Joe Effiong, Uyo
Controversies upon controversies. Flip-flopping, double-speak, inconsistency, denials, buck-passing and blame games. These seem to be the hallmarks of the Akwa Ibom State Government COVID-19 programmes.
From day one, when the campaign to contain the spread of the pandemic began, those in charge appeared to be enjoying wallowing in one controversy or another. And the controversies have yet to abate.
Instances are legion. Starting from the very recent ones: A paramount ruler in one of the local government areas in Ikot Ekpene Senatorial District recently expressed his reservations about the state of preparedness of the state with regard to the Infectious Diseases Hospital, Ikot Ekpene.
The royal father expressed disappointment that the 92-year old hospital, which has been adopted by the state government, has not been equipped beyond two tables.
“Go there and check, we have nothing to combat the pandemic, if it gets to us,” the traditional ruler said.
But the monarch had to quickly recant his position when it went viral in the press and he was allegedly threatened by the state with dethronement.
To make the people believe that the royal father was wrong, some members of the state cabinet decided to lead a section of the press to the hospital in Ikot Ekpene. But at the end of the tour, everyone left the desolate place disappointed.
That occurred a day after a coalition of health professionals had hit hard on the state government, alleging marginalisation in the fight against COVID-19. The group, made up of the leadership of the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria (PSN), National Association of Nigerian Nurses and Midwives (NANNM) and the Association of Medical Laboratory Scientists of Nigeria (AMLSN), had also criticised the state government for not putting in place enough effort to contain the pandemic in the state.
But the state government, through the information commissioner, Mr. Charles Udoh had accused them of politicising the COVID-19 campaign and showing lack of concern for the health of the people, except their pecuniary gains.
But on March 27, the group stepped up their grievances by demanding the resignation of the health commissioner, Dr. Dominc Ukpong, for employing divide-and-rule tactics to break the ranks of the leadership of the health workers in the state.
“We decry the poor interpersonal relationship of the Commissioner for Health, Dr. Dominic Ukpong, with professional bodies in the health sector. We reject the attempt by the Commissioner for Health to cause disaffection and bring about disunity among professionals in the health sector. At this point, we historically declare our shared brotherhood with and stand in solidarity with Akwa Ibom State Government and its people on preventing COVID-19,” the group had said.
Gov. Udom Emmanuel immediately convened a meeting with the leadership of the four health professional groups, and they came out moderating their hard stance. Ukpong survived.
But the worse blunder was still ahead. It came on Wednesday, April 2, when the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) released the results of tests it carried out on some people in the state, and five persons came out positive.
The health commissioner found fault either with the result or with the procedure of releasing the results. His tone sounded like he was rejecting the result.
“We observed a disturbing breach in the test and reporting procedure. Akwa Ibom State Government only heard about the test results in the news. The director-general of Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) was not aware of the reported result announcement.
“All five reported positive test cases have been contacted and they have showed no COVID-19 symptoms. While the tests were being processed in NCDC-approved test facilities, all suspected cases were held in isolation. Several sample batches have been previously sent for testing from Akwa Ibom State and they all returned negative results.
“Owing to the irregularities observed in the testing and reporting procedure, healthcare professionals in Akwa Ibom State have called for an immediate reconfirmation test on the five reported cases. The results will be made public following due process,” Ukpong said in a press statement he personally signed
But Governor Emmanuel, a few hours later, made a broadcast declaring a 14-day lockdown. He said the confirmed cases, most of whom were health workers, had been moved to a quarantine centre, while efforts were being made to trace those who might have been exposed to them.
On Wednesday, April 15, the premises of the Ibom Specialist Hospital was turned into a carnival, as the Commissioner for Health, in company with other executive committee members, stormed the hospital with a live band to announce the discharge of three of the initial five persons who tested positive.
Ukpong said six persons were altogether discharged from the hospital while three remained, thus making it look like the six persons were confirmed cases. But it was later explained that three of those discharged never had the diseases at all, but were just isolated based on the fact that they had had contact with the index cases.
That mix-up caused confusion in the press. Government subsequently blamed the media for the mix-up.
