intensified calls on the Federal Government to impose travel restrictions at the country’s entry points.

This is coming as the Federal Government yesterday banned all government officials from embarking on foreign trips on account of the pandemic.

Secretary to the Government of the Federation Boss Mustapha made the disclosure following the inaugural meeting of the Presidential Task Force Team on coronavirus disease.

The president of the Nigeria Medical Association (NMA), Dr. Francis Faduyile, told reporters that it was high time the Nigerian government took the decision to “close its borders to countries with high cases of coronavirus.”

Also, the president, Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria (PSN), Mazi Sam Ohuabunwa, explained: “When people come from countries with high prevalence of coronavirus, they should do compulsory quarantine. Suppose the people you ask to do self-quarantine refuse and go about their businesses, what would happen? They would spread the virus!”

He, however, added: “I personally do not subscribe to closing borders. If everyone closes his borders, what do you think will happen to the world? There are still necessary travels that need to be done. But if you travel, ensure you self-quarantine.”

Faduyile and Ohuabunwa stated these following the presentation of a report by the NMA/PSN joint committee on inter-professional harmony in Lagos, yesterday.

This was as 21civil society groups yesterday called on the Federal Government to allow only essential travels into the country.

They made this known in a joint statement signed by Policy and Legislative Advocacy Centre, Centre for Liberty, Stakeholders Democracy Network (SDN), Silverchip Fox, TechHer, Butterfly Effect Empowerment Initiative, YIAGA Africa, Concerned Nigerians, Free Nigeria Movement, Adopt A Goal Initiative, Dinidari Foundation, and Rule of Law Development Foundation.

The others are: Education as a Vaccine, Stand to End Rape Initiative (STER), Centre for Democracy Development, Girl Child Africa, TAP Initiative, Centre for Impact Advocacy (CiA), Raising New Voices Initiative, Global Rights, and Connected Development (CODE).

The statement reads in part: “We cannot and should not contemplate banning Nigerians from returning home in these difficult times, but it is obvious that it is time for drastic measures to protect our country and a fragile health system that has been neglected for too many years. The Federal Government and states must recognise, like other countries, that this is the most urgent of national security matters.

“Effort should be put in place to closely monitor our land borders and ensure basic health protocols for preventing the spread of coronavirus. Governments at all levels should consider immediate measures to limit public gatherings and promote safe social contacts among citizens.”

Advocacy for Integrity and Economic Development (AIED), a civil society organisation, also called on Buhari to close the nation’s borders.

In a statement, the group’s director of media and publicity, Comrade O’Seun John, said: “We find it extremely hard to understand the motive behind the refusal of the President Buhari’s administration to close the Nigerian borders and shut down our airports against travellers from coronavirus-infected countries in the wake of the pandemic.

“It is unexplainable that a father will knowingly and wishfully expose his children to the cold hands of death to satisfy the ego of superiority in the fight against the deadly COVID-19.

“Let’s make no mistake, Nigeria is on the brink of an outbreak and like South Korea, which was doing everything right until Patient Number 31 decided to disobey social distancing orders, we cannot afford to leave the country to the unseen hands of the divine.

“President Buhari must take action. This is not a plea. He swore an oath of allegiance to Nigeria and Nigerians, and the safety of Nigerians must come first.”

The national leader of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), Adams Oshiomhole, said the party’s position aligns with the decision by advanced countries like the United Kingdom to shut its borders as part of measures for containing the pandemic.

He told reporters at the end of the party’s National Working Committee (NWC) meeting in Abuja that the APC would not sit back and watch the citizenry exposed to the disease by foreigners. He promised to lead a team of NWC members to interface with Health Minister Osagie Ehanire with a view to protecting Nigerians.

Also, the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) charged the Federal Government to go beyond “rudimentary interventions and adopt more stringent measures to further safeguard our nation from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

It expressed concern that the current approach in tackling the disease falls short of the required pre-emptive measures, thereby leaving gaps that expose the nation to avoidable risks.

The PDP, in a statement by its national publicity secretary, Kola Ologbondiyan, said: “Nigeria is a strategic international hub. As such, the Federal Government should adopt stringent pre-emptive measures by radically stepping up our international ports and border screening as well as quickly improving our internal surveillance and hygiene monitoring system.”

It further urged the Federal Government to “go beyond its proposed secondary screening of travellers from certain countries and extend the measure to all international flights coming into the country, given the prevalence of connecting flights and land border crossing by international air travellers.”

Calling on the government to create more screening centres, the PDP enjoined Nigerians to remain vigilant, ensure personal hygiene and follow directives issued by the authorities.

Senate President Ahmad Lawan, on his part, regretted the country’s inadequate preparation for stopping the pandemic.

