In these days of acute suspicion and uncertainty about who may be asymptomatic and who may just be harbouring early stages of COVID-19, sneaking in a “Control of Infectious Diseases Bill” and attempting to ram it through the legislative process is bound to generate controversies.
In a season where nose masks of various makes are devised; where the protective wear is quickly becoming a fashion statement among both citizens and top politicians; where public office holders wear medical grade masks and health workers have to make do with whatever they the can find, it is easy to see why Nigerians are edgy over this bill.
In a situation where the decayed infrastructure of our healthcare system has been exposed by the emergence of coronavirus, citizens are bound to wonder why the House of Representatives should rush a bill through first and second readings without some of the members even laying their eyes on the document. To further underscore the opacity of the process, there was an attempt to push the bill through without subjecting it to public hearing.
While the leadership may be right that public hearings are not mandatory in the legislative process, it cannot be denied that it is one of the markers of inclusion, openness and transparency.
The Senate has equally brought up its own bill to tackle the infectious disease problem. The big question is: why the sudden rush to enact laws on infectious diseases in the midst of a pandemic? Wisdom teaches that critical decisions should be made in conditions of sobriety and careful deliberation and not when law makers are in a panic mode.
We can excuse the legislators if they are driven by panic and love for the health of compatriots but if the rush is induced, then the baby may well be acutely premature.
Objections to the bill have come from civil society coalitions, faith-based organisations and the general public. A coalition of civil society groups issued a statement denouncing the bill and stated, among others, that the bill poses a threat to human rights and is an abuse of power. They also asserted that the bill shields officials of the agency for which it is being proposed from being held accountable.
An extract from their statement signed by 37 groups, including CISLAC and Amnesty International, is germane here: “The Control of Infectious Diseases Bill vests overbearing discretionary powers on the Director General of the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), while making no provision for reviewing and controlling the exercise of such powers. The bill empowers the NCDC to restrict fundamental rights and freedoms at will, and abuse constitutionally established institutions and processes, without any form of accountability. For instance, Section 10 (3) gives the Director General express powers to use force to enter any premises without warrant; Section 19 confers the Director General with powers to prohibit or restrict meetings, gatherings and public entertainments; Section 15(3e) also gives powers to the Director to authorise the destruction and disposal of any structure, goods, water supply, drainage etc. In addition, Section 47(1) confers discretionary powers on the Director General to order any person to undergo vaccination or other prophylaxis. All these powers can be abused for political and economic reasons if not properly checked.
“Section 71 of the bill absolves the Director General, any Health Officer, any Port Health Officer, any police officer or any authorised person of any liability when ‘acting in good faith and with reasonable care.’ The use of ‘good faith and reasonable care’ is ambiguous and subject to misuse, manipulation, and misinterpretation for personal gain. While the threat of infectious diseases may be apparent, measures deployed for their prevention must be within the ambits of the law and must protect citizens from wilful abuse of rights.”
Responding to criticisms of the bill, the Speaker of the House of Representatives reportedly said: “Since then there has been a barrage of criticisms and accusations, including allegations that the proposed bill is a product of inducement by foreign interests. The bill, which is still a proposal subject to consideration, amendment and improvement, has been assailed as a sinister attempt to turn Nigerians into guinea pigs for medical research while taking away their fundamental human rights.”
He went on to add that “none of these allegations is true. Unfortunately, we now live in a time when conspiracy theories have gained such currency that genuine endeavours in the public interest can quickly become mischaracterised and misconstrued to raise the spectre of sinister intent and ominous possibility.”
We indeed live in a season of conspiracy theories, but not all of these theories can be dismissed with a wave of the hand. Every theory requires interrogation. The House of Representatives has been accused of being induced by a gift of $10 million from the vaccine buff and noted philanthropist, Bill Gates.
While that allegation sounds outlandish, it is known that legislative processes in Nigeria and elsewhere are sometimes influenced by huge cash outlays. Such monies may be characterised as lobbying expenditure even though they exert huge inducement pressures on lawmakers.
The origin of the coronavirus has become both a subject of political and scientific controversies. The rush to open up businesses is needed for political ends but fits into the impatience and unwillingness of citizens to remain in a state of lockdown. No action is neutral, it seems. Not even philanthropy, and certainly not economic or medical aid.
Mr Gates has openly stated his interest in massive vaccination of peoples across the world, including by investing in seven anti-COVID-19 vaccine producing factories with the hope that probably two may eventually be approved and would yield incredible cash for his already deep pockets.
The pandemic has become a pivot for medical as well as financial speculators. International financial institutions and political blocks have seen the pandemic as a window for shuffling funds, extending their tentacles and building new spheres and modes of control and exploitation. For materials to aid further conversation on this, our report, “Who Benefits from Corona – a breakfast with Mr Gates”, may be useful.
The honourable members of the Nigerian Senate and House of Representatives still have time to redeem themselves from the self-inflicted injury caused by the bills. Nigerians have determined that the bills are pills they will not swallow except they are tied down hand and foot, with necks in stocks.
The pandemic is a disaster because the hazards brought by the coronavirus have met vulnerable populations with no social amenities and no health safety nets. Hospitals still lack basic equipment, including face masks! Some infectious disease hospitals are so decayed you would be right to say that they have not been rehabilitated since the colonial powers set them up over 100 years ago. Some of those facilities are foreboding mud structures that patients approach with extreme trepidation.
Imagine how quickly the mistrust the public has towards our legislators would be erased if they defer the bills, conduct further research, engage relevant stakeholders and draft bills that go beyond empowering the NCDC and Ministers of Health to ride roughshod over the people in the guise of fighting infectious diseases.
To cap that up, they can immediately move the N37 billion budgeted for the “renovation” of the National Assembly to the NCDC for the crucial fight against the pandemic to which they are so committed.
How many will say Aye to that proposal?
Nnimmo Bassey is Director, Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF)