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Aug 07, 2023

By Kolawole Omoniyi

COVID-19 is a threat to global public health, but outbound travellers in Nigeria can process and obtain their ‘authentic’ COVID-19 vaccination cards, in less than an hour to boarding time, without taking any jab.

A racket in instant COVID-19 vaccination cards is growing and many health workers are feeding fat from sales in the brisk business.

Ideally, an interval of 8 to 12 weeks is required between the primary vaccination doses as recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO). This means full COVID-19 vaccination requires about three months.

But that is not the case at many primary health care centers across the country where some health officials in connivance with racketeers are issuing the cards for unvaccinated travellers in less than 30 minutes.

At the Port Health Service (PHS) in Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA), Lagos, Mr. Alemeke Bright, is an alleged ringleader of the racketeers at the centre.

This reporter visited the Lagos PHS for three days from March 29th to 31st, 2023 where Mr. Bright always stood at the entrance gate to persuade his prospective clients – mostly outbound travellers – coming for Yellow Fever or COVID-19 cards.

As usual, the quadragenarian approached the reporter upon arrival. He explained how he can help him obtain the card in less than an hour without taking the vaccine. He wanted a payment of N25, 000.

“If you want to follow due process it will take you at least six months to receive the COVID-19 card,” he said, persuading the reporter to pay the money.

He explained the rigorous process to justify his pay. ”I’m not the only person to benefit from this money; there are various departments that will work on documentation.

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“After putting your details on the NPHCDA (National Primary Health Care Development Agency) server, I have to settle them.”

How COVID Card Racketeers Operate at Lagos PHS

The reporter was still negotiating with Mr. Bright to cut the price when the conversation was interjected twice by two different callers—requesting for the same COVID-19 card.

In the two separate conversations, Mr. Bright told the callers that they had to pay N20, 000 for proxy cards arrangement to enable him to deliver the card via courier services.

Those phone conversations encouraged this reporter to bargain further. Bright eventually agreed on N15, 000 to be transferred into his bank account after the delivery of the card.

Officials Backdating Card Records to Fit Global Standard

Asked whether the cards were authentic not to be flagged while boarding, he said, “If you collect it today, you can travel with it immediately.

“We will backdate it and indicate in your records that you took the first dose [Johnson & Johnson] since 2022 and a booster dose thereafter, so that’s complete doses.”

The details of the international passport were sent to Bright via WhatsApp as requested. Then one of his “boys” returned with an authentic COVID-19 card about 30 minutes after. A fair-complexioned young man simply identified as “Yellow.”

“Oga Bright said I should give you and you should use your phone QR Code app to confirm if it is genuine,” he said.

Yellow met the reporter at a private restaurant inside the Lagos PHS center where he was kept waiting to avoid suspicious movement within the premises.

Details on the hard copy of the card indicate that the vaccination was done at Mafoluku Primary Health Centre, a government clinic at Oluyeye Ward in Oshodi-Isolo Local Government Area, Lagos, about a few kilometers from the PHS.

As advised by Mr. Bright, the reporter used QR scanner to confirm the details of the card VAC ID: NG-LA73157055VT on the NPHCDA website and every detail was intact on the e-certificate.

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The data on the card shows that the reporter took the first jab [Johnson & Johnson] on 17 October 2022 and a booster dose on 19 December, 2022 as against date of the delivery, 30 March 2023.

COVID Card Hard Copy Certificate

The reporter eventually made the cash transfer to Bright’s account at exactly 2.15pm on 30th March 2023.

Officials Allegedly Extorting Travellers despite Relaxation of COVID-19 Protocol

While delivering the card, Yellow was flanked by one Mr. Agboiyi Peter, another outbound traveller, who also came for the ‘wait and get’ COVID-19 Card.

In a chat with SOLACEBASE, Mr. Peter explained that he was delayed for several hours by some MMIA officials in December 2022 upon his arrival from Russia due to a lack of COVID-19 card.

