COVID-19 and the non-compliant international air passengers, By Isaac N. Obasi




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 Boss Mustapha, Chairman, PTF on -19

By the end of December 2020, the extension granted to the Presidential Task Force on -19 (PTF on -19) would have expired. It would be recalled that President Muhammadu extended the end-date of PTF on -19 by three additional months in September, 2020. This Presidential Task Force was established on the 9th of March 2020 to “coordinate and oversee Nigeria’ multi-sectoral inter-governmental efforts to contain the spread and mitigate the impact of COVID-19 pandemic in Nigeria”. 

As we pointed out earlier in this column, a task force generally is a special-purpose-vehicle for executing a time-bound important project requiring urgent attention. A project by its very nature has a completion date after which a project management team or committee (if in existence) is disbanded (i.e. its life simply ceases to exist). As an ad hoc body therefore, the PTF on COVID-19 is an exception. But the crucial question before us is, when can we say that the war against this ravaging coronavirus is or has been completed? The answer is presently unknown. 

The truth of the matter is that as of now, the coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated that it is in a hurry to leave the surface of the earth. Its resurgence (in or more waves) in areas it had ravaged earlier creates a dilemma on the end-date of a task force like the PTF on COVID-19. It also imposes additional burden on the Task Force of making sure it achieves the purpose for which it was established (containment of the spread of the virus) before being disbanded. But as we already stated, the nature of this pandemic does put a certainty on the end-date of the PTF on COVID-19. Here comes the dynamics of this dilemma as well as its burden. 

Since the gradual easing of Phases Two and Three lockdown restrictions (which allowed among other things the reopening of markets, churches, schools, offices, and airports), the job of the PTF on COVID-19 and more specifically that of the Nigeria Centre for Control (NCDC), has become even more enormous. This is because they have to keep their eyes constantly on the ball even much more than before to contain the spread of the virus amid the high risk associated with such large crowds in the reopened places. In addition, the PTF and NCDC have even bigger task now to fight for the containment of the spread of the virus with the fast approaching festive season amid its associated domestic and international travels. 

But it appears that the reopening of international air travels which brings in people from countries where the cases of infections of the virus are still very high, poses the greatest challenge to the success story of both the PTF on COVID-19 and NCDC so far. There is palpable fear that coming from these high risk countries during the festive season (particularly the Christmas period) may be super spreaders of the virus, thereby leading to higher level of community infections in the country. This is even more dreadful with the revelation by the Chairman of the PTF on COVID-19, Mr. Boss Mustapha, during a briefing on Monday, 23 November 2020, that a huge number of 39,070 international travellers have so far shunned the mandatory coronavirus test (See for example Punch, November 24, 2020) in its report titled: ‘FG threatens sanctions as 39,070 travellers shun coronavirus test’, or Transport Day newspaper with same title via https://transportday.com.ng/covid-ptf-sanctions-passengers-test/). This is both scaring and scandalous, as it constitutes a embarrassment. 

According to this startling revelation by Mr. Mustapha, some of those who paid for post-arrival test had failed to show up for the tests. Secondly, some of the travellers have indulged in presenting fake documents. Elaborating , Mr. Mustapha said that as of 9 November 2020, statistics showed that the total number of bookings was 91,522; total number of exempted (diplomats and some others), 5,470 (6%); children, 1,248 (1.36 per cent); diplomats, 3,392 (3.7 per cent); and evacuees, 830 (0.9 per cent). Again, he said that while the total expected to were 86,052 (94 per cent), those that paid were 46,982 (54.6 per cent) and those that had paid were 39,070 (45.45 per cent). Finally, Mr. Mustapha announced that the PTF was concluding steps to work with relevant institutions and legal authorities to impose appropriate sanctions on those that defaulted on the protocols.

This column supports the serious sanctioning of defaulters whose actions pose serious danger to public health. Their actions constitute a betrayal of trust and a serious act of irresponsibility. It would be recalled that this is not the first time that the PTF on COVID-19 threatened sanctions against international on the issue of their non-compliance to COVID-19 safety protocols. In early November for example, Mr. Mustapha revealed that the level of non-compliance by international passengers for compulsory (COVID-19) PCR test was very high (See a news report by THISDAY titled ‘FG Considers Passport Ban for Passengers Breaching COVID-19 Test’, November 4, 2020 via: https://www.thisdaylive.com/index.php/2020/11/04/fg-considers-passport-ban-for-passengers-breaching-covid-19-test/

Consequent upon this observed high level of non-compliance, the PTF threatened to prevent travellers who refuse to make themselves available for compulsory PCR test, seven days after arriving the country from using their international passports for a minimum of six months. The PTF revealed that this non-compliance by defaulters had reached a 65 per cent level. The PTF regretted that statistics from indicated that only one out of three passengers, who arrived from abroad, were presenting themselves for the mandatory in-country test, which they signed up to and paid before arrival. And to demonstrate further how serious the matter is, the Coordinator of PTF on COVID-19, Dr. Sani Aliyu, vowed that the PTF would publish the list of the first 100 persons to be suspended for defaulting on the compulsory test and suspend their passport for six months.

In policy management, implementation (and in this case enforcement) is key to achieving the desired goals, and this is particularly important for a COVOD-19 risky issue which poses great danger to public health. This column supports that enforcement of sanctions against defaulters by the PTF should be implemented urgently otherwise the defaulters will continue to operate with their business-as-usual mentality of high level of non-compliance. Impunity of such irresponsible actions should be checked. It is a that none of the defaulters would ever think of shunning the mandatory tests in their place of residence abroad. This is because they know that they would suffer severe consequences. The same culture of enforcement should be obtainable in Nigeria. Nobody should be given the opportunity to take Nigeria for granted. The column therefore stresses the point that the issue of imposing sanctions on defaulters of COVID-19 safety protocols should be taken very seriously NOW and in the coming festive season. This is very important because it is one of the effective measures for preventing the resurgence of the virus in communities that are relatively free of infections currently. 

Finally, this column strongly supports the advice by the PTF that non-essential domestic and international travels during the coming period of Christmas and festivities should be avoided. As the PTF put it, “the transmission rate has simply become astronomical…and ‘there is a bigger risk of COVID-19 transmission’”. This is again because “new clusters of cases can emerge in places that have so far been unaffected as people travel and gather for festivities. But we can lower the risks by adhering to the non-pharmaceutical interventions and celebrate safely. There will always be many more festive seasons to celebrate”.

 It is worth repeating that God has been very merciful to Nigeria and African countries, and we should therefore help ourselves. Let us not in any way bring the COVID-19 worsening situations in Europe and the United States America here, because we cannot manage such.    

•Prof. Isaac N. Obasi of the University of Abuja, is a Visiting (Adjunct) Research Professor at the Anti-Corruption Academy of Nigeria, (ACAN), ICPC, Email: nnamdizik@gmail.com.