IDEAS Radio 26 June 2020

Update on COVID-19 and IDEAS issues

Aghogho Oboh: Alright.  It’s nine minutes past four in the city of Lagos.  I am Aghogho Oboh and the Public Square, here we go, where we talk about all the big issues affecting development, the politics, and everything you need to know.  And so today, IDEAS will open us on the Public Square, where Ayo Obe will be joining us shortly.  We will have on the Big Square also two discussions about health care sector.  Resident Doctors called off their strike a short while ago, but then there are issues with healthcare and the corona virus pandemic and how it’s affecting everybody.

But with IDEAS we’re going to be focusing on the failures of the Federal Government and the State Governments to live up to health governance obligations.  Figures released by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control yesterday evening show that there are 22,614 officially confirmed cases of COVID-19 virus in Nigeria, and that the country has recorded 549 deaths, while 7,822 patients have been discharged, having recovered from the disease.  The NCDC’s figures show that while Lagos State has 9,842 active cases, neighbouring Ogun State has only 733 … that Cross River State has none.  At the start of the pandemic and efforts to contain the spread of the COVID-19, IDEAS asked what … asked whether we can rely on the Integrity of the official figures, and it is time for us to ask the question again.  Good evening Ayo Obe!  … Ok, let’s get Ayo back … looks like … we … have some issues.

[Interlude]

Ayo Obe: Hello?

AgO: Alright, and Ayo Obe host of IDEAS is with us now.  For a moment I thought you were there, now you are out and back again – the wonders of technology!

AO: Indeed.

Ago: A very good evening, and …

AO: Good evening. 

AgO: Excellent.  And so Ayo opens us on the Public Square with IDEAS.  And just before I connected with you Ayo, I’d been talking about the figures from the NCDC for Lagos and Ogun State and the entire country.  And when those figures were initially … the updates had begun, there was a question we had asked, whether we can rely on the integrity of the official figures, and we say it’s time we can ask that question again, whether we can rely on the Integrity of the official figures, especially at a time when you are having the Task Force say that the biggest challenge they are facing with the country right now, is the believing of the virus, whether it’s there or not.

AO: Well, I don’t know whether you have noticed Aghogho, but there seem to have been some increasing reports of high profile people contracting the virus – even just today the Governor of Delta State announcing that his daughter has tested positive for Coronavirus.  And we also have the very sad case of the former Governor of Oyo State, Senator Abiola Ajimobi, who died yesterday after contracting the disease.  

AgO: Very true.

AO: But it’s not just these high-profile cases, because … there are… there seem to be more anecdotal cases – that is … people that you your … that one knows oneself, saying either, that you know, that their friends are testing positive, or self-isolating, or having to be admitted …

AgO: Very true.

AO: … to hospital.  Now, when you look at the NCDC figures released yesterday they showed that they’ve tested 122,155 … or they’ve carried out that number of tests, but actually, the National Coordinator of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19, in his press briefing yesterday that you referred to, he said that for every COVID-19 case, there are a handful of missing cases, because the health authorities aren’t able to test everybody.  Now, to be frank Aghogho, I’d say that Mr. Aliyu is being a little bit conservative when he talks about only a “handful” … especially when he goes on to talk about “thousands of people”.  So yes, it absolutely is the right time to ask whether we can rely on the Integrity of the official figures.  And in fact, I’m sorry to say that the answer to that question, even from his own mouth, seems to be ‘No’.

And the reason why I said that the …  Mr. Aliyu was being a bit conservative, is that while in Lagos State, we may have a bit more confidence in the figures, it’s becoming increasingly clear that many State Governments are massaging their Coronavirus figures.  First of all, we’ve got the states which are not even submitting any samples for testing at all.  So in the last seven days, Cross River, Taraba, Yobe and Anambra have not had any sample sent for testing, whereas … in … since we started this thing, Lagos has had thirty-four thousand over … in fact almost 40,000 tests; Federal Capital Territory almost fifteen thousand; Kano over ten thousand, and even Oyo State … seven thousand six hundred.  So at least some states are at least trying.  

But then even the states that are doing testing, they are ‘managing’ the figures, and for example … one example that I know of, is that if a State gets results back saying that we have fifteen positive results, they release those numbers in batches, so that it looks as if they are maintaining a basically steady rate of infection.

