Health experts have warned that corrupt practices of airport officials who aid inbound passengers to evade the COVID-19 test may lead to a spike in infections in the country.
The passengers who were supposed to undergo the test were being aided to shun it by airport officials who were collecting between N10,000 and N15,000 bribes from them.
It was learnt that law-abiding passengers who paid the mandatory N51,400 for the test were sometimes not assigned to any laboratory by the officials.
A professor of Medical Virology at the University of Maiduguri, Prof Marycelin Baba, and other health experts who spoke to journalist blamed test evaders for the increasing infections.
They warned that unless the errant officials and the evaders are checked, the country will record more infections.
The Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority had, in a memo dated September 11, 2021, relaxed restrictions on inbound travellers without evidence of payment for their COVID-19 test.
According to the memo signed by the Director-General of NCAA, Musa Nuhu, airlines were directed to board passengers without evidence of payment for Day Seven COVID-19 PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test or generate paid QR code/permit to fly.
The memo was titled “Permission for airlines to board passengers travelling to Nigeria who are unable to show evidence of payment for Day Seven COVID-19 PCR test or generate paid QR code/permit to fly”.
The NCAA stated that the decision was taken in view of the challenges some travellers to Nigeria were experiencing while trying to fill their health and travel history into Nigeria’s international travel portal.
Before, foreign travellers were required to show proof of payment for their COVID-19 PCR test before they were boarded.
The NCAA, however, said with the new directive, such passengers would be required to make payment for the repeat day-7 COVID-19 PCR test at their destination airports in Nigeria.
According to Nigeria International Travel Portal, inbound passengers are supposed to pay N51,400 each for the test at their destination airports.
The findings, however, indicated that airport officials in Lagos and Abuja were cashing in on this directive to make illegal money.
Sources at the airports said the officials waved the test for passengers who could part with between N10,000 and N15,000.
A passenger, who confided in one of our correspondents, said, “When I arrived from Canada on September 17, I discovered that I was the only one waiting to pay for the mandatory test at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport. After paying the money, another passenger told me he didn’t go through the hassle of undergoing the test after giving the airport officials N10,000.”
A security official, who spoke to journalist on on the condition of anonymity, confirmed there were reports of the illegal practice.
He said security agents would soon descend on the corrupt airport officials.
“We have reports of officials collecting bribes from passengers. We are monitoring them and we will soon fish out some scapegoats,” the security official stated
Narrating his ordeal, the law-abiding passenger, who arrived in the country on September 17, stated that an airport official assisted him with the documentation of his pre-arrival COVID-19 test because he was unable to submit his registration details prior to his arrival.
The traveller stated, “He asked me to pay and informed me that I would receive a receipt and details of my test centre via email. I paid the sum of N51,950:00 for my day seven COVID-19 test. But I have received neither the receipt nor details of my test centre.” According to him, he was supposed to take the day 7 test on Thursday.
He further said that he sent to the airport officials, numerous emails requesting a receipt of the payment of N51,9500 and an email assigning him to a test centre, but his requests were ignored.
He added, “I have called their telephone number repeatedly but it is switched off. I have sent messages to the number via WhatsApp but they were not delivered. According to WhatsApp, that number was last active on July 23, 2020.
He stated, “I contacted my preferred test centre on Wednesday, September 22 and Thursday, September 23 and I was informed that they did not have my name on their list for post-arrival COVID test.”
When contacted, the General Manager, Public Affairs The Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria, Mrs Herietta Yakubu said, “Honestly I am not aware of this, I am going to discuss this with the management of the airport to find out if there is any such racket going on in the airport.
We would look into it and I can assure you anyone found doing that would face the wrath of the law, it is not allowed you are supposed to do the proper test and the test is for your own good. So what do you want to derive by not doing that?
“Although the COVID-19 test is not a responsibility of the airport authority, it is handled under the Ministry of Health but I can assure you Nigerians do it because without a COVID-19 test result you can travel.”
The General Manager, Public Relations, Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority Mr Sam Adurogboye when in an SMS interview said, “I don’t react to rumours. But if you have evidence of that, we will be glad to have it and take it up from there.”
But the Secretary to the Presidential Steering Committee on COVID-19, Dr Muktar Muhammed, when contacted by The PUNCH on Sunday told one of our correspondents that the government was not aware of the excesses going on at the point of entry.
He however promised to investigate and prosecute errant passengers.
Muhammed said, “N39,000 is the official rate and not N51,000. The test is not meant to be done at the airport. It is supposed to be done on Day 7.
