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Ortom’s rage amid issues in Benue’s index case

By Leo Sobechi (Assistant Politics Editor) and Nkechi Onyedika-Ugoeze (Abuja)
21 May 2020   |   3:16 am
Benue State does not fall within the bracket of states with a high number of persons confirmed positive for the dreaded coronavirus

Benue State does not fall within the bracket of states with a high number of persons confirmed positive for the dreaded coronavirus. Although the state has less than 10 cases, it came into national consciousness over the profile of its index case, a recent returnee from the United Kingdom.
Ever since she was asked to go into isolation, Mrs. Susan Okpe has remained at the centre of disputations over the credibility of her test results and the methodology of her withdrawal from public contact.
Preying on the delicate identity politics in the state, some early commentators tried to create the impression that a Tiv governor, Dr. Samuel Ortom, was haranguing Mrs. Okpe, who is Idoma, to achieve some national sympathy.

Although Mrs. Okpe admitted that she flew in from England to attend her mother’s funeral, she explained that what made her seek medical attention upon return was pain from jet lag. In order not to leave anything to chance, the state Deputy Governor, Benson Abounu, alongside a team of medical experts, visited Mrs. Okpe to give her reasons to be moved to a health facility.
She denied that she was sick and therefore could not be COVID-19 positive, which disposition made her shun medications, renouncing test results and insisting that she was in the best of health.
From querying the results from tests carried out on her, Mrs. Okpe expressed misgivings that her name was put out in the public domain without her consent as well as the possibility of stigmatization.
The developments around Mrs. Okpe, who has been incident as Benue State’s index COVID-19 case, have continued to conjure national concern and attention. Recently, a not-for-profit human rights organization, Lawyers Alert, wrote to the Director-General, National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), complaining that after more than 50 days, Mrs. Okpe should be released from ‘detention’.
In the letter signed by Mr. Victor Eboh, Lawyers Alert stated: “We, as other Nigerians, are concerned about the continued ‘detention’ of Mrs. Okpe in the isolation centre with very little information from the NCDC about the circumstances surrounding her case and the reason for her continuous detention. We refer to this as detention owing to her several videos stating so and her calls to Nigerians to intervene in her case.
“Sir, kindly recall that on the 28th day of March, 2020, the Benue State Government made public the case of one Mrs. Susan Okpe, as the index COVID-19 case in the state. Upon the announcement of the case, she was subsequently handed over to the National Centre for Disease Control and then transferred to the National Isolation Centre in Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory. The woman has been under isolation and supposed treatment.
“Since then, it has been over 50 days and Mrs. Okpe is still under the care of the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) to the concern of Lawyers Alert and other Nigerians. Though we are not a health or medical-based organization, our modest knowledge suggests that patients with COVID-19 either get better or worse under treatment after 2-3 weeks, subsequent upon which they are discharged, or in the worst-case scenario, they are pronounced dead.
“Mrs. Okpe’s case is getting protracted and a little overdue. She has been under treatment for over 50 days without any formal updates to her family and relations. Worse still, videos have been circulating on social media handles in which she has expressed strong displeasure over her protracted detention and refusal of the concerned persons to avail her of results and, or even offer her modest treatment.”
Lawyers Alert asserted that the management of Mrs. Okpe’s case by the NCDC leaves much to be desired, stressing that “this is not about Mrs. Susan Okpe alone, but the messages the NCDC is sending out there to the members of the public on their treatment and management of COVID-19 in Nigeria.’
While handing out a seven-day ultimatum to NCDC to render full disclosure on Mrs. Okpe’s status and treatment regimen or risk litigation, Lawyers Alert maintained that the situation has a lot of negative implications including, “potential to erode public confidence in the ability of the NCDC to effectively and efficiently manage COVID-19 and instilling fear, doubts and disbelief into other Nigerians, who may feel reluctant to come out for tests even when they have a need to.”
A chieftain of All Progressives Congress (APC), Chief Eze Chukwuemeka Eze, said the video clips of Mrs. Okpe show the action of the state government as dishonest and unnecessary desperation to have a Covid-19 case, “probably with the inordinate intention of attracting  sympathy, financial donations, and largesse from the federal government, corporate organizations and spirited individuals.”
While pleading with President Muhammadu Buhari to investigate this case with every seriousness it deserves, Eze stated: “After watching the video and how she was lured into detention, I can only deduce that her case is just an implementation of a devious plot to smear the good image of Nigeria by the PDP agents through the PDP government in Benue State.”
Against the background of the creeping political undertones in the Benue State COVID-19 index case, The Guardian approached Benue State Governor for further insights, especially its style of curtailing the spread of the dreaded coronavirus in the state. Governor Ortom explained that it was partly in a bid to ward off the attempt to politicize what was a serious public health issue that he invited the NCDC to take over, adding that by the time Mrs. Okpe returned, it was clear to all that the state does not have a testing centre.
The governor believes that secrecy over those exposed to the risk of infection does not help the fight against the spread of the dreaded virus, stressing that the idea behind identifying returnees that refused to self-isolate after returning from overseas will help those that might have come in close contact with them to take precautionary measures, including going for testing.
Citing the instance of Bauchi State governor, who he said went into self-isolation after learning that the son of former Vice President, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, tested positive for the virus, Ortom maintained that contrary to general apprehensions, coronavirus does not amount to a death sentence.
As to whether the movement of Mrs. Okpe to Abuja was at the instance of the Benue State Government, Governor Ortom narrated: “Of course, when she refused treatment and refused to be attended to when the National Centre for Disease Control confirmed her status. We do not have a testing centre here; we only took her samples to Abuja and she tested positive. 
“She said that she was not positive and that she was okay, but we said, ‘we cannot let you go,’ and when she was introducing politics and became very aggressive and refused to be attended to, we consulted the Minister of Health and he willingly sent an ambulance with a team that evacuated her to Abuja. Another test was done again and she was positive. I think she is still there up till this time.”
Governor Ortom disclosed that on May 4, 2020, the state tested the samples of someone who came from Kano State only to discover that he was positive.

