EBOLA: Our fears, by Seme border residents

By IAfrica
In Nigeria
Aug 23rd, 2014
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Don’t shut the border, Beninoise plead with govt

AS Cameroon, Kenya and other African countries have resorted to shutting their borders against neighbouring African nations currently plagued by the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD), nationals of Benin Republic have begun to imagine the worst if their country  also decides to close its border with Nigeria.

They foresee hunger, Kwashiorkor, mass death and other calamities befalling the country and the people should their government decide to shut the border in order to prevent the disease from spreading to their country.

A trip to the tiny West African country shows that the nationals are prepared for a show down with their government if it contemplates taking such decision. None of the respondents welcomed the idea. They all described it as a decision that is worse than being hit by the EVD.

One of the respondents, Alice Anthony, a native of Port Novo, is still being hunted by her unpalatable experience when the border was closed some years ago because of elections.

She recalled that she and her kinsmen were almost sent to their early graves by hunger because the border was closed for just three days.

“It must never happen again because we saw hell when a similar action was taken some years ago when elections were taking place in Nigeria. The border was shut for only three days within which we almost went to refuse dumps to scavenge for food.

“If they shut it then for three days because of elections, shutting it down because of Ebola would be indefinite. If that happens, the number of people that would die in a week would be higher than the number that Ebola would kill in a year if it comes into our country. In fact, if the border is shut for just an hour, there would be pandemonium in the country,” she said.

A leading trader, who gave her name as Asana Bandjo, feared that women would be worst hit if such decision is taken. She said: “I want to speak on behalf of women because we are really what you can describe as the real vulnerable group in this our country. Before now, our men used to work and take care of their wives and children but now, it is the women that feed the husbands.

“Most of our men marry as many wives as possible and hardly bother about our well being. That is why you find every woman in our society hustling to feed her children and the husband as well. At times, the man may decide not come home for several days but when he comes, he will be asking for food which he did not give you a dime to prepare.”

She added that their condition is made worse by the fact that their country does not have companies that can employ the women. “We don’t have companies that can employ women the way you people do in Nigeria. We don’t earn salaries here. We only depend on the small income we get from our petty trading. So, you can imagine what would happen to us and our children if the border is closed. It is better to manage Ebola than to toy with hunger. We have been educated about how to prevent Ebola so we have no fears about relating with our Nigerian neighbours,” she submitted.

Ajanu Komavo, a bureau de change operator feared that there would be untold hardship that could lead to worse epidemic than Ebola in their country if the government shuts the border.

“Our government must not think of shutting the border against Nigeria as some African countries have done against their neighbours because of the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD). If they do, there would be serious economic problems in the land and when this happens, we would all die of not just hunger, but of other outbreak of worse sicknesses than Ebola. It is easier to manage Ebola than hunger. Ebola kills in single digits but hunger and its attendant challenges kill en-masse,” he said.

His business colleague, who gave his name as Ezekiel Dedewanu, said the country stands to lose a great deal if it takes such decision which, according to him, is not in the interest of the masses. “Did I hear you say anything about our government shutting the border because of Ebola?”  He began with a rhetorical question.

“I have been earning my living from the border for several decades because people come in and go out of it on a daily basis. If the border is shut, nobody would come in or go out of this place and that would spell doom for me and my family. We would not be able to feed not to talk of having money to pay their school fees. Does it make sense to waste an entire generation because of the fear of Ebola?

“Our country and Nigeria are brothers. We have been having cordial and symbiotic business relationship over the years and it would not be in the interest of any of the two countries if the border is shut.”

Emmanuel Koffi, a commercial motor operator, opined that shutting the border is incapable of preventing Ebola from entering the country. He said: “Can any country stop a disease by closing the border? It is not possible because diseases are not physical things that you can prevent in that manner. It is ridiculous for any country to think that by closing its borders, it can prevent Ebola. What is important is to take the necessary health measures and pray against it.

“I don’t think our government would contemplate that because they know the crucial role that Nigeria plays in our economy. Closing the border will amount to passing death sentence on the people because the very moment we exhaust our reserves, we would either die of hunger or turn to cannibals. Our case would be worse than the plight of people you see in war-torn nations.”

The Beninoise are, however, not alone in this. Some of their Nigerian counterparts are also frowned at any decision to shut the border by any government.

Nura Garuba, a Nigerian businessman said Ebola is not at the border and should not serve as a reason for anybody to close the border. “If the border is closed, it is not only the  that would be affected. There are thousands of Nigerians that earn their living from the border. So if any government decides to close the border, all of us would be affected. The difference is that it will only affect individuals in Nigeria while it will affect both individuals and Benin Republic as a country.

“I have been living and doing business here for the past 20 years. I only travel to Zamfara, my state of origin, every year.  If the border is closed, what would I be doing to earn a living? Where will I get the resources to pay my rent and children’s school fees?

Tackling Ebola at the border

Checks at the entrance to Benin Republic shows that the government has embarked on massive enlightenment campaigns to sensitise the nationals and immigrants to the country about the EVD. A loud speaker was mounted by the gate from where a recorded message in English, French, Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo and Egun was being passed to the people. Nothing of such was, however, found at the Nigerian side of the border.

The Nigerian residents at the border, it was learnt, get to know about the EVD through the message broadcast from the Benin Republic’s loud speaker and occasionally, from radio and television broadcasts.

A Beninoise official, who conducted our correspondent round the area, said the government is leaving no stone unturned in its bid to prevent Ebola from coming into the country. “Our government has been doing everything within its powers to enlighten our people and visitors to the country and the reality of the EVD.

