By Levinus Nwabughiogu
In this interview, the Deputy Minority Leader of the House of Representatives, Hon. Toby Okechukwu, representing Aninri/Awgu/Orji River Federal Constituency of Enugu State, speaks on what the government of President Muhammadu Buhari and the Presidential Task Force, PTF, on COVID-19 pandemic should do to set Nigeria free of the virus.
Your motion last Tuesday on the floor of the House reflected on medical and pharmaceutical researches in finding solution to COVID-19. What really informed it?
From day one, I had thought that there should be an approach that each country should pursue. It is in our self-interest to solve our problem if help doesn’t come from elsewhere. But for over three months I did not see any significant effort in that direction, particularly in research and coordination.
The visibility of our research institutions, pharmaceutical research institutes and medical research institutes has been completely absent. During an interview last week, the NAFDAC DG said they had only one request on local solution or cure to COVID-19.
So, I just concluded that there is some level of absent mindedness here; that we are not getting it right. I now felt it was important that we check the status of our research institutions on their preparedness to fight COVID-19 and other diseases. You need to appreciate that it is not only COVID-19; we have Lassa fever which has killed a good number of Nigerians in 25 states. So, it is a huge challenge and I felt that there should be a home-grown solution. On April 1, I wrote an article that was published on the home grown approach.
There are some of these issues that we should optimize the opportunity they offer and that is why I felt that the House, acting on its constitutional powers, should interrogate some of these agencies and find out what the challenges are. Usually, there is a policy cycle in government; when you initiate a programme, you begin to implement and, over time, you evaluate and, if it becomes necessary, you review, but I didn’t see that happen this time.
So, somehow there is some level of dependence on foreign help; whether it is face mask, hand sanitizer, personal protection equipment (PPE) and ventilators, expectation is from overseas. But you have an armada of claims all over the country. In fact, if you have not witnessed any claim, you have witnessed claims about erectile dysfunction but some of these claims have not gone through any clinical trials and it is a condition precedent for drugs to be in use.
Right now, Nigeria is in possession of some herbal extracts from Madagascar that they say can cure COVID-19. Are you perturbed Nigeria hasn’t come up with such preparation?
I am happy that Madagascar is working in the direction of finding a solution. I don’t know what clinical protocol they have gone through to come to that conclusion but you can see an effort. But my worry is what I said earlier: dependence on foreign help and there is over excitement in Nigeria about it, and the issue with it is that Madagascar set up a programme, tried to find a local solution, found it and it has been exporting it to other countries. I don’t know whether it has been sanctioned by the clinical protocols in their country but before you use anything here, it has to be licensed by NAFDAC. So, my happiness is that it solves the problem but my unhappiness is that those same roots or herbal properties are prevalent here.
So, if it is true that it can deal with coronavirus, you would say what were Nigerians thinking that they didn’t do same? And the advantage we have in this hemisphere is that our forests are still as God created them. Some of these other people have completely deforested their own environment. So, my worry about it is that we are not doing what we should be doing and that is because we are hoping that solution comes from overseas.
In your own estimation, what do you think that we should be doing?
What I think we should be doing is to optimise the use of our institutions. My expectation is that government through the Ministry of Health and the PTF should have set up a team of professionals that would be looking day-in and day-out into how to deal with this pandemic in terms of medical research, in terms of pharmaceutical research.
My expectation was that they should set up a team of professionals from pharmaceutical companies with a clear objective of finding solution to this problem. They should look at the cocktail of existing drugs. To what extent can they mitigate the challenges we have? Suddenly they told us they had been applying HIV, Ebola drugs and they had been reducing the impact of the ailments by 31%.
Those drugs, are they not here? Why has somebody not attempted to work on them? Even the chloroquine they are talking about, they act on what people from overseas say. So, to what extent are we subjecting it to scrutiny because that is how to make progress? So, my worry is not that I am not happy with Madagascar findings even if its veracity is not yet authenticated. My worry is that we don’t appear to be working on something.
We don’t have to be successful; even when you fail, you will know that there are certain things you don’t try anymore.
Funding has always been a challenge here. As a principal officer of the House that appropriates for research, do we now say we have a ray of hope coming from the National Assembly to help our research endeavour?
The point to make is that, is it asking the executive to bring it up or do you want us to do padding? Why asking us about a ray of hope when the proposal should come from the executive? We have not seen any proposal but we are full of expectations. But in the pre-presentation interactions we had with the Minister of Finance, I remember asking her about the local content of our research efforts. And she said they were working on it.