“So the Action Committee swiftly went into action, and currently as I speak with you, we have isolated him and also isolated the family,” he said.  “We have taken the samples of the family to Abuja to see if they are negative or positive, but they will be confined in a place for 14 days to see if the symptoms will manifest or not. We are happy with the level of cooperation from our people. 
“We are at the border areas and local government areas and the people are fully sensitised by this committee to identify anybody with symptoms and the preventive measures to take. So the committee is doing excellently well despite all the challenges that we have especially when it comes to funding and all that.”

Drama continues in Abuja
WHILE briefing journalists on the case of Mrs. Okpe, the Minister of Health, Dr. Osagie Ehanire, disclosed that the lady had agreed that her samples be taken for fresh tests, explaining that the understanding was that she and not the government should disclose the result.

Ehanire stated: “About the lady at the National Hospital, who we have been engaging with, has refused to take the test. The history, I think, is already known that she came in from the U.K. and has had three tests; she is due for another test, which she has refused to take.
“We strongly believe that by now she’s definitely negative, but we need to document it because we also work with the guidelines released by World Health Organization (WHO), which we follow but also in order to document it. I called her on phone and persuaded her to just let them take the test and she gave me the condition that first, they must give her all her results from the past, then she will agree just to take a specimen. Those of you here who have done it know how simple it is and I gave the instruction. They took all her results, photocopied all of them and gave them to her.”
The minister regretted that on the day of the test when NCDC got there, she told them she wanted the test to be taken by WHO, and then the test should not be done in Nigeria, that it should be sent to the U.K. to do the test.
Acknowledging that the case of Benue State’s COVID-19 index case had become hot drama, Dr. Ehanire said: “That seems to be a very difficult order and it demands that it should be taken to the U.K. and that the specimen must only be taken by the WHO. It was reported to me; so, I called her again and asked her why she had changed the conditions? ‘You said you wanted your results, you have your results’ and she wrote a text to me saying I should consult her lawyer; that she has gotten a lawyer.
“So, we are going to continue with the lawyer business. But, it is only just to document that she’s okay and to live on, it seems to be a drama that is playing out there. So, that is the situation with the lady, but she’s quite well; she’s in good health and the hospital authorities have also done their very best.”
The Guardian gathered that on Friday, May 15, 2020, the woman acquiesced to her samples being taken for a fresh test. And with the samples already taken, the result is being awaited at least to draw the curtain on the high drama.