As the Federal and state governments make efforts to contain the spread of coronavirus, measures being taken by Akwa Ibom State Government seem to be hindered by insecurity, inadequate medical personnel and appropriate medical equipment for treatment of Covid-19 patients reports. Tony ESIN who visited the state Emergency Operations Centre and Infectious Diseases Centre at Ikot Ekpene in the company of other journalists,reports.
APPROACHING its main entrance, a visitor is welcomed by a signpost reading “Government of Akwa Ibom State, Ministry of Health, Emergency Operations Centre and Infectious Diseases Centre.”
The facility said to have been in existence since 1928 — 32 years older than Nigeria as a country— is the state’s sole centre being prepared for any possible outbreak of the coronavirus.
On arrival at the centre at Ikot Ekpene last Wednesday, the gate was left ajar, without any restriction —neither was there any measure put in place to get visitors to wash their hands or use hands sanitiser before gaining entrance as has been the practice all over the world since the outbreak of COVID-19 in China.
A team of investigative journalists had gone on a fact-finding mission to the centre.
The entire premises was full of activities with persons suspected to be nurses on duty in the various offices. There had been speculations on whether the IDH was in good condition and properly equipped in case of any occurrence of the COVID-19 in the state.
Journalists denied access to the facility
On requesting to see the Chief Medical Director of the hospital, the nurses beckoned on one Dr. Udeme who later came out and courteously told the journalists that he should be given just ‘one minute’ to attend to them. That one minute enabled him to put a call through to seek permission to grant the pressmen an audience.
After about 20 minutes, Dr. Udeme, dressed in a blue lab coat and face mask came out to address the journalists. But not long after he came out he did not wait to be asked questions by the anxious journalists.He hurriedly stated: “sorry gentlemen, I have been instructed not to grant any of you interview or allow you access to see the facilities…”
He categorically said the order was from the Commissioner for Health, Dominic Ukpong. The doctor added that the Health Commissioner would be coming to the facility that day and therefore suggested the journalists could wait for him to arrive.
The Commissioner for Health himself had during a press briefing recently challenged journalists to visit the centre by themselves to ascertain the true circumstances and not rely on social media grapevines.
The journalists’ visit to the centre was to also further verify claims by some important personalities in the state, including the Paramount Ruler of Obot Akara Local Government Area, Okuku Uwah Umoh Adiaka, who corroborated that the centre had been in existence since 1928, but that it currently lacks equipment for the purpose of tackling coronavirus as the government would have the people to believe.
The monarch said: “The infectious disease hospital was built in 1928. If you are passing to Ikot Ekpene along Uyo road, you will see the hospital. Please just call at the place, if you see more than two tables, regard me as a liar.”
State government not forthcoming on the state of the centre
The Akwa Ibom State government has repeatedly declined comments on the true state of facilities put in place at the IDH to contain the spread of the virus or manage the situation in case the pandemic gets to the state, although the government has reiterated its readiness to fight the scourge in various instances.
This has brought about speculations in the state with some saying the state has 19 ventilators and others saying there are just four of such equipment.
A ventilator is a machine that provides mechanical ventilation by moving breathable air into and out of the lungs, to deliver breaths to a patient who is physically unable to breathe.
Despite its insistence that the centre is ready to take any emergency, the state government has not disclosed the carrying capacity of the IDH, giving rise to disquiet among the people of the state. No one knows how many bed spaces are provided at the centre.
This fear was further heightened when recently, the Public Relations Officer of the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) in the state, Dr. Emmanuel Ekem in a live radio programme lamented the poor state of equipment at the centre. He particularly pointed out that there were no ventilators at the centre.
His assertion that the IDH at Ikot Ekpene has no ventilator raised doubt among the populace regarding the functionality of the facility.
There are 15 ventilators in Akwa Ibom State but none at IDH — Commissioner for Health
After much insinuation and pressure about the number of ventilators owned by the state, Ukpong, clarified in his last press briefing after his meeting with medical professionals in the state capital which ended in fiasco.
According to him, there are 13 ventilators at the Ibom Specialist Hospital in Uyo while two are at the Government House.
This brings the total number of ventilators in medical facilities in the state to 15. While admitting that there was no ventilator at the Isolation Centre in Ikot Ekpene, he explained that it was fear of theft that made the state government not to keep ventilators at the centre. He argued that the IDH was not well secured. He, however, assured the machines can be moved down there any time for use in case of emergency.
“They are saying, for instance, we have no ventilator. We have as I am talking to you 13 ventilators in Ibom Specialist Hospital. We cannot take a ventilator to the Isolation Centre because of the possibility of theft. We have three at the Government House and we even have one for children,” the Commissioner said.