So, if you ask for N500billion or more, we want to see significant amount of money being put in that regard because that is the problem, and it is when you make provision for seed investment in the budget from the executive that you can now begin to say let us have grants from individuals and overseas foundations.
There are people who are willing to fund research and all that but you must give them a promissory note and that promissory note comes from good efforts, attainment of a goal, such that by the time they look at what you are doing they will be able to support you. Research and clinical trials are very expensive that it may not be possible for any individual to undertake. So, we believe we have sensitized Nigerians enough and we have sensitized the executive enough. We have an adage that says if you know how to pound, you pound on the portal, but if you don’t know how to pound, you pound on the ground. So the choice is yours.
How do you evaluate the PTF efforts so far?
The PTF, I think, has been doing the best they can, but our expectation is that they should improve on their efforts. That a set of government officials have been set up does not presuppose that solution should be found within that group. The expectation is that they have been delegated to do something and our expectation is that they delegate other people. That is where we expect researchers, professionals, pharmaceutical companies but what we are seeing is like we muddle through some of our challenges. Kano State caught us by surprise.
We have been surprised despite the fact that they got notice since December, 2019 about the pandemic. It was after you had lost about six hundred and forty something people to unknown reasons that you now began to set up a test centre.
In other climes when there is a crisis like this, they approach their academia, the universities are working and the professors are working. What are we doing with our universities at this critical time?
I was going to get to that; the PTF should do agenda setting and delegate functions to some other groups. The research institutes are academic institutions essentially because they do training.
That is why we said what the PTF should have done was to have set up a scale of preference and say let us set up a team of researchers and it is from universities that you tap them. You can also get a particular department in a particular university to pursue a particular purpose. You can also have routine submissions of findings.
From all indications, there is no cure yet for COVID-19 but it is also known that when your immune system is boosted, it has capacity to fight and that is what most medication actually do because it is your immune system that does the fight. So if we have things that can boost our immune system and we can locally source it, why are we not paying attention to it? Like I told you, the idea of a pandemic is because it is throughout the world and it is in our enlightened self-interest to look inward.
So I agree with you that our professors apart from our research institutes are not being utilised, they are not being optimised. It is even difficult to work with Nigeria Medical Association as is evident from the health minister and PTF attitude. They couldn’t even coordinate the entry of the Chinese medical team into Nigeria. At a point, it was at their invitation, at a point it was that of a company, at a point the minister said he didn’t know where they were, at a point they were supposed to help. Something is wrong somewhere.
Some say COVID-19 has really exposed our negligence of the health sector. Many say it is more like a leveler, the rich and the poor are stuck in the same condition; do you agree with that?
I agree to the extent that it is a leveller because we are now subjected to the same health institutions because whatever we have baked for ourselves is self evident. But it is not also a leveller to the extent that some people can stay in their houses and be giving themselves palliative because they can afford it. You must also realise that there are some imperfections with regards to our formal and informal sector. There are people who live on daily income.
The problem is that if you don’t go out to push your barrow, you cannot get any income. And one basic problem we have in Nigeria is that we have no address or identity. So it is challenging to identify those who are in those sectors, no database. So you will find out that the palliative is thrown around people based on whims and caprices. You hear someone say we have given three million palliative or you fed out of school children and you now begin to wonder what is the data used and you start fighting. We asked, ‘tell us how you ensured that it covers everybody?’ We are not saying go and publish, give us as privileged people in parliament and let me go as a representative of my people to find out who benefited. It is a simple enquiry and you are saying World Bank said you cannot disclose it, that they don’t want to be defined as poverty, when they are on the street begging everyday; what other advertisement do you want? So, there is something wrong there, our priority setting, the way we are dealing with it us not very proper.
So in the post COVID-19 era, do you see us embarking on medical tourism as it used to be before now?
Somebody said post COVID-19 economy and I said we are in COVID-19 economy, I am talking about not being able to embark on medical tourism. If we unable to use this opportunity to remedy our imperfections in the medical institutions, we would have been fools at forty.
The COVID-19 has affected our economy massively as well as other areas of our lives; what lessons can Nigeria draw from this pandemic?
First and foremost it is not just affecting our economy, it is affecting our health sector and the safety of Nigerians. The responsibility of government is the protection of lives and properties, we have not sufficiently protected lives because we are losing our citizens unnecessarily.
Two is the economy, I think the effect on our economy is the temporary setback because of our dependence on crude oil and it is not selling, if it is selling it is selling at a cheap price. So, the lessons to draw from it is look inwards, try to see the extent you can lock up yourself and say look these are the things I can deal with summarily so that you can now begin to talk about the things you want to bring in, where you don’t have competitive advantage.