Sunday Aborisade, Leke Baiyewu, Leye Aluko and Tunde Ajaja
A controversial bill sponsored by the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mr Femi Gbajabiamila, and two of his colleagues, seeking to empower the Federal Government to convert any property in the country, including private properties, to isolation centres has continued to attract criticisms.
Apart from members of the House who protested that they were not served copies while it was read at plenary on Tuesday, before it hurriedly passed first and second readings on the same day, lawyers and many other Nigerians have described the bill as draconian and suspicious.
Also on Friday, the bill trended on Twitter as there were accusations that the sponsors plagiarised the law on disease control in Singapore. Those who made the accusations, included the International Centre for Investigative Reporting, which alleged that over 90 per cent of the content was plagiarised from Singapore’s law.
The bill, titled, ‘Control of Infectious Diseases Bill 2020’, obtained by Saturday PUNCH on Thursday, was sponsored by Gbajabiamila, Pascal Obi and Tanko Sununu. They said the proposed law was designed to prevent the spread or possible outbreak of infectious diseases.
This is coming amid the shortage of isolation centres in the country owing to the increasing cases of the coronavirus across the states. As of Friday, the number of cases stood at 2,170, with number of deaths at 68, while 319 have so far recovered. Across the world, the number of cases rose to 3.3 million, with 237,440 deaths and about 1,069,023 recoveries.
The cases were Kano (92); FCT (36); Lagos (30); Gombe (16); Bauchi (10); Delta (8); Oyo (6); Zamfara (5); Sokoto (5); Ondo (4); Nasarawa (4); Kwara (3); Edo (3); Ekiti (3); Borno (3); Yobe (3); Adamawa (2) and one case in each of Niger, Imo, Ebonyi, Rivers and Enugu.
The new bill, which passed first and second readings at the plenary on Tuesday, was described as, ‘A bill for an act to repeal the Quarantine Act (1926) and enact the Control of Infectious DiseaseAct, make provisions relating to quarantine and make regulations for preventing the introduction into and spread in Nigeria of dangerous infectious diseases, and for other related matters.’
On Thursday, the Director-General, Nigeria Centre for Diseases Control, Dr Chikwe Ihekweazu, had said at the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 briefing that there was need for more isolation centres as the number of cases surge.
He said, “Concerning the availability of bed spaces for the management of patients, there is no doubt that we are struggling in certain places especially in Lagos State, and to an extent Kano State and Abuja. But the biggest challenge right now is in Lagos where bed spaces are really tight.
“Across the country we have about 3,500 bed spaces identified as available for coronavirus patients but in Lagos we are already struggling. So, we are going to work with them to keep trying to make more spaces available.”
The Minister of Health, Dr Osagie Ehanire, also at the briefing appealed to people to make their properties available, noting that there was already a surge and that with the plan of the NCDC to do two million tests, there would be more cases, which would give rise to the need for more isolation centres.
He said, “I’m appealing not only to state governments but to citizens to make properties available temporarily for this purpose.”
Meanwhile, if passed into law by the two chambers of the National Assembly and assented to by the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), the minister of health would be empowered by law to declare any premises to be an isolation centre for the purpose of preventing the spread or possible outbreak of infectious diseases.
Section 15 (1) of the bill reads, “The minister may, for the purpose of preventing the spread or possible outbreak of an infectious disease, by notification in the Gazette declare any premises to be an isolation area.”
Subsection 2 reads, “A notification under subsection (1) shall be effective until the expiration of such period as may be specified in the notification or until it is revoked by the minister, whichever occurs first.”
Subsection 3 reads, “The Director General may, in relation to an isolation area, by written order prohibit any person or class of persons from entering or leaving the isolation area without the permission of the Director General; prohibit or restrict the movement within the isolation area of any person or class of persons; prohibit or restrict the movement of goods; require any person or class of persons to report at specified times and places and submit to such medical examinations, answer such questions and submit to such medical treatment as the Director General thinks fit; authorise the destruction, disposal or treatment of any goods, structure, water supply, drainage and sewerage system or other matter within the isolation area known or suspected to be a source of infection; and prohibit, restrict, require or authorise the carrying out of such other act as may be prescribed.”
Proposed law empowers police to arrest, quarantine violators without warrant
Subsection 4 reads, “A Health Officer or a police officer may take any action that is necessary to give effect to an order under subsection (3),” while subsection 5 reads, “Any person who, without reasonable excuse, contravenes an order under subsection (3) shall be guilty of an offence.”
Subsection 6 reads, “A person who leaves or attempts to leave or is suspected of having left an isolation area in contravention of an order under subsection (3) may be arrested without warrant by any Health Officer or by any police officer, authorised in writing in that behalf by the Director General.”
