An investigation into some healthcare facilities in Abuja, Nigeria’s Federal Capital Territory, showed how some health workers collected money and issued COVID-19 cards to people without vaccination, Olaleye Aluko reports.
Akin Niniola, an Ondo State government worker, clutched a COVID-19 vaccination card to his chest with the same enthusiasm expected from a graduate who got an appointment letter.
For weeks, if not up to a month, the threats of the Ondo State Government to bar unvaccinated civil servants from offices rang in his head, and he sought desperately from friends and people around him for a way out until he was offered one.
Niniola (not their real name) belonged to the class of government workers who believed they shouldn’t be mandatorily vaccinated because they didn’t trust how “harmless” the vaccination was.
Therefore, to save himself from the devil and the deep blue sea, Niniola who stays with his family in the FCT was “advised” to approach a health center in Kubwa, where he would obtain a vaccination card if he was ready to pay.
And so, he did. With N15,000 – paid strictly and secretly in cash – to a health worker, Niniola was given a COVID-19 vaccination card. He was never vaccinated.
“I don’t have an option. It was since the beginning of August 2021 that the news started filtering around that they wanted us to get cards to be able to work. Card, where? Must you take the vaccine? Must everyone?” Niniola stated in an interview with SaharaReporters.
“I work with the Ondo State government. They now released a circular that any worker without evidence of taking COVID-19 vaccination will not be allowed into the government’s offices as of November 1, 2021.
“Our state Head of Service gave the directive at a meeting with top civil servants in Akure. That was when everyone started running helter-skelter to get one. Fine, if you want a vaccination, go for it. If you don’t, go for the card and pay for it,” he added.
According to findings, the sharp practices went on – although with varying amounts of money and shades of initial reluctance – at the Primary Healthcare Centre, Kubwa, the Primary Healthcare Centre, Dutse Alhaji; the Primary Healthcare Centre, Bwari Primary Healthcare Centre, Bwari; the Chikakore Clinic, Bwari; the PHC, Dutse Makaranta, and the General Hospital, Kubwa.
Others were; the Gbazango Community Primary Health Center, Kubwa, Abuja; the Primary Health Center Shagari Quarters and the Primary Health Center, Old Deidei – all in the FCT.
According to infographics supplied by Citizens’ Gavel, a civic tech organization in Abuja, and shared with SaharaReporters, some persons interviewed at two health centers in the FCT also confirmed that money was being demanded COVID-19 vaccination cards without necessarily getting vaccinated.
“As reported by one of the respondents from the community, there was a case of fraud/malpractice where he was advised at two different health facilities that the vaccination card – which is proof that such a person has been vaccinated, could be procured without being vaccinated. He was charged a sum of N20,000 and N15,000, respectively,” Citizens’ Gavel report said.
The corruption was double-edged – it was a syndicate of desperate government workers and travelers who were willing to pay compromised government health workers to evade vaccination but get proof of vaccination.
To some of them, their jobs were on the line unless they produced the vaccination cards by all means.
SaharaReporters’ findings showed that sometime in October 2021, in a bid to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, some Nigerian states declared the COVID-19 Vaccination Card and compliance with its protocols as a gateway pass for government workers to their offices.
This was essential as the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) announced more deaths from the virus, bringing the country’s fatality toll to over 2,800 at that time.
Hence, the Chairman of the Presidential Steering Committee PSC on COVID-19 and Secretary to the Government of the Federation SGF, Boss Mustapha said: “With effect from 1st December 2021, Federal Government employees shall be required to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination or present a negative COVID-19 PCR test result done within 72 hours, to gain access to their offices, in all locations within Nigeria and our Missions. An appropriate service-wide advisory/circular will be issued to guide the process.”
Following the Federal Government’s directive, Ondo, Kaduna, and Edo were the first to domesticate such COVID-19 restrictions.
The Ondo State government said any worker without evidence of taking COVID-19 vaccination will not be allowed into the government’s offices as of November 1, 2021.
Also, the Kaduna State government said starting from October 31, civil servants who were yet to be vaccinated for COVID-19 would be denied access to government offices.
Meanwhile, the Edo State government earlier said from September 15, it would bar people yet to take the COVID-19 vaccine from gaining entry into government offices.
“Beginning from September 15, Civil servants and others without COVID-19 vaccination cards will not be allowed into public facilities. Government houses and public places will be manned by the task force.
“Those civil servants without the cards and those who have not been vaccinated will have to stay and work from home. This will be applicable in the 18 local government areas of the state. If you have to enter the state secretariat and other government offices, you must have your vaccination cards.
“The first phase of the enforcement is targeted at state government facilities. Those that cannot provide their COVID-19 vaccination cards may have to excuse us and be working from home, pending when a decision will be reached. As a state, we are doing everything possible to make sure that people don’t get infected,” the Edo Permanent Secretary of the state ministry of health, Osamwonyi Irowa, had explained.
