Coronavirus: Anxiety in Senate over port health services

CHUKWU DAVID reports that the Senate was highly agitated over the terrifying news of coronavirus outbreak and the state of preparedness of the Nigerian government to prevent or manage the epidemic



There was anxiety in the Senate last week Thursday over the outbreak of coronavirus in China and its spread to other Asian countries vis-a-vis the preparedness of Nigerian government to prevent the epidemic from entering into the country as well as its readiness to manage it if it occurs.

The apprehension was triggered by a motion sponsored by Senator Ifeanyi Ubah, who represents Anambra South on the platform of the Young Progressives Party (YPP).

The motion was entitled: “Urgent need for the Federal Government to take proactive measures to forestall and imminent scarcity of surgical face-masks in Nigeria as a result of the coronavirus outbreak and the urgent need to checkmate the unpatriotic profiteering and illegal exportation of facemasks to Asia and other affected countries.”

Presenting the motion, Ubah said: “Over the last three weeks, face-masks have become the most sought after commodity in Nigeria with over 100 million face-masks being unpatriotically exported to Asia using the Murtala Muhammed Airport and Port Harcourt International Airport.”

The lawmaker disclosed that the exportation of these face-masks had led to its scarcity and a sudden surge in its market price, a development he described as worrisome and dangerous for the country.

“As at 5th of November, 2019, shops that usually sell a piece of face-mask for N10, now sell it for N80, while a pack consisting of 50 pieces has now inflated from N500 to N3,000; with a carton consisting of 40 packs also inflated from N20,000 to N120,000.

“It has now become a booming trade for illicit traders aided by airport officials at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos and Port Harcourt International Airport to unpatriotically export face-masks to China, India and other affected countries,” he said.

He warned that unless something was done urgently, Nigeria might soon be facing shortage of protective surgical face-masks. He added that the country was on the brink of an imminent outbreak of the virus given its massive population and frequency of travel by citizens.

The lawmaker further alleged that Chinese companies have sent their agents to scout for medical face-masks in Nigeria and other African countries, noting that India and other countries have embarked on mass-production of face-masks to curb the trend.

Ubah also noted with concern that the World Health Organisation has recorded 565 deaths as at then with 28,276 cases of infected persons.

“If proactive measures are not taken to man the borders, an imminent outbreak might occur in the same manner which an infected carrier immigrant from Liberia transferred Ebola disease to Nigeria in 2014,” he warned.

Following these concerns raised by Senator Ubah, the Senate resolved to invite the Minister of Health, Dr. Osagie Ehanire, to brief it on the preparedness of his ministry to prevent or manage a possible outbreak of coronavirus in Nigeria.

The Senate also tasked the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS) to as a matter of urgency introduce measures to stop the exportation of surgical face-masks from Nigeria to Asia and other countries affected by coronavirus.

The Red Chamber further urged the Nigeria Police Force, Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, Federal Ministry of Health, Nigerian Immigration Service and other relevant government agencies to strengthen port health regulatory services in all entry ports across the country to check the outbreak of the virus in Nigeria.

It also mandated the Federal Ministry of Health and other relevant agencies to launch a sensitization and awareness campaign in preventing an outbreak of the virus in Nigeria.

In a related development that same Thursday, the senators also expressed anxiety over alleged non-screening of passengers on chartered flights at the airports, warning that it might be an easy route of transporting coronavirus into the country.

The Health minister had appeared before the Senate Committee on Health alongside the Director, Port Health Services, Dr. Morenike Alex-Okoh and Director-General, National Centre for Disease Control, Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu, to interface with members of the committee on efforts being made by the Federal Government to prevent of manage outbreak of coronavirus in the country.

However, fear gripped the senators, when Alex-Okoh told the committee that port health services was restricted from operating in the chartered flight area, thus excluding the passengers from being screened.

The committee’s chairman, Senator Ibrahim Oloriegbe, said the absence of health services at the private terminals could make for easy movement of infected persons into the country.

The committee, therefore, directed the minister to deploy health officials to the private terminals and conduct screening of VIPs on chartered flights, stressing that coronavirus is both a national and global health emergency.

The committee also directed the Ministry of Health and the Director of Port Health services to ensure that ambulances are provided for the Port Harcourt and Kano international airports for evacuation.

It subsequently charged the ministry to furnish the Senate with the details of its budget to show how it had complied with provisions of all equipment needed to contain the virus.

The Minister of Health also said that the Federal Government was considering a N620 million special intervention fund by the ministry to monitor, detect if possible and contain the coronavirus.

He further hinted that the ministry that day (last week Thursday) submitted a memo proposing for the release of the sum of N620 million special intervention fund to take proactive measures to contain the virus.

Ehanire said that Nigeria is prepared to ensure its health security, which could disrupt economic stability if left unchecked, noting that the sum of N71 million has already been released to the Port Health Services for its operations.

Allaying the fears of the senators, Dr. Ehanire said that the Health ministry had a multi-stakeholders meeting on deployment of port health services personnel to screen all passengers.

He also said that the national intervention on containing the Lassa fever outbreak enjoyed timely release of N313 million intervention fund from the Federal Government to manage the outbreak.

Earlier in her submission before the committee, Alex-Okoh said that the Port Health Services was restricted from operating in the chartered flight area thus excluding its passengers from being screened.

Senator Solomon Adeola (APC, Lagos West), in his reaction, said “this is a national emergency, a global emergency for that matter. Nobody should be an impediment to national safety. You should move in immediately.”

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