The fear of security personnel and task force teams in the five Southeast states of Nigeria is greater than concerns about infection with COVID-19, a HumAngle investigation has revealed.
Travelling through four of the five – Enugu, Ebonyi, Imo and Anambra -, HumAngle found that the people live in doubt about the novel coronavirus infection. However, they reluctantly strap face masks on their jaws for fear of arrest and exploitation by security personnel and task force teams set up by state governments to ensure compliance with rules against the spread of the virus infection.
HumAngle also found that all the safety guidelines introduced by the Presidential Task Force (PTF), Nigeria Centre for Disease Control and World Health Organisation to curtail the virus infection are ignored by the populace who believe stories about the pandemic are false and a scheme by the government to appropriate national resources.
At public places such as markets, hotels, health facilities, motor-parks, police stations, banks, government offices and shopping malls, no provisions are made for hygiene and other safety measures, including temperature check.
Amaka (not her real name), a customer service officer in a hotel in Abakaliki, the Ebonyi State capital, said, “COVID-19 has ended. There is nothing like that anymore.”
And contrary to the advice of PTF, the hotel where Amaka works do not conduct temperature checks or insist on the workers and guests wearing face masks.
And although the hotel placed a bucket of water before the reception, the facility is never used by guests or staff members who do not insist on anyone using it. The hotel does not also provide hand sanitisers for people in the environment.
At the National Obstetric and Fistula Hospital in Abakaliki, while there is a bucket of water at the entrance gate located about 500 metres from the main building, there is no one insisting that those entering wash their hands or sanitise before entering.
Also, there is no temperature check at the hospital gate and no hand sanitisers for anyone to use, while staff and visitors, including commercial motorcycle riders, who convey passengers into the premises do not wear face masks.
Similarly at motor-parks in all states visited, there are no temperature checks, provision for handwashing and hand sanitisers, a situation which prevails at bank premises where crowds gather at Automated Teller Machines without social distance rules.
At Nigeria Police headquarters in Awka, Anambra State, while those entering the premises are subjected to temperature check at the entrance gate, no sanitisers are provided for use although those entering are required to put on face masks.
In Imo State, those coming into the premises of a major mission hospital on the outskirts of Owerri, the state capital, the situation which prevails at the National Obstetric Centre in Abakaliki also exists except that commercial motorcyclists do not operate.
Only at Shoprite Mall in Owerri are people required to abide by all rules and provisions made for compliance. Before entering the mall, everyone is subjected to wash their hands under running taps at the entrance door, get sanitised and their temperatures checked.
HumAngle found that apart from insisting that everyone wear face masks, traders in shops at the mall also provide sanitisers for customers, while further temperature check and sanitisation are conducted at the main trading floor of the mall.
Meanwhile, security personnel and task force teams in the states are exploiting the obduracy and scepticism among the people over the virus outbreak to intimidate and extort them.
While many carry face masks, which hang on their chins to avoid harassment by security personnel and task force teams whenever they are approached, those who do not have them are fined and forced to buy from emergency face mask vendors nearby their operation zones.
Cashing in on the negative attitude of the people to the pandemic, the teams impose fines on violators of the guideline on the use of face masks outside their brief.
Monies realised through such fines are, however, not accounted for and so with monies paid to security men at checkpoints over the violation of the rule.
The development has raised concern in the governments of Imo and Anambra states both of which have distanced themselves from the practice.
Last week, the Governor of Anambra State, Mr Willie Obiano, warned against the act and directed law enforcement agents to arrest and prosecute those involved.
In a state broadcast, the governor said: “Ndi Anambra, I have been reliably informed that a group of criminals parading in fake COVID-19 Task Force uniforms have been arresting people and extorting huge sums of money from them while posturing as working for the government of Anambra State.
“These tricksters are reported to be very active in places like Onitsha, Nkpor and Obosi. I wish to make it categorically clear that the only agencies authorized to enforce the Anambra State COVID-19 Law are the members of OCHA Brigade and ATMA.
“Any other agency or group of people masquerading as COVID-19 Task Force on the streets of Anambra State is fake.
“And I want to quickly warn these fake operators that the Anambra State Police Command has been directed to search for, arrest and prosecute anybody masquerading as a COVID-19 Task Force operator in our dear state. To be forewarned is to be forearmed!”
Similarly, the Imo State Task Force on COVID-19 distanced itself from those imposing fines on violators of COVID-19 guidelines.
In a statement signed by Prof. Maurice Iwu, the Chairman of the task force, the team said it had not approved such activity.
It stressed that it employed persuasive approach rather than force in its activities and advised the people not to allow themselves to be intimidated by such groups.
HumAngle learnt that in Imo State the task force mobilised different stakeholders, including transport groups, to help mobilise their members toward compliance with the COVID-19 safety guidelines.
A member of the team, Mr Vitus Ekeocha, who is also the State Director of National Orientation Agency, said the decision to involve the groups was to ensure buy-in for the campaign against the spread of the virus infection for effective results.
Ekeocha said unfortunately many of the groups went outside the brief to impose fines.
HumAngle observed that in buses and cabs, while people strap face masks on their chins or keep them in their pockets and bags, they pull them over their faces once they notice the presence of security or task force team members.
However, some youths resist the teams once approached for not wearing face masks and often fights ensued.
Ekeocha said the problem was how to win over the youths who were sceptical about the reality of the situation.