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COVID-19: Gov Wike’s Dogged Fight Against Spread, Paying Off - Info. Commissioner

Pastor Paulinus Nsirim is a journalist par excellence. His blossoming career has hoisted him on the podium of success, rising from the cradle to the pinnacle of greatness.

Sitting pretty as Rivers State Commissioner for Information and Communications, Nsirim's rise to fame has been exceptional. From an early beginning as Chairman of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) in Rivers State, he became two-time Chief Press Secretary to the Rivers State Government.  As a career civil servant, he served as Director in the Ministry of Information and rose to become Permanent Secretary before getting to the zenith as Commissioner.

Astutely combining his duties as Commissioner and pastoral work, he is now serving in the State Covid-19 Palliative Committee as Secretary.

In this interview with National Network editorial quartet of Editor-In-Chief, Chris Konkwo; Editor, Ken Asinobi; Senior Correspondents, James Febebebo and Olawale Lamina, the pen maestro spoke on the global coronavirus pandemic and the efforts being made by Governor Nyesom Wike to checkmate the spread of the virus in the State.

Pastor Paulinus Nsirim is a journalist par excellence. His blossoming career has hoisted him on the podium of success, rising from the cradle to the pinnacle of greatness.

Sitting pretty as Rivers State Commissioner for Information and Communications, Nsirim's rise to fame has been exceptional. From an early beginning as Chairman of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) in Rivers State, he became two-time Chief Press Secretary to the Rivers State Government.  As a career civil servant, he served as Director in the Ministry of Information and rose to become Permanent Secretary before getting to the zenith as Commissioner.

Astutely combining his duties as Commissioner and pastoral work, he is now serving in the State Covid-19 Palliative Committee as Secretary.

In this interview with National Network editorial quartet of Editor-In-Chief, Chris Konkwo; Editor, Ken Asinobi; Senior Correspondents, James Febebebo and Olawale Lamina, the pen maestro spoke on the global coronavirus pandemic and the efforts being made by Governor Nyesom Wike to checkmate the spread of the virus in the State.

Excerpts:

Covid-19 is a global pandemic that has put all stakeholders on their toes, dissipating efforts to combat the spread.  What has the Rivers State government done so far to ensure the safety of the lives of its citizens?

I'll like to make this point: We are lucky as a State to have a visionary leader in the person of His Excellency, Chief (Barr) Nyesom Ezenwo Wike at this point in history.  There are so many leaders who get this kind of challenge and would be overwhelmed by the challenge. Because he is proactive and visionary, he didn't even wait for us to record an index case before he set up an inter-ministerial committee for enlightenment and sensitization which I am privileged to chair.

Because of that proactive step, we began to engage all the major stakeholders in the State to let them know that there is something like Covid-19.  We began to tell them about the preventive measures and what can be done. We engaged with not just stakeholder groups, we started with Community Development Committees, Head Teachers and Principals; National Union of Road Transport Workers.  We met with Rivers State Traders Association; the media; military and paramilitary organizations; we also met with international oil companies, traditional rulers and religious groups.

Before we recorded the index case, it was like Rivers people already knew what to do and part of the success story we are recording today is because the governor took this initiative and when it became very clear that we had an index case, he was the first governor in the country to close down the borders.  So many people criticized him that he doesn't have power to close borders. But today, he's been vindicated as a Governor. Other governors today are following his footsteps.

Beyond that, he issued an Executive Order which had to do with infectious diseases and quarantining of people. We have recorded only two cases in Rivers State, and I will like to say, like His Excellency would always say that God Almighty answers his prayers. He is the one that God is using to initiate policies and programmes that are really engendering the kind of environment that we are seeing now in the State. 

We have only two cases now in the state; and when you have a situation like that, the greatest challenge you have is contact tracing, to trace all those whom you have had contact with the infected person.  And of course, the emergency operation centre which is manned by relevant professionals has been doing a great job. The State has a lot of surveillance officers who are doing this work.  The treatment centre is fully equipped because if somebody is infected and doesn't get the right treatment, the person's case is likely to worsen.

So, when we celebrate the success story we have in Rivers State today, we should also give credit to the man who is governor, who has put the right equipment, right facilities for the infected persons to recover quickly.

We don't have any support from the federal government. It's being a solo effort as a state. People should know that what has happened to those two cases that were recorded is that there was political will, that the right manpower, right equipment are on ground. And above all, the help of God Almighty.

Then we come to the issue of internal curfew. What is happening in the state is that a lot of people don't seem to appreciate the fact that Covid-19 is real. They want to live as they wish. We are preaching social distancing and the need to wash your hands with proper personal hygiene.  But in some of these places where His Excellency in his wisdom had directed complete lockdown within the city, if you are living in this state, you will know that the residents of these areas are really flouting these directives. The main point here is: if one person gets infected, a lot of persons would be in real danger.

