No fewer than 40 members of the House of Representatives co-sponsored a motion for a debate on the dreaded coronavirus disease. But when it was time to debate the matter, they all backed out.
Discovered in Lasa Village, Borno State in 1969, Lassa fever has remained a recurrent pandemic in many parts of Nigeria with no vaccine for it over the years.
Presently, almost two-thirds of the country is grappling with the disease, this perplexing situation has given Nigerians cause for concern.
While Nigerians battle to curtail this deadly ailment that has practically come to stay, at least for now, a new attack, Coronavirus, has emerged on the global stage.
With no known cause or agents, Coronavirus has attracted the attention of Nigerian lawmakers. Strangely, however, the federal lawmakers, just last week, turned down a motion seeking to compel the government to evacuate Nigerians resident in Wuhan, China where the disease was first discovered.
Benjamin Kalu, who serves as the Chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Media, had sought to move a motion on the need to evacuate and quarantine Nigerians in that region.
As the rules of the House demand, he needed the leave of his colleagues to move the motion which was co-sponsored by 40 other lawmakers.
But immediately the lawmakers got to know the subject of the motion, they began to grumble and immediately, the Speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila put it to vote.
To the surprise of the Speaker and the sponsor of the motion, opposition voices carried the day. Hard as the Speaker fought to get members to treat the motion, they remained adamant.
Gbajabiamila’s suggestion that the motion be amended to include quarantining the would-be evacuees for two weeks before being released to their families did not move those opposed to it.
Incidentally, while some of the co-sponsors tried to get members to listen to the body of the motion, debate it before taking a decision, many others simply kept quiet.
Surprisingly, also, some ranking members who were listed as co-sponsors rejected the idea that the motion be listened to by members.
Listed as co-sponsors were Deputy Minority Leader, Peter Akpatason; Minority Leader, Ndudi Elumelu; Majority Whip, Tahir Mongunu; and Chairman of Rules and Business, Abubakar Fulata.
Also listed as co-sponsors were Reps, Sada Soli, James Faleke, Jimi Benson, Oluwole Oke and Abdulrazak Namdas among others. But they all failed to second the motion.
Incidentally, the same House had, at its sitting of January 29, 2020, passed a resolution asking the Federal Ministry of Health, the Nigeria Immigration Service, the Quarantine Services, the Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria, and other relevant agencies to set up screening centres at all points of entry into the country.
This, according to them, was for these agencies to screen travellers into the country with a view to preventing the spread of the virus.
The lawmakers had, at that sitting, also asked the Federal Ministry of Health, in collaboration with other relevant agencies to set up testing and isolation centres in all points of entry into the country.
All for the purpose of detecting symptoms of the virus and where necessary, isolated cases, with particular emphasis on travellers from countries that have already recorded cases of the virus.
The House had also asked all health institutions in the country to be on high alert and to look out for signs of the virus.
The Reps had also mandated the committees on Healthcare Services, and Interior to ensure compliance. They equally urged the Federal Government to declare public health emergency when China first recorded an outbreak.
However, in his motion, which was killed before it was moved, Benjamin Kalu had wanted President Muhammadu Buhari to urgently constitute and authorise an inter-Ministerial Task Force on the matter.
He had suggested that the proposed Inter-Ministerial Task Force comprise the relevant MDAs. It was a move to ensure the quick, successful and infection-free evacuation of Nigerians currently trapped in the city of Wuhan and environs back to the country.
Kalu had also wanted the House to direct that some properties recovered from looters be designated as centres for screening and quarantining of returnees from China until they are certified free to move around or join their families and relatives.
However, a member, Bashiru Dawodu (APC, Lagos) was of the view that the House should have listened to the motion and debate it. Dawodu, who is a medical practitioner, told correspoondents that it was unfortunate that the motion was killed at inception.
He lamented that members were not allowed to give their expert opinions on the issue even though they were able to do that at a committee level.
According to him, 33 per cent of those affected by the coronavirus presented symptoms of mild cold or catarrh with a fatality rate of just about two per cent. He said, “It is very scary, but it is not as bad as SARS and other viruses”.
However, he warned that it should not be trivialised. Dawodu said the Speaker felt that the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) was trying to trivialise the effects of the virus.
“But technically, what they are saying is sound because they have a lot of data to show that Coronavirus is not as deadly as other viruses.
Dawodu said Nigerians were worried about the outbreak of the virus and that they have been asking questions about what the National Assembly was doing about it.
According to him, “The Speaker got letters from Nigerians living in China and from our constituents. My take, however, is that we should follow what the experts are saying.
What the NCDC told us was that they would not recommend the evacuation of Nigerians living in China.
Their recommendation was that those living there should be left there, while we work to boost our own system here so that we are able to take care of those at home.
As a medical doctor, I agree with them because you don’t take someone from an epidemic area and put them where there is no disease. But I think the Speaker is looking at it from a compassionate angle.
Even the WHO did not recommend that. But if our compatriots come from China, they need to be quarantined and checked at the borders.
So, I support their position on that right now and that anyone that comes should be checked at the borders.
The Lagos born lawmaker said it was sad enough that the motion was rejected without being given a hearing, adding that members acted out of panic and fear. He reasoned that debate would have given a great deal of insight into the infection as well as its management.
But the NCDC had cautioned against the evacuation of Nigerians from China, advising rather, that the authorities watch out for any possible infection in the country.
The Director-General of the Centre, Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu, had told the lawmakers that there was no cause for alarm as the disease was not as deadly as it is being painted. He warned that Lassa fever was deadlier than the coronavirus.
The Director-General had revealed that about only one per cent of those affected by the coronavirus had actually died of the ailment. According to him, the victims were either aged or already had some other health issues prior to infection.
Ihekweazu maintained that human to human transmission of the ailment had been reported in only three countries outside China. He added that there has been a coordinated international response to the disease. The WHO, he said, had warned against imposing travel and business restrictions on China over the outbreak of the disease.
The Chairman of the House Committee on Health Services, Rep. Yusuf Tanko Sununu, in his observation noted that the coronavirus was attracting global concerns at the moment because the cause and mode of transmission have not been discovered.
For this reason, Sununu said the matter should not be downplayed because of its economic implications. The following day, the House had met in a closed session and agreed to consult with some medical experts on a way forward. Details of the meeting is yet to be made public.