Kogi, Cross River COVID-19-free controversy – Punch

Containing the COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging for the federal and state governments since the index case was first reported in Lagos late February. All the 36 but two states of the federation — Kogi and Cross River — have confirmed cases of the disease. The states’ coronavirus-free claims and the seeming obstacles against federal health officials assessing the situation have fostered controversy and doubt among health authorities and citizens. However, a thaw in relations between Cross River State and federal health officials has resulted in a recent visit of a team of Federal Ministry of Health and Nigeria Centre for Disease Control personnel.

But this hubbub reached new heights in Kogi State recently when the NCDC rapid response team led by Andrew Noah and officials of the Department of Hospital Services, FMoH, dispatched to the state to provide logistics support to its COVID-19 effort were rebuffed. The governor, Yahaya Bello, insisted they should be quarantined for 14 days to determine their own status before being allowed to carry out their duty.

So troubling is the Kogi situation that the Nigerian Medical Association issued two statements in a week, deprecating the state government’s stance. The NMA President, Francis Faduyile, called for a presidential intervention to safeguard the health of all Nigerians. Under the NCDC Establishment Act 2018, the NMA argued that a state has no powers to prevent the agency from performing its statutory duties, to “prevent, detect, monitor and control” activities and programmes for the national response against infectious disease epidemics and other public health emergencies.”

Interestingly, Kogi shares boundaries with eight states: Enugu, Kwara, Anambra, Ondo, Ekiti, Niger, Delta and Nasarawa, as well as the Federal Capital Territory, all of which have proven COVID-19 cases. Besides, it is a major transit hub of transport services between the northern and southern parts of the country. As haulage trucks, drivers and passengers of commercial buses stop over at Lokoja for refreshment, refuelling and sometimes overnight lodging, community transmission of the virus is made easier. Actually, the state’s unique geographical location makes it very vulnerable to the pandemic. The disease rapidly spread through interstate travels, a reality that informed the Nigeria Governors Forum’s decision to initiate the interstate lockdown protocol, which the Federal Government embraced. Katsina and other states index cases were travellers to Lagos and Abuja during the early stages of the virus.

The Director-General of the NCDC, Chikwe Ihekweazu, in his earlier response to the Kogi claim, said, “The number of tests carried out makes it difficult to know if the state is free.” A few days ago, the NCDC said Kogi had done only one test, while Cross River has tested seven cases. But Kogi’s Commissioner for Information, Kingsley Fanwo, claimed that 5,000 test kits were procured and the 111 samples with which it conducted rapid tests were negative. But this is not enough. By not allowing the NCDC to validate the measures the state has put in place, as it did for Lagos and other states, the governor will be hard put to justify his stance.

Bello’s illusion that the state is an oasis when sufficient tests have not been carried out, gives the people a false hope, which predisposes them to doubt that COVID-19 exists in the first place. Such disposition is not only hazardous for the indigenes but the entire country, as the virus respects no geographical boundaries in its spread. As Ihekweazu said, the virus will get to every state in Nigeria, emphasising, “there is no reason why it won’t.” This was late in April when the virus had spread to 22 states, 407 infections and 12 deaths. In less than a month, the mortality rate has risen to 211. This is a dangerous spike.

The situation in Cross River is no less discomforting as the state shares boundaries with Akwa Ibom, Abia, Ebonyi and Benue states — all with confirmed virus cases — and has a porous international border with Cameroon. The leader of the federal ministry/NCDC team to the state, Omobolanle Olowu, was handed a wish-list of help from the Federal Government such as equipping of the isolation centres and personal protective equipment to put the state in a stronger footing to contain the virus.

In response to the state’s claim, the Association of Medical Laboratory Scientists of Nigeria says its COVID-19 zero-status profile is artificial, stressing that, with only about 10 persons out of its over four million people tested, the state’s position cannot withstand any genuine scrutiny. Some of the state’s samples are taken to Irrua testing centre in Edo State and Abakaliki in Ebonyi State. Before now, a group – the Efik Leadership Foundation – had in an open letter, urged the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), to intervene by ending the state governments’ stalling against the federal health agencies. To it, “there is enough anecdotal evidence to support the belief that cases of the COVID-19 disease exist in the state,” a position the government dismisses as prattle from disgruntled elements.

What is the science of it saying? It is too early in the day to let down our guard on the pandemic. Though the first COVID-19 vaccine candidate entered human clinical testing with unprecedented rapidity on  March 16,  2020, the availability of any kind of vaccine is still months ahead.

What should be done? To defeat Covid-19, states should develop greater capacity for testing. Every region that has managed to get a coronavirus outbreak under control has succeeded thanks to a combination of social distancing and aggressive efforts to test as many people as possible. As reported, in South Korea, when an early outbreak was pegged to one large church, health workers began tracing the contacts of more than 200,000 of that church’s members. They quarantined all of the people who were exposed, monitored them and those who became symptomatic to an isolation centre. But the lack of testing sites across the country has been a defining characteristic of this pandemic here. That means there are legions of individuals who likely have been infected and have not been tested.

The fight against the virus requires all hands on deck. This is how it is tackled the world over. Cross River State Governor Ben Ayade’s earlier assertion that physical distancing was unnecessary once a person wore a facemask runs against the grain. Medical experts have not said so; therefore, the people should ignore it and observe all COVID-19 protocols of the NCDC. Bello too should drop his obduracy and emulate Ayade, by allowing federal health officials access to Kogi State to perform their duties in the interest of all.

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