It is a season for sacrifice and so what His Excellency is doing is to use this intermittent lockdown to beg people who are yet to appreciate the fact that this is real to understand that it is real and then adapt to the new lifestyle. You can see now that in the state, no cinema house is functioning, all the bars and places where people go to drink are all closed down.  All the parks are closed down.  It's not because the government want to make people to suffer.   Even in Lagos, the thing has reached what we call Community Infection. The people are testing positive in high record every day. That is what His Excellency wants to avoid in Rivers State because he is a man who has the passion to leave behind a worthy legacy. For him today, he doesn't want anybody to be infected again. It is his heart desire that Rivers State doesn't record any coronavirus case again.  That is why he is putting some of these policies in place.

Yesterday, he signed another Executive Order that will set up state border patrol because of some of the lapses we have seen within the system. If we don't police our borders properly, we are going to be in trouble. That's another step ahead and in all these things, he is not also unmindful that people are suffering and that's why he set up the Palliative Committee that Ambassador Desmond Akawor is Chairman and I am Secretary. And that Palliative Committee he set the agenda for them to address the needs of widows, aged, less privileged; and they should not be partisan, religious and ethnic based.

And based on that agenda that the governor set, we set to work. We devised a community-based model approach for the distribution of palliatives. In every ward, we have a traditional ruler, a clergyman, a CDC Chairman, woman leader and youth leader. When the palliatives get to that ward, a member of the Central Committee will be assigned to that ward to monitor the distribution. The model is working but you see, sometimes you cannot please everybody.  And the point I always make sometimes when I go to the media is to say that this palliative won't get to everybody.  For example, if you come to a ward that has about 200 widows and 200 aged people, it would be foolhardy to think that the palliative would get to these widows and aged people at the same time. It is a continuous process.

As we finish with the first round of what we are doing, certainly the committee would do a review like what His Excellency just did last week.  He stopped distribution because civil society group members were asking for inclusion and because he is a listening governor, now we have five members of the civil society and five representatives of the media. So you see the kind of government we have. His Excellency is practising open governance.

Some people were criticizing why would it be Chaired by the PDP Chairman. And the question is: at the federal level, who is the head of the Presidential Taskforce on Covid-19? Is he not a member of the APC? They are also saying 'oh, the foodstuff was put in the PDP campaign office'.  And I say, look, in terms of location and size of the warehouses that are there, you can't look for anything better. That place is opposite Bori Camp; Airforce Base is there so in terms of security, you are over 100% sure of what you are doing in that environment because the kind of foodstuffs there are quite enormous.

Again, they say 'oh as the distribution is going on, non-indigenes are not participating', and I give you an example with my own ward. I come from Ward 16, OBALGA.  The Chairman of the Palliative Committee is a reverend gentleman who is not from the community. He is a priest there. So this is the kind of model we are developing for the country to copy.  There is no state in the country where this kind of thing is happening. I challenge anyone to go and investigate. That is the kind of new meaning Governor Wike has put to governance in this State.

We also have the Food Purchase Committee. His Excellency says we will buy foodstuff but he wants to use this opportunity to empower farmers and fishermen. Whatever they produce within the state will be bought off and N2billion has been set aside for that purpose.  I am also a member of that committee and I can tell you that we have set up food banks in the state. We have set up agric desks in all the LGAs and all the farmers and fishermen have been properly mobilized and we are purchasing foodstuff from them.

We have purchased so many foodstuffs to the extent that if you go to the warehouse and see the kind of foodstuff there, you will appreciate what a visionary governor is doing.  So far, so good, I can say that within this period, the political will, the policies, the strategies and programmes are working.  Every right thinking person who lives and does business here will raise his hands for the governor for the kind of good job he is doing.

We agree with you that the policies and programmes of His Excellency as far as Covid-19 is concerned are laudable.  We also know that the target for the palliatives is the widows, aged and indigent members of society.  But hunger does not know who falls into any of these categories of persons.  Don't you think that in the light of this total lockdown, some windows should be created so that those who would not benefit from these palliatives can go to the banks or areas where the lockdown is not total and make purchases since the lockdown appears like a curfew.

First let me correct the impression and say there is no total lockdown in the state. What happened is that a few weeks ago, from Education Bus Stop to Agip Junction and Obiri Ikwerre to Choba was locked down because of the seemingly the people's disregard for the Covid-19 restriction orders.  Now it is the turn of those in Diobu and a section of the old Port Harcourt Township.  It is a partial lockdown on those parts of the city that don't understand that they are vulnerable and exposing themselves to risks.

What a patriotic leader would always do is to take decisions that would be in the general interest of all because if Community Infection like Covid-19 enters communities like Diobu, then the entire State is finished. So if Diobu is locked down, it doesn't mean that other parts of the state is not functioning.  If markets are closed, there are provision stores and small stores; there are 'mamaputs' all over the place and even super markets. You might ask if everybody has money to go to super markets.  But the truth of the matter is that everybody living and doing business here knows where they get their foodstuff.  But it is temporary, just to make everybody to be conscious and sit up.

