Festus ERIYE


WITH COVID-19 Nigeria appears to have pulled off a trick that’s near impossible: shut your eyes long enough and a problem disappears. Throughout August the number of new infections crashed nationwide, but it wasn’t a pattern revealed by increased testing.

In Lagos, for long the epicentre, the state government shut a couple of isolation centres as the numbers of prospective tenants fell. It was those same positive statistics that authorities cited as grounds for ordering reopening of schools on September 14.

Shortly before he announced he had tested positive, Commissioner for Health, Prof. Akin Abayomi, said infections had peaked. “Our observation is that Lagos has passed the worst of the pandemic, it has passed the peak and is now on the flattening stage and over time will experience a downslope of the virus then the end of COVID-19,” he stated.

Now it appears all is not as it seems. The Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 (PTF) says falling numbers is down mainly to a decline in testing by states – Lagos included. At the committee’s briefing on Monday, Head of Disease Surveillance for the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), Elsie Ilori, confirmed that “very low number of samples” were collected in August.

Bear in mind that the government’s target is to test two million Nigerians and scale up to four million. As of yesterday only 403,347 samples have been collected nationwide.

According to Ilori, there was a decrease in sample collection in just seven states in July but this rose to 32 states in August. In the last thirty days none of Nigeria’s 36 states gathered up to 1,000 samples.

“In July, Kogi had 19 out of 20 local government areas without samples collected. Also in August, no local government in Kogi collected samples. In Katsina, only 24 local government areas collected samples – Jigawa (22), Kano (20), Taraba (16),” she revealed.

“Even though in Lagos all the local government areas are collecting samples, the number of samples collected was quite low. So, that brought down the number of samples collected for August.”

From the early days of the outbreak, Kogi had been very reluctant to get involved. These statistics show nothing has changed in its resistance to any inquiry that suggests the presence of COVID-19 cases in its midst. The five cases credited to it on the NCDC charts remain unrealistically unchanged more than two months after.

The decline in testing could be interpreted in two ways. It’s been caused by a drop in the number of persons reporting COVID-like symptoms. It could also be down to coronavirus fatigue, causing governors and the governed to press on with daily life, irrespective of what’s going on with the virus.

We seem to have arrived smoke and mirrors territory where testing can be manipulated to produce an alternate reality. It may just work! After all, in the worst case scenario, disease produces death. COVID-19 is just another disease that kills. Without testing, there’s no proof that demise was by the virus. In a society where life has always been cheap, death by Coronavirus cannot then be more special than death by other means. Life goes on.

Lagos insists infections have peaked in its territory and is pressing ahead with reopening of schools. The PTF would rather it made haste slowly to avoid fatalities. The Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) whose members would be catering to the returning students is less than enthusiastic – describing resumption plans as “suicidal.”

For its part, the World Health Organisation (WHO) warns no country can “pretend” the pandemic is over, saying any move to ease restrictions too early would be disastrous.

WHO Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said this week countries need to have “control” of the virus before attempting to kick-start their economies.

“We want to see children returning to school and people returning to work places, but we want to see it done safely,” he said.

However, it bears repeating that our worst fears at different points of reopening haven’t come to pass. It’s been four weeks since churches and mosques were allowed to hold services again in Lagos. So far, no outbreaks have been reported and most religious organisations have behaved responsibly with regards to observing prescribed protocols.

In Nigeria, COVID-19 and fraud allegations have always travelled together. If it’s not those who think the whole thing is one big scam, it’s those who are allegedly making a mint out of the crisis.

A couple of days ago, Executive Director (Projects) of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), Dr. Cairo Ojougboh, reacting to claims his organisation had showered several billions of naira on staff as Coronavirus “palliatives,” claimed lawmakers equally took care of themselves.

“In the National Assembly, each of the senators got N20 million, while the House of Representatives members got N15 million for COVID-19,” he alleged.

It was a bombshell that was initially greeted with deafening silence – but not for long. Chairman of the Senate’s Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Ajibola Basiru, has denied he or his colleagues “collected the sum of N20 million or any sum whatsoever from NDDC as COVID-19 relief fund or for any purpose whatsoever.”

Basiru is also challenging the accuser to provide evidence of his claim and name those he allegedly gave the sum.

But Ojougboh didn’t say the commission paid the monies, he claims the National Assembly did. Did the legislature make any such payments? We can hazard a guess how this challenge may end.

It’s all so reminiscent of when Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Godswill Akpabio, was in full finger-pointing flow at a recent House of Representatives hearing into the financial shenanigans of the NDDC’s Interim Management Committee.

The moment he claimed the bulk of the commission’s contracts had disappeared into the voluminous folds of the lawmakers’ babanrigas, one of the honourable panellists who was supposed to be grilling him suddenly uttered these immortal words: “It’s enough, it’s enough. Off the mic!”  And the inquiry was truncated on that chaotic note.

Given our national overfamiliarity with the scandalous, nothing may come of this serious allegation. But for the sake of our common health and commonwealth, here’s hoping the truth comes to light.

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