Plateau is fully Prepared to Combat COVID-19 – Health Commissioner
The deadly COVID-19 pandemic has become one of mankind’s greatest health challenges. Nigeria and Plateau State have not been spared from the direct and indirect ravages of this scourge. In this interview with our reporter, Danjuma Auta, the Plateau State Commissioner of Health, Dr. Nimkong Lar Ndam, outlines the government’s state of preparedness before the virus manifested and the ways in which they have been battling to keep the state among one of the least affected in the country. Excerpts:
What was the general state of health in Plateau State before the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic?
Well, before the COVID-19 pandemic, I think the general state of health here on the Plateau was relatively good. People were going about their normal duties, although you know that though we had some episodes of Lassa fever in the state, most of them survived, even though two died. But then, the two that died had cases of some other ailments other than the Lassa fever which contributed to their deaths. You will also recall that we distributed over 5 million mosquito nets to citizens of the state. In summary, I would say that the health status of people in the state was generally good.
Sir, would you say that the state was actually prepared for any eventuality?
Why not? In fact, we were really prepared, looking at the way we tackled the outbreak of the Lassa fever. If we were not prepared, we would have had a lot of mortalities. However, there have been some constraints in funding the health system. You know it was recommended that the health sector in every state should be allocated to fifteen per cent of the state budget. But here in the state, we were given only forty-two per cent in the 2020 budget which is grossly inadequate.
However, the government is really doing its best and is really trying for the health sector. It will interest you to know that the government is putting many structures on ground in the health sector. The Lalong Legacy Projects is really paying off as most of the abandoned projects in the health sector have been completed and some were even billed to be commissioned this May if not for the COVID-19 pandemic which has obstructed so many things. Now, the focus of this administration has shifted to the fight against COVID-19 and you have seen how the governor has been up and doing in making sure stringent measures are put in place to contain the disease in the state.
What proactive health strategies did the state government take when it became apparent that the pandemic would spread all over Nigeria?
Everyone who cares to know will agree with me that, in terms of preparedness, after Lagos, it is Plateau. And it was as a result of this that the media sent me letter of an award that was to be given to me as the Best Proactive Commissioner of Health in the country. That too would have taken place if not for the COVID-19 outbreak which happened in Lagos, as you know, and the case of the Chinese people who came to Wase in Plateau State as a result of which we immediately swung into action by sending our COVID-19 health response team there and the necessary steps of examining and quarantining them for 14 days were observed. All of them were later tested and found that they were all negative.
And since that was addressed, the Ministry of Health has not relented in creating sensitization and awareness to our people. I think the best way to handle this pandemic is through prevention and people should do everything possible to adhere strictly to the preventive measures. For now, I can say that, for us on the Plateau, even the most remote villages and people have been sensitized. Even some tribes have on their own even produced jingles to create awareness to their people in their own dialects. But the only problem we have now is how they can adhere to social distancing. However, our people are getting there gradually.
Plateau State has one of the lowest levels of Corona virus cases in Nigeria. Why is this so?
If you look at Plateau and all its endowments, it is a place where all other Nigerians want to come and settle. This is partly because of our natural good weather which attracts people to come and live here. Therefore, like I have told you earlier, anyone bestowed with a leadership position on the Plateau must be proactive. And that is what the present administration of His Excellency, Simon Bako Lalong, in the state has been doing. He does not take anything, especially things that have to do with the health of his citizens, for granted.
You can see that, even on our borders, despite the lockdown, you find crowds of people wanting to come into the state. But as a government, we keep working hard to control the influx of people into the state. Again, you know that, for the citizens of the state alone, we wouldn’t have had that index case of COVID-19. Yes, our daughter went to Kano for a programme where she contracted the disease. That is why we have been preaching and telling people to stay in one place but they do not listen to us because they feel that government is putting unnecessary pressure on them. And that is why we will continue to have such problems. But if people obey constituted authorities, this will go a long way in checking the spread. So, I think, to some extent, the measures we have taken have really helped in keeping the level of cases low in the state. However, we cannot shout yet as we have not yet done community testing.
Why are you not doing the community testing now?
Well, you know we take directives from the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and they have not allowed us to do community testing yet and I think for now it is only three states that are doing community testing. These are Lagos, Abuja and, recently, Kano. And you know that the reagents are given by NCDC. Therefore, because they give the reagents, they also determine what should be done. That is why we are abiding by what they tell us. Otherwise, we would have been doing the community testing by now.
Sir, is has been alleged that, regarding the contact tracing for the index case, there has been some resistance on the part of the community of the index contacts. How true is that?
Yes, we had some issues. But the issues were related to the way the result was leaked. Sincerely, in my years of professional training and practice, things I have never thought could be possible happened as the result was dished out. It is quite amazing that the medical laboratory result of an individual could be fully published on the social media! We felt that it was unethical, unprofessional and even against the confidentiality of the person. So, the community was not happy and, you know, if you were in their shoes, you would not be happy. That was why they said all that they at the time. But government and several other people had to talk to the community to calm them down and they finally agreed with the position of government. But the only problem is that the people are feeling reluctant to come out to be tested.
What do you think could be responsible for that?