His Excellency promised to create mini food markets while the bigger markets would remain closed. More than two weeks after this promise, nothing is yet to be heard about it and people are getting agitated, wondering when this will be.

His Excellency is a very forthright leader and if he makes any promise, he makes sure to keep it.  He does not speak from both sides of his mouth.  Since this coronavirus pandemic started, you see his policies, reviews and he doesn't assign that role to anybody. He is the Chairman on monitoring and the one that gives update on what is going on.  So if he made that promise, be rest assured that he is looking at it.  It is better to delay and work out the modus operandi better, than jumping in to set up something and it becomes a crisis like we have seen in some states in the country.

For the index case that had since tested negative and discharged, we haven't heard much about the contact tracing.

What do you want to hear about the contact tracing? There are protocols.  There are global protocols. All those who had contact with that person have been traced.  They won't come and publish their names. They kept them on isolation and monitored them. They were also tested but the luck we had was that for those two cases, all those who had contact with them didn't test positive.

Contact tracing is one of the key strategies for containing the virus.  Out health professionals here are doing excellent job. They are properly trained and properly equipped.

The information by His Excellency that the two cases recorded in the State have tested negative came as cheering news to everyone.  People saw it as opportunity for churches and other public institutions to reopen. From the pulse I felt, the people are not sufficiently informed about the Covid-19. Why should their expectations get to that level when government is doing everything in its powers? What is the missing link?

There is nobody in this state who does not have information on coronavirus because our engagements have to get to their grassroots through CDCs and traditional rulers who pass these messages through town announcers. Of course, you know human nature. When people hear that we had only two cases and now we don't have any more case that is why we are now channeling our sensitization for people to still maintain personal hygiene and social distancing. Even in Wuhan, China where coronavirus started, people are still being restricted. The media also need to be helpful and let our people know. That we don't have recorded cases now does not mean we should abandon preventive measures that we have been discussing and implementing for the past two months.

There are insinuations that government is being selective in locking down sections of Port Harcourt and Obio/Akpor LGAs. First it was Education Bus-stop to Agip Junction; Obiri Ikwerre to Choba.  Now it is parts of old Port Harcourt Township, parts of Mile 2 and RSU Roundabout. Rumueme to Rumuokoro is not affected neither is Iloabuchi down to Eagle Island are equally omitted. Why?

Government is not selective at all.  If you listened to the governor's last broadcast, he warned the people of Obio/Akpor LGA that there were things that have been observed and if they do not change, the entire LGA would be locked down. If you lock down the entire city, there would be crisis. In this kind of situation, you just need to be strategic. In strategic planning, you need to say to yourself, 'If I lockdown the entire city, what is going to happen'. But if a gradual process of locking down and getting sections of the state to begin to imbibe the right values during this period, I think there is nothing wrong.  The governor is not selective, I must say.

The Governor has made over five broadcasts since the inception of these Covid-19 restrictions. In each broadcast, he sounds as though there are people out there who don't like what he is doing and always opposed to his actions, particularly at the federal level. Are there things he is seeing or hearing that we are not seeing and hearing?

Anyone who has been living in Rivers State for the past 25 years should know about the neglect of the State by the federal government. Tell me why a state that is the headquarters of the hydrocarbon industry, with all that it has, would not even have a testing centre? 

Is the provision of testing centres the preserve of the federal government?

The federal government is the one that are to provide testing centres.  They are now complaining that they brought people to go and work in the rig.  They are interested in oil but they are not interested in the lives of the people that are producing the oil. The neglect is obvious and everyone knows this.

What special thing did the Lagos State governor do that he was given N10billion? Best practices globally are that when you have a pandemic, even states that have not recorded the virus should beef up prevention.  Your target should be to ensure that it does not spread. That's strategic. It doesn't matter the number of cases in Lagos or in Abuja.  Of course you know that our communities are inter-connected and people have been moving around even before this lockdown.  The federal government doesn't seem to pay attention to what is happening in Rivers State. But we thank God that we have a governor who has a political will to lead his people.  He is not resting on his oars. He is putting in resources, his time and the right policies.

What message of hope would you give Rivers people now? They are saying that now that the State has zero cases of Covid-19, how soon will life return to normal in the state?

His Excellency has consistently told the people that what we are facing is more like a conventional warfare. This would demand a lot of sacrifice. Everyone should make a sacrifice. The good news is that whatever the governor would be doing in this period is for the general good of the people. This situation will not last forever.  They should be rest assured that they have a listening governor. He is working tirelessly to ensure that the pains of the people would be minimized.

Honourable Commissioner, how have you been coping combining your job as Commissioner and the several Covid-19 committees you are serving?

I would say it's only by the grace of God.  It's from God that I draw strength and inspiration.