By Wilson Smiths, Zubaida Mabuno Ismail and Mohammed Kabba
PROLOGUE: When COVID-19 struck, global attention was largely directed towards addressing both the frightening health crisis and the economic shockwave that the pandemic had triggered. Experts and the media were preoccupied with actions at containing the outbreak, offering treatment, minimising the disruption to livelihoods, and addressing the global economic downturn caused by emergency lockdown. In this two-part story, our team of journalists provides a rare peek into the grand scam perpetrated by the governments of Ghana and Nigeria through the WHO-approved mandatory COVID -19 test regime, in contrast to what Sierra Leone did.
What was never contemplated
In the West African sub-region, the media played pivotal roles in the pandemic response initiatives, celebrated best practices and equally reported abuses ranging from how vaccines, palliatives and personal protective equipment (PPE) among others, were misused or stolen.
The potential for corruption and impunity in the global response was acknowledged and measures were put in place to tackle them.
No one anticipated, however, that the government would join forces with their private sector cohorts to extort citizens on a massive scale using the pandemic as a cover.
In fact, the 2020 Report of the World Justice Project (WJP), indicated that “The pandemic gives rise to very significant risks of corruption.”
The report, however, stated that “a free and independent media should be protected in its role as a check on government fraud and abuse.”
True to the WJP findings, months of investigation have now revealed how the governments of three West African nations implemented the COVID-19 containment programmes and how such initiatives affected international travelers.
While Sierra Leone implemented its COVID-19 prevention and containment measures without exacting so much cost and pain on international travelers, our findings have shown how Nigeria and Ghana committed a heist of the most prodigious proportion against travelers.
It is no longer a secret that Ghana and Nigeria used multiple tests regimes which they largely outsourced to private companies to force arriving and departing passengers on international flights to pay dearly for COVID-19 tests.
Under Article 40 of the International Health Regulations (IHR), “No charge shall be levied by a state party for measures intended to ascertain the health status of a traveler examined for the protection of public health.”
Instead, states are required to “identify resources and mechanisms to cover the cost of tests performed on travelers.”
It was not only in West Africa that travelers paid dearly for COVID-19 tests but the scale of extortion and corporate fraud in the subregion are mindboggling.
COVID-19 in Nigeria
Nigeria announced sub-Saharan Africa’s first confirmed case of COVID-19 on February 28, 2020, a move that led to the activation of the country’s National Coronavirus Emergency Operation Centre.
According to a report by Reuters, an Italian man came down with the virus after arriving from Milan and traveling through Lagos and Ogun states.
Having the index case in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city with a population of 20 million people, was very concerning.
Furthermore, with a population of around 200 million people, the most populous African country has always been short on doctors, and its healthcare system in progressive disrepair.
To coordinate the nation’s multi-sectoral intergovernmental response to the pandemic, President Muhammadu Buhari created a Presidential Task Force on March 9, 2020.
The country had witnessed a steady increase in new cases, which were mostly attributed not only to interstate movements in the form of community transmission, but also from Nigerians who returned from abroad.
Many had blamed the situation on Mr. Buhari’s reluctance to order the closure of the nation’s international airspace so one of his daughters, who was studying in the UK, could return home.
Finally, the Director General of the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), Musa Nuhu, announced the closure of the country’s airspace to international flights with effect from March 23, 2020.
On March 30, 2020, lockdown was declared in Lagos, Ogun, and Abuja, and on April 27, 2020, it was extended to Kano, the country’s largest city in the north and later the whole country.
Apart from the lockdown, other prevention measures were implemented including social distancing, hand washing, wearing nose mask and observance of general hygiene.
It was months later that the then Director General of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), Chikwe Ihekweazu, said the country was ready to reopen its airports for international flights.
On August 29, 2020, the Nigerian government formally reopened international airports for the resumption of flights and put in place measures to prevent the spread of the deadly virus.
At that time, the country had already recorded 50,488 infections and 985 deaths, with state governments struggling to prevent further infections within their domains.