The Secretary to the State Government, Dr. Emmanuel Ekuwem, while addressing the media that day in his office to celebrate the discharge of the three patients, was asked whether there would be any extension of the lockdown, which was expiring the next day. He replied that the decision would be determined by science, not politics.
But at that moment, the Attorney-General, Mr. Uwemdimo Nwoko, assisting the state Chief Judge, Mr. Godwin Abraham, had told some journalists that the lockdown would be extended by another 14 days, to expire on April 30, being the original date that had been legally fixed. He explained that the law could only be reviewed for a possible extension, where necessary, after April 30.
The law stipulates that defaulting individuals are to pay N10,000 fine and embark on community service for seven days.
Impounded tricycles, motorbikes, cars and trucks found guilty, apart from the seven-day community service, are to pay N7,000, N20,000 and N50,000, respectively, if found guilty.
However, on April 16, the SSG, in a press conference, stated that: “Following the enforcement of the Quarantine and Restrictions of Movement Regulations 2020, with some economic discomfort to citizens and residents of Akwa Ibom State, the governor, Mr. Udom Gabriel Emmanuel, compassionate and sensitive to these discomforts, has directed that the lockdown is extended by one week only.
“The lockdown will be responsibly and carefully lifted on Friday 17 and Saturday 18, April, 2020 from 6am to 1pm of each day to enable Akwa Ibomites re-stock foodstuffs and any prescribed medications. Lockdown will be enforced after 1pm on Friday 17 and Saturday 18, April, 2020.”
The COVID-19 management team was also dragged into another controversy surrounding the death of a medical doctor, Dominic Essien, said to have been brought to Ibom Specialist Hospital where COVID-19 patients are quarantined and treated, but not given adequate attention until he died.
He has been the only fatality in the state so far since his sample was later sent to the NCDC for test and the result came out positive.
The health commissioner, in defence, sent an SMS to the correspondent thus: “The doctor came to hospital and died under 24 hours of arrival. He had a chronic prolonged respiratory illness of about 30 years duration, which deteriorated seriously in the last week leading to his death. Samples have also been taken for test. The result is being awaited.”
The state council of the NUJ had to react to the several controversies surrounding poor information management of COVID-19 in the state by describing it as a “soup-pot approach.”
At the time of this report, there is even a raging controversy surrounding the redeployment of the state’s epidemiologist, Dr. Aniekem Uwah, said to have been punitively removed because he wanted more people in the state to be tested while the leadership of the Incident Management Committee of COVID-19, headed by Dr. Ukpong, was said to be opposed to large-scale testing.
The public relations officer of the NMA in the state, Dr. Emmanuel John, said on a radio interview in Uyo on Saturday, April 25, that Uwah was removed from office because he had instructions from the Commissioner for Health to collect only 10 samples.
“He (Dr. Aniekeme Uwah) asked why and the commissioner replied that Cross River State has no case yet because they are not testing. The commissioner said that was how Akwa Ibom went about testing for HIV and became number one in the country.
“The Commissioner for Health came up with a policy that anybody that wants to get tested for COVID-19 must be cleared by the state government, which Dr. Aniekeme Uwah objected to.
“What Dr. Uwah did by testing 31 persons who met the case definition saved this state grand embarrassment, if the people waiting to be tested were turned back for no clinical reason, and also saved the society from community infection, should they turn positive.
“Akwa Ibom is the only state in Nigeria where a Commissioner for Health, against World Health Organisation and NCDC directives, is the COVID-19 Incidence Officer. The commissioner imposed himself,” John said.
But the health commissioner, Ukpong, denied the allegations. He said: “Dr. Aniekeme Uwah was not fired. He was reassigned to another job within the same public health directorate.
“Reassignment of people is a normal process. There were 15 other people who were reassigned and he was one of them. This is not strange.
“The person assigned to do the job that Dr. Uwah was doing is a competent and experienced person and has been trained by the NCDC.
“Dr. Aniekeme Uwah is a civil servant. He is supposed to accept assignments and reassignments in the civil service.”
Residents of the state cannot but wonder: “How many more of such controversies will Akwa Ibom State COVID-19 team throw up before the disease is finally contained?
No one seems to have the answer.