By Ekemini Simon
The Akwa Ibom State Government is not only covering up cases of COVID-19 infections but also blocking moves to test persons with symptoms of the disease, our team of investigative reporters has discovered.
Public officials, medical experts and allied professionals, as well as activists, have condemned the government’s insincerity in its response to the deadly pandemic ravaging the world.
They also maintain that if contact tracing, isolation, testing and treatment are not urgently scaled-up, community infection and deaths could spiral uncontrollably in a matter of weeks.
By deliberately suppressing tests and politicising its response to the pandemic, Akwa Ibom State is putting the lives of its citizens at grave risk.
In separate interviews with our reporters, the sources, who asked not to be named for fear of victimisation and persecution, blamed Dominic Ukpong, the state Commissioner for Health, and Charles Udo, his Information counterpart, who are accused of misdirecting the state’s COVID-19 response.
“I can tell you that the government has politicised everything about the COVID-19 intervention,” a top public official in the state said.
“You know last year, Akwa Ibom was reported as having the highest HIV prevalence in the country and the government did not find that funny.
“So the commissioner for health is not hiding the fact that the state does not want to attract notoriety for the COVID-19 pandemic,” the official said.
Apart from lying about its preparedness, the government is also accused of turning away people who present symptoms of the virus from being tested by NCDC officials posted to the state.
Findings show that only the governor, Udom Emmanuel or health commissioner can approve for a test to be carried on persons with Coronavirus symptoms, a situation that has been roundly condemned by healthcare professionals in the state.
Coronavirus in the city
The first signal the deadly virus was already in Akwa Ibom came from a Lagos-based indigene of the state, Editi Effiong.
Effiong, we learnt, had contacted highly-placed persons in the state and told them some medics might have contracted the virus during a foreign medical outreach to the state.
Some top medical professionals who got wind of the alleged infections mounted pressure on the government to take action so the state is not caught off-guard.
Worried by the slow pace of government’s response, the Medical Association of Nigeria (NMA) in the state met with the Commissioner for Health and tabled their fears before him.
When the move failed to elicit an appropriate response, a coalition of health professionals in the state met on March 26, among other things to review the government’s preparedness to contend the pandemic.
The coalition consisted of the NMA, the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria PSN, the National Association of Nigerian Nurses and Midwives, NANNM, and the Association of Medical Laboratory Scientists of Nigeria AMLSN.
In a communique issued at the end of the meeting, the coalition advised the government, among other things, to partially lockdown the state to check the pandemic.
“The leadership calls on the state government to immediately apply a partial lockdown policy in Akwa Ibom State and set up surveillance screening posts at all points of entry into the state.
“All motorists should fill surveillance forms and be screened at these points. The leadership suggests that all civil servants from Grade level 12 and below should be directed to stay at home except for those on essential duty.
“We call on the government to enforce social distancing by placing a ban on all social gatherings of more than 50 persons in line with the directives of the Presidential Taskforce on COVID-19,” a part of the communiqué read.
But the advice from the medical professionals did not go down well with Ukpong and Udo.
The one-man riot
Back in Lagos, Effiong was getting apprehensive over the nonchalant attitude of the state government and the danger that that could pose to his people back home.
Not willing to keep silent, he took to his Facebook page on March 27, and dropped the bombshell. He posted thus: “Urgent: Akwa Ibom Update on COVID-19.”
“At least three health workers who visited from the US over the last two weeks have tested positive to COVID-19. They started showing symptoms while in Akwa Ibom,” he began.
“Some health workers they had contact with are currently ill with fever and body ache, but there are no test kits currently in Akwa Ibom.
“If you are currently exhibiting coughing, fever or body aches or symptoms that feel like malaria, please isolate and speak to a doctor now.”
ImaBridge Africa Foundation-USA, the group that organised the medical outreach referred to by Effiong had immediately issued a statement denying the claim.
The Akwa Ibom State Police command whose clinic was used for the outreach also denied any medic who was involved in the exercise was down with any symptoms of COVID-19.
ImaBridge Africa Foundation-USA and its Nigerian affiliate, ImaBridge Development Foundation International Nigeria, carried a medical outreach to Uyo, where close to 1, 000 persons got treated for various forms of illnesses.
The free medical treatment was carried out in collaboration with the medical wing of the Nigeria Police at the state headquarters, Ikot Akpan Abia.
In a disclaimer, the group’s President, Christian Carrington, and Director of Healthcare, Tima Omeke, said no one involved in its outreach tested positive to the virus.
“None of our medical and charitable mission agents, volunteers, associates and or their family members is known to have tested positive to Coronavirus, not in Nigeria, USA and or the UK from where our team members came,” a part of the statement read.