At a session yesterday, Lawan said: “We are very lucky and fortunate, but we shouldn’t push our luck too far. We should be very observant of all those regulations the technical experts give us. There is the need for the Federal Government to do a little more, especially in the area of testing centres. The entire north and southeast have no testing centres and it shouldn’t be so.”

Ibrahim Oloriegbe (APC, Kwara Central), who introduced the motion, also drew the attention of the Senate to the need for more serious efforts to combat the pandemic. “God has been very kind to Nigeria”, he said: “But we don’t need to take anything for granted.”

According to the senator, “Nigerians need to increase the observance of preventive measures including avoidance of shaking of hands. If it is possible, people should not travel to high-risk countries especially in Europe, unless such trips are very important.”

He further suggested: “Nigeria should also consider disallowing non-Nigerians from high-risk countries from entering the country. Currently, we have only five centres where testing can be done. The government has to step up the testing capacity and provide support for state governments.”

Meanwhile, observing the proverbial ounce of prevention, Buhari yesterday approved the postponement of the 20th edition of the National Sports Festival scheduled to begin in Benin City on Friday, March 20.

Minister of Sports Sunday Dare and his health counterpart, Olorunimbe Mamora, made the disclosure in Abuja yesterday following a meeting with the president.

“For the benefit of the sporting community, the Ministry of Youth and Sports recognises the fact that a lot of resources, a lot of efforts on the part of our athletes have gone into preparing for Edo 2020. But we think that staying healthy, to be able to compete in not just Edo 2020 but other sports and tournaments, is very important,” said Dare.

“After briefing Mr. President, he took the initiative and gave the directive that the National Sports Festival, christened Edo 2020, should be postponed as a precautionary measure against the press of COVID-19. A new date will be communicated later based on development around COVID-19,” Mamora said.

Mamora said further that the principle of social distancing must be observed. “That also extends to religious gathering or any other gathering that would have a large number of people. It is not advisable at this point in time,” he said.

The minister was, however, not categorical about what form of ban against social gatherings the government might put in place.
“What I can say for now is that the immediate issue before us is the national sports festival and our meeting with Mr. President essentially was to convey our thoughts in that regard and Mr. President did the right thing by approving the need for the postponement. But social distancing is desirable at this point in time.”

On the possibility of restrictions to flight from high-risk countries, Mamora said the ministry would address the issue at an appropriate time. “There will be subsequent briefings from the ministry because each situation is reviewed as it comes to us,” he said.

Also, Buhari said his administration would explore diverse options to protect Nigerians from the pandemic and address resultant economic problems.

He made the commitment during a briefing session by the Presidential Economic Advisory Council (PEAC), led by Prof. Doyin Salami.

With oil prices oscillating between $29 and $30, as opposed to the $57 benchmark for the 2020 budget, Buhari noted that many variables, including production cost and political impact, determine oil prices, but “we will see how to survive falling prices, as we already envisaged the problem.”

He said protecting the people from the vagaries of international markets and falling oil prices is a priority of the government, “and we will do our best to do so.”

Salami painted sobering scenarios of what could happen to the Nigerian economy if the pandemic becomes protracted. These include: slower growth, as the supply and demand sides of the global economy become affected; uncertainty, which would erode confidence; governments acting unilaterally instead of cooperatively; further drop in oil prices; and lockdowns gaining grounds around the world. There would also be oil glut, trade imbalance, drop in foreign reserves, and rise in unemployment.

He advocated hard work so that Nigerians could keep their heads above the water. He also recommended a revision of the 2020 budget, with priority spending on healthcare, among others.

According to a statement by Minister of Health Osagie Ehanire, the latest case is a Nigerian national in her 30s, who returned from a short visit to the United Kingdom on March 13.

“Fortunately, she decided, upon returning home, to go into a 14-day self-isolation, but subsequently developed symptoms of fever and cough on March 16, at which point she voluntarily called the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) toll-free line to report her condition.

“Officials from the Lagos State Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) were immediately dispatched to her home to collect samples, which upon testing came out positive for the coronavirus. The lady is currently at the Infectious Disease Hospital (IDH) in Yaba, where she has remained clinically stable and is responding to treatment.”

He added: “Intensive contact tracing has begun, to help identify all persons who the patient has been in contact with since her return. We expect the number to be small, because of her sensible decision to go into self-isolation from the time of her arrival.”

As at Monday, March 16, 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) revealed that the pandemic had infected more than 168,000 people and claimed the lives of more than 6,000 people in over 140 countries, areas or territories worldwide.

It said 38 cases had been reported with zero death across Senegal (26), Burkina Faso (3), Cote d’Ivoire (3), Nigeria (2), Ghana (2), Guinea (1) and Togo (1). Of all these, Senegal is currently the only member state with local transmission with a hotspot in the locality of Touba.


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