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Test certificate fraud rocks COVID-19 air travel protocol

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Murtala Muhammed Airport

• Travellers relive harrowing experiences
• Airlines, stakeholders seek uniform procedure
• FG promises to tackle challenge

One month after international flights resumed in Nigeria, allegations of fraud and test certificate racketeering trail foreign air travels.

Flights in and out of the country had been suspended for months as part of measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 in the country.

Shortly before the ban was lifted, the Federal Government declared COVID-19 PCR test certificate and negative results were mandatory requirements for exit or entry into the country.

But it is alleged that some government and laboratory officials make illegal earnings off the procedure by manipulating test results.

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Arriving passengers have complained that the dedicated online travel portal for pre-arrival payment for PCR test in Nigeria has not been working. They are therefore at the mercy of extortionists, multiple payments for tests, and officials negotiating negative status for a fee.

Apparently aware of the complaints, the Federal Government has pledged to fix the online platform to ease inconveniences travellers face. The Coordinator, Presidential Task Force on COVID-19, Dr. Sani Aliyu, assured travellers of ongoing work to improve entry processes with the use of the international travel portal.

SIMILARLY, global airlines have called for development and deployment of rapid, accurate, affordable, easy-to-operate, scalable and systematic COVID-19 testing for all passengers before departure. The measure, as an alternative to quarantine and multiple tests, is to re-establish global air connectivity and erase current traveller apathy.

A traveller that just returned from Germany, Sunday Ajisafe, claimed there was subtle fraud in the mandatory testing scheme.

He said, “I arrived in Abuja about two weeks ago. We have been made to understand that we would have to pay N48, 000 for another COVID-19 test on arrival, after which we can retrieve our passports. I paid at the airport and was referred to a laboratory in Abuja. Three days later, I went to the given address and realised that it was a wrong address. I searched to no avail. That is how I lost N48, 000.

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“Because my return trip was approaching, I went into a government approved laboratory to do the test. There, I paid N50, 000. The result came out positive. I was shocked because I had no symptoms and I have been protecting myself as much as possible. As I was stepping out, one of the laboratory officials approached me and said he could ‘help’ with the status, if I could part with N25, 000. It was then I realised that it has become a business of some sort,” Ajisafe said.

A Dubai-bound traveller from Lagos was also confirmed positive for COVID-19, just days to departure.

“I have a valid entry visa to the UAE that was about to expire. That is where I work and have my family too. It was a desperate situation. I had reasons not to believe the latest result. More so, I have done a COVID-19 test earlier that came out negative. I later got a call from someone who offered to help edit the date of the old COVID-19 test. I paid some money and was able to fly,” the traveller said.

A travel consultant, Hakeem Olumegbon, said there were diverse stories of racketing in town and urged handling government officials to be committed.

Olumegbon said he had observed the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) unit issue two conflicting results to one person.

“She is one of our clients that was about to travel. She got a call that she tested positive. She was shattered. Before the end of the day, she got a mail, saying she was negative. So, which one should we believe of the two results from the same laboratory? From the government’s end, it is all messy.

“There are those that are all out to make money off the ineffectual system. Those ones are now selling fake test certificates to travellers that are desperate. I heard of a lab that did the COVID-19 test for just N15, 000. When it came out positive, the applicant didn’t believe the result and blamed it on the low fee that was charged. Things are that bad. The government has to do something about this urgently,” Olumegbon said.

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In his reaction, the coordinator, Presidential Task Force on COVID-19, Dr. Sani Aliyu, said the PTF was working to make the process more streamlined and easier to navigate.

Aliyu described the travel portal as Nigeria’s innovation for controlling the spread of COVID-19 and making travel possible and seamless for passengers. He appealed to passengers to bear with the task force and report any issues, using the portal and to support them in flattening the curve.

“With an operation of this scope and skill, there are bound to be issues that will arise. This is an IT system, it is not perfect; we are human, talk less of computers and especially with the travel portal that is relatively new. It was immediately implemented because of the pressure for opening of the international airports. Without the travel portal, we probably would still have been struggling to open up the international airports safely.”

SINCE the reopening of the nation’s airspace to international flights and launch of the international travel portal, statistics have shown that over 27,000 passengers arrived in the country through the Lagos and Abuja airports.

According to the PTF, over 18,000 came in through the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, while it was a little over 9,000 in Abuja. Of this number of passengers, 99.8 per cent had negative COVID-19 PCR test results.

The Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Finchglow Travels, Bankole Bernard, said the development was not unexpected of a system where public officers were the most corrupt, coupled with the challenges of being a developing country.

Bernard said the COVID-19 travel protocols were work-in-progress; hence, travellers should complain less but keep exposing fraudulent practices to change the situation.

On the chaotic situation at airports, Secretary General of the Aviation Safety Round Table Initiative (ASRTI), a think-tank group of the aviation sector, Group Capt. John Ojikutu (rtd), queried the essence of inbound passengers negative test certification on arrival going for another test.

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Ojikutu said: “The PTF must begin to give considerations to providing test laboratories at the international airports to entrust confidence to Nigerians and foreigners. The present international passenger traffic is just about 25 per cent from the figures recently released and I don’t think we need more than Lagos and Abuja to be operating for now, so that we can optimise the available skilled manpower and equipment.”

He added that it should also not cost the government so much to provide forms for all foreign airlines on international flights to Nigeria, to distribute to their passengers before boarding or while onboard.

He said that had been the practice for the declaration of foreign exchange carried by both Nigerians and foreigners, adding that the objective is to ease passengers’ experience and comply with International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) guidelines.

World airlines, under the aegis of International Air Transport Association (IATA), have also pledged to work through ICAO and with health authorities to implement uniform testing procedures as quick solution to the problems faced by travellers.

Lack of uniform testing procedure is already causing global air travellers a lot of discomforts, despite the add-on cost of multiple checks. COVID-19 tests cost an average Nigerian traveller about N150, 000 for three sessions on a return trip.

IATA’s Director General and Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Alexandre de Juniac, said the key to restoring the freedom of mobility across borders is systematic COVID-19 testing of all travellers before departure.

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