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Covid-19: Plight of essential workers

Published by The Nation on Sat, 23 May 2020

Emmanuel OladesuWhat is the understanding of the Nigerian police about essential services and the prime role of essential workers in a period of national emergency'Essential services are what the people cannot do without, either in the period of peace or war. Without such service delivery, the chances of survival are slim. Everything will be at standstill; a prelude to the breakdown of social order.Government exists to ensure that these non-negotiable services or basic infrastructure are maintained to guarantee public welfare.Fundamentally, thec needs of man are food, clothing and shelter. Other imperatives are described as aids to living. For example, water is categorised as food. Shelter is non-negotiable, but the home can only be a convenient place if there is no power outage. In the same vein, security should not be compromised. This highlights the importance of safeguarding society through institutionalised security system.Also, since health is wealth, health workers-doctors, nurses, laboratory workers etc-are central to individual and community wellbeing. Without their services, many lives will be lost to medical emergencies.In civilised climes, the media also occupy a strategic position. Journalists are the bridge between the government and the public. They disseminate information, offer constructive criticisms and afford the government the benefit of feedback.Even, during the military rule when curfew was usually imposed by soldiers, there was an exception to the rule. While the movement of generality of citizens are restricted, health workers, NEPA officials, water corporation staff, fire fighters and security agents were exempted. They were never molested when they showed their identity cards.That, perhaps, appears now to be in the realm of the past. While enforcing the curfew or restriction order imposed by government to contain the further spread of Covid-19 pandemic, these essential workers suffered unjustifiable harassment in the hands of security agents during the week.Overzealousness security men were on the prowl. Exulberance appeared to have displaced discretion. They deliberately closed their eyes to reason, hiding under the order from above. It was a double tragedy for over 50 essential workers who were arrested and detained in Lagos, following the enforcement of the directive by Mohammed Adamu, Inspector-General of Police, on the restriction/curfew order.According to a report, the vehicles of these workers were impounded. Some were taken into custody. A reporter, who was a victim, complained that they were later permitted to sleep in their cars at midnight at a police station around Alausa, Ikeja. Despite showing their identification cards, there was no respite.Their families were boxed into anxiety at midnight. The affected could neither return to office nor reach home. All entreaties to allow them passage fell on deaf ears.Many of the essential workers were already tired and worn out due to hectic day job when they got to the check points. Some slept on the roadside, with the feeling that policemen mounting the roadblock will serve more or less as security for them. But, it was a dehumanising experience.After some hours of psychological torture and suspense, the IGP, who was inundated with complaints nationwide, decided to douse the tension. He made an adjustment to the previous order, clarifying that all essential workers, including medical personnel, firefighters, ambulance services, journalists, etc, are exempted from the restriction of movement associated with both the partial lockdown and the national curfew across the Federation.Force Public Relations Officer Frank Mba stated that Adamu has therefore, directed all Zonal Assistant Inspectors General of Police and Commands Commissioners of Police to give effect to these exemptions whilst enforcing the restriction orders.Before the renewed surveillance by the police, there were complaints about police negligence and subversion of the inter-state travel ban. The Presidential Task Force on Covid-19, led by Boss Mustapha, accused security agents of undermining the anti-Covid war by relaxing the inter-state border closure. Not all policemen indulged in the vice. But, some of them turned away their eyes as inter-city commercial vehicles embarked on night journeys.Many people alleged that security agents have converted the roadblocks into illegal toll gates, taking bribes from unscrupulous elements bent on circumventing the lockdown rules as they migrate from state to state at midnight. Also, many non-essential workers posed as essential workers in a bid to beat police surveillance.More worrisome is the migration of many Almajirai from the North to the South, despite the heavy presence of security on the road. In fact, aggrieved Igbo leaders blamed the police for the exodus of many northern youths to the Southeast during the week, fuelling the apprehension about a large-scale importation of the dreaded virus.It was in utter sensitivity to these myriads of complaints against security agents mounting roadblocks in border towns that the police decided to subject violators to horror. They adorned the garb of brutality and impunity as they were unable to separate the wheat from the chaff. Consequently, doctors and journalists were trapped.The maltreatment of some health workers was premised on some conflicting and confusing statements credited to state authorities and the police command on the status of essential workers during the curfew period.It is a double tragedy for doctors and nurses, who are on the frontline of the Covid war, to be harassed and intimidated by security agents while going to and returning from work where they discharge their official duties with patriotism.It is noteworthy that many doctors and nurses have paid dearly for their avowed commitment. Scores of health workers have been infected by the virus. In the process, their families were also infected. Some have even died, leaving behind agonising relations. Yet, dedicated health workers continue to make the required sacrifices to the nation.Out of fear too, some hospitals have been livid. Their doctors have denied patients nursing other ailments legitimate access to their hospitals. This is antithetical to their professional oath.The implication of the conflicting statements on curfew exception is that it is now unsafe for health workers to continue to render diligent services to the state at this critical time. No professional wants to operate in an atmosphere of panic and confusion. That is why health unions considered job boycott to ventilate their grievances.The directive by the Nigeria Medical Association (NMA) to doctors on the sit-at-home protest underscore the predicament of the practitioners. It is not beyond expectation. But, it should immediately be called off in national interest. Many patients may die due to one day of medical neglect. The health sector is bleeding profusely. There is need for dialogue between the police and NMA.Covid is the most pressing national challenge threatening the country. But, doctors and other health workers have many non-Covid patients to attend to in their various hospitals, clinics and primary health centres. Any measure aimed at inadvertently preventing doctors from their constitutional assignments of saving precious lives is counter-productive and condemnable. It is a great disservice to the nation and mankind.But, health workers, as enjoined by the police command, should not also abuse the exception extended to essential workers. They should cooperate with the police by obeying the rules so that the police can cooperate with them. Obedience to the rules means that as essential workers, they should their cars to kabukabu vehicles at night or carry passengers who are not essential workers.At this critical period of national emergency, police and essential workers should see themselves as partners in progress.
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