Fred Itua, Abuja
Senator Chukwuka Utazi represents Enugu North in the 8th Senate. He heads Senate Committee on Primary Health and Communicable Disease. In this interview, he speaks on the role played by the National Assembly at the peak of the COVID-19 global pandemic.
People are still wondering. You’re a lawyer, but heads the Senate committee on Primary Health and Communicable Disease. How does that fit in?
In the National Assembly here, you are trained as a parliamentarian to know a little of everything. And as a lawyer, you are trained not to have knowledge of everything but how to get the answer to all your problems. So as a lawyer who has found himself here, I work with all the professionals. I don’t need to have a stethoscope on my neck before I can function here. I have to first of all know what we are supposed to do because in the health industry, there’s the National Health Act which is the compass for this exercise. If you go further, then to the National Primary Health Care. They have their own laws guiding them. So I had to pick up those things, studied them very well over and over again to know where they are moving. I also asked the relevant questions to people who are there and I got all the things I needed to do as a Chairman. From then on, I identified professionals and development partners in well oiled organisations that help me. So I don’t need to be a doctor, I have access to all those people to get them to do all they need to do. My job is to direct the achievements of such policies that are already mapped out to be done. So effectively, we have done that. As a lawyer, I’m trained to be everywhere. A lawyer can hold any position in the land, because there is a law for everything. Because of that, you will always have to adjudicate all the issues in every discipline. So, we are trained that in any position you put a lawyer, he can fit in unlike other professionals that once they are put in one place, they can’t go far. So with that knowledge, I have been able here to look at issues very well and relate very well with the Executive Director of National Primary Healthcare Development Agency, same thing with the Director General of Nigeria Center for Disease Control. Even the other area that has to do with the fight against malaria, I also relate with all of them well. I ask the relevant questions and get information from them.
You sponsored a bill at the peak of the pandemic on Disease Control or so. It didn’t go down well with many Nigerians…
No I beg to differ. My bill was not controversial. Where you trace controversy is in what happened in the House of Representatives. I have made efforts to explain myself that the bill I have, my own original bill has a lot of things different from what you have in the House of Reps. I went on radio and television channels to explain this over and over again, but some people will always want to go back to the House of Reps bill. So again, what we wanted to repeal was not NCDC Act but Quarantine Act. We wanted to bring up a new law that can cover the issue of an epidemic of this nature that we have that is universal. So, I decided to come with National Health Emergency Bill, that’s what I did. I looked in all countries having the challenge like Nigeria, particularly the developing countries. You know the practice of law is universal everywhere, but you have to colour it to suit your own environment. So when people were saying we are trying to copy and paste, I laughed. Because even the common laws we are practicing, it’s not our own. We copied and pasted here and that’s what we are using. So, anybody who doesn’t understand law will say this or that. And for many people who are saying we copied and pasted verbatim, law is verbatim. You pick it and develop it the way you want it, but the common law is the same everywhere. So what I did is that I looked at it that we have to move from the Quarantine Act of 1926 because a lot of things have happened. We really need to move from that period to this era of modern times when things have changed so that we can make sure that we get things done. In Nigeria here, when we had this issue, we had many patients who were suffering from this viral infection and many of the doctors were running away from treating them. The ones that agreed to treat them didn’t know what to do with them. They didn’t know whom to charge the cost of managing these patients, whether Federal, State or Local Government. I visited several of the isolation centers, like the one at Gwagwalada. I discovered that patients from rich backgrounds were ordering for things to take care of themselves but the people who are not so rich were waiting for the remnants of what other people so that they can eat. I looked at all those things and came back and said the Federal Government must foot the bill when there’s a pandemic of this nature. The state government should foot the bills in their areas because health is concurrent. I looked at all those issues and saw that we needed to define who should do what and how. What should NCDC be doing, what should the President be doing, will the instruction he is giving on lockdown work around the whole country, etc.
Looking back, was the decision by the Federal Government to lockdown everywhere necessary?
Well, you see when you are having an emergency of this nature, you usually don’t know the weight of it. If you had known that this is the extent it will go, you would have only given orders that will contain it on that level. But since we didn’t know and particularly because it overwhelmed the civilised world and we felt that they know everything and have answers for everything. We saw the United States struggling, we saw the United Kingdom struggling as well, Germany, France, China, etc, everyone was struggling. So anything you did then just to make sure that you contained things. For me, its in order because if you had done less and you had trouble, you would have had yourself to blame. But then, everybody was scared and afraid of what was going to happen. With the idea we have now, we feel that it was unnecessary. We shouldn’t have locked down the economy that way, we should have exercised restraint. We should have followed the health professionals. The health protocols NCDC are giving now, if we had followed it strictly, things would have been better for all of us. Because that is what we are doing now and the spread is going down gradually. So this is the issue, but then that was not the case. So, I felt that the Federal Government did well. That’s why we wanted to put all of those things in the content of a law to guide all we are doing. Because you see the governors, they wake up and say one thing or another. If you go to Kogi, the governor said he doesn’t even believe in what we are doing. You go to PortHarcourt, the fear of Wike was the order of the day. In Lagos, it was a different ball game. They were getting it better there because the commissioner for health in Lagos proved himself very competent and was able to manage the issue given his background and training. So with all that, that’s why we said there has to be something to guide activities. And people said it’s too early, but I said no, that this is the time to do something so that we can get it right and get things done. Amendment of the law is always there, but first of all, let us have something to guide our activities. If we discover that there are certain areas that were not covered in that law, you can come up with amendment.
Where you blackmailed to suspend any further consideration of the bill?
No. By the time I brought that bill, from there we went on break and when we came back from the break. The next thing is Budget. So that’s the issue. I’m prepared for my second reading, but also because of the noise from the House of Reps, I decided during the break to sit down, involve everybody, did a public hearing with NMA, Ministry of Justice, and all the diverse groups and civil societies involved. We sat down here in Abuja for over a month, clause by clause, looking at these laws, having comparative analysis of all the countries that have a law on this pandemic and the experiences so far. We sat down and did a thorough job such that when I come for my second reading and third reading, we won’t have any issues. My public hearing will be just ceremonial. We did a thorough job, every morning we go there and leave there by 4pm. After each one, we kept reading through it and critiquing it till we finally came up with something. Now it’s no longer a question of, if this bill is passed and you send it to Attorney General and start sending it to MDAs to make input. All the people who should make input were all there. The legal drafting of the Federal Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Health, the NCDC, they were all there. All the agencies of Government that should have input in it, were there. And then all those issues raised in the House of Reps, we went beyond that. The issues that were wrong in the House of Reps, we also took care of that in the bill with the resolve that if the House of Reps continue with their bill, we will not run into any difficulty. Because when we come for conference, we will drop that one and pick the other one and just get going.
Nigerians were unhappy with the National Assembly during the lockdown. For many of them, the Parliament and lawmakers went to bed. Do you agree?
The truth is this. During that period of pandemic, the leadership of National Assembly never went to sleep. The five committees in the National Assembly on health (3 in the House or Reps and 2 in the Senate) of which I am Chairman never went to sleep. We were always part of the meetings of the PTF, we were always with them, listening to them and articulating ideas and opinions on what we should do as a country in terms of our response mechanism towards the pandemic. We sat down and looked at all those things. And then it was because of all those meetings that we came up to say that the Budget of 2020 should be revised. We agreed on those issues that we have to put more money in health infrastructure in this country. We agreed there to put more modular labs in all the teaching hospitals in this country. In fact, we even said that there were supposed to be modular labs in the 109 districts of the country. But along the line, when we came back and looked at it properly, we discovered that if you go about doing that you don’t even have the personnel to man them there. So, we said that in the nearest teaching hospital to every senator, we put the modular labs to treat their people in the budget. We sat down there and agreed with them. The PTF is 80% health related, because you need to involve the minister for aviation, agriculture, transportation etc but the greater part of the PTF is health. So we sat down with the five committees, went down to the minutest details of all the things they wanted before the budget was called and then they made their input. After finishing all of that, we still went back to our committees to reevaluate whatever thing they said, asking the Federal Ministry of Health to make their input too on the proposal by the PTF which they were also part of. We looked at all those things and reached a decision that this is what should go to the budget. And we did that with the Minister for Finance, the Budget and Planning office, and others, and agreed to advice Mr President that it has to be 100 percent releases. It’s not a question of half measures now because we discovered that there is so much gap in the health Infrastructure of the country. So we had to do something urgent and the Federal Government did that. We also were able to talk to the procurement team of the Federal government to assist those people to make sure that they get things done fast and right without watering down anything. They had to make sure that they get people who have access and the capacity to get all those drugs and to travel during that period when it was risky leaving the country. Even to get the Personal Protection Equipment for our health personnel, it was an issue. It was in that period that the DG of NCDC, Dr Chikwe Ihekweazu, took the risk of his lifetime to attend the meeting organized by the WHO in China, at the peak. Most countries couldn’t find people to go to that extent, but Nigeria’s Chikwe took the risk to go to China and studied the situation and came back with all the information and briefed us as a committee. From there we decided to plan how we can give the information on daily basis and we started giving the reports everyday. We also moved to the airports and the boarder lines. We went to Lagos, to the Tincan island to see what they were doing there. We went to the airports to see what the port services were doing. We moved down all through Abuja here to see what they were doing. From there we started even discussing the issue of getting the transport history of those coming to Nigeria. We devised all those things in our meetings with the PTF. So anybody who is saying that the National Assembly went to sleep never understood issues. Maybe we were under reported, that could be the issue. We never traveled anywhere, when other committees where not attending National Assembly here, I was coming here on a daily basis with my colleagues.
At the peak of the pandemic in Nigeria, there was this claim that many members of the National Assembly contracted the virus. How true?
People carried rumors that some people were infected with the virus, but that was not the reason. I didn’t hear of any member who had this ailment but the issue is that some of the National Assembly members attended a workshop in United Kingdom. So many people became afraid that these people who traveled to UK might have been the carriers of that ailment to this country and they were afraid of them. What we then did was that I called the NCDC and asked all those people to go and subject themselves to screening and they all went and turned out negative. Because all of them that went were under strict instructions to be careful with themselves. So, the rumor that it was because people were infected is not true. It was just the same scare and carefulness that made us say everyone should be indoors.