By AUSTIN OWOICHO, Abuja
The Federal Government is working to strengthen the country’s public health emergency architecture as a fall out of the coronavirus pandemic, the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Boss Mustapha has told members of the House of Representatives.
Mustapha, who is also the Chairman of the Presidential Task Force on Covid-19, advocated a robust legislative framework for dealing with future public health emergencies when he led members of the PTF to the National Assembly today.
Specifically, he told the leadership of the House of Representatives that the current Quarantine Act needs to be updated owing to the unique nature of emerging infections such as COVID-19, its impact on socio-economic lives of the people and the urgency required to deal with such pandemic.
While defending the powers of the President to restrict movement of persons during emergencies, Mustapha nevertheless urged a review of applicable laws in that regard.
“The President exercised his powers under Sections 3 and 4 of the Quarantine Act LFN 2004 to restrict movement of persons and goods in Lagos, Ogun and FCT. Although this intervention generated heated debate in the legal circles, with insinuations that it may be in direct conflict with Section 44(1) of the Constitution and Article 14 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (ratification and enforcement) Act, the legal basis of the intervention is not debatable. However, the Act needs to be adaptable to the changing nature of human behaviour and interaction,” he argued.
The Speaker, Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila agreed on the need to thinker with existing laws, especially those governing the management of infectious diseases. “Our current framework for the prevention and management of infectious diseases is obsolete and no longer fit for purpose. The current law severely constrains the ability of the Federal Government and the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control to take proactive action to prevent the entry into Nigeria of infectious diseases and the management of public health emergencies when they occur,” said the Speaker.
“Even now, the government remains vulnerable to claims that some directives already being implemented to manage the present crisis do not have the backing of the law and therefore cannot withstand judicial scrutiny. I disagree wholeheartedly with the suggestion that this is not the ideal time to seek reforms of the infectious diseases and public health emergency framework in the country.
“The weaknesses of the present system have already manifested in the inability of the government to hold to proper account those whose refusal to adhere with NCDC guidelines led to the further spread of the coronavirus in Nigeria. We have had people break out from isolation centres, and others, who fully aware of their status chose to travel across state lines on public transport,” the Speaker noted while defending the proposed Infectious Diseases Bill before the legislature.
Mustapha also described the fight against coronarivus as “ a war against a dangerous, unseen and ubiquitous enemy”, even as he asked that all hands must be on deck to successfully prosecute the war. Mustapha praised the leadership offered by the National Assembly and suggested more specific interventions. These include: developing a legislative framework to prepare Nigeria for any future pandemic as well as reforming and transforming the healthcare systems; strengthening the legislative framework for economic growth through domestic manufacturing; deepening the legislative oversight during this pandemic and beyond; evolve laws that will further ease the ability of the executive to cushion the impact of the economic decline.
Mustapha disclosed that the committee has developed a multi-sectoral plan to guide the national response through high level engagement with the organized private sector; mobilized resources across tiers of government to contain the spread of the disease into communities; conducted needs assessment preparedness by the states and stimulating economic national interests to mitigate the negative effects of the pandemic.
He listed other steps taken by the PTF as encouraging indigenous researchers to develop appropriate local solutions; evacuation of Nigerians from different parts of the world and mandatory 14-day quarantine for returnees from other parts of the world; support for strengthening sub-national level response and the engagement of local manufacturers for the stimulation of local production of essential commodities to reduce dependence of imported commodities.
Other efforts include local production of face masks, hand sanitizers, protective gear; critical review of state of health systems in focal States and the FCT; identification of available capacities for isolation and treatment of COVID-19 patients which has yielded over 3,787 beds across facilities and improved surveillance systems.
Mustapha said the National Response Strategy involves detection, testing, contact tracing and treatment thereby improving efficiency of the identification, testing, evacuation and isolation process; testing and manpower expansion which increased the number of laboratories from five to 21 with the target of establishing one laboratory per state; training of no fewer than 9,828 health workers, comprising 2725 doctors and 1942 nurses; insurance cover for 5,000 frontline health workers as well as general improvement in their hazard allowance and other incentives.
Evaluating the state of health infrastructure in the country, the SGF said government intends to establish state-of-the-art intensive care units and isolation/treatment centres in each of the 36 States as well as the FCT.
“We will also upgrade molecular laboratory facilities across the country and ensure that a COVID-19 testing centre is available in every state through the utilization of existing GeneXpert machines. There’s no doubt that a strengthened and well-resourced health system will not only place the country in a better position to deal with future emerging infections such as Lassa fever but will also provide a solid foundation for medical research and development,” said Mustapha.
He also disclosed that State Public Health Emergency Operations Centers are being activated with the procurement of more personal protective equipment and ventilators; completion of more Isolation Centers with combined capacity for 3,500 nationwide; while each state government is required to provide isolation centers with at least 300 bed spaces.
The PTF Chairman praised the response and support of the international community, the private sector and public-spirited individuals through resource mobilisation and management. “While donations have been received into a designated Central Bank of Nigeria account by the Accountant General of the Federation, private sector donors are to deliver specific infrastructure projects to strengthen the system nationwide,” he disclosed.
He expressed concern that Kano is fast emerging as the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic in the North and disclosed that the PTF has been working closely with the State Government and key stakeholders to identify the issues and seek immediate solutions.
“We have deployed a technical team of 41 staff from NCDC supported by 17 staff from World Health Organisation to provide technical assistance to the State Emergency Operations Centre. A team of clinicians and public health experts under the auspices of the Federal Ministry of Health is also in Kano to provide training on case management and strengthen the capacity of the State to handle emergencies,” he explained.
Mustapha blamed the weakness of the Kano COVID-19 response on lack of adequate manpower for surveillance and contact tracing even as he said the PTF “has mobilised resources from across the health sector including multilaterals, bilaterals, MDAs and the private sector to push through an accelerated expansion of the rapid response teams from 21 to 50.”
He said with the delivery of a new Diagnosis Lab by 54Gene, supported by Dangote Foundation, tasting capacity has increased by 400 tests per day with a target of 2000 test daily even as facilities for 375 beds are nearing completion.
“Honourable Members, these activities carried out by the PTF are applicable nationwide but more emphasis has been placed on the epicenters where community spread has commenced with a threat to family transmission on the increase,” Mustapha told the lawmakers.
He said the PTF is collaborating with the Economic Team headed by the Minister of Finance to examine the impact of COVID 19 on the economy; the Economic Sustainability Committee headed by the Vice President and the Task Force on free movement of farm produce headed by the Hon. Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development.