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Coronavirus: How political leaders’ recklessness endangers Nigerians

As the chief of staff to President Muhammadu Buhari, Abba Kyari is the chief priest of the inner sanctum of the presidency, a buffer against every undesirable influence. Now he is its greatest threat.

Kyari recently visited three countries that are currently dealing with a significant COVID-19 emergency. He went to Germany on March 10, 2020, in the company of Saleh Mamman, minister of power, and James Momoh, executive chairman, Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission, for discussions with Siemens on improving the country’s power supply. They returned to Nigeria on March 14, passing through the United Kingdom and Egypt.

Upon his return, Kyari did not follow guidelines by the Nigerian Centre for Diseases Control (NCDC) to self-isolate for 14 days, thus endangering everyone that came in contact with him, including the president.
President Buhari and Vice President Osinbajo are self-isolating, though they have both tested negative, but experts say it is a close call for Nigeria where the healthcare system is underequipped to deal with the pandemic.

On March 21, Kyari wrote a letter which was leaked on social media raising alarm about repeated violations of screening procedures at the nation’s airports by lawmakers. He counselled Femi Gbajabiamila, speaker of the House of Representatives, to immediately rein in the excesses of lawmakers and ask all those who have refused to submit to a medical test for COVID-19 to report themselves at the screening centres across the country.

Yet, Kyari failed to heed his own counsel.
The NCDC guidelines require all returning travellers to Nigeria and anyone who has been in close contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19 to self-isolate. The guidelines stipulate how returnees are required to move from arrival point in Nigeria to place of self-isolation where they would be monitored during the 14-day period.

Kyari did not observe any of these. On March 16, he met with Adams Oshiomhole, chairman of the All Progressives Congress (APC), to resolve the impasse within the APC leadership.

On March 17, he led a delegation which comprised George Akume, minister of special duties, Lai Mohammed, minister of information, culture, and tourism, Ramatu Tijjani, minister of state for FCT, Zubair Dada, minister of state for foreign affairs, and Garba Shehu, president’s spokesman, on a condolence visit to Yahaya Bello, Kogi State governor, over the death of his mother.

On March 18, Kyari met with President Buhari in the Aso Rock Villa, with other guests present. That same day, he attended the Federal Executive Council (FEC) alongside the vice president and most of the ministers.

Kyari also attended a meeting of the Presidential Task Force tasked with the responsibility of coordinating the country’s response to the pandemic on March 21. In attendance at the meeting were ministers of health, aviation, and humanitarian affairs as well as the director-general of the NCDC. That same day he attended a wedding ceremony which had in attendance Governors Abdullahi Umar Ganduje of Kano State and Bello Masari of Katsina State.

Mamman too was seen days later receiving guests, including a US official, and also attended the last FEC meeting.

Some of Nigeria’s lawmakers too, after returning from trips to high-risk countries, also failed to self-isolate. Senate President Ahmed Lawan had to direct members a few days ago to observe isolation after returning from trips abroad.

As of March 25, Nigeria has recorded 46 cases of COVID-19 infections and apart from a case of community transmission, all have been from persons who returned from high-risk countries and in many cases only presented themselves for tests after symptoms manifested.

Since Kyari tested positive to COVID-19, Nigerians have expressed profound outrage over the recklessness of political leaders who returned from high-risk countries without observing isolation but rather chose to expose more people to the virus.

“It is sad that the political class is leading this gross act of irresponsibility,” said Ukachi Chukwu, a broadcast journalist, on Facebook.

“Kyari returned from a trip abroad and refused to isolate…more importantly, he exposed the president to the virus. If the political class will not obey instructions and self-isolate, how can they expect ordinary citizens to do (the) same?” Chukwu queried.

To be clear, negotiating a power deal is not the remit of Kyari, any more than being on the board of the national oil company, but with wide powers conferred on the president’s chief of staff, a position that is merely administrative and doesn’t even require senate confirmation, Kyari superintends over even government’s ministries, effectively running government.

Chikwe Ihekweazu, head of the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), could not be reached for comment on this report. Calls to his phone Wednesday morning were not answered.

However, the agency had said it would not provide details of the individuals that had been tested and their test results.

In the UK and other parts of Europe, legislations mandating sanctions and fines have been passed to deal with reckless persons who fail to self-isolate. In Nigeria, Health Minister Osagie Ehanire threatened to publish the names of those who failed to self-isolate, but nothing further has been heard on the matter.

In the absence of official sanctions for violating the guideline on self-isolation, as those who should pass and enforce the law are themselves reckless, some Nigerians may be taking a cue from their leaders, leading to the call for those who attended the Africa Magic Viewers’ Choice Awards (AMVCA) on March 14 to self-isolate as someone who returned from the UK and attended the event tested positive.

If Nigerians take a cue from their leadership on compliance with health and safety measures, it would take less than a week for Nigeria to be in a similar situation as Italy given the weak health infrastructure in the country.

“Despite having a three-month head start, and with the awareness that the nation’s weak health infrastructure would crumble under the strain of a full-blown outbreak of the pandemic, Nigeria failed to prepare adequately,” Olarewaju Rufai, a financial and strategy analyst, wrote in a commentary for BusinessDay.

“Now, the nation is seemingly speeding toward a health and economic catastrophe,” Rufai said.
Nigeria currently has less than 500 ventilators across the 36 states and the FCT, a medical doctor at LUTH said. The bed capacity of hospitals in Nigeria is half-a-bed for 1,000 people and there are less than one doctor for every 4,000 Nigerians.

Nigeria’s health expenditure as a percentage of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) averaged 3.4 percent between 2007 and 2016, compared with South Africa (6.5 percent) and Kenya (4.5 percent), according to data sourced from the World Bank.

The underinvestment in the country’s healthcare follows years of neglect by the political elite who have promoted medical tourism of other countries.

In 2016, President Buhari travelled to London over an ear infection. A year later he was back again in the country for undisclosed medical causes.

President Buhari in 2017 spent no less than 150 days abroad on separate medical tourism trips that by some estimates cost the country around £250 per hour for medical care during his stay at the UK. Garba Shehu, the president’s spokesperson, in 2017 said the cost of keeping the presidential aircraft on standby in London airport is $1,300 per day, denying claims it cost £4,000.

Using conservative estimates of 100 days and former official rate of 306/$ (which was the rate at that time), the trip to UK alone cost Nigeria $130,000 or N39.78 million (306/$) excluding cost of medical care, feeding and similar costs.

In the last three years to 2018, Nigeria spent around N5 billion on drugs, supplies, construction and medical equipment to the Aso Rock Clinic which cannot cater to the president’s medical care needs. Yet all those money could have made more impact today.

“I hear the whole of Abuja has 2 ventilators. That 5bn will buy 500 ventilators,” tweeted Dr Harvey Olufunmilayo, a UK-based Nigerian doctor.

A story by Quartz on Tuesday suggests Nigeria is not testing enough people due to capacity constraints. According to the report, citing NCDC data, only 152 people had been tested by March 22 – compared with South Africa’s over 15,500.

With the cost of a testing kit between $80 to $120 per person, cash-strapped Nigeria has limited tests to only individuals who returned from trips to high-risk countries and showing symptoms of COVID-19 including dry cough, sneezing and feverish conditions.

Newer tests kits are being developed in Europe and Asian countries like Bangladesh that could cut the cost of testing.

 

ISAAC ANYAOGU, ANTHONIA OBOKOH & SEGUN ADAMS

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