“We have a loud speaker through which we educate our people on what they need to do to avoid contracting the disease. The messages are in French, Yoruba, Hausa, Igbo and Egun. We adopted this style because a good number of immigrants are from Nigeria. We have a doctor here at the border post who examines visitors to make sure they are not having the virus. So far, we have not found anybody living with the disease,” he said.

The nationals have been full of appreciation to their government for its initiatives in educating them about the Ebola virus. Jacob Hounge, a Beninoire businessman, said that the campaign has gone a long way in helping the people to improve on their hygiene.

He said: “We really thank our government for the enlightenment campaign that has opened our eyes to what we should do to avoid being infected by Ebola. It is a good thing that the campaign is this strong at the border because it will enable everybody that is entering and going out of the country to be aware of the virus.

“I am surprised that Nigeria is not doing the same thing at their border. If they can employ this approach, the awareness level will be very high among the people.”

Fear grips Nigerian border residents

Nigerian residents at the Seme border have berated the Federal Government for, according to them, not doing enough to educate the people at the border about the disease like its Benin Republic counterpart.

They decried the absence of ambulance and isolation centres at the border, wondering how a patient could be attended to in such situation. A resident, who gave her name as Rosemary Jikeme, said: “The Nigerian government is not doing enough as far as educating people at the border is concerned about this Ebola virus. The Beninoise are doing far better in this regard.

“The radio and television broadcast they said they are doing is not sufficient in educating people in remote areas and borders because we all don’t have access to them. How would we hear about it when we have not had power supply in this area for about six years? There is a need for health workers to come here and organise seminars and other enlightenment programmes for us.”

Another resident, who gave his name as Bayo Oni, lamented the absence of ambulance at the border, saying: “If there is any seriousness of the part of our government in tackling Ebola, there should be a standby ambulance here at the border. If we have a victim right here, how would they convey him to the hospital, moreso when we do not have any around us? My fear is that many people would be affected if just one person is found out to be living with the sickness here. The health workers and other government officials need to do more than wearing hand gloves.”

Ozegbe Victor, a resident at the border, took a swipe at the Federal Government over the absence of isolation centres at the border. He said: “We have a government that takes pleasure in using propaganda in deceiving the people. I read it in the newspapers some time ago that the government has put isolation centres at all the borders across the country. Did you see anything like that in this area?

“It is all deceit. If we have a case of Ebola now, what would happen? Don’t be deceived, the Port Health Services people we here cannot do anything in the face of emergency. I don’t even think they have what it takes to attend to emergencies.”

A health official, who spoke with The Nation under anonymity, also confirmed that there was no isolation centre in place at the border, adding: “The government may provide one in the future, but as I am talking to you now, there is nothing like here at the border.”

Concern about porous border

Some of the residents in a chat with The Nation expressed serious concern about the porous nature of the border and the activities of the immigration officials.  They feared that sick illegal immigrants might end up infecting healthy residents at the border.

“How can we be talking about tackling Ebola without tightening our borders? If an infected person mistakenly finds his way into this area, we would all be infected. Our lives as residents of this area are in great danger because of the innumerable numbers of illegal immigrants that troop into this area on daily basis.

“Our border is too porous. The officials that are saddled with the responsibility are not doing their jobs very well. Apart from the challenge of Ebola, such unchecked migration into the country poses a serious threat to the security of the country and the citizens,” a resident, who gave his name as Abiodun Sule, said.

Another resident, who simply identified herself as Babs, decried the high rate of corruption at the border. He pointed out that the laxity at the border needs to be checked to save the nation from unforeseen problems.

“There is no sanity on Nigeria’s side of the border as you too can see. There are so many security agencies and plain cloth people masquerading as security men or government officials. Most of them are just there to extort money from people that are crossing the border.

“This is not so at the Benin Republic border. There is high level of sanity at their border when you compare it with ours. They have a limited number of security agencies and government officials milling around the border. This helps them to monitor and control the movement of everybody going in and out of their border,” he said.

Ebola Screening at Border as World Health Organisation (WHO) visits

Our correspondent, who visited the area, reported that Port Health Services officials were screening immigrants to the country for Ebola. Checks showed that out of the large number of people trooping into the country, only a few were being screened. As big as the border is, the screening was only going on at a single point.

As at about 3pm few number of the immigrants were made to go through the exercise. As at 5:30 when the team had left, the screening point was abandoned with immigrants moving in unchecked.

It took the personal effort for our correspondent to know that the officials were still doing the screening. He approached the screening point and asked if he could be screened for Ebola. The officials, who appeared to be on holiday, answered in the affirmative, conducted the screening and said: “Your temperature is 34 o/c. If it were 37, we would have checked you for malaria or Ebola.”

Asked if any traveller had been found to be infected, she said: “Why are you asking? You have known your status; you don’t have any business knowing about others’ status.” The record book was scanty when our correspondent did the test, confirming that the exercise had not long begun.

Efforts to get the WHO team’s observation and remark about their visit were unsuccessful. One of their officials simply said: “I am not permitted to speak with the press. You can meet any of the Nigerian officials for briefing. I am sorry if I did not meet your expectations.”

Visits to the offices of Nigerian Immigration Services (NIS) and Port Health Services for comments also failed. The public relations officer of NIS, Mr Niyi Oyewole, said he was not in a position to speak on the issue, adding: “My controller who should have spoken with you has left for Abuja on official assignment.”

The response was the same at the Port Health Services. An official of the organisation said the boss was not around to speak with our correspondent.

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