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Controversy trails Ayade’s approach on COVID-19 strategy

By Anietie Akpan (Deputy Bureau Chief, South-South)
18 April 2020   |   4:15 am
Management of the Coronavirus, otherwise known as COVID-19 pandemic, is raising eyebrows in Cross River State, with some claiming that the state governor Senator Ben Ayade’s approach to it is political and mercantile.


Management of the Coronavirus, otherwise known as COVID-19 pandemic, is raising eyebrows in Cross River State, with some claiming that the state governor Senator Ben Ayade’s approach to it is political and mercantile. But on the other hand, others have said whether his approach is okay or not, at least his proactive measures have kept the virus out of Cross River for now. The early closure of the Cross River-Akwa Ibom border at the Itu bridgehead and that of Gakim border with Benue State and other borders have helped so far to keep the state safe.

The main issue of public concern is the use of facemasks and social distancing, the release of 50 cars to fight COVID-19 and the latest approval of N900 million from the account of the 18 local government councils by the state’s House of Assembly for the use of government to fight COVID-19.

The state governor had ordered the compulsory use of facemasks or no movement and N300,000 fine to be imposed on any defaulter plus quarantine for a period of 14days. He went further to order the state’s Garment Factory to produce one million facemasks and distribute free to the people, but it failed to meet target. However, opposition parties and individuals are suspicious of the entire process, calling it a conduit pipe to milk the state dry, just the same way the superhighway and deep seaport projects are deemed unrealistic pipe dreams.

The state government through its Secretary to the State Government, Tina Agbor, in a letter dated April 6 to the state’s House of Assembly through the Speaker, said in its effort to check the virus in the state through precautionary measures “the Executive Council at its 6th emergency meeting of 1 April 2020 approved that the 18 local government councils in the state key into the fight against COVID-19 by contributing N50 million each amounting to N900 million”. The fund was subsequently approved last Thursday by the Assembly.

In all these the state has just one isolation centre built by the University of Calabar Teaching Hospital (UCTH) on credit and the contractor is said to be on the neck of UCTH management to pay up. The isolation centre has only four beds and a ventilator, but the state government is said to be mulling the idea of using its desolate Tinapa hotel as an isolation centre in case of any sudden spike in outbreak in the state. Recently, it quietly admitted 28 oil-rig workers on self-quarantine in the facility with 250 rooms paid up and, after much inquisition, the Commissioner for Health Dr. Betta Edu and her Finance counterpart, Asuquo Ekpenyong (Jr), in a briefing, admitted the presence of the 28 oil workers and declared them COVID-19 free. This caused a scare in the state even though they have now vacated the hotel.

Although Cross River is not doing total lock down but its compulsory use of facemasks by all has become an avenue for persons, especially commercial vehicle drivers, to be beaten up and manhandled by security agents for not wearing one or carrying passengers that do not wear. This approach has drawn anger from the people, especially as government is yet to make the facemasks available. Recently, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said facemask is mainly for those with the virus, medical personnel or when a person is in an endemic area.

Some persons have alleged that the Ayade COVID-19 fight is a scam and questioned why, despite presidential directives that states should not touch council funds without elected council officials, the state’s House of Assembly recently approved the release of N900 million with the approval of the civil servants who are Head of Local Government Administration (HOLGA). For five years running, the state has had no elected council chairmen and councilors. The government has been challenged to make public all funds for COVID-19 and how they are being expended.

While launching the facemask programme recently, Ayade said, “because I am a professor of science and I know how this virus moves; I know its etiology, I know its transmissibility; I know its antigenicity; because I do, I know that once you put on these masks, you already have been protected. You don’t need social distancing when you are properly protected because for your mucal glands that secrets the mucus and the musins already form a network of coats to attack the virus”.

