As global outrage continues to trail recent travel ban placed on Nigeria and some other African countries by the United Kingdom (UK), a development which has been described as racist and discriminatory, Nigeria’s federal government yesterday officially condemned the decision of the UK to put the country on its red list and place a ban on foreign travels following its detection of Omicron variant.
The Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, who addressed journalists in Abuja, described the decision of the UK government targeting Nigerian travellers as discriminatory, unfair, punitive, indefensible and unjust.
The Secretary General of the United Nations, Mr. Antonio Guterres, also joined to strongly condemn what he termed “travel apartheid” being meted on some developing countries, mostly in Africa as part of their strategy to curtail the spread of Omicron variant.
This is just as Nigeria’s High Commissioner to the UK, Sarafa Tunji Isola, who was on a media round in UK yesterday, aligned with the position of the Guterres in describing the action by the UK government as “travel apartheid.”
Isola said what was expected on the matter was a global approach to halt the spread of the disease and not selective punishment.
Speaking further, the minister also questioned the decision of the UK government, saying it was not driven by science.
The UK has now joined other countries, including Canada, which have taken a similar action against Nigeria over Omicron.
“How do you slam this kind of discriminatory action on a country of 200 million people, just because of less than two dozen cases? Whereas British citizens and residents are allowed to come in from Nigeria, non-residents from the same country are banned.
“The two groups are coming from the same country, but being subjected to different conditions. Why won’t Britain allow people in both categories to come in, and be subjected to the same conditions of testing and quarantine? This is why this decision to ban travellers from Nigeria, who are neither citizens nor residents, is grossly discriminatory and punitive,” Mohammed fumed.
He also raised eyebrows against the UK government action, insisting Omicron did not originate in Nigeria.
“Let me say straight away that it’s up to the Presidential Steering Committee (PSC) to respond to this action by the British government and others, and I have no doubt that the Committee will respond appropriately.
“However, as the spokesman for the federal government, I can say, without mincing words, that the decision by the British government to put Nigeria on the red list, just because of less than two dozen cases of Omicron which, by the way, did not originate in Nigeria, is unjust, unfair, punitive, indefensible and discriminatory. The decision is also not driven by science,” he said.
He said the British took a decision that was prompted by reflex responses instead of science and taking a serious look at the issue of access to vaccines, “as well as ensure that it is based on the principles grounded in the right of every human to enjoy the highest attainable standard of health without discrimination on the basis of race, religion, political belief, economic or any other social condition.”
The minister noted that such knee-jack reaction of placing a travel ban on Nigeria would be detrimental to the country’s quest to conclusively tackle the pandemic.
The minister added: “Many developed countries have used the advantage of their enormous resources or relationship to sign agreements with manufacturers to supply their countries with vaccines ahead of making them available for use by other countries.
“Even before the clinical trials were completed, millions of doses of the most promising vaccines have been bought by Britain, US, Japan and the EU. Some of these countries bought doses five times the size of their population, while others, mostly in Africa, have little or no access to vaccines.
“This is the real issue to address, instead of choosing the easy path of travel bans, which the UN Secretary General called ‘Travel Apartheid.’ Let the world know that no one is safe until everyone is safe”
He stressed that in the wake of the discovery of Omicron, the PSC, unlike the UK adopted science-driven actions, rather than those based on emotions and other extraneous reasons.
According to him, PSC reviewed its International Travel Protocol, which took effect on Sunday, December 5, 2021, aimed at further reducing the risk of importation and exportation of COVID-19, especially the variants of concern.
Under the revised protocol, passengers arriving in Nigeria are expected to provide evidence of and comply with rules including COVID-19 PCR test to be done within 48 hours before departure, post-arrival Day 2 COVID-19 PCR test, self-isolation for seven days (for unvaccinated and partially-vaccinated individuals) and day 7 post-arrival exit PCR test (for unvaccinated and partially vaccinated individuals) among others.
“If any country is not satisfied with them, why not simply subject Nigerians arriving in their country to their own PCR tests and proven conditions, like quarantine, instead of banning them out rightly?” he wondered.
Muhammed expressed hope that the British government would review the decision to ban Nigeria and rescind its decision immediately, saying Nigeria should not be on the red list as it had handled the COVID-19 pandemic with utmost responsibility and based on science, and has rightly earned global accolades for its efforts.
UN Secretary General Rejects ‘Travel Apartheid’
Speaking in an interview, Guterres insisted that targeting the most vulnerable nations with travel ban for revealing the existence of the virus that was already present in Europe was unacceptable in a world that has the instruments to ensure safe travel.