The NCDC said talks were held with private companies over possible partnerships as part of measures to scale up testing and contact tracing.
“Private-public models are being looked at. Lagos and Abuja are the primary locations, and from that we’ll learn what to do for the other three international airports,” Mr. Ihekweazu had told Reuters.
Mr. Ihekweazu also said arrivals may be expected to contribute financially towards their tests since they decided to travel, thus absolving the government of liability under Article 40 of the IHR.
International airports were first opened in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial hub and the federal capital Abuja, which recorded the most COVID-19 cases, and later in Kano, Port Harcourt and Enugu cities.
ECOWAS $50 test cap
The ECOWAS Authority of Heads of State and Governments had met and issued a directive capping COVID-19 travel-related test fees for its nationals at $50, just as the WHO announced gradual easing of lockdown and reopening of international borders.
The decision was reached after the subregional health ministers met with WHO representatives and other stakeholders and agreed on a template to open up the subregional economy while also preventing virus spread.
Travelers into and out of Nigeria should have paid a sum not exceeding N19, 000 based on that directive, because the official exchange rate at the time was N380 to a dollar.
This was not the case, as they were charged at least N52,000 at government-approved laboratories throughout the country.
The implication was that each traveler paid at least $135, or even more in some cases, to get a PCR test at government-designated laboratories, which was $85 more than the ECOWAS-required fee.
And that was only for fully vaccinated passengers who were required to take the test two days after arriving in the country.
Non-vaccinated passengers not only took the PCR test two days after their arrival but were made to take a second test seven days after the first test at double the cost.
Nigeria only approved PCR tests for international passengers and slammed healthcare facilities that provided rapid tests, whereas arriving passengers at Ghana’s Kotoka International Airport were charged $50 per ECOWAS citizen and $150 for other nationals for a rapid test.
Frank (not his full name) had just arrived in Lagos from Ghana with a negative COVID-19 test result that allowed him to board from the Kotoka International Airport in Accra as well as a vaccination certificate issued by the nation’s health ministry.
After completing his vaccination, Frank expected the authorities to scale back on the highly exploitative testing regime.
“It was a requirement to do a COVID test from Ghana about 24 hours before a flight. And when you get to the airport, we were required to fill an online form and pay N52, 000 naira so we get a test done on arrival in Nigeria,” he told one of our correspondents.
“They knew very well that before boarding from Ghana, we presented a negative COVID 19 test result which was not more than 24 hours. Despite that, we were made to pay a compulsory fee so that we would undergo another test on arrival in Nigeria.
“Upon arrival, we showed the electronic receipt that was generated during payment, and we were instructed to proceed to any of the recommended laboratories to do a test seven days later,” Frank said.
After the spending about three days in Lagos and was ready to return to Ghana. He had to pay another N52, 000 to have another PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) test done in a different laboratory to prove that he was not infected during his three days in Nigeria.
“That was not acceptable to me, but I was forced to pay for another test in order to board a flight out of Nigeria.
“It was quite an experience and very ridiculous how Africa handled the whole COVID-19 matter. We thank God it is over. What can we do. It is what it is. May God help Africa.”
The Managing Director, Workstation Nigeria, a Lagos-based strategic communications firm, Emmanuel Utibe, said he traveled many times at the heat of the pandemic and experienced the frustration of multiple tests.
“After the lockdown was lifted, I traveled to the US sometime in 2020. The airline required that we do a PCR test 48 hours before our departure and I did the test at a government approved laboratory in Akwa Ibom State,” recalled Mr. Emmanuel.
“I paid N50, 000 but I know it was a little higher than that in some other places. The result was sent to me by email, and I presented it at the Lagos International Airport and flew out of the country. On arrival in the US, I wasn’t required to do any further tests.
“But when I was returning to Nigeria, I did a PCR test and boarded to Lagos. When we landed, we were compelled to do two tests, one within two days on arrival and the other after seven days which cost me N42,000 each because I chose Uyo, being my base at the time. If I had chosen Lagos, it would have cost me N100, 000 for the two tests,” he said.
