Health Minister, Osagie Ehanire, has been in hot water lately. It’s hard to sympathise with him because he jumped into the cauldron with his eyes open, wearing his trademark black cap.

And not once. The first time was when Ehanire appeared before the House of Representatives to answer questions about the welfare of medical personnel on the frontline of the COVID-19 war. 

Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila had asked the health minister if frontline workers were getting any special allowances. Not only did the minister say he did not know, he answered as if he should not have been asked in the first place. 

“I’m not aware of it,” Ehanire said. “It is a standard job they do every day.” End of story. If fighting Coronavirus is the standard job that health workers do every day, then the minister might as well be on a visit from Mars, where aliens hold sway and UFOs work as doctors, nurses and midwives. Azu Ishiekwene

Of course, health workers work daily to provide care and save lives, even if in Nigeria they do so with frayed nerves and bare hands. We know. But since the outbreak of the new virus, every country has gone the extra mile to encourage and support health care and other frontline workers with additional incentives. It’s not to buy their loyalty or sense of duty. Just to let them know they are deeply appreciated.

To suggest, as Ehanire’s answer did, that talking about special allowance was treating health workers like a special breed, was, to say the least, uncharitable. 

Unfortunately, that was not going to be the last time that the minister would put his foot in his mouth, right up to his knee. His response last week to questions on the whereabouts of the Chinese doctors and health workers was as embarrassing as it was shameful.

Let’s get this straight. Ehanire did not say that the 15-member Chinese team was the guest of the Federal Government, as he has been widely misconstrued. He said he did not know the whereabouts of the team. The main point, however, was not so much what he said: it was what he did. 

If the Chinese health workers were not guests of the Federal Government, but guests of the Chinese Civil Engineering Construction Company (CCECC) as has now been clarified, what was Ehanire’s business at the Abuja airport when the team arrived on April 8? 

Except if the minister runs errands for the CCECC as side hustle, I’m bereft that he abandoned his post at the daily Presidential Task Force briefing on COVID-19 and instead, zoomed off to the airport to receive guests of a private company at a time of national emergency.

The minister may think that the lockdown has left our memory befuddled but we still remember some of what he said at the airport during his self-assigned errand. 

He said, “First of all, what the Chinese doctors will be doing in Nigeria is capacity-building, to add to the body of knowledge which Nigerian doctors and experts have.” And then, he added, “I have requested that they will be able to connect with our scientists and doctors via tele-conferencing, so that we can start early to be able to ask questions and hear their narratives.”

This was at a time when a number of professional groups, including the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), had publicly and completely rejected the idea of the Chinese doctors coming for anything at all. 

A number of those who argued to the contrary had very good reasons to do so, which among others included the need for humility to admit that the shambolic state of our healthcare could do with outside help in this emergency. 

But both those who were for or against, were given the impression that just as it was in other countries, particularly in Italy and South Africa, the Chinese doctors and medical personal were coming on the invitation of the Federal Government. 

That was the only thing that made sense for at least two reasons: one, it would give the team broader opportunity to share knowledge and expertise with Nigerian doctors and health workers, as the minister claimed; and two, it was inconceivable that any private company could import its own experts from abroad for its own use at a time when the national airspace was closed.

When China was the epicentre of the virus earlier this year, would a Nigerian company there have been able to fly in Nigerian doctors and health workers to treat Nigerians in Wuhan? Would the Chinese health minister have been at the airport to receive such a team?

Where in the world during an emergency will a minister sneak off to welcome guests of a private company, pass off their visit as a matter of national interest, and still retain his position without even a reprimand?

And if it was official policy to let outside help in through the backdoor, why wasn’t it advertised so that private companies that could not afford the Cubans or the Chinese could perhaps fly in health workers from Bangladesh or Madagascar, with Ehanire also on hand to receive the guests at the airport?

We’re displeased, and rightly so, when foreign countries treat our citizens spitefully. But it is precisely this sort of nonsense that leaves Nigerians abroad at the receiving end. It’s hard for others to treat your citizens with any respect or dignity when you sell them down the river so cheaply.

It was bad enough that the minister abandoned his post to receive guests of a private company. It’s disgraceful that the mixed messages about the actual mission of the Chinese left the public feeling swindled. 

The CCECC’s statement was clear: “The medical team’s assignment in Nigeria does not include treating Coronavirus patients and they have not done so at any instance.” 

So, where did Ehanire get the fancy idea that the team was “first of all in Nigeria for capacity-building” and also to “add to the body of knowledge which Nigerian doctors have?” What has become of the tele-conferencing that the minister said was supposed to connect the team with our scientists and doctors?

The minister has an excellent professional career. I don’t know which Chinese medicine bewitched him.

It took three ministers, several days later, to give us an idea where the Chinese team could be, yet none of the three could satisfactorily explain what the team had come to do until a statement by CCECC put the matter to rest, leaving us looking like fools. 

The House of Representatives looked genuinely outraged by the nonsense, and I thought for a moment that they won’t drop the ball until they get to the root of the matter. But it seems they’re back to their default mode, where nothing without a promise of personal gain sustains interest for long.

And the journalists present at the press briefing where the minister disclaimed the Chinese and still got off lightly did not do themselves any favours at all. A bunch of school kids on a lollipop roll would still have remembered to ask the minister: what was your business at the airport? 

Since the Chinese team has been finally located, the last leg of the health minister’s job should be much easier. His assignment would be complete when he escorts the 15-member team back to the airport on behalf of CCECC. And for good measure, I hope he mounts a guard of honour on the tarmac as he bids them farewell.

So much for national pride! 

Ishiekwene is MD/Editor-In-Chief of The Interview

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