The government stood by its words as civil servants and other residents who could not present their proof of vaccination were refused entry into their offices and the state secretariat on the said date.
But the rush for COVID-19 vaccination cards did not stop with government workers; it actually just started across a spectrum of people.
Speaking with SaharaReporters, one of the government health workers in Kubwa, identified only as Cecilia, said apart from government workers who thronged the centers, they had regular visitors from tertiary institutions, people embarking on holy pilgrimage, travelers, and a host of other “necessity applicants.”
“University and polytechnic students also come to pay and get the vaccination cards. We get more people who come for vaccination and get their cards, but a few of them don’t want to take the vaccines for their own personal reasons, but we can understand them and give them the cards. We don’t do it for everybody unless it is extremely important,” she said.
Of a truth, SaharaReporters confirmed that certain Nigerian tertiary institutions compelled students to have COVID-19 vaccination cards and this increased the illegal, booming “trade” of paying for vaccination cards nationwide.
In February 2022, the Moshood Abiola Polytechnic, Abeokuta, and the Olabisi Onabanjo University (OOU), Ago Iwoye – both in Ogun State – prevented their students from attending lectures without COVID-19 vaccination cards.
The move was said to be in compliance with the directives of the Ogun State Government and the management of the institutions. Meanwhile, expectedly, the affected students bemoaned the development, noting that they missed classes as a result of a lack of vaccination cards.
“I have already told them that nothing must happen to me as a result of this decision. This is totally unfair. Initially, I thought students were going to go on a protest, but I was so surprised when I saw people showing their vaccination cards.
“If all of us had insisted on fighting against the illegal imposition, they would not have gone away with it,” one of the students lamented.
Speaking for the institution, the polytechnic’s Public Relations Officer, Mr. Yemi Ajibola, who confirmed the development, said the move implied that the state government was intensifying the efforts to cushion the spread of the pandemic.
“It means that COVID-19 is still with us and Ogun State Government is seriously making effort to ensure that students get vaccinated. They came to the Polytechnic sometime ago for mass mobilization.
“Recently, they returned to the Polytechnic with many vaccination spots apart from the health center. We have about five spots now on campus. They are efforts geared towards ensuring that the students are vaccinated. All these points are not by the school authorities. It is from the State Government and ministry of health to ensure that we have everybody vaccinated,” he explained.
“So if so lecturers are now demanding their vaccination card. I don’t see anything wrong with it just to make sure that the environment is safe for everybody. I don’t see anything wrong with lectures asking them to be vaccinated.
“Most students who are complaining will be freshers because I know those returning students are aware of all this and most of them have gotten vaccinated even during or before the examination I think and for those who have not that are not returning, I think that’s not out of the case. Yes, the school is supporting the State Government’s directive that students should be vaccinated,” he added.
“So, some of those students in that category have to come to us,” Cecilia continued. “We are actually doing them a favor. We usually test those persons we issue the vaccination cards to in order to be sure that they have no symptoms.”
“Like I said earlier, pilgrims and travelers going to the Holy Lands come here to get the cards too. Even you need the cards by all means for holy things,” Cecilia said with a chuckle.
In Nigeria, findings showed that pilgrims were denied the right to travel over issues relating to COVID-19 vaccination and proof of vaccination.
In September 2021, seven intending Christian pilgrims from Bauchi State were prevented from embarking on the holy pilgrimage to Israel due to their refusal to be vaccinated with the COVID-19 vaccine.
The Executive Chairman of the Bauchi State Primary Healthcare Development Agency (BASPHCDA), Dr. Rilwanu Mohammed, condemned the skepticism shown by the people of the state towards the COVID-19 vaccination while confirming that some who did not take the vaccine wanted to be issued with vaccination cards.
He added that the fact that the intending Christian pilgrims could not make the trip to the holy land was an indication that the world was taking the issue of vaccination for the deadly COVID-19 pandemic seriously.
And in Lagos, it did appear the state government took it even more seriously.
In December 2021, the state governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, of Lagos State said residents must present their COVID-19 vaccination cards as a prerequisite to attending social gatherings in the state.
Little wonder because Lagos was worst hit by the pandemic and as a transit state, it contended with the highest number of quarantined persons as well as health logistics to be provided.
“Our State Mobile Courts will be used to prosecute all those involved in flouting the regulations; as well as those engaged in the fraudulent production of fake covid test results and vaccination certificates.”
“Every attendee of a social gathering must present their Vaccination Cards or digital bar code page showing at least first dose but preferably double dose full vaccination,” the governor had directed.
“Guests and service providers with high temperature (above 37.5) are to be politely turned back and referred to paramedics or the emergency response team on the ground.”
Meanwhile, a double tragedy was brewing for those seeking to get the COVID-19 vaccination cards without vaccination.