“The immigration officials at the Lagos Airport charged me N100, 000 because I didn’t have the COVID card. I later paid N20, 000. That is why I came for the card because I’m traveling to Qatar next week,” he said.

Asked if he was aware that the COVID card is no longer a criterion for outbound travellers to Qatar, Mr. Peter did not regret paying N20, 000 to Mr. Bright. He needed to avoid another possible delay and extortion.

He expressed reservation about the vaccine. “I have been travelling since 2020 without taking the vaccine,”

“They said it is harmful and now that I have a genuine card, nobody can impose it (the vaccine) on me” He said.

The Nigerian government through its Presidential Steering Committee on COVID-19 in December 2022 announced the relaxation of protocol for COVID-19 surveillance at airports nationwide.

Officials say this led to a drastic drop in COVID-19 vaccines uptake at the Lagos Port Health Service. As a result, Thursday is the only day dedicated to COVID-19 vaccination at the centre.

“We were doing it daily before. After the relaxation, we reduced it to Tuesdays and Thursdays but due to low patronage we only do it now on Thursdays,” said Dr. Omide Ogu, the In-Charge of the Lagos PHS.

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“The number that turns up isn’t very significant, just from three to 10 weekly” He added.

Corrupt Health Workers Eat Fat While Vaccination Centre Records Low Patronage

With the centre recording just 10 COVID-19 vaccine uptakes weekly, Dr. Ogu denied knowing about the racketeers who block people from coming for the genuine vaccinations at his centre.

“I have never seen any racketeer here; I strongly disagree with you that anyone exists,” he said.

But he promised to investigate the matter and revert after the reporter gave him convincing evidence about the racketeers’ operations.

On May 2, 2023, about two months after the Lagos visit, the reporter called Dr. Ogu back on the telephone to find out if he had identified Mr. Bright as promised and conducted further investigation.

Again, he swiftly disowned Bright. “He [Bright] is not on my payroll,” Dr. Ogu said.

Dr. Ogu could also not conclude if at all such criminal act is being perpetrated under his watch. He insisted that investigations are ongoing.

Health Workers Discarding Vaccines to Cover Up Sales of COVID Cards

With the COVID cards issuance moving faster than the genuine vaccination exercise, the next source of worry is what the erring health workers are doing with the unused vaccines.

Revelations from Esther Monday, a health official with Model Primary Health Care Centre, Ozuoba in Rivers State, appeared to solve this puzzle. Monday explained how she and other racketeers are covering up.

According to her, a lot of background exercises are involved, including discarding the vaccines to avoid suspecting foul play during daily stock balancing.

“If you are not taking the vaccines, you have to pay N10, 000 because of some paperwork. We have to discard the vaccines after giving you a card,” she said.

“Or you think we will just be issuing cards anyhow without covering up when we know the implication?” she asked rhetorically.

Compulsory COVID Cards for Oil Workers Boosts Card Racketeering in Rivers

SOLACEBASE observed that the COVID-19 vaccination is no longer a priority at the PHS of the Port Harcourt International Airport in Rivers State following the relaxation of the COVID protocol.

But the COVID vaccination is ongoing at some health centers in the oil-rich state because many multinational oil companies in the state made the COVID card compulsory for their workers.

“Hundreds of my clients did their card here without vaccination; all of them have already travelled abroad,” Monday explained.

“After the relaxation of COVID protocol, the patronage dropped. But it is picking up now because many companies in Rivers State made the card compulsory for their workers.”

“See the man that left just now—came for the card,” she said, indicating a man.

“Also on Thursday, somebody called me from an oil company that they are going for a sea tour and they will drop him without the card. I came to the office because of him that day and he paid me hugely.”

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After thorough negotiations, Monday agreed to take N6, 500 and she sent her bank account details – via WhatsApp – for payment.

Health Workers Blame Government Over Unpaid Allowance for Vaccination Exercise

Even though Monday knew the implication of issuing the illicit card to unvaccinated persons, she was not remorseful about her action.

