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Monday, September 13, 2021

DAILY INDEPENDENT: Akwa Ibom’s Triumphs Amidst COVID-19 Challenges

By Nsikak Ekanem, Sep 12, 2021

LAGOS  – As applicable to other political leaders across the globe in the current era, the management of COVID-19 has become one of the benchmarks for which Governor Udom Emmanuel’s leadership in Akwa Ibom is and would be assessed during and after his tenure, which would expire in May 2023. 

The strangeness and virulence characterizing the disease, especially at the early stage of the pandemic, irresistibly constitute trial on the part of political leaders in all political jurisdictions in the world. Akwa Ibom certainly has not been an exception. In fact, at initial period of the pandemic, the state was bedeviled with its own peculiar hiccups. 

For instance, dissenting voices among some top health personnel in the state’s COVID-19 management team vibrated beyond their offices to public arena and therefore what filtered from the news media, which instinctively places more value on bad news than good news, was controversy and not whatever controlling or combating measures deployed by the Akwa Ibom State government against the Coronavirus scourge. 

Also, as it happened everywhere in the world, the pandemic opened floodgates for fake news and there was no way Akwa Ibom could be exceptional in fencing off such, hence the state government battle against the spread of the virus in the state was flocking together with truth and falsehood. 

Dominic Ukpong, a medical doctor and immediate-past Akwa Ibom State Commissioner for Health, told SUNDAY INDEPENDENT that the state government’s “expenses for COVID-19 management were colossal during the pandemic.” 

While revealing that those who tested positive for COVID-19 and later tested negative after being treated at the state government-owned labouratory centres were given N50, 000 each to facilitate their immediate needs, including their transportation home, he, however, bemoaned that “the unfortunate thing was that a section of the press published that the sickness did not exist and that we were bribing people with money to say that it existed.” 

He further said that “The COVID-19 management was more challenging at the outbreak, as it was very tasking in terms of time, materials and money and especially getting people to understand and comply,” adding that “Management now is smoother with experience even though we have a new very major wave with aggressively more infectious variant.” 

With the unanticipated nature of the disease, which resulted in scampering for funds everywhere in the world owing to no budgetary provision for the fight against the disease, the Akwa Ibom State government was not so lucky in swirling in bountiful donations that was a remarkable gesture in some other places that attended the socio-economic upheaval that came with the pandemic. 

Ukpong, who retired from ExxonMobil after 30 years of working with the oil giant, where he rose to the position of Group Medical Director and Country Manager in Medicine and Occupational Health Department, lamented that unlike some other states in Nigeria, “people were not donating significantly to the Akwa Ibom State government” during the pandemic and that the PCRs (Polymerase Chain Reaction), which is used for finding virus in humans, “were provided for some other states by the federal government.” According to him, he only heard of “N1 billion to N2 billion donated to other States.” 

Ukpong, who is currently designated Honorary Adviser on Health Matters and functions as head of COVID-19 management team in the state, also disclosed that Akwa Ibom is the only state government in Nigeria that owns two PCR machines. 

It is amidst the comparatively mean donations that came to the Akwa Ibom State government that the feat of being the only state government in Nigeria that owns two PCR laboratories could be recorded as triumph amidst the trials that came with COVID-19 management. Regarding the standard of Akwa Ibom State-owned laboratories located in two places in the state, Ukpong, said “Ours is so good that most International airlines directed booked passengers to come to our state for their mandatory tests before flights. The Director General of NCDC had also come here and saw it and was exceedingly impressed.” 

He explained that the need to have PCR laboratory was so compelling because at the beginning of the pandemic samples for tests had to be sent from Akwa Ibom to Irrua in Edo State, which “took seven hours to get there and the team would return the next day then, the governor quickly constructed the infectious disease centre with a PCR laboratory at Ituk Mbang, so, we stopped going to Edo State for lab tests”. 

Elucidating on how the governor gives a personal quest to the fight against the scourge, Ukpong, said Emmanuel’s priority and that of the government is for protection of lives and prevention of the spread of infection, hence “the governor sitting in a meeting everyday for hours from 10 pm to get situation report on COVID-19 management progress, especially during the first wave of the disease”. 

On the provision of the second PCR laboratory, which is located at the state government-owned Ibom Specialist Hospital, Ukpong said, “Mr Udom Inoyo (immediate past Vice Chairman of ExxonMobil subsidiaries companies in Nigeria) was very interested in helping the state.” 

“So, Inoyo through the Inoyo Toro Foundation and Stanbic IBTC/JNCI donation has helped the State to be the only State with two PCR machines – one in Ibom Specialty Hospital from Inoyo and his team and the one in Ituk Mbang which the governor established. 

“Our PCR laboratory is rated about the best in the country by the National Centre for Disease Control, NCDC, and it accelerated our efficiency in testing, getting result and treating”. 

As gathered from David Abakasanga, an Akwa Ibom indigene, who resides in Houston, Texas in the United States, getting the PCR to Nigeria was also an herculean task. His words: “The problem of sourcing PCR test equipment during the pandemic was multi-faceted. Apart from the huge foreign exchange required, the original equipment was in short supply as developed nations, out of sheer nationalism, mopped up every available piece of these items. Some countries even restricted the exportation of PCR equipment. There was also the problem of logistics during a near-total lockdown; meaning that shipping costs would be astronomical if at all you would find any cargo flights going to Nigeria. Even if you could get one to Nigeria, how would you move the items to Uyo from either Lagos or Abuja when all state borders were closed? 

Given what the US-based Nigerian citizen, who was privy to the deal to procure the PCR, said, what then was the magic behind Inoyo Toro Foundation’s getting the machine for the Akwa Ibom State government at that critical time? 

Ukpong answered: “There is no magic. It is money. If you had the money, you could get it. This thing I’m talking about, even the State Governments found it difficult. The World Health Organization knew that this was the machine helping people to survive. They wanted people to test. I cannot remember the cost but it was very expensive. 

“Mentioning that a combination of people had to provide the second one shows that it was not easy for one person alone to do it alone, Mr Udom Inoyo was very interested in helping the State, so the Stanbic IBTC joined him. It must be so clear to you that the governor spent so much money in fighting this virus. 

Another egregious response from the state government was the setting up of post COVID-19 economic reconstruction committee, which was headed by Prof Akpan Ekpo, an economist and former Vice Chancellor of University of Uyo. The think-tank group, which had since submitted its report to the government, was to make recommendations to prepare the state for social and economic realities likely to come to bear as aftermath of the outbreak of the dreaded disease. 

However the Udom Emmanuel-led government in Akwa Ibom is assessed on COVID-19 management, the possession of two PCR laboratories, which are not limited to coronavirus test, as they are also functional for finding other viruses at present and in future, implies that the feat would go a long way in situating the legacy of the current administration.

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