In the last one month, it has been tales of agony, pain, and regrets for many people who lost their relatives and loved ones not to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic but rather, what the novel virus has triggered off in terms of mismanagement and poor response to public health across the country. There is hardly any part of the country that is free from the tales and cries brought about by the deadly disease. For a long time to come, the pandemic would remain a nightmare considering the economic loss and devastation to the entire world.
To date, nobody or authority can speak with certainty on what can be done to curtail coronavirus or when an effective remedy can be found for the pandemic that knows no age, race, status, gender, and religion. It is natural to accord great priority and attention to ending COVID-19 and pushing it into the dustbin of history. It is no surprise that globally; all hands have been on deck to combat our common enemy within the available resources, intellect, and political will. Nigeria too has not been left behind in joining forces with international interests to find a lasting solution to the virus that has been spreading like wildfire.
Apart from the public awareness programmes and campaigns at national and state levels, health institutions have become excessively responsive at the detriment of other health concerns suggesting that the management of the pandemic has now become a distraction. Today, what patients face at most private and public health institutions in many parts of the country is outright rejection even when they are not showing symptoms of COVID-19. Public hospitals across the country appear to be guilty of this professional misconduct that their private counterpart by telling the sick to look elsewhere for treatment because their facilities are being reserved for coronavirus patients!
This abnormal practice and misplaced priority have led to the death of many innocent Nigerians since the index case of coronavirus were recorded in the country, last February. Initially, private hospitals were prevented from treating COVID-19 patients for lack of requisite staff such as infectious disease specialists that are trained in infection prevention protocol and use of special equipment. The affected private hospitals had to suspend their operations to decontaminate facilities and adhere to the tough guidelines reeled out by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC).
The experiences of the sick victims when rushed to hospitals and clinics range from hostilities by health personnel, reluctance to admit them on the flimsy excuse that there are no empty beds, compulsory subjection to COVID-19 test without showing the patients symptoms and outright bias. Wrong diagnoses were commonly reported. For instance, patients having health conditions such as malaria fever manifest symptoms similar to COVID-19. This confusion and impatience on the part of health workers make innocent patients to be subjected to coronavirus testing before they are ever attended to. Hardly do people respond to treatment after rejection or when they are subjected to unnecessary trauma and psychological depression at hospitals and clinics. This could largely account for why many people that fell sick since the outbreak of COVID-19 in the country have lost their lives due to poor management of their cases that were completely unrelated to coronavirus.
Rejection of sick people by health institutions is not permitted. The Code of Medical Ethics in Nigeria, under professional negligence, provides for the duty of care in which a doctor may be liable for failure to attend to or treat patients promptly as much as for careless treatment. Medical negligence can occur due to the inability to diagnose on time, failure to attend to patients promptly, and incompetence in the assessment of patients. It is rather unfortunate that in our dear country, we have the habit of religiously focusing all attention and dissipating energies into one issue at the detriment of other important matters. No doubt, COVID-19 is deadly and demands urgent response but tackling the pandemic should not be done at the expense of serious ailments and diseases that daily threaten human existence.
Regularly, many people die of cancer, HIV/AIDS, diabetes, Lassa fever, hypertension, malaria fever, tuberculosis, and hepatitis, among others. It does not sound logical to save the people from coronavirus and allow them to die of other sicknesses. No ailment is insignificant. Recently, the Federal Government raised the alarm on the likelihood of “unnecessary deaths” because hospitals were turning back non-COVID-19 related patients. The Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF) and chairman, Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19, Mr. Boss Mustapha disclosed that PTF had noticed a marked reduction in the delivery of non-COVID-19 related services to hospitals. He charged health service providers to relieve the burden of diseases by offering the required services while the Minister of Health, Dr. Osagie Ehanire equally warned health workers that it was unethical for them to refuse people seeking medical help.
Despite the warning by PTF, many innocent Nigerians continue to die from rejection and poor handling in our hospitals. To prevent more deaths and casualties across the country, the government should come in hard and put a stop to this dangerous practice. Health authorities should realise that what determines how successful they are cannot be measured solely on the number of COVID-19 patients they were able to identify and attend to but rather, they would be appraised by their ability to successfully manage all manners of ailments and sick people. There is a need for reorientation on the part of our health workers to know that coronavirus is not a death sentence as it would come and go and that life continues.
To ensure that COVID-19 distraction does not continue unabated, there should be periodic, impromptu monitoring and visitation to health institutions across the country by joint teams comprising ministries of health, NCDC, media, and the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), among other key stakeholders. Health personnel found engaging in unethical rejection of the sick should be sanctioned while their facilities should be shut down in line with extant regulations. Dedicated and active telephone lines should be made available for members of the public to lodge complaints, more private hospitals should be granted permission to treat COVID-19 cases to reduce the pressure on governmental hospitals while health workers should be adequately protected and given the risks and hazards trailing their work.
Already, the incursion of the virus has taken its toll on the people considering the deaths, losses to businesses, forced confinements, and inability to interact socially. Many people are still being killed by terrorists, the economic recession requires serious attention, workers are losing their jobs, and many Nigerians are becoming more improvised. The ability to cope with complex issues and problems at the same time is a feature of an organised state. Therefore, the state should not abandon the citizens in the name of fighting one disease. There is basis for a balance when it comes to official responsibility, a duty of care, and sound health management. The COVID-19 distraction must stop.
•Kupoluyi writes from Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta (FUNAAB), Ogun State @AdewaleKupoluyi