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Travellers, NCDC and COVID-19 ‘scam’ at airports

By Gowon Akpodonor
14 March 2022   |   4:16 am
The outbreak of the dreaded COVID-19 pandemics in 2020 came with its huge challenges. Apart from millions of death recorded across the globe, the pandemic forced many businesses to go under. Nigeria was not left out.

Super Falcons. Photo/twitter/NGSuper_Falcons

The outbreak of the dreaded COVID-19 pandemics in 2020 came with its huge challenges. Apart from millions of death recorded across the globe, the pandemic forced many businesses to go under. Nigeria was not left out.

To stop the spread, Nigerians, both young and old, rose in unison to support government’s initiatives and stringent protocols. The country was practically shut down, as movement was restricted. Government introduced and enforced the compulsory use of face masks, social distancing and pleaded with Nigerians to improve on their personal hygiene.

The next stage was the plea to citizens to go for mass vaccination. Although, some skeptics dragged their feet, as the conspiracy theory surrounding the vaccines raised major concerns about the side effects individuals might have after vaccination.

However, many Nigerians heeded the advice and took the vaccines. Some have taken up to three jabs to boost their immunity against COVID-19.

Yet, the manufacturers of the vaccines have confessed to the fact that getting vaccinated was no guarantee to being free from infection or contraction of COVID-19. This has made those who don’t believe in the vaccines to becoming more hardened, after all, of what use is it, if getting vaccinated cannot guarantee 100 percent immunity.

The toughest aspect of the fight against COVID-19 in Nigeria is that of going to be tested to determine one’s status.

Nigerians are made to pay through their nose to get tested. This is done with the express directive of the country’s anti-COVID-19 agency, the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC).

Before one travels out of Nigeria, he or she must be tested 24 hours to departure date. One has to cough out as much as N50, 400, depending on which diagnostic centre you use. If you are travelling with your wife and children, you have to pay same amount per head.

On return, the same person is subjected to paying another N50, 400, notwithstanding whether you returned with a COVID-19 certification that explains you are free of the disease from the country you are returning from.

Before one boards a Nigeria-bound plane, you must show proof that you have been tested and the result negative. Yet, NCDC officials wait to ‘extort’ N50, 400 from you on arrival in Lagos, Abuja, Kano, Port Harcourt and other international airports across the country.

Diagnostic centres are spreading in every nook and cranny of Nigeria, with the personnel smiling to the banks on daily basis. This is in sharp contrast to what obtains in Cameroun, Nigeria’s eastern neighbour.

Before I departed Lagos for Cameroun to cover the 33rd Africa Cup of Nations, which Senegal won on February 6, I did my COVID-19 test at a diagnostics Centre in Ikorodu. The result came out negative the next morning, the day of my flight to Cameroun.

Aimed with my negative COVID-19 result,
I walked into the arrival hall at Douala International Airport not expecting any challenge from any quarter since the result covers me for 24 hours.

An official at the counter initially asked for my Yellow Card, which I produced. Then, he pointed to a section, where health officials, dressed in white uniform, were waiting.

On getting there, a lady directed me to sit down, and without much questions, brought out the COVID-19 test instrument. Who is paying for this? I asked, pointing to the negative COVID-19 result I got in Lagos less than 24 hours ago.

“No payment,” the lady replied. “Just sit down and do the test.”

Unlike the situation in Nigeria, where you have to wait for about 12 hours before getting the result, my COVID-19 test result inside Douala airport came out within five minutes. It was stamped negative.

I proceeded on my journey to Garoua, a city in far north of Cameroun, where the Super Eagles played their group matches.

All journalists and fans, including members of the various Supporters Clubs, had to do another COVID-19 test before all the matches played in Garoua. It was free, and it took less than five minutes for each of the results to come out.

The free COVID-19 test to all Nigerian journalists, Supporters Club members and fans, who were part of the AFCON in Cameroun, made me wonder why NCDC officials in Nigeria have to milk their fellow citizens dry in the name of COVID-19 test.

After spending millions of dollars to get their facilities and personnel ready for the AFCON tournament, I was expecting the government and people of Cameroun to use every avenue to exploit money from all visitors by enforcing high amount of money on all essential things, including the COVID-19 test. But it was not so.

I was wondering how much the NCDC, and its designated laboratories would have raked, if the AFCON tournament had taken place in Nigeria.

Lest I forget, I remember the billions of naira Nigerians of goodwill, corporate organisations, Foundations, the WHO, the European Union and numerous Western governments donated to Nigeria to fight COVID-19. Where have these donations gone into?