“We have oxygen jars there. From Ibom Specialist Hospital to Ikot Ekpene, it is just about 10 minutes. So that is not a problem. If you go to a place where people with COVID-19 are being managed, you have tested them and they are positive and they are there with just the fever and cough. You don’t see them with oxygen. It is when the breathing difficulty sets in that you bring in oxygen. And if they further develop pneumonia that is when you bring in the ventilator which they are shouting about,” he explained further.
According to the Health Commissioner, there are three doctors working at the Isolation Centre, noting that the state government provided them with accommodation within the facility.
But medical personnel sighted at the centre who craved anonymity told the journalists that the staff were living in total apprehension due to lack of security. According to him, residents in the community see the siting of the centre in their domain as a ‘threat to lives.’
This, the commissioner corroborated when he said that the centre has no ventilator because of fear of theft. “The state ministry of health does not move ventilators to the centre because they might be stolen,” he had said.
Centre has three trained medical doctors
Another concern about the Akwa Ibom Isolation centre is about the availability of well-trained medical personnel to handle the situation. This too is uncertain.
When asked if there were enough hands to handle the situation in case of any recorded case of the disease, the Commissioner for Health said the state government had long trained medical personnel for such emergencies “right from the time of Ebola.” He had in an interview earlier said there were three doctors working at the Isolation Centre.
Feud with NMA, other associations in health sector
It is more worrisome that the state Ministry of Health at the moment is at loggerheads with the members of the Nigerian Medical Association and other key allied medical bodies in the state which culminated in the recent call for the removal of the Commissioner of Health by the medical bodies.
It is certain where the medical personnel manning the state Isolation Centre are drawn from when the medical practitioners in the state through their various unions have accused the Commissioner of not carrying them along.
The professional bodies in the health sector comprising the Nigerian Medical Association, Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria, Association of Medical Laboratory Scientist of Nigeria, and National Association of Nigerian Nurses and Midwives have all called for immediate removal of the Commissioner for Health over what they described as his disregard for professionalism, lack of managerial and interpersonal skills as well as poor management of the COVID-19 emergency situation.
The health workers after staging a walkout at a meeting convened by the Commissioner for Health in Uyo, met and passed a vote of no confidence on him, stating that all efforts to seek understanding with the Commissioner proved abortive.
“In order to save the health sector, we hereby, jointly, as the Conglomeration of Healthcare Professionals comprising of NMA, PSN, NANNM, and AMLSN pass a vote of no confidence on the Commissioner for Health, Dr. Dominic Ukpong for his lack of managerial and interpersonal skills, disregard for professionals and professionalism, high-handedness and divisive tendencies, and outright poor management of COVID-19 preparedness,” the groups stated in a press statement read during their emergency meeting recently.
The Commissioner for Health, in his reaction had, however, accused the Nigerian Medical Association of stirring the whole impasse, saying they were ‘doing union things’ and attempting to sabotage the effort of the state government in coordinating for effective healthcare delivery in the state, including containing the spread of the novel COVID- 19.
A cautious Govt and carefree people
Regrettably, repeatedly assuring the Akwa Ibom public that the state is free of coronavirus ‘as no case has been recorded’ seems to have made most residents of the state to be too loose about taking precautionary measures.
The State Governor, Udom Emmanuel in a special broadcast on March 20, urged everyone to go about their normal businesses stating that everything was under control. He appealed for utmost caution and a deep sense of rationality, especially from the media, in the manner of reportage of the global pandemic.
“I want to assure the public that the rumours and false information going around on social media are completely false. There is no confirmed case of Coronavirus disease in Akwa Ibom State,” he said.
Governor Emmanuel in the broadcast explained that even before the first confirmed case was recorded in Nigeria, he had immediately set up an Infectious Disease Prevention and Control Task Force with a charge on the Commissioner for Health to remain on top of the situation.
Similarly, the Commissioner for Health at various press briefings reiterated the same. Although the state government has urged everyone to adopt social distancing and undertake the basic respiratory hygiene practices, this is undesirably not adhered to as checks revealed that residents in Uyo, the state capital still cluster in motor parks, board crowded public vehicles and also attend church services in clusters on Sundays and other days.
The people seem to be carried away by the umpteenth assurances by the state government that the state is safe of the virus.
In Akwa Ibom, like in some other places in Nigeria, two factors shape people’s opinions and reaction to situations – religion and politics. Religion and politics are Siamese twins in Akwa Ibom. With the domineering political cum religious slogan ‘Only God’, most residents in the state believe it will always be God and as such no worries except to wait upon God’s face.
Testing is a required prerequisite for confirmation of the COVID-19, especially in people who are asymptomatic.
Strict adherence to WHO’s prescriptions as the ultimate way out
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said the only way to overcome the pandemic was for countries to keep testing.
According to the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), laboratories where Covid-19 can be tested are seven in the entire country at the moment, but the test can be done in six places across the country.
Lagos has two of the laboratories, while Osun, Edo and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) have one each. Two laboratories have just been located in Oyo and Ebonyi states, bringing the number to seven.