How Lagos hospitals use COVID-19 test to scam international travellers

THE year 2020 is one that will not be forgotten in a hurry. It will be remembered as the year socio-economic activities around the globe were temporarily brought to a halt by the coronavirus pandemic. And while the world continues to hurt from the ‘injuries’ inflicted by the pandemic, for many, it is becoming increasingly clear that individuals and corporate lifestyles may not be the same again.

No one envisaged that the outbreak of an unknown virus in the sleepy town of Wuhan in China towards the last quarter of 2019 could spread to all nooks and crannies of the world within months and leave sorrow and tears in its trail.

Expectedly, the whole world is rising to the challenge. Various measures are being taken by nations, including Nigeria, to stem the tide of the pandemic. One of such is the closure of international flights and the banning of passengers from countries considered as high risk by other countries from venturing into their territories.

Interestingly, Nigeria, in addition to the numerous precautionary measures it has taken in conjunction with other countries, also announced that inbound passengers must undergo a COVID-19 Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) Test 96 hours before flying into the country.

According to a circular issued by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) and sent to the country manager of each of the foreign airlines, the regulatory body declared: “Please note that presentation of a negative COVID-19 PCR test valid within 96 hours of boarding remains mandatory for all passengers travelling to Nigeria. Airlines must ensure compliance with this requirement.”  Also, the Federal Government, through the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19, directed Nigerians travelling to Europe and some other countries to undergo coronavirus test in designated centres around the country to verify their health status before travelling out of the country.

But Saturday Tribune investigations revealed that many of such testing centres and private clinics are using this additional measure to exploit unsuspecting travellers. It was gathered that many of the testing centres and private clinics are cashing in on the desperation of travellers. For instance, some of the centres charged between N200,000 and N500,000 per prospective traveller for a test that ordinarily should cost no more than N42,000.

Besides the extortion by the centres and the clinics, majority of them carry out fake tests which, most times, render the affected intending passenger ineligible to travel. While the COVID test scam, if not urgently nipped in the bud, may put intending Nigerian travellers at the risk of  ban from some countries around the world, the scam gets dirtier as their victims often discover that the result of the test conducted on them in many of the testing centres are mostly fake and unsubstantiated.

The inquisitive ones among the victims often get relief after tests conducted at other clinics give them a clean bill of health – unfortunately not before they have spent a fortune. Many Nigerians who have fallen victim to the COVID test scam are appealing to the government to urgently wade in to protect intending travellers whose jobs, education and businesses are being put on hold as they cannot travel to their destinations without authentic COVID test evidence.

 

Victims speak

While many of those who have lost millions to the COVID-19 scammers have since moved on, having raised extra fund to redo the test in alternative testing centres, others are still in a dilemma regarding where to get an authentic test done.

Speaking on the experience of his friend at the hands of a scammer, one Ayodeji narrated how three children of the friend returning to school overseas almost had their educational careers truncated as they were presented with fake results at a government- approved COVID test centre they had gone to. He said: “My friend’s wife was to take them. The four of them did COVID-19 test in one of the government-approved labs in Lagos. Result came out on Friday night that all of them tested positive for the virus. The entire family was traumatised. But my friend decided to seek a second opinion concerning the situation. He took the children to another lab to carry out the test. And to his relief, the results came out negative. On Saturday, he spent about N400,000 to change the flight date, cancelled hotel booking for Sunday. He lost a day’s booking in the process. The government-approved lab had referred him to a clinic and a doctor who would treat his family, since his children were to resume school the following week. He got in touch with the clinic and they gave him a bill of N200,000 per person for treatment. He called me that Saturday and we decided to seek a second medical opinion. A new doctor was consulted and he told us that many of those labs were not conducting genuine tests. So, my friend didn’t pay the N800,000 to the waiting clinic. This new doctor took the entire family to an NCDC lab on Sunday, paid about N80,000 per person for fast track. All five results came out on Sunday night negative.”

A relation of another victim of the scam who preferred anonymity said: “It happened to my sister on Monday, 21 September, 2020, when one of the government- approved labs sent her a positive test result and requested her to get quarantined for a fee. The irony of the whole thing is that she hadn’t even done any test. These individuals don’t have a clue and they are not really testing anyone. Nigerians, particularly families of many intending travellers, including students, need the government to save them from the scammers.”

 

Representatives of schools abroad react

For some representatives of schools abroad in Nigeria, they are yet to be informed of any Nigerian students returning to their base having problem on the basis of COVID-19 screening certificate. Mrs Ify Udofia, the West Africa Regional Officer for the University of Sussex, United Kingdom and Mr Kelechi Ukwuoma, the CEO\Principal Counsellor, Perctrea Pinnacle Limited, a consultant for foreign schools, gave their positions in separate interviews with Saturday Tribune.

