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SPECIAL REPORT: Corruption: How Nigeria’s COVID-19 workers reel under nonpayment of allowances
In this special report, OLA BAMIDELE looks at how Nigeria’s frontline COVID-19 health workers and volunteers desperately battle the Lagos and Oyo state governments to have their allowances paid in full, amid shortage of staff and equipment
The COVID-19 pandemic may have long declined, but it leaves a bitter memory for Martins Afe.
His unpaid allowances mean that his family of six has to remain in one bedroom in the Isolo area of Lagos State and manage with his wife’s meagre income.
Afe, a Laboratory scientist, is one of the volunteer workers employed by the Lagos State government to cater to the testing of persons during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. But his work continued till 2021 and even till mid 2022.
“My family members are suffering. The landlord is about to throw us out. For January to June 2022, that we worked, we have not received any dime from the Lagos State government. This is not fair for an administration that is seeking a second term,” he told Caracal Reports.
Afe was attached to the Lagos State Biobank.
This man is just one of several COVID-19 health workers who were brought in as volunteers with the Lagos State BioBank who are currently in distress going by the failure of the Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu’s administration to pay their N42million allowances since June 2022.
The health workers told Caracal Reports in separate interviews that despite repeated requests to the authorities, the state government had been unresponsive to their issue and had made several failed promises.
In an effort to synchronise data from public and private testing centres and control the billing of patients who are paying for their tests, the state government of Lagos launched the Lagos Biobank platform with support from Sterling Bank Plc.
The platform’s goals are to ensure equitable access, accelerated testing, and improved case management for all residents of the state.
One of the volunteer workers said the state government might have released the money but corrupt officials might be delaying the payment, while calling on the governor to wade into their matter.
He said, “There are about 30 COVID-19 volunteer workers employed by the state government. We had meeting on the 8th of July and we were asked to stop (working). They said they would pay up to the 8th of July which they did not pay – that is, for six months. That time, they promised us that within one to two weeks, they would pay all the money. But since then, they are not responding to us again.”
The worker added that the government was owing each worker about N1.4million.
“We are all expecting the same thing. They supposed to pay around 1.4 million per person.
“Some of us even went to the authorities to complain that they did not have money to take care of their family. The only thing they keep saying is that they are on it,” he added.
To confirm these findings, infographics obtained from Citizens’ Gavel, a civic tech organisation in Abuja, and shared with Caracal Reports, showed that Lagos and Oyo governments indeed owed some of the COVID-19 frontline workers.
In Lagos State, the places visited by Citizens’ Gavel were; Primary Healthcare Centre, Yaba; Primary Healthcare Centre, Magodo; General Hospital, Lagos Island; CMS Primary Healthcare, Ilaje Bariga; Itafaji Health Post, Onala Health Post, Agarawu Healthcare, Araromi Healthcare, Obalende; Anikantamo Primary Healthcare, Massey Health care and Lagos Island Maternity.
“Apart from the shortage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) in virtually all the facilities visited. There were also cases of a shortage of trained health workers and those at the facility were underpaid their promised stipends and relief materials (palliative) were not evenly distributed,” Citizens’ Gavel infographics reported.
Findings by Caracal Reports in the health centres visited across Lagos and Oyo states and interactions with the health workers showed that some of the funds meant for the payment of volunteer workers were allegedly diverted by senior health officials and the governments failed to investigate the frauds.
In September 2020, President Muhammadu Buhari approved an additional N8.9 billion for COVID-19 hazard allowances for all health workers in Nigeria.
The Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Boss Mustapha, made this known at the bi-weekly Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 (PTF) briefing.
“I am pleased to announce that Mr. President has graciously approved additional N8.9bn for COVID-19 hazard allowance to all medical health workers. In addition, the procurement of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for hospitals and isolation centres will be given priority,” Mr Mustapha said.
But the money, because of deep-seated corruption in the Nigerian system, in most states did not trickle down to the concerned health workers.
Apart from the languishing junior workers, in some cases, even the senior officials were also affected in the nonpayment of the COVID-19 allowances.
A member of the Senior Staff Association of Universities Teaching Hospitals, Research Institutes and Associated Institutions (SSAUTHRIAI) told Caracal Reports that since October 2022, the association issued a seven-day ultimatum to the Federal Government to pay arrears of hazard allowances owed its members.
The association in a communique signed by its Acting Chairman, Mr Kabir Mustapha, and Acting Secretary, Mr Joseph Ugwoke, after a two-day meeting in Calabar (Cross River State) between October 12 and 13, 2022, said despite writing several times to the Federal Government, the payment had been delayed.
It added that the government selectively paid four and five months in tranches to doctors while sidelining other health workers.
On the COVID-19 Special Inducement Allowance, the association had urged the Federal Government to pay the balance of 40 per cent being two months owed its members.
“We demand the payment of 40 per cent balance of the remaining two months to our members who were erroneously paid 10 per cent.
“Also, the association notes with dismay the rate at which health workers especially professionals are migrating out of the country for greener pastures.
“This is due to the poor condition surrounding our health facilities, no consumables for health workers to work with and poor welfare packages,” it had said.
The refusal of state governments to investigate the pervading frauds around the nonpayment of allowances to the health workers, more so the resident doctors, forced them to embark on industrial action at the peak of the second wave of the pandemic in September 2021.
The National Association of Resident Doctors across the country had said it urged “the government to fully implement the MOU without further delay. Beginning in August 2021, thousands of NARD members resumed their strike over long unpaid salaries, hazardous working conditions in hospitals, and insufficient hazard pay.
“Indeed, some doctors have not been paid or paid their full salaries since the COVID-19 pandemic began over a year ago. Further, the failure of the government to adopt appropriate safety measures to protect healthcare workers responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, including the provision of personal protective equipment (PPE), has already led to the death of almost two dozen NARD members.”
The association had also lamented that the healthcare workers after enduring “unsafe working conditions (including the lack of PPE)” had nothing to show except “poor salaries, inadequate government responses to the pandemic and the overall failure to properly resource healthcare systems.”
In Oyo State, checks at Primary Health Centre, Ido, Oyo State Primary Health Care Board Secretariat, Ibadan; Primary Healthcare Centre, Apete; Primary Healthcare, Ajibode; Primary Healthcare Centre, Ori Apata, Agbowo; Hamdala Hospital, Agbowo; Primary Healthcare, Samonda; and Primary Healthcare, Old Deide confirmed the same situation.
“There were cases of shortage of trained health workers and relief materials (palliatives) were not evenly distributed. Even the stipends promised to the frontliners by the government were not paid.
“At the Oyo State Primary Health Care Board centre, only the senior officers of the facility had access to relief materials (food) while the junior staff were exempted,” monitors from Citizens Gavel reported.
Mr Ayuba Wabba, the President of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) had urged the nigerian government to pay up all the outstanding allowances but it remains to be seen when the state governments concerned would clear off the debts.
“Many health workers have fallen victim of diseases in taken care of patients. I salute the nurses and midwives; your reward is not only in heaven but here on earth,” he said.
It is hoped that the state governments in Lagos and Oyo, as the 2023 general elections draw near, would take the bull by its horns and now allows the next administration to inherit the unpaid allowances carried over since the COVID-19 pandemic era in 2020.