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Time to review COVID-19 travel guidelines

By Editorial Board
29 November 2021   |   3:04 am
For all the gains that the Presidential Steering Committee on COVID-19 has achieved by mounting safety guidelines against the coronavirus pandemic, its reluctance to policy review is unscientific

For all the gains that the Presidential Steering Committee on COVID-19 has achieved by mounting safety guidelines against the coronavirus pandemic, its reluctance to policy review is unscientific and rather rash on the Nigerian public.

Lately, the health protocol has become unnecessarily prohibitive and ludicrous on air travellers, with errant airport officials and the system using the guidelines to exploit travellers. But to eradicate malfeasance and perennial bedlam at the country’s entry ports, a complete overhaul of safety guidelines should not continue to be an afterthought.

Apparently, to keep Nigeria safer and halt the spread of the deadly coronavirus, the Presidential Steering Committee, through the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) has since 2020 kept in place mandatory travel guidelines for in-bound and out-bound passengers.

The guidelines, among others, made compulsory the conduct of multiple Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests, online application for entry into the country, and quarantine or self-isolation for inbound travellers. While they have been positive for public health and safety, the protocols have lately become travellers’ nightmare and in a manner that questions the objectives of the finagling policy.

At an average of $100 per COVID-19 test, which is required before departure and after arrival in a round-trip, Nigeria has one of the most expensive test centres in the world today. The cost, 100 per cent borne by travellers, readily doubles airfares and made travel the exclusive preserve of the rich. And for travellers that cannot afford the cost or the discomfort of sinking the long swab down the nose cavity every now and then, there is an army of corrupt airport officials that are circumventing the system to issue fake test certificates at a token. Indeed, Emirates Airlines left the Nigerian lucrative route in March partly in protest against multiple test results coming from Lagos and Abuja.

Just recently also, the Lagos State government suspended an official alleged of diverting COVID-19 test payment of inbound passengers into a private account. Clearly, the entire process has become a revenue-earning venture for the government, its accredited health facilities and some corrupt officers, all at the expense of the travelling public. And given the boom in business, it becomes impossible for COVID-19 prevalence to end.

Most harrowing is the ordeal consistently faced by Nigerians attempting to make a re-entry into their country. The guideline mandates such travellers to visit the Nigerian International Travel Portal to fill an awkwardly lengthy questionnaire and make an online payment for another COVID-19 test in Nigeria. Perhaps due to technical failure or administrative incompetence, the portal experiences more downtime than it is functional, leaving applicants hanging at foreign airports for hours and even days! Nobel Laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka, was caught on the web recently and bitterly lamented the agony of Nigerians literally getting banished by an unfriendly system that is peculiar to Nigeria alone. Unlike in other parts of the world that now grant unrestricted access to fully-vaccinated travellers, Nigeria still insists on mandatory quarantine in a hotel paid for by the travellers.

The bureaucratic overload and official exploitation of the people under the guise of public health are no longer tenable. Nowhere in the civilised world is such a barrier entertained. In as much as the government has the duty to keep the citizenry protected, it must keep reviewing protocols and deploy same only as necessary. That is the trend in fellow African countries including South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Ethiopia. Though Ethiopia currently has the highest number of flight services daily, it has made travel protocol seamless, with only one COVID-19 test required and on offer very close to the airport at $33. In other parts of tourism-dependent economies, the COVID-19 test is done on the spot and only on travellers that have shown symptoms following the general screening.

Those countries and their hands-on governments know that economic earnings and Foreign Direct Investments (FDIs) are directly proportional to the ease of access of travellers into the country. Nigeria should share in that wisdom and not stop walking the ropes of a pariah state.

President Muhammadu Buhari’s government has for six years mouthed the Ease of Doing Business without anything to show in official conduct. And the tell-tale signs of the wishy-washy policy are there in the forms of dwindling FDIs, free-fall in foreign remittances, widening gap in import to export ratio, weaker naira to the dollar and the government literally borrowing for consumption. It is in that sense that further discouraging Nigerians and other foreigners from coming to the beleaguered country will further worsen the poverty status, which is more harmful than the good to achieve by blindly safeguarding public health.

The problem is that the Nigerian authorities are too comfortable copying global health policies without cognizance of environmental peculiarities or evolving indigenous solutions to global problems. It was the same neocolonial dependency mindset that fuelled COVID-19 lockdown, use of face-masks, hydroxychloroquine rush and vaccine-mandate even in states that have no vaccine for those freely seeking inoculation. The Presidential Committee and authorities concerned should expend more energy not only on the general preventive norm but also in promoting personal hygiene and general immunity. They should keep reinventing a national response against the virus, rather than making Nigerians feel unwanted in their own country.