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My 21-day Covid-19 isolation experience — Onyeama

My 21-day Covid-19 isolation experience — Onyeama

3 October, 2020

Two days ago, Nigeria celebrated her 60th independence anniversary. Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Geoffrey Onyeama, chose the occasion to reflect on the country’s exploits in world affairs and the efforts being made by the Buhari administration to ensure that Nigeria and Nigerians are respected across the globe. He also addressed the delay in the evacuation of stranded Nigerians abroad and his 21-day Covid-19 isolation experience, among other issues. Excerpt by VINCENT IKUOMOLA


LOOKING at Nigeria at 60, how would you assess the country’s contributions to international affairs since independence?

Nigeria has made very important contributions to international relations since independence in 1960. Even in 1960, Nigeria was already on the world scene in the Congo. There was a major crisis in the Congo and Nigeria was one of the contributors to the United Nations (UN) peace-keeping forces there. Indeed, our current president, Muhammadu Buhari, was an officer serving with the Nigerian contingent in the Congo. Former head of state, Maj-Gen. Anguyi Ironsi, was also one of the officers commanding in the Congo. So, right from the word go, Nigeria was very present in trying to find a solution to an international crisis.

Throughout the 60 years of her independence, Nigeria has been one of the major contributors of troops to the United Nations peace-keeping efforts around the globe. It has made major contributions to promoting and securing peace in a number of countries around the world. You would recall, for instance, that in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan and other countries outside Africa, Asia and Latin America, Nigeria and Nigerian military contingents have played very important roles in peace keeping and securing peace in many countries.

Nigeria also played an important role in the denuclearization effort of the world. We have been in the vanguard of countries pushing for a nuclear-free world, signing a lot of the international conventions. In fact, early in life, in the 60s, Nigeria took a very bold decision to break diplomatic relations with France when France tested an atomic bomb in the Republic of Niger, close to Nigeria. Ever since, we have been at the vanguard of fighting for denuclearization of the globe through international organisations like the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations.

Nigeria has played an important role in the promotion of human rights in the Human Rights Council. It has played an important role in United Nations itself throughout the 60 years, promoting and pushing for peace around the world, and justice among countries and for a larger role in the United Nations for African countries and smaller nations. Nigeria has also played a significant role in social development around the globe. A lot of Nigerians have held important positions in International organizations, including the UN, and made major impact in social, economic and cultural development around the world.

So, Nigeria has been very present not just in Africa where it has played a strong role in the Africa Union, beginning with the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) which became African Union, in different aspects. In the economic area, Nigeria has played a big role in the creation of an African Continental Free Trade Area. Nigeria was a driving force in the creation of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and has pushed for greater integration not just in West Africa but in Africa.

Nigeria has fought also in the context of human rights and the protection of the rights of the average African. Nigeria also fought when a number of African countries were pushing for African countries to pull out of the International Criminal Court. Nigeria was opposed to that move and supported the International Criminal Court, because Nigeria believes that there should be a forum to defend the average African from the excesses of their leaders. So, Nigeria was on the side of giving that voice and shield to the common person in Africa.

So I will say that Nigeria in 60 years has made lasting contributions to global peace, economic development towards a fairer world, African cooperation and integration, peace and good governance on the African continent. We have seen Nigeria engage in installing a democratic regime in the Gambia, for instance. Presently, it is also involved in Mali. So, good governance has been an area Nigeria has also made very important contributions. Also with regard to anti-corruption, Nigeria has really pushed that agenda of good governance and fight against corruption on the Africa continent. Nigeria played an important role in the United Nations to push for a resolution on the issue of illicit financial flows from developing countries whose wealth is being illegally siphoned and invested in all kinds of secret accounts around the world and those involved in the extractive industries in Africa not paying taxes.

Nigeria has championed more transparent mechanisms and architecture for doing business, especially by multinationals, on the African Continent. So Nigeria at 60 has been a pillar in the world for governance, social justice, peace, economic development, cultural cooperation and development and promotion of multilateralism. You know that a lot of big powers have imposed their will on global affairs, but Nigeria has been prominent, pushing, strengthening and re-enforcing the role of multilateral system as a mechanism that is more just in providing an equitable global system.

Despite the listed achievements of the country on the international scene, Nigerians abroad have in recent times been facing serious aggression from the so called friendly nations. How do you intend to address this, especially as the big brother role seems not to be working to our advantage?

I will not say Nigeria is facing aggression from countries. I do not think that will be an accurate description. You have to make the distinction always between state actors and non-state actors. So, where you have had certain actions against Nigeria and Nigerians, xenophobic attacks and so forth, these are often actions by non-state actors. So we have engaged robustly with the states to ensure that Nigerians are protected, lives and properties are protected in those countries.

