The Nigerian government has cautioned authorities and health officials in Kogi and Cross River States against “playing politics” with the COVID-19 pandemic, noting that such is capable of thwarting the national response against the contagion.
“There should be no politics in responding to a disease that is as infectious as COVID-19,” Health Minister Osagie Ehanire said during Monday’s Presidential Task Force (PTF) press briefing.
“We want to remove this disease from the realm of politics and religion,” he noted.
The COVID-19 situation in both states has been enmeshed in controversies, accusations, and counter-accusations between the governments and federal health authorities.
The governments have continued to claim that their states are COVID-19 free despite being surrounded by states with confirmed cases, alleging that there is a plot to ensure they record cases.
Meanwhile, health authorities and federal officials believe the governments are discouraging tests for people with symptoms of COVID-19.
Authorities in Kogi rejected the two index cases of coronavirus reported by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) for the state late in May.
The Cross River government on the hand dismissed an internal hospital memo revealing how five cases of coronavirus were found in the University of Calabar Teaching Hospital (UCTH) as a “desperate attempt by mischief makers to ensure that the state records a case of COVID-19”.
On Monday, the NCDC finally confirmed five cases of COVID-19 in Cross River
During the PTF briefing on the same day, the health minister said, “A strong 17-man team of the Federal Ministry of Health, led by the Executive Director of National Primary Health Development Agency, left Abuja for Calabar this morning to engage with the Cross River State government in setting up their COVID-19 response and aligning it with the national response.”
This is coming barely a day after doctors in the South-South state downed tools, demanding explanations from the NCDC on why the five confirmed cases from the UCTH were not reflected in its daily update of COVID-19 last week.
This was relayed in a letter addressed to Mr Ehanire by the state chairman of the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), Agam Ayuk, on Sunday.
The association demanded that a vote of no confidence be passed on the Commissioner for Health, Betta Edu, over her handling of COVID-19 testing in the state.
“We want to face this disease and the threat to the country. We know at one time that the health workers complained of not seeing progress in the state’s response, hence they embarked on strike. Some reasons were over payments, equipments, PPE and so on. The first response of the government is to make sure everyone has the PPE they need and pay as agreed,” the health minister explained.
“Also training, instructions and if possible your targets and that should solve the problem and take the entire COVID-19 response away from politics.”
The official said agencies and many departments of the Ministry of Health, like NCDC, Hospital Services, Family Health, are represented in the delegation going to the state, “to ensure the appropriate technical handshake between Federal and State service delivery pillars and also ensure that the disruption of routine medical services, which has been observed in many States, is minimized or eliminated”.
“We have also called on the NMA to suspend their strike action and receive the Ministry’s delegation. At the request of His Excellency the Governor of Cross Rivers, a senior Immigration officer is on Board to study the border challenges with Cameroon, as well as a Port Health officer to assess risks posed by sea travelers arriving ports particularly from neighboring Central African countries of Congo, Gabon, Cameroon Angola etc.”
In May, a similar delegation comprising officials of NCDC and the Department of Hospital Services of the Federal Ministry of Health earlier sent to Kogi had to flee the North-Central state for fear of being quarantined by the Kogi State Government.
The NMA chapter in the state had expressed concern over the stance of the Kogi government, warning that the consequences of not testing people for the COVID-19 may be too enormous to deal with.
With regards to the situation in Kogi, Mr Ehanire said arrangements “are underway to beef up security at Federal Medical Center (FMC) Lokoja for the protection of staff and patients.
“The Federal government will do all it can to attend to the needs of the citizens, while we seek ways to engage the State authorities,” he noted.
COVID-19, the pneumonia-like disease, has infected more than 28, 000 people in Nigeria and claimed over 600 lives.
Governor Yahaya Bello of Kogi State, an accountant, has repeatedly described the deadly disease as a hoax.
In a video posted on his Facebook page on March 25 which went viral, he said “Ninety per cent of the noise about COVID-19 is for political, economic, financial [or] material gain. The other 10% [relates to] ordinary flu, like the common colds Nigerians generally suffer.”
On May 7, while the health commissioner of Kogi State, Saka Haruna, was claiming that false information was being circulated that the state already had COVID-19 cases, Benue State on its eastern border was recording its first cases.
Cross River State Governor Ben Ayade, who has a doctorate in environmental microbiology, also questioned the need for social distancing, saying that masks are sufficient protection.
“You don’t need social distancing when you are properly protected because for your mucal glands that secretes the mucus and the mucins already form a network of coats to attack the virus,” he said in a video that went viral on social media on April 9.