While subsection 7 reads, “Goods brought into or removed from an isolation area in contravention of an order under subsection (3) shall be forfeited to the Government and may be seized, dealt with and disposed of in accordance with section 55(2) and (3) as if those goods were any substance or matter referred to in section 55(1)(c).”
Bill prescribe jail term for violation of NCDC quarantine
Meanwhile, Section 79 (3) also prescribes a N500,000 fine and six-month jail term for persons who violate the quarantine restriction or refuse to take vaccinations in case of an outbreak or a suspected outbreak of an infectious disease in Nigeria such as the ravaging COVID-19.
“The Minister may, in making any regulations, provide that any contravention of or failure to comply with any regulation shall be an offence punishable with a fine not less than N500,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or to both.
The Speaker said at the plenary on Tuesday that coronavirus pandemic had exposed the archaic nature of the Quarantine Act and the incapacitation of the NCDC, noting that the proposed law was to empower the NCDC.
The Section 13 of the bill also sought to give the NCDC Director-General the power to order the isolation of people having or suspected to have an infectious disease for a period of time subject to the discretion of the DG. It added that such persons, including those who have recently recovered or being treated for such a disease, remain in isolation or be treated in their own dwelling place.
Also in Section 17, under Abatement of Overcrowding, the bill prescribes that if in the opinion of the NCDC DG, a building is so overcrowded as to expose the occupants to the risk of infection by an infectious disease, the DG may by written notice direct the owner or occupier of the building to abate the overcrowding or to close the building or part thereof within the time specified in the notice.
Meanwhile, Section 68, under General Penalties, states that any person guilty of an offence under the Act for which no penalty is expressly provided shall in the case of a first offence be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding N100,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or to both.
But, in the case of a second or subsequent offence, such offenders will be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding N200,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months or to both.
The bill listed no fewer than 45 diseases. The first schedule includes Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, Avian Influenza, Campylobacteriosis, Chikungunya, Fever, Cholera, Dengue Fever, Dengue Haemorrhagic Fever, Diphtheria, Encephalitis, Viral Haemophilus Influenzae Type b Disease, Hand, Foot and Mouth Disease and Hepatitis.
Others are Viral Human Immunodeficiency Virus Infection, Legionellosis, Leprosy, Malaria, Measles, Melioidosis, Meningococcal Disease, Mumps, Nipah Virus Infection, Paratyphoid, Pertussis, Plague, Pneumococcal Disease (Invasive), Poliomyelitis, Rubella, Salmonellosis and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.
Also on the list are Swine Influenza, Typhoid, Tuberculosis, Yellow Fever, Sexually Transmitted Infections — Chlamydia Genital Infection; Genital Herpes, Gonorrhea; Non-Gonococcal Urethritis; and Syphilis.
The second schedule of diseases include; Dangerous Infectious Diseases, Plague, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, Yellow Fever, Coronavirus disease, Diphtheria, Measles, Polio, and Meningitis.
Senate considers own bill Tuesday, targets first, second readings
Barring any last minute changes, the Senate will on Tuesday introduce and begin necessary legislation on a similar bill that would strengthen the Quarantine Law and give legal backing to the NCDC to effectively carry out its responsibilities.
The Chairman, Senate Committee on Primary Healthcare and Communicable Diseases, Senator Chukwuka Utazi, in an interview with one of our correspondents on Friday, said the details of the Quarantine Bill would be unfolded on the floor of the Senate on Tuesday.
He, however, explained that the proposed legislation was different from the one currently before the House of Representatives.
“The Senate already has a bill on the issue but we have not been able to work on it because of the lockdown. We are already consulting widely on it to make sure that we get things done,” Utazi said.
He said members of the House of Representatives should not be blamed for the provisions in their version of the Quarantine Bill, adding that the lawmakers were only working hard to resolve an obvious problem.
He added, “The Senate Committee on Primary Healthcare and Communicable Diseases already has its own version of the bill, which had been drafted and sent to all the necessary agencies and stakeholders to make their input and they are already looking into it.
“We are going to table the bill for a first and second reading on Tuesday if time permits, because we have sent the draft to all relevant people who are concerned.”
FG, NASS out to punish Nigerians – PDP
Meanwhile, reactions have continued to trail the bill. The Peoples Democratic Party faulted what it described as the ‘discreet passage of the bill’, saying the proposed bill ought to get the contributions of Nigerians via public hearing.
The party’s National Chairman, Prince Uche Secondus, told one of our correspondents, “We keep saying it and we will say it again; this government is not democratic in anyway. In democracy, there would be a healthy debate on issues and through that, people would get enlightened and the process would be seen to be free and fair. How can you force a bill through the nose of lawmakers?”