Guterres said travel apartheid must be condemned, saying it was unacceptable.
“We have the instruments to have safe travels, let us use those instruments to avoid this kind of… allow me to say, travel apartheid, which I think is unacceptable. What is unacceptable is to have one part of the world that is one of the most vulnerable parts of the world economy condemned to a lockout when they were the ones that revealed the existence of a new variant that, by the way already existed in other parts of the world, including in Europe as we know.
“So this is a very strong appeal that I launch, an appeal to commonsense that with a virus that is truly borderless travel restrictions that isolate anyone or country or region are not only deeply unfair and punitive they are ineffective.”
In a move that many have described as rushed, ill-advised and lacking scientific basis added Nigeria to its red list, which contains 11 mostly Southern African countries becomes effective from today.
In addition, on Monday, the UK government, took further measures against Nigeria as the British High Commission announced that it would pause “making decisions” on visitor visa applications from all red list countries, including Nigeria.
Latest figures from the UK government on its website revealed that 21 cases of omicron reported in England were linked to travel from Nigeria.
Nigeria’s High Commissioner to UK kicks against Restriction
On his part, Isola, in an interview with BBC, described the travel ban as an apartheid in the sense that, “we are not dealing with an endemic. We are dealing with a pandemic. Whenever we have a challenge there must be collaboration.”
He added: “Nigeria’s Minister of Health did come out with a statement yesterday saying between November 22nd and 28th, 67 passengers that tested positive were discovered in Nigeria and many of them happened to be travellers from the UK. But that would not be a basis for Nigeria taking such action against UK.
“The message is very clear. If there was a mistake, it takes courage of leadership to admit it was an error and not a sign of weakness.”
He pointed out that the cases of omicron discovered in Nigeria were from in-bound travelers.
According to him, a lot of persons would be greatly affected by the action of the UK government, saying, “a lot of people have gone home – doctors, nurses – who are working in the UK and providing health services to NHIS and you can imagine the effect, even on Britain. In addition, we are talking of the anger of 200 million people. This decision is going to hamper our relationship with UK, which is why I am not happy about that.”
“As at today, this variant is classified as a mild one and there has not been any hospitalisation nor death, scientist still working on it. This is quite different from the Delta variant and decision must be based on scientific and empirical evidence.
“We must have the facts that the variant we are talking about is dangerous. And that is why we need collaboration all over the world to ascertain the nature of the variant,” he added.
The UK, at the weekend, had updated its so called Red List, indicating countries prohibited from entering the UK in view of the new COVID-19 variant called “omicron”.
Also speaking with Arise News Channel yesterday, Ishola revealed that Nigeria would this week begin high level discussions with UK, in its efforts to seek a quick and amicable resolution to the restriction of Nigerians from visiting the country.
He said this week, Nigeria would begin talks with the British government, but quickly added that he was not willing to pre-empt what the country would do if its request to be delisted from the list was ignored.
He opined that under normal circumstances, the world should have saluted the efforts of the South African Medical Association for alerting everyone to the Omicron variant and rally round to solve the problem rather than the discriminatory action.
The high commissioner maintained South Africa had confirmed that the variant does not involve any hospitalisation or death, stressing that the issue of slamming bans on account of a “mild variant” was not the right thing to do.
While stating that the coronavirus did not originate from Africa, he noted that the leaders of the continent were doing everything to ensure that the vaccines come to Africa but that what comes to Africa has been very limited.
According to the envoy, Nigeria has handled the COVID-19 pandemic excellently and should be commended , reason the travel restrictions this time is causing an outrage.
While insisting that the UK’s decision wasn’t backed by scientific evidence, he said: “So, this is not acceptable. That’s why we’re making it very clear. There is no scientific evidence as of today that shows that this variant is deadlier.”
He narrated that Nigerians were already reacting to the travel ban in their different ways, recalling that on a on a Virgin Atlantic flight from Lagos earlier in the day, only 24 people were on board which was a form of subtle protest because an average Nigerian does not believe that the country deserves the shabby treatment.
“I’m sure many of them will not subject themselves to such (conditions). The travel ban came Saturday night. Today is the first working day and I can assure you that before the end of the week, we will engage with the host authorities,” he assured.
He mentioned that with a relationship that dates back more than a century, both countries be deepening their ties rather than taking actions that will taint the relationship.
“The ties between Nigeria and Britain date back to more than one century. This relationship is not where it should be. And we’re just making efforts to deepen the relationship before this ban came up.
