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Temperatures rise over Nigeria’s health bills
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Temperatures rise over Nigeria’s health bills

As one of the countries in Africa hardest hit by the coronavirus, Nigeria is pushing through new health legislation to replace old laws dating back to 1926. Although most citizens understand the need to replace old laws to reflect new health challenges, Omeye Chimaobi Kenechukwu, a 24-year-old Commonwealth Correspondent from Nigeria, raises concerns about human rights infringements in the proposed bills as well as the government’s spending priorities in the face of a pandemic.

Coronavirus has brought uncertainties to the world as nations and institutions battle to survive and to innovate against future pandemics. Nigeria is one of the hardest-hit countries in Africa, with over 12,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 480 people dead, according to the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC). 

Nigeria’s healthcare system is still operating under the Quarantine Act of 1926. Since it was established during colonial times, in a way it is archaic and does not cater for some of the realities of current health challenges.

In 2018, another law came into effect: the NCDC Act of 2018. Among other things, this legislation sought to protect Nigerians from the impact of communicable diseases and ensure coordination of public health preparedness, surveillance, laboratory, and response functions for all infectious diseases. It also empowered the NCDC to lead Nigeria’s implementation of International Health Regulations as well as communicating on health issues such as pandemics and epidemics.

In late April, Nigeria’s House of Representatives introduced a bill to replace the Quarantine Act with the Control of Infectious Disease Act 2020. This was followed by another bill by the Nigerian Senate, the National Health Emergency Bill 2020, which passed its first reading in early May. 

The two bills have divided the country and are not widely supported by Nigerians and other civil society and human rights organisations. While there is a need for laws to tackle national health emergencies, they must offer the necessary human rights protections, especially of vulnerable groups, and must abide by principles of necessity. 

For instance, in the Senate bill, excessive power is given to the Director-General of the NCDC. Issues of concern range from compulsory vaccination and forced release of medical records of patients suspected to be infected to the detention of people suspected to be carrying an infectious disease, and forced medical examination of suspected infectious people.

There is widespread concern about the head of a disease control agency being granted such powers. There are allegations of no consultation with relevant stakeholders to review the bill.

“What Nigerians are yearning for is a better healthcare system, a good economy, security of life and property, not legislation that will compromise their fundamental human rights.”

What is puzzling is the sudden demand for legislation by both houses. No bill in Nigeria has been pushed with this kind of speed. This has led to allegations about millions of dollars in bribes being offered by a foreign organization to ensure these bills are passed. The Speaker of the House has denied this, and investigations have started to establish if there is any truth to this. 

Another allegation is that the bill was copied verbatim from the Singapore Disease Act 1977, which may not suit Nigeria because of the differences between the two nations. The truth is if these bills are passed, they are likely to be challenged.

What Nigerians are yearning for is a better healthcare system, a good economy, security of life and property, not legislation that will compromise their fundamental human rights. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the same two houses proposing the bills are currently asking for 27 billion Naira (£56 million) to renovate their complex, instead of revamping hospitals across Nigeria.

The National Assembly is projected to receive 115 billion Naira (£237 million) this year, whereas the Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC) and Basic Health Care Provision Fund (BHCF) are expected to receive only 51 billion Naira (£105 million) and 25 billion Naira (£51 million) respectively. 

But how right is this? Why are capital projects in health sectors being cut in a pandemic? Finally, why are allocations to UBEC and BHCF tied to revenue performance while allocations to the Presidency, National Assembly, and the National Judicial Council guaranteed? This is what we expect our lawmakers to address.

Legislators have said there is no going back on the passage of the bills. However, I think they should consult the public as well as health, legal experts, and civil society organisations. 

In my view, it would be best if the existing NCDC Act of 2018 is amended or if a new bill is created that ensures the protection of Nigerians’ basic fundamental human rights.

Photo credit: Sunday Alamba/The Commonwealth Asset Bank

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About me: I am a Geology graduate of the University of Nigeria. I’m currently a renewable energy (solar) mini-grid data analyst with a leading renewable energy firm in Nigeria and, most importantly, a lover of writing. The degradation of Nigeria has been of major concern to me and I hope to make a huge impact on the development of my country by writing and telling the truth even when it seems hidden. I love my career (geology), environment, renewable energy, politics and football.

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Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Commonwealth Youth Programme. Articles are published in a spirit of dialogue, respect and understanding. If you disagree, why not submit a response?
To learn more about becoming a Commonwealth Correspondent please visit: http://www.yourcommonwealth.org/submit-articles/

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