As the lockdown in Nigeria is gradually eased and the executive arm of the government continues to introduce measures of improving the economy, the Nigerian lawmakers are saddled with the challenge of managing the backlash that have erupted from WHO’s confirmation of Nigeria’s request to be one of the countries to participate in the first batch of clinical trial for COVID-19 vaccine.
Dr Fiona Braka, WHO Country Representative in Nigeria confirmed Nigeria’s position at the briefing of Presidential Task Force on COVID-19. She explained ‘We do have the solidarity trial which is an international clinical trial to help find an effective treatment for Covid-19, launched by the WHO and partners. Nigeria has also expressed interest to be part of this solidarity trial and efforts are underway to start the process in Nigeria’
Nigeria’s move to join the ‘solidarity trial’ was generally regarded as a responsible decision amongst the comity of nations. The WHO’s statement was immediately followed by swift action of the Nigerian law makers when Hon. Gbajabiamila, Speaker of the House of the Representatives, sponsored a bill titled, ‘Control of Infectious Disease Bill’ which rapidly passed the first and second reading in less than 48 hours.
According to diplomatic analysts, the unusual action of the House of Representative has beclouded any positive intentions of the WHO. It brought immediate condemnation and public outcry from more than 35 Civil Society Organizations and concerned Nigerians who felt there was a sinister intention by the lawmakers based on some fundamental arguments.
While many experts believe that WHO trial testing is a positive step in the speed to roll out a vaccine for COVID-19, there are two burning questions many Nigerians are asking: why are the countries mostly affected by COVID-19 not selected for the trial testing, considering the fact that the virus was not prevalent in Africa? Second, why is the House of Representative in such a ‘desperate’ hurry to indirectly enforce WHO testing under such a stringent legislation?
In fairness to the lawmakers, the existing Quarantine Law in Nigeria is now obsolete, ineffective and does not represent current life realities. However, while the proposed bill is designed to control infectious disease in the country, some of the provisions of the law are widely regarded as offensive and against fundamental human right of the citizens.
According to Gbajabiamila, the proposed legislation seeks to strengthen the Nigerian Center for Disease Control (NCDC) and make it ‘more proactive and not just reactive and function when there is an outbreak’. It is also structured to empower the President, the Minister of Health, as well as DG of NCDC and the institutions they head to make regulation on quarantining, vaccination and prevention of infectious diseases in Nigeria.
On their part, the concerned public are worried about various sections of the Bill that provides for compulsory vaccination, compulsory testing, giving total right of detention, stiff penalty for non-compliance, travel restrictions, plus other wide-ranging provisions that takes away the right of choice or options from the citizens.
While all stakeholders agree that Control of Infectious Disease bill is necessary; those who oppose the bill say it is draconian and a copied legislation of Singapore’s Infectious Diseases Act of 1976.
Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu, the DG of NCDC has also commented on the bill; stating that while there is a need to repeal the existing law, the House should be cautious in rushing to legislate at the present time.
Following the public outcry, the House of Rep has withdrawn the bill; agreeing to re-introduce it after full consultations and public hearing.
However the new bill is crafted; the school of thought that echoes the sinister conspiracy theory will continue to trail the trial testing of COVID-19 vaccine in Nigeria. Although it is quite clear that WHO trial testing has nothing to do with the legislation, theorists believe that the legislation was intended to make WHO trial testing compulsory and the actions of the legislators have moreso, fuelled that conspiracy theory.
Whether the decision to withdraw and re-introduce the bill will reverse the conspiracy theory and thereby encourage willing volunteers to be part of WHO trail testing, or not, will be seen in days and weeks to come.