This statement has attracted criticisms from different quarters and an Arise television programme panelist PDP governorship running mate in Ogun State in the 2019 general election, Dr. Rueben Abati, on Thursday last week, wondered how “a bunch of sycophants and bootlickers” were around Ayade when he made that statement without a dissenting voice, saying, “this is the way Nigerians behave when they are around the man of power; they just switch off their brains and replace it with sawdust. There have been many myths about coronavirus and one of those myths is Ben Ayade, who happens to be a professor and I think he needs to go and do some homework and check up again on the literature, because what he is doing there is a case of disinformation… Ayade is not an expert on COVID-19; he is not a medical doctor. He should just keep his peace”.

While commenting on the quality of facemasks being distributed in the state from Garment Factory by the state government, Chairman of Nigeria Medical Association (NMA), Dr. Agam Ayuk, said, “The level of protection differs based on the type of facemask used and the highest amongst it gives you about 95 to 99 percent protection from certain viruses… Then there are different levels of fabric and the level of protection is very low. These are the ones we call do-it-yourself where various types of fabrics are used but low. But at least it prevents certain levels of droplets if everyone uses it anyway and gives some level of protection but quite low.

“At this point, you can only encourage the hygienic use of facemasks and it is not practicable to have everyone use surgical masks. It should be ionized because those are just cloth materials gotten from a stock and what level of hygiene has it gone through before you start distributing them to the public? These are some of the challenges, but generally we encourage it”.

Former Chairman, Inter-Party Advisory Council (IPAC), Cross River State, Comrade Goddie Akpama, lashed at Ayade on these measures, saying the 50 cars which source of funding is still in doubt that Ayade has rolled out for COVID-19 fight, “is a misplaced priority because they cannot address the immediate health challenges the state is faced with. I am of the view that purchasing of more ambulances would have been better for the state, because it would serve present and future cases of health emergencies… The 50 pleasure cars are not necessary except for harassing innocent citizens in the guise of enforcing the no-mask-no-movement order”.

Another opposition party in the state, the All Progressives Congress (APC) said the approach of Ayade in fighting COVID-19 “amounts to playing politics with the lives of Cross Riverians by making cheap capital out of the prevention measures rather than demonstrate sincerity and integrity”.

A press statement signed by its Publicity Secretary, Mr. Bassey Ita, said Ayade keeping vigil at the Calàbar-Itu head bridge bordering Akwa Ibom and Cross River States was not necessary as it “only tells the story of a man who does not trust the competence of the security operatives there in delivering according to official directives of the governor”.

On the use of N900 million council funds to fight COVID 19, APC said, “it was wrong for the state to temper with councils’ funds… The passage of such an unnecessary request is to the effect that councils’ administration will continue to suffer under the jackboot of the state government even as a separate arm of government… and autonomy status projected of the councils by the President Muhammadu Buhari administration is a farce altogether.

“If allowed to stay, this scenario will be replicated at all times the state government is embarking on any programme of interest, meaning that councils will become Automated Teller Machines (ATM) of the state government for some hawks in government”.

While reacting, the Commissioner for Health, Edu, said claims by WHO and some members of the public should not be taken serious as “I have stated very clearly and I will still say it over and over again that in China as we speak, no one is allowed to leave their houses or places of service without going with facemasks. It is a policy and it has saved them a lot of problem. Remember as a country, China has been able to break the transmission of the virus from person to person and it was a country that was completely shut down and is beginning to go back to business.”

Special Adviser to the governor on Media and Publicity, Mr. Christian Ita, said, “For proper education of Abati and his likes, what Ayade, a Professor of Microbiology of 16 years’ standing said was that where a population without a single case of COVID 19 infection is well protected by wearing masks, the chances of the transmission of the virus is almost zero… This is not to say that the government of Cross River State is not encouraging voluntary observance social distancing rules.

“It is not a happenstance that Cross River, which is surrounded by states with instances of COVID-19 and which shares borders with Cameroon with hundreds of COVID-19 infections, remains Coronavirus-free. It means therefore that there is something Governor Ayade is doing right. So Abati… displaying such crass ignorance on television can be avoided if he stays off issues he knows little or nothing about”.