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COVID-19 secrecy: Nigerian media, health privacy and public safety – Part 3

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COVID-19’s dark alley began on February 27, 2020 when Nigeria’s index case was diagnosed. There were jests about people coming out to say they had not been to Lagos in the past two years after they were referred to as contacts of the index case (Bassey, 2020). Then public uproar about secret plans to test Coronavirus vaccines; controversial and clandestine moves by the National Assembly to pass an infectious disease bill; the mystery of place of the treatment of former chief of staff to President Buhari, Abba Kyari; the mystery of visiting Chinese doctors, who conspiracy theorists later alleged were engineers who came to secretly install 5-G network in Nigeria (March –May 2020) (Iredia, 2020; Abati, 2020).

It is worthy of note that at some points when Nigeria broke its customary health secrecy, there were positive results. For instance, during the Ebola virus outbreak in 2014, the index case, Patrick Sawyer, a visitor on business trip from Liberia, was duly named together with medical and non-medical contacts (Smith and Smith, 2016). Contact tracing became open and easy, and in the end Nigeria was widely acclaimed for doing ‘a piece of world-class epidemiological work’ not seen in the developed countries like the US (Freeman, 2014; WHO, 2015). Nigeria’s government was also open with the COVID-19 positive status of the son of former vice president of Nigeria, Atiku Abubakar. This also led to easy identification of his contacts, who were promptly tested after isolating.

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At these points, data privacy meant little in the face of public safety, and no one even called attention to the privacy rights of the victims. Similarly, on May 28, 2020, the identity of a COVID-19 victim, Emmanuel Ononiwu, was published by the Abia State Government in Nigeria. The publication of the victim’s pictures, the first ever in the country, was taken from an isolation centre where he was being treated together with his wife and other family members. The commissioner of information in the state, John Kalu, told newsmen that publishing the identity of Ononiwu was to douse public fears and outcry after Ononiwu’s escape from an isolation centre became public knowledge. From the explanations of the commissioner, public interest was in the centre of the action of Abia State Government (Udeajah, 2020).

In contrast, when Abba Kyari tested positive for the virus, there was so much drama about the hospital where he was being treated, even weeks after he had died. The secrecy and uncertainty seemed to have been capped with the whereabouts of President Buhari one month into the coronavirus situation. As reported by Premium Times:

As the coronavirus pandemic makes rapid inroads into Nigeria’s vast population and President Muhammadu Buhari’s whereabouts become increasingly fuzzy, Nigerian governors are stepping up with what they deem necessary to keep their people safe. In doing so, they are also brazenly exerting presidential authority, filling up for a clear lack of political leadership in Abuja (Ogundipe, 2020, para 1).

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In-between rumour and silence, there is falsehood and misinformation. When the owner of Africa Independent Television (AIT), Raymond Dokpesi and his family were released from an isolation centre, he said he did not know the difference between malaria and COVID-19 because he was given headache and malaria treatment while in isolation centre. The Federal Government charged that he was breaching national security because he narrated the situation in Nigeria’s isolation centre where health reporters had scarcely been allowed entry.

But it was virtually only Dokpesi’s AIT that aired his views, ostensibly because he allowed it. Every other Nigerian station had systematically evaded the part of Dokpesi’s experience (Olokor, 2020; Omilana, 2020). Punch, a Nigerian tabloid, reported: “He [Dokpesi] described his experience at UATH [isolation centre] as ‘the difficult period of my life.” The newspaper said nothing further about the experience.

On April 18, 2020, the Lagos State government (through the state health commissioner, Akin Abayomi) finally revealed that Abba Kyari died in a private hospital in Lagos (Mojeed, 2020), one month after his death. The commissioner had earlier denied knowledge of Kyari’s whereabouts. Afterwards, he admitted that Kyari died at the First Cardiology Consultants, Ikoyi Lagos. Yet, authorities at the hospital had earlier rejected the information when it was initially reported that their facility was the treatment place of Kyari. Just a day earlier, April 17, 2020, the Minister of Health had said that no private clinic was accredited to treat coronavirus patients in Nigeria (Mojeed, 2020).

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The other area of secret drama is the hide-and-seek about dozens of orthodox and unorthodox medical practitioners who made claims about having cure for coronavirus. Controversies trailed all their claims. In Anambra State, a professor of Pharmacy was purportedly sacked, (though later debunked by his vice chancellor) for making a claim to having found a cure for coronavirus (Muanya, 2020). Distortion, inconsistencies and dangerous pieces of information have so far circulated in the social media. The BBC (2020) has chronicled the misinformation, false and fake news making the rounds to fill the gap left by government secrecy.

Most of Nigeria’s newspapers have not shown a single picture of an isolation centre or hospital where patients were actually admitted with doctors, treatment protocols, ongoing research, identity of patients, dead or alive & discharged (Moshood, 2020). The frustrations of the media were bared when a Nigeria newspaper illustrated a COVID-19 story with an internet picture of a functioning isolation centre published by the New York Times on April 16, 2020. This signified an understanding of the need for such pictures, which unfortunately were out of reach in Nigeria (Owoyese, 2020). As noted, absence of such pictures has caused widespread scepticism among Nigerians on the reality of COVID-19 in the country (Moshood 2020). But why not?
To be continued tomorrow.
Dr Mbamalu is the News Editor of The Guardian.

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