And, Aghogho, you know … we can … some of us were actually laughing at the United States, where President Donald Trump came right out and said in a Tweet that he put out on Tuesday, he said:

“Cases are going up in the U.S. because we are testing far more than any other country, and ever expanding.  With smaller testing we would show fewer cases!”

So that shows this tendency to blame the messenger, that is, the person who brings the … the unfavourable Corona virus … result.  In fact, still staying in the US – in Florida – the woman who was charge of the state’s official Corona virus database (she was sacked in May) she claimed that employees at the department of health in the state (and I’m quoting her) “… have been instructed to change the numbers and begin slowly deleting deaths and cases so it looks like Florida is improving next week in the lead-up to July 4, like they’ve ‘made it over the hump’.”  So … and that’s what she said.  Now I think that gives an insight into the political reasons for massaging figures – I mean, the State Governor is not only insisting on reopening Florida and therefore he has to show that things are getting better, he’s also refusing to implement a mask mandate.

But coming back home to Nigeria, there are also financial reasons why State Governments have been trying to suppress the number of Corona virus 19 cases, because it seems that the days of the Federal Government handing out huge grants to states affected by Lockdown orders, those days are over.  

AgO: Right.

AO: So it actually costs the State money when tests are positive because … it’s a primary health issue.  If somebody tests positive, it is the State government that has to trace them, trace their contacts, monitor them, possibly take them to isolation centres and feed them.  And all those costs are on the State Government, so the more they announce the results, the more they have to spend.  And they don’t want to spend that money.  It’s economic actually.

AgO: Which we hope at some point we can get an account of just exactly how the moneys during the COVID-19, for example, money’s been released to them, have been spent.  But Ayo, what’s the impact of, in quotes ‘unreliable figures’ from some states?

AO: Well … the unreliable figures … I mean it’s not just that they are unreliable, but it’s that they are unreliably low, and as you mentioned, Mr. Aliyu, the person in the Presidential Task Force, said that … he expressed concern that some Nigerians do not believe that COVID-19 is real, and he rightly said that that attitude would only fuel the spread of the virus.  Now he called on people to take more precautions in order to contain the spread of the virus, and quite frankly, if you just go out, you can see everywhere that people are lowering their guard against it.  But I wonder Aghogho, is it enough for the Presidential Task Force to just wring its hands over this spreading disbelief in the reality of the virus?  Quite frankly, the Federal Government is supposed to have all the machinery of information and orientation at its disposal.  But when it’s deploying that, what does its own behaviour say?  I’ve said before, that the most visible agency of the government that most of us come into contact with or see on the streets, are the officers of the Nigeria Police Force.  

AgO: Very true.

AO: And the question is: Do they act as if they have imbibed the message that Corona Virus is real?  Just look at the way that police officers at the checkpoints which are supposed to prevent unauthorised inter-state travel behave.  I won’t say more than simply, that essentially, once you pay, you pass.  End of.  So it’s not surprising that ordinary citizens are hanging their facemasks round their chins or under their noses, or indeed, that thousands will turn out for a pop music concert in … in Abuja.

I mean the only thing that I can add, is that although Aliyu said that if people believed that Ebola and Lassa fever are real without experiencing it first-hand, then they should also have no reason to doubt the existence of COVID-19 … I mean, what he said was that: “We don’t need to know someone personally who has died from Corona virus to know that it’s real”, the fact is that it’s really because we’re hearing more from our own acquaintances – whether it’s at first, second or third hand – about people who have either tested positive, they’re either getting through it, or they’ve been admitted to isolation, or they’re having difficulties about getting tested and so on.  So some individuals are perhaps somewhat more aware of the need to maintain precautions themselves, and to observe social distancing.  But I have to say Aghogho, I’ve spoken to … people … not … this is educated people – especially when I’m speaking to people outside Lagos – they are almost hostile to the idea of Corona virus 19, and they’ve have convinced themselves that the whole thing is some kind of scam.  And you know, I know, don’t ask … I can’t follow the thinking, but that’s what I’m hearing from some people.

AgO: In fact it’s what we hear also too on the radio, when the calls come in, people trying to convince their neighbours, their kith and kin that it exists.  But earlier on Ayo, you talked about cost saving, but does it really work out cheaper?

AO: Well I wouldn’t think so Aghogho if we have any value on human lives.  But I have to say that from the lackadaisical enforcement, the behaviour of – as I said – identifiable agents of the government like the police, the subliminal message to Nigerians seems to be that the government is succumbing to the demands of citizens who say that they would rather risk death from Corona virus 19 than face certain extinction from starvation when the government is unable to provide for them and their families.

