Members of the disbanded Edo State COVID-19 mobile screening and response team on Tuesday staged a protest in Benin city, capital of the state, over the state government’s failure to pay their outstanding two months allowances. The protesters blocked the entrance leading to the premises of the State Health Management Board thus preventing movement in and out of the premises. However, in a swift reaction to the protest, the government said in a statement that it was “carefully vetting” the list of participants, promising that they would be paid before the end of the week when the exercise would have been concluded.
The screening team which comprised medical doctors, health personnel, contact tracers, data collectors, among others, was initiated to trace people who have had contacts with COVID-19 patients, all in a bid to ramp up testing in the state. Earlier, Governor Godwin Obaseki had set up the state COVID-19 response team with the target to screen and test 500,000 and 5,000 persons respectively. However, after working for two months, the response team said they received a WhatsApp message from the Incident Manager of COVID-19 mobile screening exercise, Andrew Obi, disengaging them from their duties without due payment of their monthly allowances.
Speaking on behalf of the ad-hoc staff, Ojei Emmanuel said they have been treated with lack of pity and compassion. According to him, “he (Andrew Obi) sent us a message without showing his face and that is not a credible act by any person. I come from a distance; I pay N600 on a daily basis for transport fare, and I have been doing that for 61 days. We just came in today to find out that we have been relieved of the job and we have not been paid for two months. We have 26 groups comprising about eight persons per group. There are group leaders in each group; there are doctors. Though it was 31 days, we still agree to be paid 90,000 from the outset not 93,000. So, why we are being owed? We don’t know why we are being relieved of the job. All we want is for them to pay what is due to us”.
Another member of the group who simply identified himself as Philip, said “Some of us have tested positive in the line of duty. They even gave us empty wifi and we used our money to buy data. They have been telling us to be patient but nothing has been done about it. Many of us cannot even hug our children at home. This is inhumane and should be addressed”.
In his statement, special adviser to the governor on media and communication strategy, Crusoe Osagie, explained that the taskforce was demobilised after the state exceeded its target to screen and test over 500,000 and 5,000 persons respectfully. “The screening exercise was massive and cross-cutting. The officials were inundated with lists of persons who were said to have participated in the exercise. So, we are carefully vetting the lists before making the final payment. The outstanding allowances would be paid before the end of the week,” he said.
According to Crusoe, “The taskforce for the screening exercise was set up in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The government, upon the outbreak of the pandemic in the state, based its response on the data polled from an epidemiological study done in partnership with the University of Benin Teaching Hospital (UBTH). This led to the setting up of a taskforce to embark on a massive screening and testing of 500,000 and 5,000 persons across the state.
“The target has been achieved and surpassed. This has led to the modification of our response to the pandemic. With this, the taskforce was demobilised across the screening centres at mobile posts, borders and several other locations.” He assured that the delay in payment of allowances was as a result of the vetting of the list of volunteers and other frontline workers which would be resolved within the week.
Meanwhile, the governorship candidate of the All Progressives Congress, APC, in the September 19, 2020 election, Osagie Ize-Iyamu, has condemned the reported non-payment of two months allowance due to the state COVID-19 mobile screening team by the Obaseki-administration.
In a statement signed by John Mayaki, the director of communication and media of his campaign organization, Ize-Iyamu described the actions of the Edo State Government towards the “patriotic” screening team as “callous, inhumane, and unacceptable”. “While demanding the immediate payment of all allowances due to the mobile screening team with an attendant public statement of apology to them and other members of the public for the government’s insensitivity and callous treatment, the APC flag bearer expressed solidarity with the protestors as they struggle for what is rightfully theirs.
According to Ize-Iyamu, “We observed today with concern the protest staged by young men and women of our state engaged by the Obaseki-led Edo State Government to form the mobile team that conducted screenings for COVID-19 in Edo State over Governor Godwin Obaseki’s refusal to pay their due allowances for two full months. These people are patriotic citizens who carried out an important assignment, at great risk to their own personal health, which proved crucial in the fight against the viral disease in the state. To see them subjected to such indignity and inhumane treatment by the Obaseki-administration is saddening and extremely disappointing.”
Ize-Iyamu said “We find it especially odious and unacceptable that this is happening while Governor Godwin Obaseki is widely credited to have caused a ‘money rain’ in the PDP with a particular media report and EFCC petition alleging that he spent 15 billion naira on the PDP tax collectors and delegates to secure the party’s governorship ticket. While his new-found allies in the PDP celebrate a new dawn of cash supply from questionable sources, responsible and dutiful workers on the payroll of the state such as the COVID-19 mobile screening team are left unpaid in the middle of an economic disruption that has caused a price hike in the cost of basic goods.
“It is another sad episode reflective of the Obaseki-administration’s heartlessness and irresponsible prioritization of politics over the welfare of the people. Even as he continues to double down on doubtful claims that his administration has spent billions on the management of COVID-19 in the state without any accountability, the people have voiced loud dissatisfaction with all government interventions.”