By Joshua OLUFEMI
THE Federal Ministry of Health has recorded its first case of Coronavirus. An anonymous source who attended the National Council on Health meeting held during the week confirmed the information to DATAPHYTE.
According to the source, the first case which has been confirmed by the test result from the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control is reported to be a staff of the Department of Planning, Research and Statistics.
But Dr. Meribole, the Director at the Department of Planning, Research and Statistics, said he cannot confirm the claim because he does not have any test results to that effect. However, the source confirmed he facilitated the NCDC’s response after several calls. He said what the Department is trying to do is related to prevention and ensuring random testing. He further said the request for a random test has been delayed by the strike which was recently called off.
While health workers in the frontline are generally prone to contracting coronavirus, there are reports that the Federal Ministry of Health is not enforcing the preventive measures for staff and visitors to the Ministry, therefore exposing staff members to the deadly virus. While the reporter sighted the hand wash basin at strategic locations within the complex, there was no officer ensuring that each entrant washes his or her hands. Within 45mins of the reporter’s observation, only one person out of over 20 persons who entered the Ministry of Health complex washed his hands. It took him over 5 mins to operate the handwashing device because there was no one to guide him.
Several calls and text messages to the Health Minister of State, Dr Olorunnibe Mamora were not returned
Similarly, interviews of staff around the Ministry revealed they were aware of reports of the index case since last week, but that the Ministry had not taken the necessary steps to protect the staff and visitors. A security man at the gate of the Ministry confirmed that the report got to them yesterday and they have been advised to increase temperature checks and compliance to the use of face masks
Most sources who requested anonymity said the Ministry staff are not perceived by the authority as frontline health workers despite their efforts in combating the pandemic, and as such, are not being adequately protected.
A visit to the department of the index case revealed that although the infected staff had been isolated in a treatment centre in Abuja, other affected contacts were however yet to be tested or taken into isolation by the NCDC.
A staff who claimed to be one of the contacts of the index case informed Dataphyte that when confronted with the situation, she called the NCDC but that the lady at the call centre was so rude and unhelpful.
NCDC’s strike and existential problem of late response.
When Dataphyte reached out to the infected person, he declined to comment on the matter.
Further investigation, however, revealed that it took the influence of someone close to the NCDC to get him tested. Yet, the result of the test took about 5 days before he was eventually taken into isolation for treatment. The staff of the Centre also declined to comment on the matter for privacy reasons.
When contacted, the NCDC referred Dataphyte to the FCT Emergency Operations Centre that revealed that the delay in testing and dissemination of results to the public, was due to the ongoing strike. They claimed to be aware of the index case from the Ministry but assured that plans were underway for a follow-up test as soon as the workers’ strike was called off.
There is the palpable fear that many isolation centres in Nigeria have been abandoned, hence the increasing delay in the testing of those suspected Coronavirus infection.
“One has to wonder that if there are delays to testing Federal Ministry of Health staff and if claims by FCT staff that VIP Isolation Centre in Asokoro are also experiencing similar delays, then what is happening in other isolation centres?” Said the Suraju Olarenwaju, the Chairman of HEDA Resource Centre.
Resident doctors within the month, have gone on strike and are yet to call it off, complaining about salary payments. While there are varying opinions about the timing of the strike, there is strong support for the strike. Speaking with Dr Kwalar, a public health practitioner, she said the bigger challenge with the strike is the fate of the common Nigerians who will be impacted by the incidence.
“If people working at the frontline, the health workers who collect samples for tests have not been paid and then highly placed people are experiencing delayed testing, what then is the state of the common man?”
A staff of an international NGO who lost her mother last week to COVID-19 recounted how her aged mother spent 2 days abandoned in the accident and emergency room of Federal Medical Centre Umuahia because she was a suspected case of COVID-19. While she died on the night of the second day, the result of the test was not received until over a week after her death.
Commenting on how difficult it is to access NCDC for testing, she said “the truth is that many people are dying, and they don’t even get the opportunity to be tested. After complaining or experiencing some symptoms, in 3-4 days you are dead. People don’t get the opportunity to get tested and that is the major challenge.”
Staff travel across states, return without testing
Speaking with another staff member close to the Minister’s office, she commented that a lot needs to be done to contain the virus. When asked about the possibility that other people in the Ministry have been infected, the staff said, half of the staff of the Ministry, especially those working in close contact with the Minister’s office may be infected.
“From what I can deduce, many of us leave far in Suleja, Mararaba and other far border towns and we take public transport to work and travel across State borders unchecked. That is this small office, not to talk of cleaners and staff of other departments that we don’t know where they live or how they get to work.”
Probing this comment further, it was revealed that top officials of the ministry have been allowed to travel to various parts of the country on a weekly basis either for work or personal travels.
One source stated that the index case may actually not be the first case since there are reports that another staff in the Malaria programme is also infected. The source who claims to be a staff of one of the Development Partners to the Ministry said “I do not feel safe coming here for meetings anymore as I am sure that we still have large numbers of people sitting at the Ministry that have become ill and have not gone for any testing. It would make sense if all the staff of the Ministry are tested to rule out the further spread and the risk to the family of our staff.”
Ministry of Health yet to spend 2.1 billion COVID-19 funds
It will be recalled that the National Assembly in a recent probe of expenditure of the Federal Ministry of Health and the NCDC gathered that the Ministry was yet to make any expenditure from the money allocated to the Ministry by the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 in the amount of N2.1 billion
However, the Ministry have recently commenced the payment of hazard allowance for frontline health workers which brought to an end the strike action by resident doctors for non-payment of allowances.
Experts call for increasing testing across Nigeria
A public health practitioner while commenting on a need for a proactive approach to flattening the COVID-19 curve in Nigeria said Community level testing centres is an effective way to increase testing and curtailing the spread.
Some States such as Ogun have already set up testing centres where members of the public can go at will and test. The NCDC should support other States to do the same. Teams can be deployed to different strategic locations to collect samples for testing which would then be sent to the laboratories. Such proactive measures can be replicated across the country”
When asked if the cost of such centres would not overwhelm the NCDC , she responded saying,
“I cannot put a figure to it, but money shouldn’t be a problem. I would assume that public buildings, offices, schools and even private buildings would be more than happy to provide space for testing boots at zero cost. All that would then be required would be for the NCDC and State EOCs to provide testing kits, and deploy one or two staff to designated booths. In other words, it would cost almost ‘nothing’ to effectively set up a booth.”
This report was originally published by DATAPHYTE