In some countries, we might say there is state actors’ involvement. But very often, those states would say that Nigerians are not targeted per se but these are laws that affect everybody else. But again, we have engaged these countries. And more and more, we are developing a more aggressive, robust policy on reciprocity. So we are making it clear now that where we feel that Nigerians are not been treated fairly, we will look at all the measures available to us to also respond in a reciprocal option.


Going back to the evacuation process during the Covid-19 lockdown, how would you describe the experience and lessons learnt in the process? What were the things you had to do behind the scene to ensure that stranded Nigerians were evacuated?

The first thing was that when we started out, the Nigerians outside the country were not seen as part of the immediate problem that we had to face. We had what became a pandemic coming into Nigeria, so all eyes were on how to secure the Nigerian air space, our people and all the people within Nigeria, So, all the strategies, medicals, structures that we needed to put in place was where the focus was, and that was where the funding was geared towards. It was only later that it became apparent that there was a significant number of Nigerians around the world who were stuck outside the country when there was a lockdown; our airspace in particular. We had no precedent to work from. It was a completely new situation and there was no funding.

Ideally, it was an emergency and we would have brought them back free of charge. We have an agency, the Nigeria Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), which normally is there with funding to help Nigerians with emergency situations. This was a new situation. The funding just was not there to bring them back. Also, we had to arrange with air carriers to see to the logistics, finding the carriers, arranging with countries for air carriers to come in, and putting in place mechanisms with the missions to engage with the Nigerians in those countries.

So, it was a logistical nightmare putting in place the whole structure to address this. We were learning as we went along because we had no idea. We had never experienced anything like this and with minimal resources, so we had to quickly develop a protocol for passengers to reach out to missions and then the health protocol side of it. We had to find hotels here because they had to be quarantined for two weeks. So it was another big challenge.

Initially, hotels were not very keen to be turned into isolation centres. Then, of course, the whole medical processes needed to be put in place in those hotels to adapt them to containing people who may be infectious. It was also another major challenge finding hotels, and since we did not have funding, with the passengers needing to pay for themselves to come in. At one time, we did not have funds to pay for the hotels. But in the end, we managed to find some funding to pay the hotels so that Nigerians would not have to bear that cost. And it turned out that these Nigerians had been outside for a long time and lots of them had exhausted the funds that they had before we were able to start the process of evacuating them.

The demand was far greater, that is, the number of people who wanted to come back was far greater than the flights we had in place. Then, of course, the protocols when they arrived was such that we couldn’t bring them all back at once but only in small batches because a lot of our medical and human capacities were being deployed around the country, managing the cases that were coming up. But we needed airport and port health people to check passengers on arrival and to arrange for them to go to the hotels. So you see it was a huge operation and we did not have the human resources to deal with it. So it was a major challenge. But as time went on, we began to understand, more and more, what needed to be done. The embassies themselves also began to understand what needed to be done.

We met with some difficulties. Some of our carriers were not allowed to go to some countries to pick Nigerians who were stranded there, so we needed to find alternatives. It was not easy at all. We did the best that we could under the very difficult circumstances. And then some people came up to help us, and that was what saved us at the end of the day, because we reached the point where we didn’t have the funding to pay two weeks accommodations in the hotels. We negotiated low prices for the hotels in Lagos and Abuja and it was a bit of a problem. I want to again express here our profound thanks to the CBN and its governor who agreed to come up with the funding to continue and to enable us to pay for the quarantine tools to quarantine everybody that came in14 days in the hotels. Also, I cannot thank enough the GMD of NNPC who also came up with funding to match the CBN, and the two of them really made it possible for us to continue. If not it could have been a total disaster.

So many people said that they did not have money coming back; that they had spent all their money outside to pay for hotels. Also, we have to thank Aliko Dangote and Herbert Wigwe and others. Because when even the NNPC and CBN saw what the cost was going to be continuous paying for all those people coming into hotels, and they saw that it was not sustainable and we now had to change our protocols to say that people should no longer be compulsorily quarantined in hotels but could now self isolate at home. But before that, they needed to be tested but the government did not have the capacity to put the PP in place to carry out this test, Dangote, Wigwe and others in private sectors came together and brought together companies that could carry out the testing. That enabled us to save the cost of paying for hotels. People just went straight home and they absorbed the cost of the testing for them.

So, by God’s grace, we were able to get through the evacuation phase, and now, of course, we have moved on to the limited opening of our airspace. So the evacuation phase has ended and it is now, in principle, every man for himself as before. But also in the middle of all that, we had to face other realities, unfortunately, of trafficked girls and people around the place, and then deportees, convicts and ex-convict Nigerians. We had to bring them back. Of course, those categories of people did not have the money. Nevertheless, we went ahead and brought them back from Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Mali by road, and some are waiting in Ethiopia and Tanzania. That was also another different kind of challenge, which is still going on because we are still bringing back some people from Lebanon and from the UAE and these other countries.