She blamed the Nigerian government for encouraging the trend by failing to pay workers, mostly ad-hoc staff, that were engaged for the exercise.

“You know this money I’m charging you; I’m not supposed to do so if they are paying us. When we first started, I wouldn’t try this because I will be in trouble if they catch me, but now, man must survive,” she said.

“We heard that the organisations sponsoring the vaccination exercise had paid into the government account but the big Ogas (bosses) are eating our money, they refused to pay us.

“Sometimes they replace names of people in the field with names of their friends and cronies who are ghost workers. So, tell me why we will not collect money if someone offers us.

“I’m still doing it (the vaccination) because I’m a staff at this facility, but places like Rumoolu and Obiakpo have stopped there. Many people are even coming from those areas to this facility,” she added.

SOLACEBASE visited other facilities including Model Primary Health Care Centre, Egwi and General Hospital, Okomoko Etche in Rivers. The officials in-charge of vaccination were reported to have gone for an official assignment.

Abuja Health Worker Also Laments Unpaid Vaccination Allowance

Corroborating Monday’s claim, Zainab Usman, a staff of Primary Health Care facility in Gwagwalada Area Council, Federal Capital Territory FCT Abuja also lamented the unpaid allowances to health workers.

“We just started the vaccination again last week Thursday (30th March, 2023) to see if they will pay us as promised this time around. We stopped before due to six months unpaid allowances,” she said.

Like it was in Lagos and Rivers States, Usman, who is in-charge of COVID-19 vaccination at the facility, also agreed to issue the COVID-19 card for the reporter without the jabs.

“Many of my clients like you are outside the country now,” she told the reporter.

She insisted the reporter must pay N10, 000 for the card and swiftly sent her account number for the payment before the reporter excused her.

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Unlike Esther in Rivers State claimed to be discarding the unused vaccines, Usman said her tactic was to connive with other officials to collect extra cards for cover-up.

Conversely, a health worker at a primary health care centre, Gwagwalada Phase 3 in Abuja simply identified as Felicia, outrightly declined the reporter’s attempt to obtain the card without jabs. She described the move as criminal.

Just like the Port Harcourt Airport, the PHS at the Nnamdi Azikwe International Airport, Abuja no longer issues COVID cards to outbound travellers. Its officials referred the reporter to a nearest facility.

How Saudi Arabia-bound Pilgrims Obtain Illegal COVID Cards in Kano

The relaxation of COVID-19 protocol also affects the issuance of the COVID-19 card to outbound travellers at the PHS of the Mallam Aminu Kano International Airport MAKIA.

However, MAKIA – the oldest airport in Nigeria since 1936 – is situated in northern Nigeria where most outbound travellers are predominant Muslim Pilgrims flying to Saudi Arabia for hajj.

This makes the COVID-19 card relevant as part of the screening process before their trips to Saudi Arabia.

As such, some health workers in the state indulge in the illegitimate issuance of instant cards.

Some officials at Murtala Muhammad Specialist Hospital confirmed the issuance of the cards without jabs. They showed the reporter details of other outbound travellers who had benefited from the illicit deal.

The situation is no different at Sheikh Muhammed Jidda Hospital, popularly known as KRODA in Kano. Ahmed Sani, the official in-charge of the COVID vaccination there charged the reporter N10, 000 for the card and provided his account details for payment.

But the reverse was the case when SOLACEBASE visited Abdullahi Wase Specialist Hospital. The officials in charge of the vaccination were seen administering the jabs to some would-be pilgrims. They resisted moves by the reporter to obtain the card without jabs.

Mr. Dan Magaji, an outbound traveller to Saudi Arabia for the 2023 lesser Hajj explained how he got the COVID card without jabs. “Right from time, I don’t believe there is any Corona (COVID-19), so I have never taken the vaccine,”

“In just two days to our trip to Saudi, our agent collected N6, 000 from each of us and collected our details. The next day we received our COVID and Yellow cards without stress.” he said.