Mrs Udofia said as far as she knew, students returning to the UK from anywhere in the world would only be quarantined, upon landing in the UK, for 14 days before they could be issued clearance to mix with the public.  “That is the UK policy as a government and not schools,” she stressed. She said although she was aware that some airline operators were requesting for COVID-19 status certificate from their passengers to be airlifted, such certificate will not serve any purpose in the UK.

The two condemned the use of COVID-19 screening certificate to make money out of unsuspecting travellers.

 

Reactions

The Managing Director, Centurion Security Service and a one-time military commandant at the Lagos airport, Group Captain John Ojikutu (retd), confirmed the existence of such scam. “There is COVID-19 scam everywhere, even at the executive arm of the government. That is why they have spent over N10 billion out of the N15.5 billion given to one of the state governments to test less than half a million persons. I have my doubt too about the management, control and enforcement of government directives on special or evacuation flights and the passengers,” he stated. The retired air force officer, however, expressed belief that the situation would have been averted if some measures recommended before the commencement of international flights had been adopted by the government. “If the government had taken to the advice in February and March, this year, asking it to limit air travels into the country to only Lagos and Abuja, and also build four to five testing centres at each of the airports, there would not have been need for total lockdown of the airports, especially if the flight movements were controlled as we are doing now. It would have been easy to identify those perpetrating such a scam at testing centres,” he stated.

On his own, the head of human resources at 7Star Hangar, an aircraft maintenance firm at the Lagos airport, Mr Sheri Ayuba Kyari, called on law enforcement agencies to close down the fake clinics and arrest the operators.

 

Aviation stakeholders express fears

Stakeholders across the aviation sector have expressed fears over the effects of the illegal activities taking place at the COVID-19 testing centres. Besides inflicting trauma and financial strain on many air passengers, the ongoing scam, they said, was capable of sending wrong signals to the outside world. According to many stakeholders, if the scam is allowed to continue, it may discourage many Nigerians from travelling freely around the world.

Throughout the period of the lockdown experienced all over the world, many Nigerians who travelled back home or to foreign lands, including students, tourists and entrepreneurs, were stuck. This set of Nigerians has been at the receiving end of the unpatriotic act of officials at the COVID-19 testing centres. Key players are calling on the government to act promptly and clamp down on the scammers.

 

Lagos government’s efforts 

In order to increase the testing capacities for COVID-19 in Lagos State, the state State Ministry of Health, in June 2020, accredited seven private COVID-19 testing laboratories to complement the efforts of government laboratories.  The accredited private laboratories include Total Medical Services, Biologix Medical services, 02 Medical Services, Synlab, 54 Gene, Clina Lancent Laboratories and Medbury Medical Services. The state Commissioner for Health, Professor Akin Abayomi, announced the cost of COVID-19 test in private laboratories as N50,400.  However, there have been allegations of private laboratories charging far above the approved cost of the test. Some of the private laboratories were said to be charging additional fee for logistics, home service and mobilisation, thereby pushing the cost of testing beyond amount stipulated by the state government. One of the accredited private laboratories, according to a client, allegedly charges N50,400 for COVID-19 test and an additional N50,000 for mobilisation.

When contacted on a phone number posted on its website to verify the claims, an official of the laboratory explained that the cost of COVID-19 test remained N50,400, with an additional bank charge of N700, contrary to the alleged additional cost of N50,000 being charged by the lab. “The COVID-19 test fee in Lagos is N50,400 but there is an extra bank charge which makes it N51,106. You are supposed to come wearing your face mask. I think that should help. The amount is N50,400 for an individual but with the bank charge, it amounts to N51,106. I will send you a text message on how to proceed with the payment so that when you get there, you won’t encounter any problem,” the laboratory official stated.

Explaining the level of compliance with the stipulated cost of N50,400 for the COVID-19 test, spokesman for the state Ministry of Health, Tunbosun Ogunbanwo, said: “The issue is that they must follow government directives on the cost of COVID-19 testing in Lagos State. They are not to exploit citizens. I believe the government took a stand on it that they must not go beyond the pronouncement that has been made to the public. Private laboratories are not expected to charge above the N50,400 stipulated by the government. The government has to protect the interest of the citizens. The government is trying to tell them to have a human face,” he stated.

Buttressing the above claim, the Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Mr Gbenga Omotoso, insisted that the fee for the test remained N50,400.  “I think it is N50,400. It is not N20,000. Don’t forget that when the state started, it was around N50,000.  It is not good for laboratories to charge beyond that. The governor is not encouraging anybody to be taking advantage of people. We don’t give room for extortion. I mean, this is something that has to do with public health. Any laboratory that wants to take advantage of the people is not good. And I hope people will report those laboratories that are doing that,” Omotoso stated.

 

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