He argued that the majority of the lawmakers were unable to attend because of the interstate lockdown.
“Nigerians should reject any bill that will take away their rights and freedom. Why would you give the police the right to arrest indiscriminately?” he added.
Also, the Executive Director, YIAGA Africa, Samson Itodo, said a review of the obsolete Quarantine Act necessary but conferring wide discretionary powers on the NCDC or police in such a manner undermined constitutionally guaranteed rights.
He added, “This proposed derogation of human rights needs to be regulated. As a country grappling with weak democratic institutions and poor democratic culture, I will propose that such powers should be limited to prevent authoritarianism and human rights violations.”
Lawyers fault bill
A former General Secretary of the Nigerian Bar Association, Mr Afam Osigwe, on Friday also faulted the provisions and timing of the Quarantine Bill.
Osigwe, who agreed that there was the need to amend the Quarantine Act, however, maintained that most of the provisions of the bill relating to the taking over of properties and arresting persons without warrant were too draconian for a modern-day Nigeria.
He said, “I also think that the mode of introducing the bill during a pandemic when many of the stakeholders who are supposed to contribute to it have not been consulted may not be in the best interest of the nation.
“Also, many of the provisions are draconian and violate the provision of the constitution, and such provisions include the ones relating to the taking over of property, arresting of people without warrant, and too much of other powers in the direction of the minister and the Director-General of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control. All these are draconian measures that we should not be talking about in modern day Nigeria.”
Another lawyer, Mr Abubakar Sani, said, “Apart from its provisions that have to do with quarantine, the bill appeared to be ultra vires. Under the Exclusive Legislative List, Quarantine and Drugs are specific items that the National Assembly can legislate on. So, that bill is too wide. They should have restricted themselves to just quarantine and drugs, they cannot pass a law on wide-ranging health matters.”
Members of the House, Bamidele Salam and Uzoma Nkem-Abonta, who separately confirmed receipt of a copy of the bill when contacted by our correspondent on Friday, insisted on the fears they expressed during the debate.
Asked about his observations on the proposals in the bill, Salam said, “I have a feeling that the intentions are noble and good, but I have serious objections to some provisions of the bill, especially those that I feel have the tendency of infringing on the fundamental rights of Nigerians and creating a behemoth in the NCDC; giving too much powers to the DG and the minister of health; allowing the police to arrest people without warrant; to convert premises to isolation centres; and then compulsory vaccination.
“I think we have to be very, very, very careful about legislating on vaccination. I am not sure that, that is the way to go except we are able to subject this to more scrutiny from all stakeholders. We don’t produce or manufacture vaccines and then we want to compel people to take vaccines.”
The lawmaker, while responding to a question on whether the House would listen to dissenting voices as the bill is scheduled for third reading on Tuesday, expressed fears that contrary opinions might be overruled.
Nkem-Abonta, who said he would criticise the bill at a later time, was asked by one of our correspondents who contacted him if he was satisfied with the proposals.
“Some spoke in favour of the bill and those who spoke against it said that ‘we have not seen it; allow us to see and digest it; that a document of 65 pages was too voluminous to be taken two hours. Was it possible to have scaled the first, second and third readings in two hours?”
Many Nigerians have, however, gone online to criticise the bill, raising concerns over some of its proposals. Using the hashtag, #StoptheNCDCBill, critics of the proposal, especially on Twitter, listed the controversial clauses as including Sections 3(8), 8, 13, 15, 16, 17(4)(5) and (7), 19, 20, 23, 24, 25, 30, 47 and 58.
A former member of the Senate, Dino Melaye, on Friday described the bill as “an evil and satanic law initiated to destroy civil and human rights of Nigerians under the guise of infectious diseases control.”
He said, “The bill fails to take into consideration the federation status of the country, with the overbearing powers given to the NCDC Director-General and the Minister of Health on all issues without any form of control or checks by either the legislature or the judiciary.”
“The power to take over the private property of Nigerians and turn (them) into isolation centre(s) in Section 15 of the bill at the instance of the DG and the Minister of Health in any part of the federation, is a banana peel and potential abuse of the rights of Nigerians to property and an abuse of the powers of state and local governments as guaranteed under the constitution.”
Accusations of plagiarism surround new bill
Sponsors of the bill have also been accused of plagiarising the law on disease control in Singapore.
