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Our COVID-19 story — Cross River Health Commissioner

Our COVID-19 story — Cross River Health Commissioner

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Cross River is one of the two states laying claim to being COVID-19 free. The other state is Kogi.  The Cross River State Commissioner for Health, Dr. Beta Edu, who reiterated that claim on Wednesday, in this interview with PAUL UKPABIO, explained the issues surrounding that claim, the steps the state took and why she feels other states need to borrow a leaf from Cross River. She also shared with us some interesting aspects of her personal life.. Excerpts:

Do you really think that COVID-19 deserves all the attention presently being given to it when Africa has other equally deadly medical issues like malaria, Lasser fever and others?

Yes it does. The mode of transmissibility and the speed of spread calls for a lot of caution. Countries with strong health systems have been unable to prevent COVID-19 deaths of many in their countries not to talk of countries with weak health systems. Furthermore, the virus is novel, with little researches available; so everyone is still struggling with a clear understanding of the public health implications. Unlike other diseases with lots of researches available, with clear understanding on how to manage them. However, we must not neglect the other diseases that affect our population as case fatality rate for COVID-19 still remains low compared to malaria and so on.

Furthermore, it is important to state that what you call “noise” in respect to COVID-19 is due to the fact that first, it is a pandemic; meaning it affects all continents of the world, with high case fatality, mortality and morbidity and sadly with no vaccines nor generally acceptable forms of treatment. Thus COVID-19 in comparison with other pressing medical issues as you mentioned, is an emerging infectious disease that needs to be treated as a priority, needing all the necessary attention required to contain it.

Till date, is Cross River still COVID-19 free?

There is no case of COVID-19 as at today (Wednesday) in Cross River State. And this was even confirmed on Monday when the leader of the NCDC team, Dr. Omobolanle Olowu, lauded the state governor, Sen. Ben Ayade, for his strong leadership in the battle against the pandemic, by successfully keeping it away from Cross River State. On behalf of the Federal Government, Dr. Olowu strongly commended Governor Ben Ayade, and his energetic team, who started response in January when others still lived in denial. Our governor was proactive in shutting down borders, screening visitors and suspected cases and initiating the ‘no mask no movement’ campaign in Nigeria.

I am proud of the level of compliance with the ‘no mask no movement’ policy of the government. And I believe that other states have a lot to learn from Cross River State in this regard.

What else did you do to ensure you got it right?

We insisted on the best practices for Nigeria. The government produced facemasks, face shields, PPEs in its garment factory. We also embarked on contact tracing, surveillance and testing which was done by the state. And we worked hand in hand with the University of Calabar Teaching Hospital.

Has the ‘no mask no movement’ policy yielded good result?

Sure! The government of Cross River State under the leadership of Sen. Prof. Ben Ayade has shown effective leadership in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. We are the first state in Nigeria to invent the ‘no mask no movement’ policy” and it is evident that the nation as well as other states are already copying our model. The idea of the policy is simple:  look in Africa and in Nigeria specifically, it is difficult to maintain social distancing, which is one of the standards in contending this pandemic. It is a bit difficult to tell an uneducated market woman to keep one meter away from a customer. It is unrealistic to tell people in rural communities to keep social distancing. Yes, social distancing is good and we encourage that, but we must understand our African culture; our settings won’t support such policies. Hence, as a proactive government that is practical and futuristic in nature and understands the challenges of the people, Governor Ayade brought the policy of ‘no mask, no movement’.

The scientific rationale behind this policy is simple: research has shown that a COVID-19 carrier without a nose mask has a 70% transmission probability to a healthy contact with face mask. Whereas a COVID-19 carrier with face mask has just five percent transmission probability to a healthy contact without a face mask. But a COVID-19 carrier with a face mask has transmission probability of just 1.5% to a healthy contact with facemask. If you evaluate the statistics given above, you will simply agree with me that there is no better strategy than the compulsory use of face mask by everyone in response to COVID-19.

And so far with Cross River State recording zero case, this status justifies our policy of ‘no mask no movement’ and we simply recommend this policy in Africa and beyond. We are not just recommending the policy, we have one of the biggest garment factories with manpower in Africa that favour mass production of face masks. Hence, interested states can procure from the Cross River State Garment Factory at a very cost effective prize.

For those who don’t know, what palliative measures did the state come up with for the people and how successful has it been?

For Cross River State, the palliative is not just rice, yam garri and so on. Of course, we bought that for the elderly, the physically challenged and so on. However, the real palliative was the 10,000 jobs created by the Governor of Cross River State, Sen. Ben Ayade, to fully engage the burning energy in the youth of the state. To properly channel same to agriculture, environment, manufacturing, security etcetera.

