During the height of the AIDS pandemic, I remember one of my professors in medical school telling us about the actual ‘People Living with HIV and AIDS’ (PLWHA) and the ‘people living on HIV and AIDS’. He explained to us that they were people who had benefited from the disease in the sense that they had received massive funding from government and international donor agencies where they were being paid in foreign currencies and therefore had suddenly hit the jackpot. While numerous people died in pain and misery, others profited handsomely from the opportunities that came with the infection. Sadly, it is a fact of life that with every recession (or in our case pandemic), a new set of millionaires (or billionaires) emerge. Hausa people say ‘Faduwan wani, tashin wani’.
The same is happening with the current pandemic.
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It started when I was informed that I would be travelling for a training in Accra, Ghana. Prior to that, COVID had halted all my travel ambitions. Patients who had symptoms or whom I suspected of having COVID-19 were sent to the COVID lab in the hospital where the tests were carried out. The test was free, with the results usually out within twenty-four hours. Therefore, when I was notified about the travel, I decided to take a stroll down to the lab to do the compulsory COVID-19 test 72 hours prior to my flight. Imagine my surprise when I was told that I couldn’t have the test done because ‘your test is for international travel purposes’.
See me see wahala!
Apparently the NCDC has issued a statement that all people travelling out of the country are to get their COVID-19 test at accredited private laboratories which are listed on their website https://covid19.ncdc.gov.ng/privatelabs/
NCDC Coronavirus COVID-19 Microsite
S/N. LABORATORY. STATE. TESTING PLATFORM. PHONE NUMBER. ADDRESS. 1. Accunalysis Medical Diagnostics. Anambra. Open PCR. 0816 765 8136. Anglecan Junction, Oba new Road … covid19.ncdc.gov.ng
. Their argument is that government cannot afford to cater to that large number of Nigerians travelling out of the country and so they outsourced the COVID test required for travel to accredited and registered private laboratories. And while this is true and may make sense, it is certainly not the whole story.
Let me break it down to you.
Worldwide, the average cost of a COVID test is $20 to $850, with $127 being the median cost. In Nigeria, the cost ranges from N25k to N50k depending on the type of test being done, the location, your ability to haggle and the poshness of the lab. Generally, the cost of carrying out COVID-19 PCR [polymerase chain reaction] tests is high, alongside the costs of running molecular laboratories where these tests are carried out,” Chikwe Ihekweazu, the former director-general of the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), told Al Jazeera. “This high cost is not unique to Nigeria alone.’’
It is, however, more prohibitive for Nigeria than for wealthier countries.
Forty per cent of Nigerians live below the poverty line, according to government figures. Some 20 per cent of Nigerian workers have lost their jobs to coronavirus pandemic disruptions and the country is still crawling out of its worst recession in four decades. Meanwhile, the annual rate of inflation – which topped 17 per cent in July – is eroding purchasing power, especially for poorer households. Most people cannot afford to pay 40,000 naira ($97) for one COVID-19 test. Imagine if you have to do several tests a month.
Therefore, the only way out for Nigeria, is to make private tests more within reach of its population so as to lessen dependence on federally funded testing.
Up until a few months ago, government laboratories equipped to test for COVID accepted all requests- whether they were for patients or for travel. The test for patients with suspected symptoms was free, with the result being given to the doctor or patient directly. Travellers however had to pay N40,000 and their result would be sent to the NCDC portal and sent via email which would be presented at the airport. That way, government could provide the test (freely) for those that really needed it (the sick) from funds generated by travellers.
Win-win situation, right? Wrong!
This arrangement had to be abandoned when travellers coming to government laboratories started to fake symptoms so that their tests would be done free of charge. When their results came out, they found a way to print the result on the NCDC letter head. People working in laboratories were granting favours to family and friends and before you could say ‘Chikwe Ihekweazu’ government started losing money up and down. It was like pouring water in a basket- as the government was using the funds to buy test kits, the money was leaking via our various corruption pipes. And so NCDC decided to put a halt to testing for travellers altogether and allow the private labs to handle it completely.
Suddenly, business opened for private laboratories. When I went for my test at a private lab, the sitting area outside was already jam-packed (albeit, with social distancing). All this talk of no money in the country- yet, everyone there was going to Saudi (Umrah), China (business) and UK (tourism). After filling the required form for purpose of travel and passport details, I was directed to a tastefully furnished reception where I was to pay via POS. The man said I was to pay N30,000 and while I removed my card, I jokingly asked ‘What? No discount for health care workers?’ I am my mother’s daughter. A true Nigerian.
Imagine my surprise when he replied: ‘Ok, Hajia, you can pay N28,000’. He did not even ask for my ID card.
Shior! I should have aimed for N25k! I did not know that the price could be negotiated!
While the receptionist worked the POS machine, I sneaked a peak at the register which lay on the desk. It had all our names and the amount paid by each person. Apparently, the price was based on factors like whom you knew and what car you drove in with, as the price I saw ranged from N25,000 to N40,000! In a professional setting fa! I thanked my lucky stars and proceeded to the testing area where I was asked to wait again. After about a 20-minute wait, that awful nasopharyngeal swab was forced down my nose and mouth (separate swabs of course) and the process was completed. My result was sent about eight hours later via email, complete with the NCDC barcode. A very seamless and efficient affair.
The fact cannot be denied that these private laboratories have made the process of travelling in this COVID era easier and transparent while making a handsome profit for themselves. At the airport, the barcode was scanned and we were allowed to board without hassle. Nevertheless, a part of me felt sad, when, upon arrival at Accra, the $50 dollars that I paid again at Kotoka airport, Accra was to the Ghana Health Services (GHS). What this means is that, while Ghana is generating revenue from travellers coming into the country, Nigeria is in fact, not. I understand that the demographics between our 2 countries are completely different, but it does not change the fact that, we have discarded yet another potential source of revenue for the country due to our negligence and corruption.
Another case of corruption fighting back.