It was a classic case of mistaken identity and transferred aggression. It was a scary experience that had me shouting “May Day!” “May Day!” in the month of May. Before that day, May 7, 2020, the Minister of Health, Dr. Osagie Ehanire had issued warning to private medical practitioners not to treat COVID-19 patients privately.
Ehanire, while speaking at the Presidential Task Force briefing said all cases of the disease should be referred to healthcare facilities for self-isolation and management. “All medical practitioners, healthcare workers and also the public are reminded that COVID-19 is such a highly infectious disease and they should abstain from trying to privately treat or manage these cases in their homes,” he warned.
He added: “Only designated treatment centre can provide safe isolation and management of COVID-19 patients.” This is because, he explained, healthcare workers are highly exposed to COVID-19 virus, as they are first responders to patients.
Taking positions on a burning issue
Taking exception to his position, private healthcare providers and the Guild of Medical Directors (GMD) expressed dissatisfaction with the decision of the Federal Government not to allow private hospitals to treat persons who test positive for the pandemic. The private healthcare providers under the aegis of Association of General and Private Medical Practitioners of Nigeria, and the GMD said it was wrong for the government to sideline them in the treatment of the COVID-19 patients.
Apparently, in support of their position, Charles Obadiah Wambebe, professor of pharmacology, traditional medicine expert, pioneer Director-General of the National Institute of Pharmaceutical Research and Development (NIPRD), 1989 – 2001, and a WHO consultant, suggested, in a newspaper interview, that the government should educate and empower both the private and public healthcare givers as it was done in South Korea when the virus started spreading through community transmission.
“The leadership of the country engaged scientists, listened to them and provided every support to implement the recommendations of the scientists,” he said. “They even engaged PhD holders in development and production. Now South Korea supplies the world with validated diagnostic kits for coronavirus. Furthermore, they engaged in diligent contact tracing and testing of vulnerable populations…. As of 5th May, only 3 new cases were registered, 10,822 total confirmed cases, 9,484 have recovered, 256 deaths, tested 600,000 people.”
Taking a cue from Wambebe’s suggestion, I decided to talk to private healthcare givers on the burning issue. It is a great idea that I am sure will be welcomed by owners of, and doctors working in private hospitals. So I thought until I got to a private hospital called New Life Hospital, located at Igbo Elerin, somewhere in Iyana-Iba side of Lagos, close to Lagos State University (LASU), Ojo, Lagos.
Meeting with a scenario drawn from a novel
But at the place, a scenario, which seemed drawn straight out of John Munonye’s African classic tragic novel, Oil Man of Obange, played out. In the novel, the main character, Jeri, a local oil man, had given a packet of groundnuts to a group of children he met in the fore-house of a compound in a fictive town called Ukeleke, where he had earlier run into for shelter from a stormy rain. He asked them to share it among themselves just as he always told his children. Unknown to him, a little daughter of the house had died a month earlier after eating poisoned meat allegedly given to her by a stranger.
The rain still poured when a woman’s angry voice, rang out, over the sound of the pouring rain and intermittent grumble of the sky, from the dwelling house behind the fore house. It turned out that an older and bigger boy had grabbed the packet from his younger siblings who were about to rip it open and went to show their mother.
“Where is the villain?” the woman asked as she came out of her hut with the packet in her left hand and a sizeable pestle in her right hand. “Did you say inside the obi? (fore-house). Perhaps he knows your father is out; that’s why he stole in at this time to poison the children.”
After ascertaining from Jeri that he was the one who gave her children the packet, she not only threw it at him in a surge of fury but also dashed at his head with the pestle in her hand. He ducked, gripped her hand, and caught at the pestle. ‘Tell me who sent you to take another of my children,’ she said in a pathetic whine while Jeri kept battling to wrest the pestle from her restless hands.
It was then her husband came in. ‘Let him go,’ he said after listening to their stories. ‘He is an oil man and oil does not go with poison.’ His wife did. Thereafter, he turned to Jeri and said: ‘Oil man, please, in your own interest, don’t go about giving things to children of this town. Just last month, someone came here and gave poisoned meat to our daughter. She is dead now.”
At the New Life Hospital, the scenario that I was confronted with was exactly like that of Jeri’s. On that fateful day, May 7, on entering the reception hall, I introduced myself as a reporter from The Sun newspaper to the nurses I met there and asked to see the managing director. They asked what for? I said that I was there to find out his opinion on the suggestion by a W.H.O. consultant that government should equip or allow health workers both at the private and public hospitals to handle the COVID-19 cases.
“You are from W.H.O. abi?” a tall dark-skinned lady among them asked me. But while I was trying to correct the wrong impression that seemed to have been created in her mind by my mention of the word W.H.O., she cut in and said: “Let me call Oga.” And, with that, she dashed off to put a call through to him in a nearby office. She later came back to report that he would be there by 6pm and asked me to come back by then. Time was about 3p.m.
Beaten like a common criminal over mistaken identity
I promised to do so and left with the intention of correcting the wrong impression my mention of W.H.O. seemed to have created when I eventually get to see her Oga. I later reported there at the time I was told. But on getting to place I was surprised to see some boys, three of them, that looked like ruffians or thugs hanging around and smoking away. Though I wondered what they were doing there, I didn’t think much about their presence and mission until some minutes later. On entering, I met the lady that attended to me in the afternoon. She asked me to wait while she goes in to tell the man that I am around. After a while, she came out and beckoned on me to go inside and meet with him.
I walked in and greeted as the doctor, Gbenga Oladapo, was just ending a call. He barely returned my greeting before asking with an unfriendly voice: “Please, who are you?” I introduced myself and my mission while wondering what could be the reason for his hostile attitude, as evidenced by his unsmiling face.