Furthermore, I will like to give you a rundown of what we have done so far. As a state, we have carried out numerous interventions with sensitive palliatives in ensuring that the disease does not find its way into our state, vis-a-viz manage the outbreak in case of eventuality.

First, we set up and inaugurated the State Emergency Operation Center (EOC) and carried out state wide training of health personnel responsible for a state wide sensitisation campaign to communities and hard-to-reach areas engaging services of town criers etc. We also engaged radio and television stations across the state for state wide continuous radio and television jingles on COVID-19 and ways of preventing it.

Thereafter, we set up and equipped the isolation centers at UCTH, Tinapa and Ogoja LGA as well as organised six-hourly daily drills for health workers in those isolation centers in collaboration with UCTH. We quickly inaugurated the state COVID-19 Task Force Committee, which was done by His Excellency, Sen Prof. Ben Ayade, after which I constituted and inaugurated COVID-19 Adhoc Committee, including medical professionals, military, the para-military and civil societies.

As the tension in Nigeria was growing, and our people started panicking, we set up the CRSMOH COVID-19 Emergency Response Center (situation room) with  toll free lines running for 24 hours daily. We then moved on to the procurement of ventilators and other equipment for the state isolation centers. We started massive production and distribution of over 200,000 hand sanitisers free of charge to Cross Riverians and residents and that production is still ongoing. Then came our policy on ‘no mask no movement’ with production and free distribution of over one million facemasks from the state-owned garment factory across the state, interestingly still free of charge. It is important to also state that the state House of Assembly has also passed a law which empowers our policies. So, the policy is not just executive order but one that is backed by law.

We have also procured and distributed food items to poor households across the state as part of our palliatives to cushion the effect of the pandemic on our people. Just to add that we have locked/closed all borders both local and international borders in the state as well as the Margret Ekpo International Airport. The state has released funds and 50 new branded vehicles for the fight against COVID-19 by the Cross River State Government. We are currently recruiting over 8000 volunteers. Other palliatives, policies and programmes are on the pipe line and will not want to let the cat out of the bag yet.

What do you think has influenced your choice as, first of all, the Director- General of Cross River State Primary Health Care Development Agency Education, a Special Adviser to the Government on Community Health Education and now the Commissioner for Health? What challenges did you face, and presently facing in each of the positions?

The favour of God, passion, skills, medical qualification and exposure, dedication to service, love for humanity, youthful energy and innovative thinking amongst other attributes have influenced my choice.

In all the positions, I have occupied, I work very hard and focus on end results. All I do is to keep my focus and give in my best in every task or responsibility given to me and wherever I find myself.

There have been numerous challenges at various stages, from understanding politics to leading at a very young age, to being a woman in position of authority and all the pressures of gender disparity. It’s been an interesting learning process with great teachers and mentors, my governor, Sen Ayade, and his quintessential wife, Dr Linda Ayade, who as parents have carefully schooled me. I am blessed with a principal, Sen. Prof. Ben Ayade, who understands the importance of health and has made a lot of sacrifice to invest in the health sector in the state.

How are you coping with office pressure and challenges?

I am a medical doctor, so working under pressure is not new to me. I am coping and doing just fine. With support and encouragement from all angles, we will continue to make a difference.

Having been in government now, are you going to go deeper into politics?

I don’t have any intention to go into politics.  I’m a technocrat and I would like to grow as such. However, I’m a strong advocate for women’s participation in politics.

As a woman, do you think politics is a dirty game?

It all depends on your perspective about politics and how you play it. Politics is technical and demands a whole lot of caution but saying it’s dirty, no! I strongly believe that the right people should lead and the society should offer opportunities to young persons who want to make a difference. We need to allow the wish of the masses to override the interest of a favoured few.

What prompted you into the medical profession?

I just love to help weak people. I grew up as a missionary; it shaped my thinking and perspective; the passion to see mankind devoid of any sickness or health challenges. The passion to help people has always been my motivation.

As a child, what were your dreams? Who did you hope to be like in the future?

I dreamt of making the world a better place for all. My desire is to become a United Nations Secretary General. By Gods grace, I will get there, not for the status but for the opportunity to change lives globally.

Most often, people in the medical profession marry people in the medical profession, is that the case with you?

No. I still feel medicine is too stringent, boring and stereotyped. I needed someone outside my field. I can’t discuss patients all day, then go home and continue. I needed some spice. I found someone outside my field of study thankfully.

Tell us something about your fashion and style?

I’m not a fan to big styles and fashion but that doesn’t mean I am archaic. I dress simply and comfortably. A beautiful woman doesn’t need too much drama; dress right for the occasion and keep it simple bearing in mind that you are a role model to your generation.

If you were not in the medical profession, what else would you have loved to be?

A musician and a pilot. I haven’t given up on these two. I will definitely fly a plane some day. For music, it heals my soul and eases the stress.

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Lil Jay K

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