Let us look at your personal experience with Covid-19. When you tweeted that you tested positive after the third test, someone asked why the frequent testing. Were you suspecting something? What was your first reaction when you tested positive?

No, I had three tests before. The first test was actually more like a tracing, because the Chief of Staff to the President had it and I had been in meetings where he was present. So, we looked at the contacts that the person might have had. For that reason, I tested. That was the first one. The second test was when he very sadly passed on and was to be buried. I went to the house to comfort the family and a lot of people were there. We went to the burial site, so, of course, there was an outcry that it was against the social distancing rules and protocols. So, I did a test after that. Then my third test was because they then introduced a protocol for the PTF members to be testing regularly. So I did the third test as a PTF member.

One day, I came into the office in the morning and I felt a tickle in my throat, almost as if I was about to have a sore throat. So I asked for throat lozenges and I was in the office for the whole day. When I got home in the evening, I had a little chill. I took a hot shower and I had a little flatter in my chest, which was another symptom that I had. My head was a little heavy; not really a headache, but it was just a bit cloudy and I also felt a little joint pain like that malaria discomfort. So I ‘googled’ and found that each one of them was a possible symptom of Covid-19. I then decided, it was on a Friday, to ask for a test on Saturday. But on that Saturday, all those symptoms were gone. The only symptom there was this throat that was slightly congested. So I had the test and I kind of felt it that it could be Covid-19, especially with all those symptoms I had the day before.

So when I woke up on Sunday morning, I saw a call I had missed on Saturday night from DG, NCDC. When I saw a message saying please call me, I knew that something was amiss, because the previous three times, I would only get a text message the following day, saying ‘negative’. This time, for him to call the same day the test was taken, and I say fortunately, I missed the call, as I would not have slept well that night. But when I saw it in the morning, saying call me, I was 99% certain that I was positive. So I called him, but I didn’t get him. I called him again about three times, then he finally called me at about 11 in the morning and said, unfortunately, that was the case.

I was kind of prepared for it by then. I knew it was going to come because of that message. Funny enough, it still surprises me till today that I was not too anxious. I think, for me, what would have made me a bit anxious was my breathing, but my breathing was very clear. I had no problem breathing. It would have been a bit more scaring if I could feel that I was not breathing much. But since I was breathing perfectly and all the other symptoms were gone, I was not feeling anxious at all. I asked him if I should stay at home and someone from NCDC came and advised me to go into isolation. So I said no problem. They were already starting to get all worried and I went into isolation.

Again, when I went in on that day, the first thing they did was to test my oxygen level, and it was 99 per cent. They were surprised that that it was so high at my age. The only thing that went up, which could have been because of anxiety, was my blood pressure. So, as I said, because I was well, I didn’t have fever, I didn’t have anything, I was not coughing, just a little tickling in the chest, so I felt reasonably okay. They brought the blood pressure down with some medications and I was okay. I went jogging about two or three days later and I was perfectly well. No other symptoms came back. Those first nights of shiver were gone and it was, just like I said, clearing of throat with little mucus coming out, and that was it.

I was very relaxed in isolation. All my testing in the morning and all the vital signs were all fine. So, it was now just the question of the medications that I took. And, of course, that was when I also found that so many people that I knew had had it, because they were now all calling me to tell me that they had had it, do this, take this and all of that. My doctor said that everything was okay now, but the critical point was the seventh day to the tenth day, because you never know how the virus can change directions. Although everything is perfectly okay, it is only after the tenth day that you can now be sure it is not going to escalate and become worse. So we did a test after the seventh day, which I thought was a bit early, because I could still feel something in my throat and it was still positive. Then we did another test on the twelfth day, and by this time, people were recommending all kinds of funny things and it was still positive after the twelfth day. Then I did another one.

So, after the twelfth day test, normally it is 14 days, the doctors said in any case, the virus would have died by the tenth day and you would not be infectious anymore. Sometimes, one does the test and it catches only the dead DNAs of the virus. Some people, who were in worse conditions than mine, came in and left after the twelfth day, but mine was still positive and yet I hardly had any symptoms. Then I was wondering what was going on. I did another test after 19 days and I was still positive. But that 19th day one, I still had a little thing in my throat, just a tickle, and not all the time; just once a while, I was still coughing. So the 19th day one, since it had not gone completely but on the twentieth day, I actually felt it had disappeared.

I had said after my 19th day I would stay for one week, since they were coming to test on the 21st day some other people. I said let me just do it since I had nothing to lose. I did it on the 21st day and I was very surprised when it came out negative.

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