By Dapo Akinrefon
Dr. Samson Parker served as Commissioner for Health in Rivers State. In this interview, Parker calls on leaders across the country to brace up for the economic recession Nigerian is in, noting that by taking basic steps, the nation can approach any problem and take advantage of opportunities.
You recently received an award from the African Institute of Public Health Practitioners, AIPHP, in recognition of your role in the control of the spread of Ebola in Rivers State during the outbreak after one of the quarantined contacts defied restrictions and came to Port-Harcourt. How do you react to this honour?
In the main, the award by the African Institute of Public Health Practitioners (AIPHP) was for my humble role in leading the health sector under the last government in Rivers State to an effective control of the potential spread of the Ebola virus. In containing the virus spread, the health and other teams including the media and other stakeholders saved the country from a disaster of uncertain dimensions. As I clearly highlighted during the event, one helped to lead in mobilizing resources to ensure that everything that needed to be done was done, but we must always remember the frontline technical and administrative people who were very professional in ensuring that the goals we set were attained and that we ensured that, ultimately, Rivers remained a safe place to reside or visit and not a ghost town as would have been the case, if the virus had not been stopped. So, in reacting to the honour, I am filled with a profound sense of accomplishment.
Given the current state of preparedness, do you think that the country and Rivers State will be able to control such a potential health disaster with the same effectiveness, if it presents again?
I am certain there are professionals within the state with institutional memories and the required competencies, but having been away from the system, I cannot make a direct assessment of the current state of facilities which were all put in place at that time. If those facilities are still in place, in the conditions which we left them, then one might assume so. However, if they have been left in disrepair and allowed to decay, then one cannot give such assurances.
In terms of public health risks, a society should be prepared for those hazards and risk that have the highest possibility of occurrence based on the context, by increasing the resilience of society to such potential incidents, while specific preparations should also be in place in case of the unknown. For these reasons you keep training and retraining personnel, in this instance public health and epidemiology as well as community health professionals, particularly, and all medical and ancillary personnel in general, to be able to respond to such issues whenever the occasion arises.
What governance challenges restrain governments in Nigeria from making proactive management plans for such health challenges?
If there are any such challenges, it will be because we do not do enough visioning, brainstorming and scenario simulations. Progressive governments plan rationally for the known and simulate the unknown, in simulating you can therefore reasonably prepare to some degree for the unexpected. Frequent simulations will prepare the administrator for different degrees or intensities of possibilities. But you cannot simulate all possible uncertainties, therefore there may still be some adversities which you can only mitigate their impacts by heuristic measures. So if there are challenges, it may be in the extent with which we take preparations for the known and the unknown seriously enough to commit resources in terms of time, funds and personnel to planning preventive, mitigating, response and recovery measures to known and unknown possibilities.
The economic challenges in the country appears to be intensifying with the country said to be technically in recession, what word of advice do you proffer to position holders in charge of the economy and to Nigerians who feel the impact of these economic pains?
Let us be factual, if a family is faced with a funeral, it will affect different members more than others economically. So, also does a recession. Those with less means will suffer more. Therefore, government must concentrate a lot of supportive efforts to help those who are most vulnerable, especially the dis-empowered youths without jobs and women. If you don’t help these people immediately, whatever explanations and plans you offer will fall on deaf ears. Give them jobs or support them with short to medium term grants while fixing the fundamentals of the problem.
But recession is a performance measure in a time-frame, it is not fixed, it is a measure that says to us, at this point in time, ‘you are not doing enough, given the facts, we can’t fight the facts or brood over it, we should get on with it’. We are a country that fought a civil war and came out strong and rich, we have battled economic downturns such as Structural Adjustment Programme and we did not overcome those things by blaming each other, and we did so because we accepted our conditions and rolled our sleeves.
In the main, it means our productive capacities are down. Government at all levels must therefore have credible and feasible plans to revive and energize productive areas of our economy. They cannot do this by going all over the map, they must choose priorities, champions and elect areas of the economy for quick wins and long term sustainability. I just told you about how decisions are made under uncertainties.
Currently we face a lot of uncertainties, we cannot tell what the price of oil will be in six months time or one year, yet that is our main resource. So what must we do? We must spread our risk, move more towards revenue we can predict and limit our exposure to risky revenue; we don’t just diversify, we must diversify strategically. So the notion of diversification must be qualified because it must be SMART-specific, measurable, assignable (those who will do it), realistic and time-bound. It cannot happen overnight, it takes time, but as decision-makers we have control over what we intend to do. Hence, we should be able to have plans with moving targets.