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Infectious Diseases Bill: Paradox of Optimism and Fear

The two Chambers of the National Assembly are currently working on a new legislation that would provide legal backing to the management of infectious diseases and pandemics in the country. But a welter of criticism is swelling around some of the provisions in the bill that observers say infringe on the rights of citizens.

The Bill, which has already passed second reading in the House of Representatives, is titled:”Infectious Diseases Control Bill 2020″, while the one which passed first reading in the Senate is titled: “National Health Emergency Bill 2020”.

The one at the lower house was sponsored by the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Rt. Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila, Chairman, House Committee on Health Institutions Pascal Obi and Chairman of the Committee on Health Services Tanko Sununu. The Bill seeks to repeal the Quarantine Act and enact the Control of Infectious Diseases Bill, 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.

The Bill is criticised for giving too much powers to the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) in the management of infectious diseases and pandemic in the country in ways that could infringe on the fundamental human rights of Nigerians.

The Bill amongst others, empowers the Director-General of the NCDC to be in charge of the administration of the new Act, notification of prescribed infectious diseases, surveillance, medical examination and treatment, vaccination post-mortem examination, destruction and disposal of infected animals, food and water, isolation of certain persons, prohibition or restriction of meetings, gatherings and public entertainments as well as control of occupation, trade or business.

Some provisions of the Bill stipulates that; “Except as otherwise provided by this Act, the Director-General of Nigerian Centre for Disease Control shall, subject to any general or special directions of the minister, be responsible for the administration of this Act.

“The Director-General may, subject to such conditions or restrictions as he thinks fit, appoint any public officer, officer of any statutory body; or employee of a prescribed institution, to be a Health Officer for the purposes of this Act or any particular provision of this Act.

“The Director-General may, subject to such conditions or restrictions as he thinks fit, delegate to any Health Officer all or any of the powers conferred on him by this Act. Every medical practitioner who has reason to believe or suspect that any person attended or treated by him is suffering from a prescribed infectious disease or is a carrier of that disease shall notify the Director-General within the prescribed time and in such form or manner as the Director-General may require.”

It also states that “The Director General may require any person who is, or is suspected to be, a case or carrier or contact of an infectious disease to submit to medical examination or medical treatment within or at such time, and at such place, as the Director-General may determine.

“The Director-General may order any person who is, or is suspected to be, a case or carrier or contact of an infectious disease to be detained and isolated in a hospital or other place for such period of time and subject to such conditions as the Director General may determine”.

Another provision of the Bill that particularly generated serious condemnation is the power to order certain persons to undergo vaccination or other prophylaxis. It stated that: “In an outbreak or a suspected outbreak of any infectious disease in any area in Nigeria, the Director General may by order direct any person or class of persons not protected or vaccinated against the disease to undergo vaccination or other prophylaxis within such period as may be specified in the order.

“In addition to the power conferred by subsection (1), where it appears to the Director that — an outbreak of an infectious disease in any area in Nigeria is imminent; and it is necessary or expedient to do so for the securing of public safety, the Director may by order direct any person or class of persons not protected or vaccinated against that infectious disease to undergo vaccination or other prophylaxis within such period as may be specified in the order.”

Opposing the Bill, a veteran Columnist Tola Adeniyi called on the Nigerian Media, Civil Societies, Traditional Institutions, Labour Unions and the Intelligentsia to condemn the insidious Bill that will force vaccination on all Nigerians.

He said, “There is nowhere in the world where across-the-board vaccination is made mandatory. We must save Nigerians from Death Sentence being orchestrated by the Western World and their racist agencies. Whoever has taken bribes and inducements from the financiers from outside, should limit the curse to their families”.

Also, the Coalition of United Political Parties (CUPP) alleged that lawmakers in the House of Representatives were offered monetary inducements for the speedy passage of the Vaccination Bill.

CUPP in a statement signed by its Spokesman, Ikenga Ugochinyere, said it was in possession of intelligence report that the leadership of House is determined to pass the compulsory vaccine bill without subjecting it to the traditions of legislative proceedings.

“Opposition Coalition (CUPP) has intercepted very credible intelligence and hereby alerts Nigerians of plans by the leadership of the House of Representatives led by Femi Gbajabiamila to forcefully and without adherence to the rules of lawmaking to pass the Control of Infectious Diseases Bill 2020 otherwise known as the Compulsory Vaccination Bill which is proposing a compulsory vaccination of all Nigerians even when the vaccines have not been discovered”, CUPP said.

Opposing the Bill after presentation by Gbajabiamila, Sergius Ogun (PDP, Edo) urged the House to think twice and avoid giving too much power to the NCDC to solely manage infectious diseases in the country.

“Be careful with trusting omnibus powers on an agency whose responsibility it will be to determine whether or not, a vaccine is necessary for combating a given outbreak. Such could give rise to conspiracy,” he argued.