And a litany of denials
With the denial from the medical outreach group, Effiong came under fire from the government’s media hirelings.
He was accused of blackmailing the government with the aim of getting contract awards.
The Special Assistant to the Governor on New Media, Aniekeme Finbarr, on his verified Twitter account said, “Editi Effiong is just out to create panic to sell his test kits.”
Continuing, he twitted, “Akwa Ibom State like everywhere else is doing all it can to contain the COVID-19 monster but it’s unfortunate someone is taking advantage of this for pecuniary reasons. Very sad!”
But not deterred by the accusations, on March 28, Effiong came up with another post, indicating some of the persons suspected to have contracted the virus had been traced.
“I have found eight people who had initial contact with the US team and now have suspected COVID-19 symptoms. All medics, they can’t be tested because there are no test kits.
“I have informed the government/NCDC about the suspected COVID-19 cases in Akwa Ibom, spoken to the commissioner and epidemiologist – they’re working on it.”
The fresh post triggered a barrage of attacks and cacophony of denials by government in the media.
As the denial continues, unknown to many, the NCDC had dispatched a team to test some of those suspected of being infected, having self-isolated.
Drenched in deceit and confusion, the government unsuccessfully attempted to keep the NCDC’s team visit top-secret.
Statements and counter statements were fired by the Secretary to the State Government, SSG, Emmanuel Ekuwem, Ukpong and Udo, most times contradicting each other.
Udo was almost consistent in countering whatever statements emerging from Ukpong and the SSG, who happens to head the state’s COVID-19 Task Force.
Meanwhile, the growing rivalry and mutual suspicion between Ukpong and his colleagues in the medical profession got to indecorous levels on March 27, during a meeting in Uyo.
Trouble started when the leadership of PSN, NANNM and AMLSN queried the absence of their NMA counterparts in a meeting convened by the health commissioner to apprise them of the state’s preparedness to tackle the pandemic.
Angered that the union leaders questioned his shutting out of the NMA, a critical component of the state’s healthcare delivery system,the commissioner asked those who were not comfortable with his decision to quit the meeting.
As expected, the leaders of the medical professional bodies walked out on the commissioner and his team.
In a communiqué issued the same day, they called on the commissioner to resign with a threat they would not work with him in the fight against COVID-19.
“Dr. Dominic Ukpong has shown lack of managerial and interpersonal skills, disregard for professionals and professionalism, high-handedness and divisive tendencies, and outright poor management of COVID-19 preparedness hence the need for his resignation,” part of the communiqué issued by the health workers read.
However, when our reporter contacted the Nyakno Nyoyoko, Chairman, Akwa Ibom State chapter of Nigeria Medical Association (NMA) declined comments on the situation.
“I’m not involved in Covid 19 response,” he said in response to a question posted to him on Whatsapp.
Nyoyoko who had earlier to our reporter when contacted on phone to call back later because he was going for a meeting did not to further questions including one seeking to clarify if medical personnel were among the 31 samples the state government claimed were sent for test.
Governor Udom to the rescue
It was the intervention of Governor Emmanuel that halted what could have been a total face-off between Ukpong and healthcare professionals in the state.
At a meeting at the Government House on March 29, the governor persuaded the angry executive of the Coalition of Health Workers Against COVID-19 to support the state’s effort to fight the pandemic.
Unlike his health commissioner, who accused his colleagues of sabotage, Emmanuel acted differently. He was mature and frank.
“You have displayed genuine patriotism in the fight to forestall the incident and spread of the global pandemic in our dear state,” the governor had told the health workers.
“I’m particularly impressed by your show of solidarity and commitment in getting the right things done in this cause.”
As part of measures to douse tension and energise the state’s response mechanism, Emmanuel advised each of the associations in the coalition to contribute a member to the state Emergency Task Force on COVID-19.
Before then, the task force, headed by Ekuwem, was made up largely of government officials without representation from allied medical professional groups in the state.
Regretting the misinformation and the confusion, which characterised the state’s response, the governor called for urgent training not only on information management but also proper communication about the disease.
Digging into the trenches of infamy
Those who thought the deliberate cover-up and denial ended after the governor’s intervention got it all wrong.
Akwa Ibom was on the verge of breaking a new record in the Hall of Infamy.
On April 2, barely days after Governor Emmanuel called for a ceasefire, the commissioner for health did the unthinkable.
He challenged the NCDC’s announcement that five out of the samples collected from the state returned positive.
In a statement, Ukpong faulted the result and demanded an “immediate re-confirmation test on the five reported cases.”
