By Bello Imam
Despite Kogi State’s continued denial of the reality of COVID-19 in the state, the deaths of Kogi State Chief Judge, Nasir Ajanah, and the President of the Customary Court of Appeal, Ibrahim Atadoga, in quick succession have exploded the myth that the state is free of the virus.
The deaths have also triggered mass apprehension over the state’s inexistence COVID-19 response and placed the state on the cusp of an imminent disaster. Justice Ajanah died on Sunday from complications arising from COVID-19. Justice Atadoga also died from complications arising from COVID-19, even though there were attempts to conceal the cause of his death in deference to the state’s official denial policy.
Justice Ajanah’s death, which officials grudgingly conceded was related to COVID-19, has finally exposed Kogi’s elaborate attempt to downplay or entirely deny the impact of the disease on the state. Justice Atadoga died barely 24 hours after he was hospitalised at a private health facility. There is no testing centre in Kogi State, and even the isolation centres are a shadow of what they should be.
Sources close to the Federal Medical Centre (FMC) Lokoja, the most equipped tertiary health facility in the city, disclosed to The Nation that many cases suspected to be related to COVID-19 in the state were first referred to that health institution, before being transferred to Abuja. But the state government, through the Commissioner for Health, consistently usurps the functions of the FMC by interfering with the COVID-19 protocols for declaring patients COVID-19 related. Up till last week, the state had not officially admitted the presence of any COVID-19 patient, except its shambolic reference to the Kabba incident, which led to a brief total lockdown in that part of the state.
The sources also disclosed that doctors at the FMC operate under a cloud of intimidation masterminded by the state government, leading to their reluctance to declare any patient COVID-19 related. Even the Chief Medical Director of the FMC is said not to enjoy the freedom of work, having been subjected to extensive intimidation for referring COVID-19 cases to Abuja. Instead of referring cases to the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) COVID-19 isolation centre in Abuja, which the state government frowns at, patients were often left to their fates.
The tragedy unfolding in Kogi, a top source revealed, is so dire that contracting COVID-19 has become uncharacteristically a death sentence. The government, it is suspected, is reluctant to take responsibility because of costs attached to it. It has become to them a liability because they are expected to pay all the bills regardless of the number of patients. There are no proper isolation centres, so a diagnostic facility built by former governor, Idris Wada, which can barely isolate four people and has no electricity or water supply, is the replacement the government chose. Another 8-bedded staff clinic was used to supplement the diagnostic centre.
The sources explain that one other reason the government appears averse to embracing the reality of COVID-19 in the state may not be unrelated to the costs attached to contact tracing. Already the state government is paying only 80% of staff salaries. Sources disclose that the government would be in a quandary if it accepts responsibility for tackling the spread of COVID-19, as it would be unable to pay salaries. An emergency room at the FMC has been closed for over two weeks because patients presented with COVID-19 symptoms, but the room was not disinfected. Three matrons and a nurse have died from what is suspected to be COVID-19.
The consequence is that residents in the state are unaware of the danger COVID-10 poses to them, nor are facemasks used. Since early COVID-19 symptoms closely resemble malaria symptoms, many deaths are chalked of as malaria, but there has been an increased number of mysterious deaths. Many people do not even go to hospitals before they die, and those that do simply go to private hospitals. The state has no official record of COVID-19 infection and death despite the rapid community spread of the disease. Medical sources within the state attribute the deaths of both judges to the state’s lack of COVID-19 response infrastructure.
Scores of ordinary Kogites infected with the disease are feared to not have access to any treatment. In early May, the state had a public falling out with the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) rapid response team on COVID 19 led by Doctor Andrew Noah, which it accused of trying to coerce the state into admitting the presence of the disease in the state. The NCDC officials were shabbily treated and hounded out of the state. They were in Kogi State to assist the state with the necessary infrastructure for handling COVID-19 cases.
According to sources, Justice Atadoga, for instance, was initially treated for acute malaria, but barely hours later, his case worsened before he was transferred to a medical facility. Though doctors diagnosed COVID-19, the state would not officially admit it. He died hours after admission. Because the state has not admitted the presence of the disease, and the governor declined to wear a mask until Justice Ajanah died, there has been no effort to do contact tracing and isolation, not to talk of treatment in the state. Doctors insist that there is already a community spread in the state, but there are no facilities on the ground to handle what is threatening to be an explosion.
Healthcare workers in the state, though unable to publicly confront the state government, have appealed to the federal government to urgently overrule Governor Yahaya Bello, whom they accuse of living in denial. They call for the establishment of testing and isolation centres in order to stave off an unfolding tragedy. They insist that scores of COVID-19 related deaths in the state are recorded as deaths from malaria and other pre-existing conditions, thereby exposing the state to untold sufferings and risks.