On his part, Nkem Abonta (PDP, Abia) argued that the Bill was coming at a wrong time and called on the lawmakers to apply restraint on the speed and subject the new legislation to public hearing for public input.

Abonta said; “We are all aware of what is awash in the social media. We need a Bill for control or prevention of disease. What I am trying to say is we should not because of what we are trying to do make big error. If we are going to do away with public hearing, then we must seek for direction and not speed.”

Despite these criticisms, the Senate also initiated the same Bill with a name, ‘National Health Emergency Bill, 2020’, sponsored by the Chairman, Senate Committee on Primary Healthcare and Communicable Diseases, Chukwuka Utazi (PDP, Enugu).

But soon after the Bill was read for the first time, the former Deputy President of the Senate, Ike Ekweremadu led opposition against it.

Ekweremadu, who under Order 14(1) of the Senate Standing Orders as Amended, demanded for the draft copy of the Bill or in gazetted form, insisted that the content of the bill must be made open before subjecting it to any consideration.

He argued that his privileges and those of other senators would be breached if details of the contents were not made available to them before it is given further legislative consideration.

“In line with Order 14(1), which has to deal with privileges, as one of the serving senators, I move that draft copies of the bill should be made available before any other legislative action is taken on it. This is very important because it would not augur well for the Senate to follow the same route with the House of Representatives where a controversial Bill on Control of Infectious Diseases was passed for first and second reading last week,” Ekweremadu maintained.

The opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) had in a statement by the National Publicity Secretary Kola Ologbondiyan said; “It was imperative to allow for popular participation, especially as the bill seeks to prescribe clauses on critical issues, particularly that of vaccination, which has become globally controversial in the face of raging conspiracy theories on the COVID-19 pandemic. Such an approach is already worsening public mistrust as well as heightening apprehension over the intentions of presiding officers of the House of Representatives and the All Progressives Congress (APC)-led administration at this critical time.”

The party insisted that Nigerians should be “Carried along in the decision-making process of such a critical legislation, which seeks to make provisions that will directly affect their health, as well as overall individual and collective safety and well-being. Anything short of that would be counter-productive and capable of breeding an avoidable public resistance, especially given the deepening fear and anxiety in the polity over the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Unperturbed by the hues and cries against the Bill, Speaker Gbajabiamila who is the lead sponsor said allegations that the Bill is a sinister attempt to turn Nigerians into guinea pigs for medical research while taking away their fundamental human rights was far from the truth.

The Speaker however, said the House will subject the Bill to a public hearing where Nigerians from all walks of life would be given the opportunity to contribute to the draft law.

“Suffice it to say that none of these allegations are true. Unfortunately, we now live in a time when conspiracy theories have gained such currency that genuine endeavours in the public interest can quickly become mischaracterised and misconstrued to raise the spectre of sinister intent and ominous possibility. The Control of Infectious Diseases Bill will be put forward to a public hearing where stakeholder contributions will be sought to make improvements to the Bill before it is reviewed and debated by the Committee of the whole,” Gbajabiamila added.

In apparent demonstration of intolerance to opposition against the Bill, the House of Representatives at its plenary resolved to take legal action against an online media organisation for allegedly reporting that the House has collected $10 billion from Bill Gates to pass the Infectious Disease Control Bill.

Speaker, Gbajabiamila mandated the Clerk of the House, Patrick Giwa to liaise with the Majority Leader of the House and the Legal Adviser to the National Assembly to commence legal action against the media outfit.

The House reached this resolution at plenary, following the unanimous adoption of a motion of Personal Explanation by the Deputy Speaker of the House, Ahmed Wase.

On the other hand, the controversial Bill has received the support of the NCDC Director-General, Chikwe Ihekwazu as he pledged support for the new quarantine and public health Bill while responding to questions by Members of the House.

Ihekwazu said there was need for an updated legislation to the infectious diseases control law, stressing that the NCDC is the most affected by the provisions of the current Act.

He however, maintained that the House did not consult him before commencing work on the new Bill but did not said whether the legislature must consult him before bringing up the law that would enhance the fight against infectious diseases.

Meanwhile, the Nigeria Civil Society community, comprising 69 members commended the decision of the House of Representatives to subject the Control of Infectious Diseases Bill to a public hearing in furtherance of the right of citizens to contribute to law making.

The Civil Societies, in a statement recommended that the House should provide information on the committee responsible for the coordination of public hearing and communicate a practical schedule for public engagement on the Bill.

Other recommendations demanded the House to host a virtual and physical public hearing, carry out multi-layered stakeholder consultations and intensify publicity on the Bill to enlighten Nigerians on the provisions of the Bill.

Any attempt to hurriedly act on this proposed bill could lend credence to rising public concerns and conspiracy theories on social media locally and internationally that the House of Reps is acting insensitively under the “dark influence” of some global vaccine players with undeclared interest.

Consequently, the suspicions already generated by the poor handling of this process are bound to trigger a new wave of resistance and rejection when a COVID-19 vaccine is eventually discovered and brought to the country.

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