Pressure mounts on Reps to suspend infectious disease bill
• Stakeholders warn against hasty passage
Concerned Nigerians yesterday intensified pressure on the House of Representatives even as it appeared poised to pass the controversial Control of Infectious Diseases Bill 2020 today.
They raised posers as to why the proposed legislation is coming as Nigeria battles the coronavirus pandemic. They wondered why the country is exploring the prospect of forcing parents to vaccinate their children at birth when western nations and China where the disease originated from have not done so. There were also insinuations that the sponsors of the bill might be aiming to satisfy foreign interests to the detriment of Nigerians.
Sponsored by Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila, Chair of the House Committee on Health Institutions Pascal Obi and Chair of the House Committee on Health services Tanko Sanunu, the bill, which scaled the second reading during an emergency session last week, seeks to repeal the Quarantine Act 2004.
But a rights organisation, Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), condemned the attempt by the House to give accelerated passage to the critical legislation without consultation and input from stakeholders and the public.
Executive Director Auwal Musa Rafsanjani in a statement said: “It is important to note that while we understand the importance of a legislative framework that guarantees effective response to pandemics/public health crises, we must do so within the rule of law and in conformity with the constitution and Nigeria’s international human rights obligations.
“The National Assembly should refrain from vesting powers beyond the remit of institutions. We must avoid the temptation of vesting absolute powers in public officials as this could be abused and misused to undermine constitutionally guaranteed rights. Laws must be made for the people and any law that fails to protect the human rights of the people as guaranteed in the constitution must be rejected in its entirety.”
Also, the conveners of the Coalition in Defence of Nigerian Democracy and Constitution and the Free Nigeria Coalition, Ariyo-Dare Atoye and Adebayo Raphael, said: “While we welcome every genuine effort to repeal and replace the Quarantine Act with a comprehensive legal framework, we also want the lawmakers to know that the passage of this bill cannot be rushed because it is in conflict with the constitution and threatens national security.”
They noted further: “We fear that any further attempt to hurriedly act on this proposed bill could lend credence to rising public concerns and conspiracy theories on social media locally and internationally that the House of the Representatives is acting insensitively under the ‘dark influence’ of some global vaccine players with undeclared interest.
“The sponsors of this bill have demonstrated crass ignorance of history about public resistance to vaccine in Nigeria. Consequently, the suspicions already generated by the poor handling of this process are bound to trigger a new wave of resistance and rejection when a COVID-19 vaccine is eventually discovered and brought into the country.”
A former senator, Dino Melaye, yesterday filed a court action against the planned repeal of the Quarantine Act. Melaye in the suit (FHC/ABJ/CS/465/2020) filed in the Federal High Court Abuja had the Clerk of the National Assembly, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Attorney General of the Federation and Inspector General of Police as respondents.
The opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) had in a statement by National Publicity Secretary Kola Ologbondiyan said: “It was imperative to allow for popular participation, especially as the bill seeks to prescribe clauses on critical issues, particularly that of vaccination, which has become globally controversial in the face of raging conspiracy theories on the COVID-19 pandemic. Such an approach is already worsening public mistrust as well as heightening apprehension over the intentions of presiding officers of the House of Representatives and the All Progressives Congress (APC)-led administration at this critical time.”
The party insisted that Nigerians should be “carried along in the decision-making process of such a critical legislation, which seeks to make provisions that will directly affect their health, as well as overall individual and collective safety and wellbeing.
“Anything short of that would be counter-productive and capable of breeding an avoidable public resistance, especially given the deepening fear and anxiety in the polity over the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Moving the bill, Gbajabiamila had explained that the legislation would empower the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) to discharge its duties effectively.
He added: “If you look at the language of the bill, the NCDC ‘may’ be empowered. It is also not true to say public hearing is an integral part of every bill, but public hearing gives the people outside the opportunity to contribute.
“ What this means is that the House will have to subject every bill to public hearing. I thought we are here to address some very serious and important issues. This bill is to improve on what we have. The essence of the bill is what we should keep our focus on and work out the details and I plead that we pass this bill and send it to the Senate.”
But Sergius Ogun (Edo, PDP) urged caution, saying it behoved the House to think twice and avoid giving so much power to the NCDC. “We must be careful with vaccines and avoid any conspiracy,” he warned.
Ossai Nicholas (Delta, PDP), however, expressed support for the initiative, stressing that all the clauses of the bill capture the need to treat and handle outbreaks urgently.
Bamidele Salam (Osun, APC) said: “Just like we handled the Stimulus Bill, we should do the same here. When the bill was about to take off, it wasn’t easy. Many people did not believe in the bill.”
UzomaNkem (Abia, PDP) said: “We should not, because of what we are trying to do, make a big error. If we are going to do away with public hearings, then we must seek direction and not speed. The bill has a wrong timing. Please, let’s apply restraint on the speed.”
The House of Representatives and the NCDC, meanwhile, do not seem to think the same way concerning the bill.
NCDC Director General Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu told The Guardian yesterday: “Every country needs strong public health laws to keep citizens safe. This is one of the roles of the legislative arm of our government that we are grateful for. However, the development of a public health bill requires widespread consultation, as there are various stakeholders involved. The middle of a pandemic might not be the best time for this.
“We are still learning from this response. What we learn from this response should drive interventions such as new laws, if needed. Public health laws are critical for health security.”
Ihekweazu had last week told journalists that the NCDC was not aware of the controversial bill but was willing to work with the House of Representative on it.
In a related development, the Federal Government yesterday established a 17-man multi-disciplinary group tagged, ‘Ministerial Expert Advisory Committee on Health Sector COVID-19 (MEACoC) Response’.
Minister of Health Dr. Osagie Emmanuel Ehanire said the function of the committee shall be to gather evidence and information that would be collated, analysed and interpreted for coordinated response and especially to inform the minister and guide the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 response.
According to him, the members of the committee include virologists, public health experts, epidemiologists, infectious disease specialists, pharmacologists, health policy and systems experts, experts of health economics, health communication experts, health technology assessment experts etc.
He said Prof. OyewaleTomori, a former president of the Nigerian Academy of Sciences, would chair the committee.