What amount of material is used for a five- minute test that should cost so much in Nigeria? How come COVID-19 test is free in Cameroun and cost as much as N50,400 in Nigeria? Is it that Cameroun is richer than Nigeria? Who owns the laboratories?

Equally intriguing is the 12-hour delay before results are announced. From what I witnessed in Cameroun, where COVID-19 test results were obtained even before you got up from the seat you were tested, there may be many fraudulent activities surrounding the exercise in Nigeria.

Before my trip to Cameroun for coverage of the AFCON tournament, I read on pages of newspapers how the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) returned N3.5 billion to the Federation Account from the excess generated from its operations during the conduct of Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME).

According to the report, JAMB also returned N3.5 billion to the government following the sales of ePINs to UTME candidates, bringing the total remittance by the board to N7 billion.

If JAMB, which receives N3, 500 for ePIN sold to candidates could return such huge amount of money into the government’s account, how much has NCDC returned to the government from the N50, 400 it gets from every traveller on COVID-19 test?

Super Eagles in training ahead of their Round of 16 match, which they lost to Tunisia during the AFCON tournament in Cameroun Photo/twitter/NGSuperEagles

When was such money remitted, if there is any, and into which account? How much has been generated?

Last week, a mild drama occurred at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, as officials of the NCDC allegedly humiliated players and officials of the Super Falcons over COVID-19 test payment.

The Super Falcons, who had just done the nation proud by securing a ticket to the 2022 Africa Women’s Cup of Nations after defeating the Lady Elephants of Cote d’Ivoire in Abidjan, were held hostage for over four hours inside the airport.

The nine-time African champions had departed Abidjan a few hours after the match, which they won 1-0 and arrived at the international wing of the Abuja airport at midnight only to be held hostage by the NCDC officials, who allegedly insisted that all players and officials must undergo another round of routine tests and pay a certain amount of money before they would be allowed to leave the airport despite them being armed with their COVID test results done less than 24 hours ago.

“This is a national team that has brought honours to Nigeria by winning the African women’s Nations cup a record nine times,” a member of the Falcons’ technical crew said bitterly.

“These players just defeated their Ivoirian counterparts to qualify for the Nations Cup and all they got on arrival is this inhuman treatment from officials of the NDDC. I think these girls deserve a better treatment,” the team’s official stated.

The Sports minister, Sunday Dare, and top officials of the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) were unhappy with the situation, which became subject of debate in both local and international media organisations. Some media outfits simply tagged it ‘Joy in Abidjan, agony in Abuja.’

Back to my story and travail in the hands of NCDC’s officials during coverage of AFCON tournament.

After the Super Eagles were knocked out by Tunisia in the round of 16, I relocated from Garoua to Douala to continue my coverage of the tournament. The AFCON soon entered its home stretch and we (few Nigerian journalists left in Cameroun) were looking forward to returning home.

My travel agent forwarded a directive from an airline saying intending passengers must show proof of a negative COVID test from the country the flight is originating from (in this case, Cameroun) and on arrival in Lagos, the passengers will go through another test at the airport.

I then asked whether the airline or the NCDC that gave the order would bear the cost of the test. The agent said it would be at my expense (the passenger). I asked again, what would be the consequences of refusal to pay or carry out another test in Lagos? Her response? “They will seize your passport for six months.”

A lot of things started to run through my brain. How can a reporter, who went for an international assignment, spent all his money and managing on how to get the next meal, reserve N50,400 to be given to the NCDC officials on arrival, when one already had a negative result of COVID-19 test from the country the flight is originating from?

Is it right for one to continue to feel the pain of corruption and poor leadership even when one is far away from home? Nobody was around me to provide immediate answer.

A day to my departure from Cameroun, I took a taxi to a laboratory at Gyneco-Obstetrics and Pediatric Hospital, which is located in Littoral Region in Douala for my pre-departure test.

“It’s free,” a lady on duty, said.

The result came out negative at about 8.06 am in the morning, a few hours to my departure to Lagos via Lome, Togo.

At the Gnassingbe Eyadema International Airport in Lome, where I spent about three hours on transit, there was no mention of COVID-19 test result, neither was I told to make any payment.

But the situation changed soon on arrival at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos. Some hefty NCDC officials, wearing strong faces like people who are preparing for a warfront, were on hand to receive all the passengers.

“Where is your receipt of payment for COVID-19 test? One of them asked me, spreading out his two hands to prevent me from taking a step further.

I quickly brought out my phone to show the ‘aggressive’ NCDC official the negative result of the test, which came out negative in Douala less than six hours earlier.

“No, you have to pay your money before you will be allowed to step out of this place,” he insisted, directing me to step backward.