Apart from various social media users who made the allegation, the ICIR on Friday published a report titled, ‘Nigeria’s proposed Infectious Disease Act is over 90 per cent Plagiarised from Singapore’s Law,’
The report partly read, “Aside from the title of the draft legislation: Infectious Disease Act, which was copied verbatim, Parts One to Five of the Nigerian Act containing 63 sections were all lifted from the Singaporean law word-for-word. The exception was the use of ‘Director’ which is replaced with ‘Director-General’ and mentioned over 100 times throughout the document.”
Meanwhile, a counter campaign with the hashtag, #PasstheNCDCBill, was however led by the Special Assistant to Speaker on New Media, Mr Olakunle Somoye, via his Twitter handle, @MrSomoye. He said the bill would be subjected to extensive review by both the House and the Senate.
He said the power to arrest without warrant is not new under Nigerian Law. “Section 52 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act grants the police express authority to execute an arrest without a warrant, where doing so is necessary to prevent the commission of an offence,” he added.
And on the accusation of plagiarism, he added, “As for those insinuating the Control of Infectious Disease Bill was plagiarised, they should know that it is not uncommon for the laws of nations or sub-national bodies to be based on laws that already exist in some other jurisdiction(s) or international conventions.
“There is no plagiarism controversy here except in the imagination of those promoting the organised campaign to keep the NCDC from being empowered to properly fight infectious diseases in the country.”
When contacted on Friday, both Obi and Sununu, who co-sponsored the bill with Gbajabiamila, said they were not available for comments. While Sununu asked our correspondent to call back as he was on his way back to Abuja, Obi said he would reserve his comments on the alleged plagiarism until he meets with the Speaker.
No state has enough bed for patients now, says NCDC
Meanwhile, the NCDC DG said on Friday that none of the 36 states in the country had enough bed spaces for COVID-19 patients.
Speaking at the media briefing by the Presidential Task Force, Ihekweazu said, “Yesterday (Thursday), we tested 2,000 samples. That is the highest number of samples we have tested in a single day across the country and this number has been increasing every day.
“From the information we have from the states, we have about 3,500 beds available right now. We push the states to make more beds available. We encourage every private sector partner if you want to support, do so in the state you are living.
“There is no state in Nigeria, even Lagos and FCT, that has fully fulfilled the bed capacity that they need to respond to this outbreak. Every day, there are new cases and with every new case, there are new contacts but we are following up on about 12,000 contacts across the country from the beginning of the outbreak.”
Lagos discharge 26 more COVID-19 patients
The Lagos State Government on Friday discharged from the isolation centres at Yaba and Onikan 26 more COVID-19 patients who have recovered from the infection.
The state Ministry of Health via its Twitter handle, @LSMOH, said the state had so far discharged 225 patients from its isolation centres.
It tweeted that 26 more COVID-19 Lagos patients; 12 females and 14 males including two foreign nationals – one Polish and one Filipino – were discharged.
…unveils 118-bed Gbagada isolation centre
Lagos State Governor, Mr Babajide Sanwo-Olu, also commissioned 118-bed bio-security compliant isolation and treatment center located within the premises of Gbagada General Hospital for the management of COVID-19 cases.
According to a statement by the state Ministry of Health, the three-floor facility included a dedicated intensive care isolation unit, ventilators, monitors, respirators, mobile x-ray, ultrasound, oxygen amongst other ultra modern medical equipment.
Sanwo-Olu said an existing facility – the Cardiac and Renal Centre – within the hospital premises, which was not in use, was converted after an extensive renovation and upgrade was carried out to provide additional capacity to already existing isolation centres in the state.
He said the facility had an Independent Power Supply and backup Power Generator for uninterrupted power supply, adding that two other isolation facilities dedicated solely for frontline health workers who may come in contact with COVID-19 had been completed and expected to go live on Friday.
Edo opens 40-bed isolation facility at UBTH Monday
The Edo State Governor, Mr Godwin Obaseki, has also assured that the 40-bed isolation facility being constructed at the University of Benin Teaching Hospital will be opened to receive confirmed cases of COVID-19 from Monday.
The governor, who led his Chief of Staff, Mr Osaze Uzamere, and other top government functionaries on a tour of facilities at UBTH, led by the Chief Medical Director, Prof Darlington Obaseki, expressed satisfaction on the partnership between his administration and the hospital, which resulted in the refurbishment of the hospital’s eight-bed isolation facility and molecular biology Diagnostic Laboratory (PCR Suite) to fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
The governor said the state was fortunate to have three Federal Government medical institutions, adding that they had been instrumental in curtailing the spread of coronavirus in the state.
He added, “We have visited the isolation ward refurbished for COVID-19. This is a small isolation ward with eight-bed space. Another 40-bed isolation ward is being reconfigured and will be ready on Monday.
Additional reports by Friday Olokor, Ade Adesomoju, Tunde Ajaja and Dayo Ojerinde.