Nigerian doctor Avwebo Otoide had just finished visiting a patient when a Toyota Hilux with flashing lights pulled her over. A man with a flak jacket jumped out, pointed a gun at her and demanded she show her identity document. As she rummaged in her bag to find her medical card, he slapped her on the head.
She was pushed into the car by men she later learned were Air Force officers, driven to an isolation center for coronavirus patients and ordered to sit on the floor. She was released only after colleagues whom she’d managed to send videos of her ‘arrest’ intervened.
The experience left her with a lingering headache and a raging anger at the conditions Nigerian physicians face as they work overtime to contain the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s degrading when people slap you,” Otoide, 36, said of the incident a month ago in the city of Port Harcourt. “I’m a doctor and that gives me certain benefits. What if this happens to a young lady who strolls to the pharmacy to pick up medication? What if this had happened to a man? They could have shot him.”
Harassment by the police and the military is nothing new in Nigeria, but it’s increased sharply since the government deployed additional security agents to enforce movement restrictions imposed under the outbreak. That’s threatening the response to the pandemic in Africa’s most populous nation as physicians report incidents of extortion, beatings and arbitrary detention, according to the Nigerian Association of Resident Doctors, which represents about 18,000 physicians.
“The issue of assault has been going on for a while but escalated during the Covid-19 period,” said Bilqis Muhammad, the association’s secretary-general. “This is not only the most unjust thing to happen to people who are trying to save lives in a weakened health system, it’s also harming our Covid surveillance and response across the nation.”
Nigerian security agents killed more people in the first two weeks of March than the coronavirus did, according to data from the National Human Rights Commission and the Centre for Disease Control. While 11 people died after contracting the virus, 18 others were killed by members of the police, the army, the correctional service and special Covid-19 task forces.
Among recent incidents are a doctor who, while collecting samples from suspected coronavirus cases, was ordered to pay a levy to a mobile court after refusing to bribe a policeman. He then refused to pay the levy and was detained for eight hours. Another physician in the city of Uyo had his arm fractured by security forces on his way to work.
Nigerian medical practitioners already face the hazards of dealing with the virus that has infected at least 210 doctors and killed 10. Almost 900 doctors complained they didn’t have adequate personal protective equipment.
And, despite assurances from the Health Ministry that the government would get life insurance for medical personnel, none of the doctors who contracted the illness received an insurance policy, according to the association.
A strike last month to demand allowances and more protective equipment led to talks with the government that are still ongoing.