If you were the one, would you come out to be tested? You know that there is the problem of stigmatization and that is why many communities are not cooperating. Therefore, the community from which we had the index case needs to be commended because they are the ones who called us to come and pick their daughter. To me, they did well because they were well sensitized.
Sir, there have been reports that some of the people in the state’s quarantine centres have been demonstrating against the poor health conditions there. What have you got to say about that?
No, that is not true because all of our centres are up to standard and I have personally gone round the centres we have and I am satisfied. The people living in Barkin Ladi quarantine centre are staying in a good hotel; they are given money and they eat good food. What else do you want? And even when NCDC went there, they confirmed that that was an ideal and best place. So what are you saying?
All over Nigeria, there has been this problem of lack of Personnel, Protective Equipment for the health workers handling the COVID-19 cases. How is Plateau State coping with this challenge?
Yes, that has been a serious problem even before the advent of COVID-19. Looking at our health sector, you will discover that a lot of people have died, some have retired while others have left for greener pastures and there have been no replacements. So, the health sector has been bedevilled with shortages of manpower. Well, that is an issue of its own. In our last presentation to the governor, we talked about getting volunteers to particularly train to help us with the challenge of the COVID-19 and the governor accepted this. But despite the challenges at hand now, you know that we definitely have to engage health workers that were interviewed before but are yet to be given appointment letters so that we can quickly train them for the fight against COVID-19. And when we absorb them into the civil service of the state, they would have had the knowledge of what to do. I assure you, government is doing a lot in trying to see that the best human resources are put in place in the health sector. This is apart from procuring the best health equipment for our hospitals. Again, if not for the COVID-19 challenge, most of the hospital equipment bought would have arrived and been commissioned. But I still assure you that it will soon be over and Plateau will surely enjoy seamless health care.
Recently, a Plateau indigene, Jerry Malo, manufactured a ventilator. How has that impacted on the fight against COVID-19 in the state?
Yes, Engineer Jerry Malo is not only a gift to Plateau State but Nigeria at large. You will recall that he had manufactured a sports car which earned him a lot of commendation nationwide. When he indicated that he could locally manufacture a ventilator, the governor, because of his passion for humanity, gave him a listening ear and he came up with a ventilator after a week and some days. I think he should be commended for that. However, when he brought it, we invited all the specialists and medical personnel who use it and they all testified that it is a working ventilator, but cannot be used in addressing the challenges of COVID-19.
You know, COVID-19 victims seem to have stiff lungs and, therefore, need intensive close monitoring and care. But the ventilator he produced lacked such capacity. We can only use his kind of ventilator to transport patients, say, from a local government to Jos but cannot be used for a COVID-19 patient. However, we still believe that he can do better and would have come up with a better one if not for the restrictions in the movement of goods and services from one country to the other. But as a government, the state will continue to give him more opportunities to contribute his best, especially in difficult times like this.
In what ways is the state government collaborating with the NCDC, Federal Ministry of Health and other health agencies in the fight against this pandemic?
We as a state cannot do it alone and the NCDC and Federal Government too cannot do it alone. We all need to collaborate if we must succeed in the fight against COVID-19. All hands must be on deck. That is why, in Plateau State, local government and traditional councils are being carried along in the fight against this pandemic. We have been in close contact and we make sure that we brief the NCDC on a daily basis. Commissioners of health from across the federation have been meeting to brainstorm and come up with ways of fighting the pandemic. And this has been very fruitful. That is also apart from the efforts of both the Nigeria Governors’ Forum and the Northern Governors’ Forum – it’s a team work that we are doing.
What challenges is the state government facing in its efforts to ensure that Plateau remains in the league of least affected states?
You will recall that since the state recorded its index case, all the routes in our border areas have been closed down and we have not relented in educating our people and informing them about the need to abide by and observe all the safety measures put in place. I want to still use this medium to thank religious leaders for complying and taking the campaign very seriously in churches and mosques. I would also appeal that our people to continue adhering strictly to government’s directives, especially regarding hand washing, using sanitizers, face masks and social distancing measures. Apart from the lockdown, the government has introduced restrictions on inter-local government movement. We hope and pray that this also will help in checking the spread of the pandemic. People should please learn to stay at home, especially the elderly ones who are above 50 years and those who have some medical challenges. We must do everything possible to remain safe and stop the spread of COVID-19.
Side-by-side COVID-19 is the hunger pandemic threatening both patients and healthy citizens. What is the state doing about this?
Let me make it clear that government is aware of the hardships into which the pandemic has thrown many families in the state. We equally know that there are families that depend on daily work to survive. However, you must be alive before you can eat. All the measures government is putting in place now are aimed at making sure that the people live. However, the government, through the office of the Deputy Governor, has come up with palliatives to be given to the poorest of the poor in the society. That is, the elderly, orphans and less privileged. For now, these are the people government can afford to take cater for and I know that they have started the distribution and it is going on well. I think that when these people’s needs are met, the government may decide to extend it to other members of the society. But my advice to citizens of the state is that we should all be patient. This pandemic that has befallen us will surely be over some day and government would continue to do her best in ensuring that the people are well protected and supported in difficult times such as this.