Mr. Emmanuel insisted that the two tests regime enforced in Nigeria were unnecessary adding that no airline allowed anyone with a positive result to get onboard.
The airlines in the US were very strict. You had to show them two things to board the plane to Nigeria. You show them your negative test result obtained within 48 hours of the flight and the rapid test.
When contacted, the Director General of the NCDC, Ifedayo Adetifa, noted that resources available to the agency were meant to support testing for citizens and residents for surveillance and case management by the network of Public Health Laboratories and not for travel testing.
Mr. Adetifa in a written response also stated that travel-related COVID-19 testing is conducted by approved private laboratories, who provide the service for a fee.
However, he explained that the cost of a COVID-19 PCR test varies across private laboratories and ranges between N39,500 to N45,250 on the payment portal.
“This arrangement was put in place by the private laboratories and state governments who got the approval of the Presidential Steering Committee on COVID-19. Prices were fixed based on the cost of laboratory consumables and other operational factors.
“All payments go directly to the private laboratories and state governments NOT to the Presidential Steering Committee on COVID-19, Nigeria Centre for Disease Control & Prevention, Port Health Services or the Federal Ministry of Health,” Mr. Adetifa indicated.
When asked why Nigeria maintained a two test regime months after many countries had stopped demanding test for fully vaccinated and passengers with negative PCR results, the NCDC boss referred to the revised travel protocol released in April 2022.
Based on the revised protocol, inbound passengers to Nigeria who are fully vaccinated are no longer required to carry out a PCR test.
“Unvaccinated travelers who come into Nigeria with a negative PCR test require a post-arrival test to cover any risk of infection that may have occurred between your pre-departure test and on arrival.
“Depending on the epidemiology in host countries, about 1-2 percent of passengers in this category still test positive for COVID-19. This at the time, was deemed important due to the risk of importation of new variants of the virus,” he stated, adding that the current protocol was being reviewed and will be updated shortly.
Mr. Adetifa said the NCDC is not responsible for fixing the prices for COVID-19 test, adding that that travel-related testing is conducted by approved private laboratories for a fee while tests conducted in the agency’s supported and government-owned laboratories are done free of charge.
He explained that the NCDC does not accredit laboratories, noting that state governments and the Medical Laboratory Science Council of Nigeria (MLSCN), do based on a robust review process.
Asked how much went into Nigeria’s COVID-19 response, he replied, “It is difficult to provide this estimate given that there were investments of domestic resources by Federal and State Governments directly and through respective Ministries of Health and various agencies (NIMR, NAFDAC, NCDC, NIPRD) and hospitals (FMCs and Teaching Hospitals).
“These were also complimented/supplemented by credit taken from World Bank, etc by the Federal Government, and contributions in cash and kind by partners (local and international) e.g., vaccine doses, laboratory consumables, PPE, etc. The COVID-19 response was also multisectoral extending beyond Health.”
The Ghana COVID-19 conundrum
On March 27, 2020, the President of the Republic of Ghana, Nana Akufo-Addo, relaxed the Covid-19 restrictions and opened the country’s land borders with its neighbours.
Prior to that, the air space had been opened, allowing for international travels through the Kotoka International Airport (KIA).
The opening of the land borders was a response to rising pressure from the parliament over the country’s persistent border closures.
Ghana, like many other countries, placed numerous restrictions to halt the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, which had claimed over a million lives by the end of 2020 and brought economies to their knees.
Social isolation, school closures, and mandatory face mask use were among the restrictions.
President Akufo-Addo initiated a weekly, then biweekly, and finally monthly national television briefings in which he informed the public about the country’s response to the pandemic.
However, before these restrictions were relaxed, several people who used the KIA had some of the most terrifying moments of their lives.
The country’s entry and exit rules, based on WHO guidelines, also included a 14-day state quarantine.
But many international travelers reported bald-faced cases of highhandedness, extortion, and violations of their fundamental rights by state officials.