“I don’t even want to think that there won’t be a reconsideration of the decision. We’ll have to dialogue at the end of the day to have a compromise on this issue,” the envoy added.
Stating that the matter has its economic and political dimensions, he expressed that hope that the British government will reverse the decision as it does not make much sense to ban a country with three cases where’s those with tens of cases were not listed.
Stakeholders, Travellers Condemn UK’s Decision to Put Nigeria on Red list
In a related development, aviation industry stakeholders and air travellers have condemned the decision of UK to put Nigeria on its redlist.
Speaking with THISDAY yesterday, the Chief Operating Officer of Dana Air, Mr. Obi Mbanuzuo, described the decision of UK as a knee-jerk reaction, saying the UK was aware that the omicron was already in Europe even before South Africa announced it to the world, but failed to take action.
“This is a knee jerk reaction which will be soon reversed once they realise that Omicron is already deeply embedded in UK. They can’t keep omicron put by banning Nigerians. What of the Netherlands where we now know had omicron even before the South Africans announced it?” Mbanuzuo said.
Also, the Managing Director of Flight and Logistics Solutions Limited, Mr. Amos Akpan, said the UK government’s decision was not backed by scientific data.
“The data in public domain shows higher number of infected persons found in UK, while the official data says only three cases found in Nigeria. The Omicron variant existed in Spain and a few European countries before a South African scientist pronounced its existence.
“The strict restrictions on Nigerians and other Africans are scientifically unjustified. Therefore, we are left to view it as a kneejerk political reaction. If they stop Nigerians from entry into UK, will they also stop Spanish, Germans, Italians, and Indonesians, who have higher number of infections of the Omicron variant?
“Playing politics with medical science to this extent smacks of apartheid and racism and will not stop further mutation and spread of the virus. The season for this kneejerk reaction is bad for air travel and tourism business for UK, and for Nigeria. British Airways, Virgin Atlantic Airways will feel the impact,” Akpan added.
In his contribution, the President of the National Association of Nigeria Travel Agencies (NANTA), Mrs. Susan Akporiaye condemned the decision of the UK to put Nigeria in the red list and said it was totally uncalled for.
She disclosed that a lot of Nigerians and students in the UK who wanted to come to Nigeria have since cancelled their travel plans, regretting that the action taken by the UK could discourage vaccination.
“The decision taken by the UK by putting Nigeria on the red list is affecting our business. Many people have cancelled their flights. You know, the UK is second home to many Nigerians. A lot of people are cancelling their travel plans because they know if they come to Nigeria they will be made to pay over 2000 pounds and they said they would only review this by December 20, 2021.
“They will review it but it is totally uncalled for. That action will discourage vaccination. After all, Delta variant of COVID-19 appeared in the UK in February this year but there was no overreaction like this. This is making people not to go for the vaccine. It is unlike the US, which is saying that it is only fully vaccinated people that can come,” she said.
Travel expert and the organiser of Akwaaba African Travel Market, Ikechi Ukoh told THISDAY that it was disappointing that the UK could put Nigeria on the red list as the two countries have very close relationship and there is nothing Nigeria has done that the UK was not involved.
Speaking in similar vein, industry consultant and the CEO of Belujane Konsult, Chris Aligbe said that as a country, the UK took the decision to protect its citizens, even though he pointed out that such a decision was hasty.
However, the Regional Airport Manager, South West in charge of the Murtala Muhammed International Airport Terminal, Lagos, Mrs. Victoria Shin-Aba, told THISDAY that the UK carriers, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic operated their flights from Lagos on Monday but the only difference was that BA had shifted its flights from night to morning.
She said that there was no indication yet that other international carriers have received any directive from their host countries, adding that airlines like Lufthansa, Air France and others operated their normal flights from Lagos.
The Secretary General of Aviation Round Table, a think-tank group in the industry, Group Captain John Ojikutu (retd), told THISDAY that considering the long, good relations Nigeria has with the UK, putting Nigeria on red list was condemnable.
He said that diplomatic relations was guided by the principle of reciprocity, noting that Nigeria could ban UK nationals but not British Carriers, as UK did not ban Nigerian carriers, but Nigerian citizens.
Ojikutu added: “What economic sense would it make for BA to be coming to Nigeria under its COVID-19 rules when 90 per cent of its inbound and outbound passengers are Nigerians?”
NARD: Omicron Not as Deadly to Warrant Flight Restrictions
However, the National Association Resident Doctors (NARD) has said studies were yet to be concluded on the virulent nature of the Omicron variant, saying based on what is known currently, the virus strain was yet to claim many lives to warrant rush to impose travel ban.
