Many passengers travelling in and out of Nigeria are finding ways to breach the government enforced COVID-19 safety and testing protocols, especially in Nigeria’s two major airports – the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja and the Murtala Mohammed International Airport in Lagos.
This may have contributed to the recent spike in COVID-19 cases which has put the nation on the precipice of its worst stretch of the pandemic till date, health experts say.
Since the resumption of international flights in Nigeria on September 5, after months of lock down due to COVID-19, passengers flying in and out of the country have been facing varying degrees of challenges following the safety protocols put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
While many in connivance with federal officials are finding ways to bypass the protocols, others are just not abiding due to weak enforcement systems by the relevant authorities, checks by PREMIUM TIMES showed.
Passengers flying into Nigeria are required to carry out a COVID-19 Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test at least 96 hours before entering the country, and the result of the test is to be updated to the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control’s Nigeria International Travel Portal.
Although passengers must present a negative PCR test result before boarding aircraft travelling to Nigeria, they are also required to pay for COVID-19 PCR repeat tests that would be carried out on them when they arrive in the country.
They are required to complete online payment for the repeat test before travelling to Nigeria but those who are unable to do so are allowed to pay on arrival in Nigeria.
“Passengers will be allowed to proceed and exit the airport once they can show evidence of a negative COVID-19 PCR result and evidence for payment for a repeat PCR result in the country; and where possible, where we have been able to get the health questionnaires that have been submitted”, the National Coordinator of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19, Sani Aliyu said while briefing journalists on the government enforced COVID-19 protocols about ten days before resumption of international flights.
“Passengers will be asked to proceed on self-isolation at home for a period of seven days. On Day 7, they will proceed to their sample collection centre for a repeat PCR test and by Day 8, they will be allowed to rejoin the society.
“Passengers will be monitored by public health officers throughout the period of isolation and those who develop symptoms will be treated.”
Mr Aliyu said the PTF and the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS) have designed a system that will “allow us to determine those that have not submitted themselves for a repeat COVID-19 PCR test from Day 7 onward”.
“These passengers may be sanctioned with the inclusion on a travel watch list or their electronic passport suspended for a period of time if they refuse to have a repeat PCR test,” Mr Aliyu said.
Bypassing COVID-19 repeat tests
But despite these protocols and sanctions in place, about 12 passengers, particularly Nigerians who arrived in the country within the past one month, told PREMIUM TIMES they did not go back for the repeat tests.
Some said they did not observe the seven days’ isolation and no health official monitored their compliance.
A journalist who flew into the country from Abidjan, the capital of Ivory Coast, about two weeks ago, shared her experience. She asked that her name not be included in this report to avoid any possible sanctions.
“When we arrived at Nnamdi Azikiwe airport Abuja, the Port Health Service (PHS) officials asked if I had paid for the repeat tests after I showed them my negative PCR tests from Abidjan. I said no, so they gave me a form to fill and I filled the form.
“One challenge I observed is that many passengers that flew in with me speak French and the officials do not have any French interpreter to facilitate communication. I helped some of them to fill their forms.
“When I was filling my own form, I was asked to pick the testing centre of my choice so I picked the one I used when I was travelling out. They asked if I am paying now, I said I would pay later and that was it. I presented the form at other checkpoints and I was allowed to go.
“There have been no phone calls or checks since then up until now. The only thing that happened was that I received a mail of the form I filled.
“To be honest, I did not later pay or go for the repeat tests. I also did not observe the seven-day’s isolation”, she narrated.
Deji Adekunle, a development consultant who has shuttled Nigeria and Ghana twice within the past month, said no health official checked on him to confirm if he went for the repeat tests or observed isolation.
“I and some of my colleagues came back on the 10th of December from Accra, Ghana. We followed the guidelines for payment for the test to be taken after re-entry. I paid online. However, one of my colleagues who had issues paying was allowed to leave the airport having filled the online questionnaire without payment.
“The question is, what happens if he doesn’t go through with payment and/or testing? What’s the follow up. In my own case, I was contacted after payment by the testing lab but no follow up from the government”, he said.
Unlike Mr Adekunle who went for the repeat tests, Rebecca Aniola who flew into the country via the Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos from Dubai said she did not go back for the tests even though she paid for it online.
“At 54 Gene Laboratory Maitama, Abuja COVID-19 tests cost N45,000 for walk-in patients. While payment done online is N39,500”, she said. “I paid online for my repeat test when I returned to Nigeria but I didn’t go”.
Faith Elishia, a fashion designer, said her cousin that returned from Italy paid for the test but did not go for it.
“My cousin did a COVID-19 test before coming to Nigeria. And on arrival, she was asked to pay N39,500 for another test that will be carried out after one week. 30th September was written on the slip. She didn’t go for the test on the said date and nobody called her.”
The ICIR also reported how some passengers who narrated their experiences on Berekete Family, a reality radio programme, recently detailed how they were defrauded by government officials who supervise the enforcement of the COVID-19 guidelines at the Lagos and Abuja international airports.
Fake COVID-19 tests
While experiences shared by those returning to the country and their relatives exposed the weak enforcement of safety protocols by relevant officials, an undercover investigation by Chinedu Asadu, a reporter with the Cable Newspaper showed the illicit racketeering of COVID-19 test results by officials of the Port Health Services (PHS) at the Abuja Airport.