“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 commissioner, who never wanted anyone tested, said.
A member of the NMA confided in one of our reporters that Ukpong unilaterally rejected the results of the test without discussing with the leadership of healthcare workers in the state.
NCDC fires back
However, speaking at the regular media briefing by the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19, NCDC’s Director-General, Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu, faulted Ukpong’s position, saying the result was indisputable.
“I just read the press release of the commissioner for health in Akwa Ibom State, and I think it’s a little unfortunate because there was some delay in reporting the results,” Ihekweazu said.
“The tests were done in the Irrua Specialist Teaching Hospital. This is our oldest and most experienced lab in carrying out PCR diagnosis. So, there is really no reason to dispute the validity of these results.
“We must focus on the challenge at our hands; every new case in a new state always leads to a little bit of anxiety and people need time to accept these results and what they are.
“But they are what they are and I have no reason to doubt the results coming out from any of our labs, especially the Irrua Specialist,” the NCDC boss concluded.
Sack of state’s epidemiologist
The state’s epidemiologist, Aniekeme Uwah, was on Friday removed from office on the orders of the commissioner for health, Ukpong. The sack of the top medical officer has been confirmed by the state commissioner for information. While no reason has been given for the action, the NMA spokesperson in the state, Ekem Emmanuel in a live radio programme in Uyo, Saturday morning, said Uwah was sacked for taking more samples for COVID-19 test against the advice of Ukpong.
“Mr. Uwah had instructions from the commissioner for Health to collect only 10 samples,” Dr. Emmanuel said.
“He asked Why and the commissioner replied that Cross River State has no case because they are not testing. This is how we went about testing HIV and became number one in the country.”
The NMA spokesperson accused Ukpong of wanting to be all and all, highhanded and extremely vindictive, the reason he insists on combining as commissioner for health and the state incident manager. He argued that it is against World Health Organization’s stand that a politician cannot be the head of a technical committee. “It’s only in Akwa Ibom State that this is happening,” the NMA spokesperson said.
Civil society kicks
Policy Alert, a major civil society group in the state, scored the state low in its response, insisting it is marred by gaps in risk communication, stakeholder engagement and the absence of transparency.
The group’s Executive Director, Tijah Bolton-Akpan, said apart from politicising the result of tests, the government spent weeks in denial, adding even when a single test was not done, the government said there was no coronavirus in the state.
“The state failed to stop public gatherings and even called on churches to hold fasting and prayers in an official statement,” Bolton-Akpan said.
“This laid back tone at the top affected citizens’ perception of the seriousness of the situation so that even when the government finally woke up from its slumber, they weren’t taken seriously.”
Akpan said the state has failed in stakeholder engagement, adding that critical stakeholders like the media, medical professionals and civil society are being left behind.
Continuing, he said, “Government officials have been highhanded and unduly political and that has been counterproductive to the effort which requires synergy.
The State Government never denied NCDC test results — Commissioner
Attempts by The ICIR to speak to the health commissioner were unsuccessful as several calls, SMS and WhatsApp messages to him were neither answered nor replied.
However, Udo rose to the defence of the state government, denying that it was preventing residents from testing for Coronavirus disease. When asked to comment on allegation that the state government was preventing people with symptoms from taking test at the NCDC facility, Udo queried if the state had a testing centre.
“Is there an NCDC test facility in Akwa Ibom?, he asked. He would not say anything else on the matter but he told our reporter that the state government’s response to COVID-19 has been captured in a documentary billed for airing at 9:30pm on Sunday on a Lagos – based television.
On the issue of the state government’s rejection of the positive result of five persons in the state, the commissioner faulted NCDC’s announcement but stated that the government did not deny the results.
“The state government did not deny. We only flagged a glaring breach of reporting protocols sir,” Udo told our reporter in an interview.
“Akwa Ibom State only got to hear the test results in the news!!! Was that a proper thing to do? Is that what they did before then? Are they doing same now?
He maintained that the “reporting protocols demands that the originating state must be informed of the result of tests whether negative or positive.”
Asked to clarify on the status of some medics in the state who allegedly contracted the virus during a medical outreach by US based organisation, the commissioner who apparently did not say anything concerning the medical outreach or the medics involved said some medical personnel were among the last batch of samples sent for testing.
“Are you aware that the last batch of 31 samples sent for Akwa Ibom for testing was made up of predominantly medics? Thirty of them returned negative and only one positive,” he said.
He would not say anything further on that.
With additional report from Yakubu Ahmed
(This investigation was supported by Policy Alert, a non-governmental development organisation working on economic governance and environmental justice)