NARD also urged the federal government to take proper measures to protect Nigerians and check further spread of Omicron variant as well as any other infectious diseases.
Speaking in a telephone interview with THISDAY, the President of NARD, Dr. Dare Godiya Ishaya said there was no need for panic.
When asked if the Omicron variant was not a serious health threat to humanity, Ishaya said: “Well, from a scientific point of view, it’s difficult to say because this variant of COVID-19 is only being studied and we don’t know for sure, how virulent it is. However, with what is known, the variant hasn’t claimed any lives yet, it may be a milder form than the existing variants hence these bans may be a storm in a teacup.
“On the other hand, countries have the responsibility of protecting their people and if the UK authorities feel this ban will help their people, we can’t question that.
“It’s left for us also to take measures that will protect Nigerians from COVID-19 and other diseases.”
CACOVID Urges Nigerians to Get Vaccinated
The Coalition Against COVID-19 (CACOVID) also appealed to Nigerians not to let their guard down in the fight against the virulent virus.
CACOVID which is a coalition of private sector operators, mostly financial institutions and the Central Bank of Nigeria, urged Nigerians to ensure they make themselves available to take the vaccines and also adhere to all COVID-19 protocols.
“The organisation also appealed to those who are yet to take their second dose of the vaccine to do so in order to be fully immunised against the virus.
“CACOVID continues to support the NCDC in its cause to eradicate COVID-19 in all spheres of the country through the dissemination of helpful communication materials that’ll sensitise Nigerians against the virus as well as provision of equipment crucial to the fight. Support the cause, do your part, get vaccinated today,” it added.
According to the group, just when it seemed like a semblance of normalcy was returning to the world after a grueling battle with COVID-19, yet another variant of the virus simply known as Omicron reared its head.
“The variant which was first identified by scientists in South Africa on November 24, 2021, has been labelled a “variant of concern” (VOC) by the World Health Organisation. While further epidemiological studies are currently underway to better understand the virus, current findings have revealed that Omicron has several mutations that may greatly impact its spread and the severity of illness it causes.
“The strain has been detected in at least 20 countries, including Belgium, Hong Kong, Israel, Germany, Australia, the United Kingdom and very recently,
“Nigeria as reported by the National Center for Disease Control (NCDC). In its report, the organisation elaborated that the cases were recent arrivals in the country with a history of travel to South Africa in the past week. It stated that follow up to ensure isolation, linkage to clinical care, contact tracing and other relevant response activities have commenced.
“Since the news of the outbreak, many countries, Nigeria inclusive, have reacted swiftly by placing a raft of travel restrictions and protocols. For all inbound travellers to Nigeria, it is mandatory to present a negative COVID-19 test result done not more than 48 hours before departure,” it added.
Biden’s Medical Adviser Urges Nigerians to Take Booster Jabs
This is just as yesterday, the Chief Medical Adviser to United States President, Dr. Anthony Facci, who in a virtual presentation addressed stakeholders at the National COVID-19 Summit held at the National Intelligence Agency, Abuja, canvassed for the use of booster doses in Nigeria to provide extra layer of protection against COVID-19.
Continuing, Facci, who is the Director, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the US, said statistics showed that 95 -96 per cent of vaccinated people, who received boosters got better than those not boosted.
He called on the US to partner with Nigeria to ensure that more people are vaccinated as much as possible.
Facci, who said it was a great honour to address the National COVID-19 Summit, decried the low number of persons who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 in Nigeria compared with that of the US.
According to him while the percentage of fully and partially vaccinated persons in the US was 69 per cent, the percentage of fully and partially vaccinated persons in Nigeria was still as low as 2.9 per cent.
The US Ambassador to Nigeria, Mary Beth Leonard also underlined the strength of the partnership between the United States and Nigeria in the fight against COVID-19.
While urging Nigerians to take COVID-19 vaccines, she said the US government has contributed more than $130 million towards fighting the pandemic in Nigeria.
Also speaking at the summit, the Chairman Presidential Steering Committee on COVID-19, Mr. Boss Mustapha said the pandemic had become the most significant public health emergency in the world with the WHO estimates putting the number of fatalities at about five million.
He put the number medical personnel trained on infection, prevention and control at 40,000, while the total number of samples tested to date was 3,580,510 of which 214,662 persons were confirmed cases.
Mustapha, who is also the Secretary to the Government of the Federation said 2,980 deaths attributed to COVID-19 were recorded in Nigeria.