And let’s face it Aghogho, does the cack-handed (or should I say clumsy) response of the Federal Government to the threat by junior doctors to go on strike really portray the image of a government that wants Nigerians to realise that Corona virus is real?  If they’re ready to allow things to get to such a stage that Resident Doctors to go on strike?

AgO: Big point there.  Big point.  If, when you look at the doctors – strike is suspended, at some point, we’ll speak with the Resident Doctors in the later part of the programme.  And we say about Accountability when the Federal Government has notice of strike in respect of absolutely predictable matters, or on which has it made those promises, but then fails to live up to those promises at the end of the day, what are your thoughts?

AO: Well, I don’t know if you remember Aghogho, that as long ago as April this year, the Nigerian Medical Association, the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria and the National Association of Nigerian Nurses and Midwives, they issued a joint statement.  And in that statement, they made it clear that they expected government to take specific steps in regard to their protection, and make sure that it’s possible for them to work – and particularly make sure that pharmaceutical products and personal protection equipment were available.  And specifically … and this was in mid April, … this was the time when, for example, in Britain people were coming out on their doorsteps every evening at eight o’clock to clap for the country’s National Health workers.  But our own Nigerian health care workers said (and I’m quoting them):  

“We do not want health workers who save lives to be called heroes.  They are not heroes!  They are professionals who claim and deserve respect, dignity, the right to protection, recognition, decent wages and decent working conditions.”  

Unquote.  Now that was in April!  So I ask myself, did a serious government, one that considers itself Accountable, need to be told that – for example, Personal Protective Equipment is not a one-off supply?  How can a government say that it’s accountable and yet fail to keep those promises?  In fact, instead of accepting that it was at fault, the Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr. Chris Ngige was even reported as saying that: 

“Those who report to work will be taken as those who are still in service and the [attendance] register will be closed at 12 noon … by then we will know who will want to be in service,”

In other words, that they will be out of a job.  I mean, come on, who is fooling whom?  I mean, fortunately once the strike started, the National Association of Resident Doctors said that its National Executive Council had decided to suspend the strike in order to give the Federal and State Governments time to fulfil their outstanding demands.  But really, I don’t think it’s a sign of Integrity when medical professionals are left convinced that “the Federal Government wants to stall and if possible renege on its agreement signed to pay hazard allowances to health workers”, because as I said we have this Trust deficit, and even if we can say that the middle of a pandemic might not be the place to be building up trust in our governments, is it too much to hope that the government won’t be working to whittle away the little that it has left?

I mean, you know, the government … the doctors suspended their strike after the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the Secretary to the Government of the Federation and the Chairman of the Nigeria Governors Forum all got together and begged them to call off the strike, to allow negotiations to continue.  But there’s a review in four weeks.  And as I said, doctors were signalling their situation since the middle of April.  So I think that it’s a real dereliction of duty, and it’s hardly the way – as far as I’m concerned – to convince Nigerians that their government believes that Corona virus is real, and that they should as well.

AgO: You know Ayo, in closing … if we take the State Government and Federal Government, interestingly Local Government – we haven’t heard much from them: I’ve heard callers say for example, that they think the community aspect of dealing with the virus will be more effective if they had the Local Government health officials move from neighbourhood to neighbourhood advising people on the different protocol and guidelines to maintain during this pandemic: they haven’t seen any evidence of that.  What are your thoughts if the different levels of government look at their roles and responsibilities at the end of the day, would you say there’s a clear understanding of what they should be doing?

AO: I think actually Aghogho, you’ve hit the nail on the head.  It’s a no-brainer that you have to bring this right down to the level at which people are operating,  particularly – as I say – when you’re asking them to make sacrifices and to go without, while they … while the government tackles the Coronavirus, but at the end of the day, no matter how much government takes the level down to individuals, if its own people are visibly … I mean you see Governors flying up and down and all this sort of thing … people want to say: Is it because I can’t go in a private jet that I have to stay in my state?  So I think that government have to not only take it down to all levels, but it also has to walk the talk at all of those levels too.

AgO: Walk the talk.  Alright, Ayo, your final final thoughts as we take a quick break.

AO: It is real, we all need to do …  if the government won’t do it for us, we need to take our own precautions and stay safe.

AgO: Alright, thank you very much.  IDEAS with Ayo, same time next week.  Ayo, do have yourself a great great weekend! 

AO: Thank you.