Another pilgrim, identified as Mr. Tukur said the same thing, “Honestly, I don’t follow any protocol to get the Corona card. I just sent money and my details to somebody and the person got it for me.”

To Tukur, following the due process before obtaining the card is a waste of time. “There is no Corona again, so why must I stress myself to collect the vaccine?” He asked.

Another pilgrim, Abdullahi, said he got the card without paying any fee and without a jab. “My friend is one of the COVID vaccination officials; he issued the card for me free within a few minutes but he charges outsiders N5, 000.”

Disengaged Ad-Hoc Staff Have Login Access to NPHCDA Saver – Official

When contacted, Dr Shehu Abdullahi Mohammed, Kano Immunization Officer, boasted that about 10 million people have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in the state.

Dr. Mohammed described the racket situation as worrisome when the reporter queried the data and the credibility of the cards that have been issued.

He revealed that several disengaged ad-hoc officials still have login access to the National Primary Health Care Development Agency (NPHCDA) server and could issue the QR code to their prospective clients on their mobile phones.

When the immunization officer was convincingly informed that the racket is taking place at many government hospitals in the state, he vowed to take stringent action.

Dr. Mohammed suspected that the defaulting officials may have been leveraging on the global vaccines potency protocol to perpetrate the act without being noticed during daily data reconciliation.

“The global standard rule is that all COVID-19 vaccines must not exceed six hours after opening its vial,”

“So for instance when vaccinators open a particular vial that has maybe six doses, if only three clients come for the vaccination, they would have to discard the remaining doses after six hours,” he explained.

COVID-19 Vials

According to him, it is easier for the vaccinators to use figures of the discarded vaccines to cover up for those who received the card without jabs during stock balancing.

Government Blames Inadequate Logistics for Weak Enforcement

The immunization officer said the Federal Government was aware of vaccine racketeering and has set up a task force to clamp down on the culprits, but that the team lacks the logistics to work efficiently.

“I’mthe secretary of the nationwide taskforce in Kano; we have arrested a number of workers and some of them are still in detention. We could not sustain the enforcement due to lack of mobility and other logistics,” he said.

The NPHCDA is in charge of vaccination across Nigeria. Several attempts to reach its Director General, Dr. Faisal Shuaib for three months were unsuccessful.

Ohitoto Mohammed, the agency’s spokesman requested the details of the proposed interview with his DG and they were provided.

He claimed to have channeled the correspondence appropriately but there was no response. At a point, he stopped taking calls from the reporter.

Dr. Faisal Shuaib vowed, at a press briefing in September 2021, that the Federal Government would dismiss and try the racketeers, but there is no update on the scapegoats two years after the comment.

SOLACEBASE contacted the Federal Ministry of Health for comment over the matter, but the ministry insisted that only the NPHCDA could respond to the issues raised.

COVID Cards Racketeering May Lead to Poor Health Decisions-Making – Expert Warns

Reacting to the development, Dr. Alero Ann Roberts, a consultant in Public Health at Lagos Teaching Hospital (LUTH), said the card racketeering is a multi-level process and several levels of health workers were complicit.

“It is a systemic problem and unfortunately the whole country is going to pay for it in the long run. It will render our COVID cards valueless in other countries,” she lamented.

In Nigeria, from 3 January 2020 to 12 July 2023, there have been 266,675 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with 3,155 deaths reported to the WHO.

COVID-19 Updated Cases in Nigeria

However, Dr. Alero said the credibility of data of the reported vaccinated persons on the NPHCDA portal is at stake. “If the process of vaccination is flawed, its data would definitely be flawed.”

On the risk posed by the unvaccinated travellers, Dr. Alero, who also lectures at the University of Lagos College Of Medicine, said everybody was at risk of contracting the disease. She recommended full vaccination as the only remedy.

According to her, the trend may also lead to poor health care decision-making not only for future pandemics but with the management of the current endemic in the country.

She opined that only a provable biometrical immunization at birth that is electronically linked to a particular child would be a remedy to the current “unreliable” immunization data in the country.

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