He said Nigeria had experienced the third wave while a fourth wave was unfolding with the Omicron variant.
He said with the best of efforts, the country, had so far been able to access 12 million doses of vaccines going into the third phase of the vaccines roll out while more is expected to be available by the end of February 2022.
Currently, according to him, 3,775,500, or 3.4 per cent of target population was fully vaccinated with second dose while 7,080,878, or 6.3 per cent of targeted eligible population had been partially vaccinated.
“The emergence of the omicron variant of concern highlights how fragile and vulnerable we are globally. It is therefore important that we maintain pressure on the COVID-19 virus until we deny it the opportunity to continue to circulate and mutate.
“Our overall focus will be to scale up vaccination of our population to reach targets set by the WHO. Nigeria needs to continue to implement public health and social measures in place combined with effective vaccination now that we are getting the vaccines,” he said.
He, however, lamented that with the emergence of Omicron, Nigeria, like some other countries have become targets of restrictive measures.
Meanwhile, the President of the Senate, Senator Ahmed Lawan has lashed the Minister of Health, Dr. Osagie Ehanire; the Minister of State for Health, Dr. Olorunimbe Mamora, and the Permanent Secretary, Mahmuda Mamman, for not attending the summit.
Lawan, who declared open the summit, said the two ministers and the Permanent Secretary ought to be physically present at the summit to garner all the sources that will come out of the event.
He said their presence was vital as the Presidential Steering Committee on COVID-19, was an interventionist outfit.
Even though Ehanire was briefly sighted at the summit, Lawan insisted another senior official should have replaced him to demonstrate the seriousness of the event.
“Before I begin my remarks, is the Permanent Secretary Ministry of Health here? Well, I asked that question because the two ministers of health are not here. The Minister of Health, the Minister of State and the permanent secretary are not here. I believe this is not good.
Because everything we do here, the federal Ministry of Health is supposed to be here to garner all the resources that will come out of this. The PSC is simply an interventionist outfit. And as politicians and political leaders, we are supposed to be very serious and committed about the health of our people,” Lawan said.
He assured that whatever is needed to fight COVID-19 will be provided in the 2022 budget that will be passed by the Senate.
The Senate President called for a continuous multisectoral approach that integrates multiple work plan and collaboration to establish a sustainable bio security framework for the country, noting that recent experience has also shown that outbreak of diseases affects not only the health sector but also the social – economic sector of the nation.
Also, a professor of virology, Oyewale Tomori, in a paper titled: “Global Health Security Threat: Repositioning to End the Pandemic and Build Back Better,” cited corruption, lack of patriotism, self-interest and shameless as the main destroyer of the country.
“Over the last 60 years, these diseases, all affecting our culture, have become the combined endemic demolisher of the foundation of our individual health security which has shaken the foundation of our national health security and in turn determined our irrelevance as a nation in contributing meaningfully to global health security.
“Today, we lie to each other. The government lies to us, and we reciprocate with bigger lies, telling the government it is doing well, when we know it is not. We clap with the loudest ovation for a non- performing leader. We acclaim in pretended joyous ecstasy, those we should not, even when we know they are not telling the truth. We pray that our king lives forever, and he says amen, when we both know we shall all die,” Tomori added.
The virologist also said he was disappointed to learn that there was Omicron in Nigeria from outside, based on the report issued by Canadian authorities.
He said: “I woke up today to hear the Canada no longer recognises my genuine vaccination card. And Britain has clamped a travel ban on us. A few days ago, I had to know there was Omicron in Nigeria from outside.
“The same Canada was telling me that Nigerians who travelled out with negative COVID lab result were Omicronised, before my own CDC finally tells me that we had the variant, detected in samples collected from people recently travelled from South Africa….were they people on the entourage of President Ramaphosa. They did not tell.
“We painfully call the reactions of the UK and Canada, racism, inequity. But I say we are paying for condoning our errors of commission and overlooking our errors of omission,” he argued.
Regarding the production of vaccines locally, the one-time President of Nigeria Academy of Sciences (NAS) said the current generation of Nigerians are much smarter than the older generation, adding that if given the enabling opportunity and environment Nigeria will be donating vaccines to poor countries.
“The first epidemic we must address is the one affecting our culture. We must have a nation where national interest buries self-interest. Otherwise, this summit will become a mirage and a vapour, it will be burnt to ashes by the fire of evil that plagues us. Unless we build back better on our culture, the outcome of the summit will descend into the valley of the disregarded and disremembered, and become another expensive exercise in futility,” he said.