This was because further findings showed that when the demand for COVID-19 vaccination cards reached its peak in late 2021 and early months of 2022, the health workers and their syndicates resorted to issuing fake certificates just to rip money off the desperate groups of people.
“I don’t know about the fake vaccination cards. We don’t have it. I know not all who got the vaccination cards here were actually vaccinated. It is a “racket.” But I can say no one was given fake,” Abdullahi, another government health worker in the Dei-Dei area of FCT explained.
In September 2022, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), and the Port Health Services, Federal Ministry of Health, held a joint briefing in Abuja, where they disclosed that 422 persons were caught in the “double tragedy” between July and August 2022 – nabbed for having fake COVID-19 vaccination cards.
The Director, of Port Health Services, Geoffrey Okatubo, disclosed that although 96 percent of passengers coming to Nigeria were COVID-19 vaccinated, a high number of passengers coming and leaving the country turned up with fake COVID-19 vaccination cards.
To show the proportion of the infiltration of pay-money-for-vaccination cards and fake cards in circulation, the government official lamented that no fewer than 176 of such cases were recorded at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, in July and 246 at other airports in the country in August.
Confronted with this menace, the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), perhaps one of the few smart government agencies, decided to do the test and not only accept a vaccination card from corps members which could be “bought” or fake after all.
In February 2022, the NYSC insisted that everyone aiming to gain entrance into the NYSC camps must undergo a compulsory COVID-19 rapid diagnostics test, saying only those that tested negative would be admitted for the orientation course.
It was at a time the 2022 Batch A Stream 1 orientation exercise was getting set to begin across the camps in 36 states and Abuja.
The then NYSC Director-General, Maj Gen Shuaibu Ibrahim, stated that those that tested positive for COVID-19 would be handed over to the NCDC and State Ministry of Health Officials for treatment.
Findings by SaharaReporters showed that the activities of the corrupt health workers selling government vaccination cards were on some occasions brought to the attention of the authorities.
But it could not be verified yet if and what actions the government authorities took to sanitize the vaccination system and to punish the identified compromising health officials.
According to another infographic by Citizens’ Gavel, and shared with SaharaReporters, petitions were indeed received about health officials in Niger, Oyo, Abuja, and Lagos which were the states the civic tech organization monitored.
“Niger had seven petitions; Abuja had three; Oyo and Lagos had two each. These petitions were written to the agency monitoring the activities of primary healthcare facilities in each state where there was a case of corruption or malpractices; Primary Health Care Board/Agency and also copied to the Executive Director of the National Primary Health Care Development Agency,” Citizens Gavel said in its infographics.
SaharaReporters’ investigation showed that the ripple effects of this menace included that Nigeria could only vaccinate a little above 10 percent of its population against COVID-19, and it shows the vulnerability of the populace in the likely event of a variant or new strain.
Experts have been warning that Nigeria still has a long way to go, having vaccinated only 25 million or 12 percent of its population against the COVID-19 virus.
The experts further were united in their position that Nigeria had weak data collection methods in the healthcare systems and needed a more critical response to the pandemic and the preparedness for any future outbreak.
In an interview, a former National Coordinator of the Presidential Steering Committee on COVID-19 (PTF), Dr. Sani Aliyu, said, 5.4million persons had as of August 2022 undergone the Covid-19 test in Nigeria, out of which about 261,000 were confirmed positive and about 3,000 deaths were recorded.
He said, “If you look at the case fatality rate for people between ages 51 to 60, it was about 6.5%. In fact, if you are above the age of 60, you have a 1 in 7 chance of dying if you catch COVID-19. That’s significantly more than what we see in other parts of the world. Also, about 25 million Nigerians have been vaccinated as well. This is only about 12% of our population. So we still have a long way to go.”
“You cannot get on top of COVID without sorting out your vaccination arrangement. We need to get Nigerians vaccinated. It is the only way we can get on top of this. Yes, there are variants emerging that can overwhelm the system, but the presentation of illness in vaccinated people is very different. The approach is to make COVID a mild illness and that can only be achieved through vaccination. We need to get our economies working again. Lockdown is no longer an option neither is isolating people”, he said further.
On the training of healthcare workers, he said: “Over 20,000 healthcare workers in Nigeria were trained on infection prevention and control. We also trained over 62,000 persons on risk communication. We worked closely with the Ministry of Information and Culture and other agencies in charge of mobilization to mobilize 8,000 community volunteers to sensitize people in the villages about COVID.”
Another expert, Prof. Benjamin Nwosu, who is the Chief Endocrinologist at the Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New York, US, raised questions on Nigeria’s readiness for any future pandemic outbreak.
He talked about lack of funds, lack of proper integration of the healthcare systems, and lack of national will as factors that would hamper the country’s preparedness.
It remains to be seen how the Nigerian government can tackle the scourge of corruption among its health officials, and ensure accountability and probity not only in the vaccination and issuance of COVID-19 cards but also in other facets of national health life.