I obeyed, and the waiting game started. Thirty minutes, one hour, and no NCDC official were ready to listen to any story from anyone without a receipt of payment.

Some people, who could not bear the waiting game, coupled with the heat inside the airport, paid the money, but no test was conducted.

I insisted on not paying any kobo since I already had my negative test less than six hours ago. At a point, I was ready to go rough with any official, but a lady in her mid 50s noticed my anger and politely said: “Oga, you can go.”

One of the travellers, who said he parted with the sum of N48, 500 to NCDC officials at the airport, rained curses on those ‘manipulating the system’ for their selfish interest in Nigeria.

“It is really sad that in our country, some Nigerians have always looked for an avenue to exploit their fellow citizens, especially travelers. All over the world, the price of the PCR has been reduced significantly.

“In the country where I am resident, early last year, the cost was about an equivalent of N50, 000; but gradually the price was reduced. As at September 2021, when I was traveling to Nigeria, I paid an equivalent of N12,000 for the pre-departure PCR. But getting to Nigeria, I paid over N40, 000 and on my return, I paid just an equivalent of N5, 000. Shame on our government,” he said.

Members of the Super Eagles Supporters Club…in Garoua (Photo by Daniel BELOUMOU OLOMO / AFP)

Two of my colleagues, who departed Douala airport with their negative COVID-19 test result at the same time with me, but on a different flight, equally parted with N48, 500 each on arrival in Lagos. They did not undergo any test.

The fear of ‘intimidation and harassment’ by NCDC officials in Lagos over payment of N50, 400 actually had forced some other Nigerian journalists, who covered the AFCON tournament, to abandon their return ticket for road journey through Yola.

One of them said in a chat with The Guardian: “I can’t afford to pay another N50, 400 for COVID-19 test in Lagos, hence I decided to travel by road to Yola.”

In August last year, when I travelled to Nairobi, Kenya, to cover the World U-20 Athletics Championship, I had a rough encounter with the same ‘money conscious’ NCDC officials on return to Lagos.

I also did my pre-departure COVID-19 test in Nairobi a day earlier, only to be held hostage by NCDC officials, who insisted I must pay N50,400 at the airport in Lagos.

The controversy being generated by this ‘daylight exploits’ notwithstanding, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) seems not ready to back down.

Speaking with The Guardian on the issue during the week, the Head, Risk Communication Division, NCDC, Dr. Yahya Disu, stated those accusing the body of sharp practices are ignorant of how they operate.

“Let me start by saying that Nigeria does not force anybody to do a COVID-19 test before you travel out of the country. That is strictly the protocol of the country you are travelling to. You are only required to do a pre-departure test when you are coming into Nigeria.”

Dr. Disu continued: “At the initial stage, when the Federal Government lifted travel ban, the requirement was for anybody coming into the country to do the test 72 hours before your arrival. It was later reduced to 24 hours. Then, it was the government that was bearing the cost of the test, which was mainly for the sick people.

“When the government re-opened the bounders, it was the public that came up with the idea of people paying for the test to enable them do their businesses. If you know you want to travel for business, meeting or cover any event outside the shores of Nigeria, you have to bear the cost so as to reduce the financial burden on government.

“I want to repeat that testing for travellers specifically is done in private laboratories and private laboratories do charge for it. We don’t know how much they charge for the test. But if you go to the NCDC website, you will see the private laboratories approved for testing in Nigeria listed out there, and the laboratories within our network.

“Now, I want Nigerians to get the message clear that whatever amount of money they pay for the test does not go into NCDC’s account. It goes directly into the account of the various laboratories. We don’t have any business with the money. It is purely the affair of the laboratories. They use the money to pay their staff and take care of other necessary issues. The business of the NCDC is to make sure people comply with the various protocols put in place by the government to minimize the chances of people bringing COVID-19 into our country.”

Dr. Disu, however, admitted that the platform usually sent to travellers to fill for their pre-departure test belongs to NCDC. “The platform belongs to NCDC, but as I explained, the money paid goes to the various laboratories.”

Asked why NCDC officials at the various airports attach so much importance to the payment of money, instead of focusing their attention on monitoring and preventing people with symptoms of COVID-19 from entering the country, Dr. Disu said:

“Our officials are usually at the airport to ensure that people comply with the protocols, including the payment of money. This is because, if people do not pay, there is no guarantee they will do the test once they go into their various destinations. Every Nigerian has a role to play as far as the fight against the spread of COVID-19 is concerned. If you are fully vaccinated, that is, take the first and second jabs before coming into the country, it will go a long way in reducing the spread of COVID-19,” Disu stated.