The KIA’s black market COVID-19 lab
When Geraldine Raphael left her home in the United States on Wednesday, December 15, 2021, she only had one job in Ghana.
She simply needed to pick up her 15-year-old daughter from school and head back to the US to celebrate Christmas with her family.
She estimated that she would wrap up the journey between December 16 and December 20, 2021, and this was at a time the world was fighting the omicron variant of the virus.
Mrs. Raphael had no inkling that her routine trip to pick up and drop off her daughter would turn into torturous days at the hands of Ghanaian state officials.
To be clear, she had carefully read the Ghana COVID-19 travel regulations before leaving and knew exactly what she needed to do.
Being aware of Ghana’s quarantine rule at the Kotoka International Airport and was not ready for any trouble, she got tested for Covid-19 before she left the US.
She had two negative Covid-19 tests, one for Real Time – PCR and the other for Antigen. Both tests were completed 48 hours before her journey.
But on arrival, she got an antigen test at the Kotoka International Airport that showed she was positive, her passport was seized, and she was immediately taken by officials of Ghana Health Service to M-Plaza Hotel, just a few metres away at Roman Ridge.
“I arrived on the night of December 16, 2021, which was Thursday. On Saturday, they tested me for both the PCR and the antigen, and both came back positive. Of course, it’ll come back positive,”
“The regulation is 72 hours rather than 48 hours and that means they were not adhering to the standard,” Mrs. Raphael said.
Many passengers, including Andriana Aquah, a Ghanaian-Dutch citizen, thought there was something wrong with the test results at the Kotoka International Airport.
Mrs. Aquah told our undercover reporter that she had PCR and antigen tests 48 hours before leaving her base because she was aware of Ghana’s strict quarantine rule, and that the results were negative.
When she arrived in Ghana, she queued with other passengers to complete the Ghana Health Service form and pay the $50 fee for the antigen test, which was outsourced to Frontier Health Services Limited.
She had no idea that her ordeal at the hands of Ghanaian authorities and their private-sector allies had only just begun.
Almost everyone else on her flight got their test results and left the airport, but no one mentioned hers.
She waited and waited until an official approached her and invited her into an Immigration cubicle near the arrival hall’s exit, where she was informed that she had COVID-19.
While she was still processing what had just been said, the authorities bundled her into a waiting ambulance and drove her away to an unknown location.
Two top journalists (names withheld) were returning from the board meeting of the Norbert Zongo Centre for Investigative Journalism in West Africa (CENOZO) on December 18, 2022, two days after the arrival of Mrs. Raphael.
One of the journalists came out negative for COVID-19, while the other we would refer to as Mr. Smith was said to be positive and was placed under state-mandated quarantine at the M-Plaza Hotel.
Mr. Smith was the only one who tested positive for COVID-19, despite spending the entire time not only with the colleague he arrived with but also with other CENOZO board members.
The CENOZO board member, like Mrs. Raphael, had received a negative PCR test result from the Ivorian authorities less than 12 hours prior to boarding for Ghana.
Mr. Smith, a fully vaccinated individual, had no symptoms of COVID-19 and was in excellent health when he arrived in Ghana.
He, too, was whisked away in a waiting ambulance and dumped at the Ave Maria Hotel, which is less than one kilometre from the airport.
But it seemed the authorities were not interested in the safety of the alleged positive patients they profiled and arrested other than to use them as cash cows.
This was because Mr. Smith and over two dozen other travelers taken to Ave Maria Hotel at different times on December 19, 2021, were kept outside in the cold and at the mercy of brutal mosquitoes.
Many would not have survived the night’s harsh conditions if they had been infected with the COVID-19 virus.
It was the next morning that the profiled patients were taken to M-Plaza Hotel by kind-hearted soldiers who were deployed to guard the Ave Maria Hotels.
To be continued…
This report was commissioned and funded by the Norbert Zongo Cell for Investigative Journalism in West Africa (CENOZO).