Mr Asadu posed as a consultant who got an invitation to travel abroad for a conference and urgently in need of a PCR negative test result. According to his undercover encounter recently published by the Cable, the reporter was able to procure a fake COVID-19 negative test result from a PHS official with the name tag, ‘Obiora Emenike’ for N20,000 instead of about N39,500 private labs collected.
“Interestingly, the fake test result, which carries the name of 54gene Lab — one of the privately run laboratories carrying out COVID-19 tests in Nigeria — and which bears a signature purportedly by one Dr Ifeoluwa Awogbindin is like a genuine result issued by the laboratory,” the report said.
“Although I sent my details to Emenike on December 2, the result was postdated to show the sample was collected on December 3 and the report received on December 4 — making it 48 hours before December 6, when I told him I am travelling”, the report said.
According to the report, 54gene Lab denied having a hand in the issuance of fake COVID-19 results, “threatening to sue anyone it finds using its name for such a scam”, but evidence at the airport suggests the report can be used to get travel clearance once shown to PHS staff.
Speaking to PREMIUM TIMES on Thursday, Mr Asadu said his interest in unravelling the racketeering of the COVID-19 test results was spurred by several complaints by Nigerians on how citizens are cheating the system to travel at all costs in connivance with PHS staff.
“We learnt that people who want to travel are not just avoiding going to the labs for tests because of the money, they are also scared of testing positive, hence missing their chance of travelling.
“When you look at the fake results and the real one, there is no difference, so you begin to wonder how they do it. The good thing is that the private lab they forged their signature and everything has set up a digital platform to verify results. That’s what the government should do instead; they left it in the hands of people that abuse the system knowing how Nigerian can go any length to cheat.
“In other countries, your results are properly verified and you are subjected to undergo isolation after which you do a repeat test before being allowed in.
“We contacted the health ministry and PTF and they said they are investigating the development.”
Chikwe Ihekweazu, the director of Nigeria’s infectious disease agency, NCDC, in response to these developments said penalties for travellers who do not show up for their repeat test on arrival to the country are well spelt out by the government.
“At NCDC, we continue to ensure that travellers are aware of this protocol through our communications platforms and work with accredited private laboratories to ensure follow up with all travelers”, he said in a Whatsapp message Friday afternoon to this newspaper.
“In the last two weeks, the number of travellers who have tested positive after the 7th day test has increased. This highlights the risk we all face if people do not stay in self isolation for 7 days. We appeal to all incoming travelers to please adhere to this protocol. We must work together to reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19 in Nigeria.
“Additionally, the PTF-COVID-19 and Port Health Services of the Federal Ministry of Health are developing measures to prevent the use of fake results.”
Spike in coronavirus cases
Since early December, there has been an unprecedented spike in coronavirus cases. This week alone, Nigeria has been consistent in setting and smashing its records of highest daily infections.
On Thursday night, the country registered its latest highest figure of 1,145, a record likely to be broken soon going by the way the disease is spreading. The total number of infections in the country has jumped to 76,207.
The new height in infections was reached barely 24 hours after recording its previous highest daily figure of 930.
Until the resurgence of the infections in December, Nigeria never had a higher number of daily infections than the 745 reported on June 19.
In the past two weeks, daily cases in the country averaged 500 for the first time since the pandemic reached Nigeria in late February, with the spread concentrated in the country’s two major entry points and hardest hit cities – Lagos and Abuja.
“When you look at the trend, you will see that the majority of the new cases recently are from Abuja and Lagos where people enter and leave the country from. This points to the fact that we are not manning our exit points well against the spread of the disease,” Mr Asadu said.
Why The Numbers Are Rising: Health experts react
Vivienne Ihekweazu, the director, Nigerian Health Watch, attributed the recent spike in infections to not just the weak systems at the airports but the fragrant disregard of safety protocols by Nigerians.
“Before the international borders were opened, the Presidential Task Force (PTF) put in place the Nigeria International Travel Portal, requiring a negative test on arrival and self-isolation for seven days and testing on the seventh day. This protocol is much stricter than what was put in place by many other countries.
“However, as we have seen, many Nigerians are not adhering to the seven-day isolation or testing on the seventh day. With about one percent of international travelers testing positive, this is a concern.
“We must also factor in that with the Christmas period there will be increased travel of Nigerians from the diaspora arriving in Nigeria from countries with high levels of ongoing transmission of COVID-19 posing a higher risk for the country, especially if travel protocols are not adhered to.
“Finally, Nigerians must not let their guard down.”
Confidence MacHarry, a security and health data analyst with SBM intelligence, also attributed the recent spike to weak adherence to safety protocols especially at the airports.
“A lot of it could be blamed on ‘COVID-19 fatique’, but that is not a good enough reason to put people at risk”, he said.
To strengthen Nigeria’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic amid resurgence, a coalition of health advocacy organisations developed an emergency response advocacy toolkit.
The International Society of Media in Public Health (ISMPH), the Health Reform Foundation of Nigeria (HERFON), the Health Sector Response Coalition (HRSC) and several other health advocacy organisations developed the advocacy kit meant to provide guidance for developing advocacy messages and materials using available evidence on the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the citizens.
The Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) has also made a “passionate appeal” to Nigerians to take the COVID-19 prevention advisories very seriously, especially during the Yuletide festivities.
This, the doctors said, is necessary to interrupt the transmission, reduce ill-health and deaths from the dreaded disease.