These are perilous times. In the last few days, members of the House of Representatives, like most Nigerians, have been on the edge over the coronavirus, otherwise called COVID-19, which is ravaging the world.
In the last two weeks, the virus has been the most discussed subject in the Green chamber, with the House adopting several motions on the pandemic.
Last Tuesday, the House, just like the Senate, was forced to adjourn plenary for two weeks, albeit belatedly, over the pandemic. Also, the National Assembly same day announced the shutting down of the federal legislature and directed staff, who are not on essential duty, as well as others, who have business within the parliament to stay away for the next two weeks.
Ironically, on February 4, lawmakers had outrightly rejected a motion seeking the evacuation of Nigerians in Wuhan, China, who wanted to return to the country because of the virus, which at that point was wrecking havoc in the Chinese city. Apparently, the lawmakers were in denial that Nigeria would never be affected by the virus.
On that fateful, the chairman, House Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Benjamin Kalu,who was the lead sponsor had hardly proposed the motion, when his colleagues shouted him down.
Not even repeated appeals by the Speaker, Honourable Femi Gbajabiamila, to the lawmakers to allow Kalu take the motion, after which they can either support or oppose it, would make them change their minds.
Twice, Gbajabiamila asked the House spokesman to propose the motion, twice majority of lawmakers present in the chamber at that particular time, shouted “no”. They didn’t just want the subject discussed in the chamber. That was eight weeks ago.
Today, the mood in the House has changed drastically. The mood of the lawmakers has changed from indifference to anxiety and anger. Yes, anger. Not a few lawmakers had expressed indignation that the executive arm of government had boasted about its preparedness to tackle the virus “ head-on “, when the country was actually “not ready”.
However, the lawmakers have failed to come to terms with the fact that they too did not do enough to prepare the country for the pandemic. The House made two fundamental blunders in its response to the coronavirus pandemic. The first was the rejection of that February 4 motion seeking to bring back Nigerians from Wuhan. If the House had debated that motion, it could have amended the prayers to place the country on red alert about the virus.
Secondly, the failure of the House to push through its March 3 resolution,urging the management of the National Assembly to shut the parliament for two weeks, so that lawmakers can get tested, and also visit their constituencies to sensitise their constituents, while the National Assembly management put in place adequate measures to safeguard lawmakers, staff and visitors to the parliament is unfortunate, to say the least.
If the House had enforced that resolution, and ensured that the government take more proactive steps, then, to protect the country from the virus, perhaps the story might have been different today. But this is not a time to apportion blames.
The COVID-19 has brought to the fore the poor state of health infrastructure in the country. It is an open secret that across the country, health facilities are in shambles. There is no gain saying that on daily basis, Nigerians die needlessly,because of poor health care.
It is easy to blame the executive arm of government for the failure of the health sector in the country. But the lawmakers are as guilty as members of the executive for the deplorable state of health infrastructure in the country. This is because the constitution gives the parliament the power to oversight the executive.
I remember how in the eight assembly, members of the House vehemently opposed a bill seeking to bar public officials from going on medical tourism. Their reason? It is against their fundamental human rights. The argument of the sponsor was that discouraging medical tourism will compel government to fix our dysfunctional health system. That way,both the poor and the rich will access quality healthcare within the country. But our honourable members said a capital “no” and threw the proposed legislation into the refuse bin.
No doubt, health institutions in the country are in poor shapes because the political class, whose responsibility it is to make the health system work, , believe that they can always access heath care outside the country.
Little did they know that the chicken will come home to roost very soon. If only they knew that the day of reckoning will come so soon, they would have been more circumspect in their actions.
If only our leaders know that a time will come when they will not be able to go abroad for healthcare at the slightest opportunity; if only they know that a leveller in the form of coronavirus was on its way, they would have probably acted differently.
Today, both the low and mighty, the poor and rich are forced to access healthcare in the same facility at Gwagwalada in the Federal Capital Territory ( FCT) Abuja or Yaba in Lagos.
Now that it is obvious, that in critical times, like this, there is no place for anyone to run to, this pandemic should be a wake up call for the government on the need to urgently fix our healthcare system.
However, beyond making endless resolutions and bemoaning the poor state of our health institutions, this should be an opportunity for the lawmakers to take action to revamp our healthcare system. For starters, the members of the House, in collaboration with their Senate counterparts, can resolve to commit their N100 billion Zonal Intervention Project budget for the 2020 fiscal year to the development of health facilities.
For instance, the various zonal caucuses can decide to pull funds appropriated for their constituency projects together to set up functional hospitals in their respective zones.
It will not hurt anyone if we have six well equipped hospitals across the six geopolitical zones,courtesy of the lawmakers.