“However, they are supposed to pay before arrival or upon arrival. Let me investigate.
“It is illegal for anyone to collect any money at the airport. If anyone has been collecting money for whatever reason, it is wrong and we would investigate that and take action if anyone is found culpable.
“Second, passengers should also know it is wrong of them to evade established protocols. These protocols are not meant to punish anyone or extort money from individuals, it is meant to protect the citizens of the country.
“If you bribe someone and go home, you are also cheating yourself because you are taking the infection to your family.
“It is really bad for the system, themselves, their families and wrong for the country. Anybody we catch, we will seriously deal with them. This amounts to sabotage of the public health and it is something that can be prosecuted under the quarantine act of the federal republic of Nigeria.”
Virologists in separate interviews condemned the activities of corrupt government officials who continued to aid travellers to evade testing and mandatory quarantine.
The virologists also blamed the evading travellers for the high rate of community infections in the country.
A professor of Medical Virology at the University of Maiduguri, Prof Baba, said, “The health of the public is paramount. You hear in the news that inbound passengers test positive daily. This is terrible. People who are caught should be sanctioned and also made to face the law.
“One of the highest fuelling means of COVID cases is through community infections. When you come into the country and you refuse to subject yourself to necessary protocols, you are not only putting yourself at risk, you are also putting others at risk and this is not fair.
“This is why it is very difficult to believe the figures we get daily because you have protocol evaders who continue to pose serious threats. You have people with fake vaccination cards and then you have people who evade tests.
“The government should make sure that the ports are well manned and make sure they sanction evaders and those enabling them and this goes beyond naming and shaming. They should be well sanctioned.”
Also, an Associate Professor of Virology at the Osun State University, Waidi Sule, said, “It has a lot of implications on the health system. We need to find some of them who have evaded why they have done that, despite the danger it portends.
“The virus can spread from them to many people, including their families.
“Beyond this, we need to investigate if the test is clumsy or they delay or the place they keep them is not tidy? We need to also know.
“I know they would not try to evade from where they are coming from because the punishment for evading is heavy. We also made the law very strict for those evading and those aiding them.”
A professor of Microbiology, Dennis Agbolahor, also said inbound travellers evading COVID-19 tests were responsible for the coronavirus variants in the country.
Agbolahor, who is also a former Vice-Chancellor of the Ambrose Alli University, Ekpoma, said, “Inbound travellers evading COVID-19 test are responsible for most of the cases we see. They are the ones bringing the variants into the country; the variants were imported and now they are multiplying in communities.”
Meanwhile, information from the website of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control and analysed by one of our correspondents on Sunday revealed that from September 1 to September 19, 2021, a total of 20,647 test samples of inbound passengers to Nigeria from 45 laboratories across the country were received by the centre.
This is as the centre also listed 48 laboratories which include the federal medical centres, federal and state-owned hospitals and other private laboratories for failing to send reports of inbound passengers who tested in their laboratories.
During the period under review, a total of 554 passengers also tested positive. September 25, 2021, Nigeria had reported a total of 204,201 positive cases out of a total of 2,997,060 test samples with 192,429 discharged cases and 2,674 case fatalities.
The government has continued to advocate vaccination to achieve herd immunity by 2022, a move that experts had termed as unrealisable given the low rate of vaccination in the country.
“All passengers are required to strictly adhere to instructions given by Port Health Services at the arrival terminal. Passengers who fail to adhere to instructions will be sanctioned by relevant security personnel.
“Passengers would be required to go through the routine Port Health screening and present electronic or print-out evidence of pre-boarding COVID-19 PCR test and the Permit to Travel Certificate/QR Code; Present their international passports for clearance through the Nigerian Immigration Service System’s Migrants Identification Data Analysis System.
“Proceed on mandatory seven days self-isolation/quarantine in their selected in-country destination. Passengers are advised to avoid physical interaction with friends, family, colleagues, and other members of the public. Passengers should check their emails/text messages regularly for updates regarding the arrangement for their repeat COVID-19 PCR test from the laboratory of their choice.
“During this period the passenger may be contacted by the COVID-19 Response team to ascertain state of isolation, day-7 testing appointment and health status.
“Show up at the laboratory/sample collection centres on the 7th day of arrival and pay the applicable fees for the COVID-19 PCR test. Samples will be taken, and a COVID-19 PCR test done. The selected private laboratory will send a reminder text message, email, or phone call to the passenger a day before the appointment.”