His countenance seemed to show that he did not believe that I am the person I was claiming to be: a journalist. On sensing that, I quickly shoved my identity card in his face as a backup to my claim. He grabbed both my hand and the ID card, stood up, and without any further exchange of word, reached out and gave me a hot slap across my face. I was dazed. In fact, I momentarily saw stars. Next, he opened the door and called for the boys that I saw outside the office a while ago to come in.
“I thought they said this guy is from W.H.O,” he said, “but he is saying he is from Punch.”
“I am not from Punch, I am from The Sun,” I corrected him, still dazed, still wondering what could have led to all these. As if on a cue, the three rough-looking boys descended on me and started beating me. One held my shirt while the second grabbed me by hands. The last one among them collected my phone, which I was using to record the unfolding scene and the cacophonous voices. I was flabbergasted.
“Bros please listen to me,” I said as life was almost being choked out of me. But nobody did. Instead, the beating and query about what I was doing there continued for the next three or four minutes. “I will show you that I am a street doctor,” the man said as the beating increased. Faced by what I see as an imminent death, I shouted something in Igbo about me wondering if it was how I was going to die without anybody hearing my own side of the story.
The commotion attracted a small crowd of patients and nurses. On hearing that, one of the sympathizers cautioned them to stop beating me and advised that they invite the police instead into the matter. It was only then that the beating stopped. The doctor took his advice and placed a call immediately to the police.
Sorting out matters at the police station
Shortly after the call, some police officers arrived and took me to the nearby police station in the doctor’s jeep. On getting there I was asked to put on my facemask and to wash my hands before entering the station. The doctor passed to me my facemasks and my broken phone. We waited to be attended to, as the Divisional Police Officer was busy with ablution that usually follows the end of fasting day. While we were waiting, I sent a text message to the Lagos State Police Public Relation Officer, Bala Elkana, to inform him about the incident and my predicament. Later, we were ushered into the DPO’s office. It was only then that I learnt for the first time why I was beaten like a common criminal.
“Recently, some crooks who said they are staffs of W.H.O. came to my office and cajoled me to pay some money, N100, 000, as registration fee,” he said. “They said that W.H.O. is picking some private hospitals as isolation centres and I paid. My hospital was even certified as family planning centre. It was after they had gone that their phone numbers became unreachable. We are being duped. They have done it to some of my colleagues and it is painful. We are sacrificing our lives for our people and some people somewhere are busy scheming how to dupe us.”
I explained to the DPO that I am not from W.H.O., that I only mentioned the word in connection with the story I was doing with doctors in private hospitals, on the comment of a W.H.O. consultant. I said that even when the doctor asked who I was, that I introduced myself properly to him, backed up by my newspaper company’s ID card. This I showed to the DPO. As he was examining it, a call came through on my phone from Elkana. This I passed on to the DPO who, after taking with him, asked the doctor to forward the numbers of the fraudsters to him for investigation. When he searched and could not see it, he called one of his staffs to help him out. The person he called seemed also unable to help.
“Don’t worry,” he said to the DPO. “I will send the numbers to you the moment I get to the office.”
And, with that the case was dismissed. I got home at about 10 p.m. in torn clothes and with swollen face. I quickly rushed to a pharmacy to purchase some drugs to treat myself with. No matter, I told myself. At least, I got home in one piece, and not in pieces.
Oladapo weighs in on the matter
Contacted, Dr. Gbenga Oladapo, gave this as his own side of the story:
“What happened is that some group of people were here earlier before he came and they duped me of N100, 000. We are still looking for them. We have reported the case to police station. So, when he came, the same way they presented themselves was the same way he presented himself. He created the impression that he was from W.H.O. When they told me, I said: ‘W.H.O. again? What for? ‘ It was when he came to my office that he now said that he was from the Press. I said, at the reception, you told them you are from W.H.O but in the office you are saying another thing. You are telling you are from a different organization. By that time, I had not even seen his ID card. Later, he now presented his ID card. I said no, this is how fraudsters behave.
“So, that was the issue. But it was resolved eventually. Even we got to the police station, he pleaded with me to forgive him. During the interrogation, the DPO discovered that he was genuine. But my pain was that he was not very sincere. He did not behave like a journalist and that was why I told him that he should be very careful. In some other places, some people would have passed jungle justice on him and lynched him. Even at a point, I was the one that called the police people. They were the ones that came and picked up everybody and took them to their station. And, if he had died, it would have been on my neck.
“When we got to the police station, he now explained himself more clearly. I now saw all those ID cards. He called his boss (actually Elkana, PRO, Lagos State Police Command) because the DPO made him call his boss. It was then he was able to establish that he was genuine. Actually, the DPO spoke with somebody. I don’t know who. But it was at that point that it was resolved that he was genuine. The DPO said he should be careful because at this time of lockdown a lot of things are going on, a lot of fraudsters are going about. He said if he is going to do investigative journalism, he should be very professional with it. He said if he wants to make an enquiry, he should send a letter to the organization. The DPO even told him that he has a brother who is also an investigative journalist. “I know how they do the job,” he said. “You don’t just go and push yourself into a community. The place is in lockdown. Everybody is under tension. So, you have to be careful with how you do the job.”
“As for the people that duped me, the DPO has been trying to track them down but the numbers they gave, all of them have been switched off. That’s where we are now. The problem is that they collected the money in cash. Had it been it was through electronic transfer, we would have been able to track them through their account number. I believe this is why it has been very hard for us to track them.”