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The COVID Racket: How Health Workers Dump Vaccines to Cover Fraudulent Card Issuance

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COVID-19 is a threat to global public health, but outbound travelers in Nigeria can process and obtain their ‘authentic’ COVID-19 vaccination cards – in under one 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 eight 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 travelers in less than 30 minutes.

At the Port Health Service (PHS) in Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA), Lagos, is Alemeke Bright, a ringleader of the racketeers at the center. I visited the Lagos PHS for three days from 29 to 31 March 2023 where Mr. Bright always stood at the entrance gate to persuade his prospective clients – mostly outbound travelers – to come for Yellow Fever or COVID-19 cards.

Port Health Centre Lagos

Port Health Service PHC, Lagos Airport/ⓒPremium Times

As usual, the quadragenarian approached me upon arrival. He explained how he could help me 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, as he persuaded me 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. 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 PHC

I was still negotiating with Mr. Bright to cut the price when the conversation was interjected twice by two different callers, requesting the same COVID-19 card. In the two separate conversations, Mr. Bright told the callers that they had to pay N20,000 for a proxy card arrangement to enable him to deliver the card via courier services. Those phone conversations encouraged me to bargain further. Mr. 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 and not 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] in 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 me at a private restaurant inside the Lagos PHS center where I was kept waiting to avoid suspicious movements within the premises. The 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 of Lagos, a location about 10 kilometers from the PHS. I used a QR scanner to confirm the details of the card, VAC ID: NG-LA73157055VT, on the NPHCDA website as advised by Mr. Bright and every detail was intact on the e-certificate.

               

COVID e-Certificate Obtained by Reporter                       COVID Card Hard Copy Certificate

The data on the card shows that I took the first jab [Johnson & Johnson] on 17 October 2022 and a booster dose on 19 December 2022 as against the date of the delivery, 30 March 2023. I eventually made the cash transfer to Bright’s account at exactly 2.15 pm on 30 March 2023.

Officials Extort Travelers Despite Relaxation of COVID-19 Protocol

While delivering the card, Yellow was flanked by one Mr. Agboiyi Peter, another outbound traveler, who came for the ‘wait and get’ COVID-19 Card. In a chat with Nigeria Info, 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 a 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 travelers to Qatar, Mr. Peter did not regret paying N20,000 to Mr. Bright. He needed to avoid another delay and extortion.

He expressed reservations about the vaccine. “I have been traveling 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, announced the relaxation of the protocol for COVID-19 surveillance at airports nationwide in December 2022. Officials say this led to a drastic drop in COVID-19 vaccine uptake at the Lagos Port Health Service. As a result, Thursday is the only day dedicated to COVID-19 vaccination at the center.

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

Corrupt Health Workers Eat Fat While Vaccination Center Records Low Patronage

With the center recording just 10 COVID-19 vaccine uptakes weekly, Dr. Ogu denied knowing about the racketeers who block people from coming for the genuine vaccination at his center. “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 I gave him convincing evidence about the racketeers’ operations. On 2 May, about two months after the Lagos visit, I 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,” Ogu said. Dr. Ogu could not conclude if at all such a criminal act is being perpetrated under his watch.  He insisted that investigations were ongoing.

Health Workers Discarding Vaccines to Cover Up Sales of COVID Cards

With the COVID card issuance moving faster than the genuine vaccination exercise, the next source of worry is what the erring health workers do 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 State

Nigeria Info 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 have done this card here without vaccination; all of them have already traveled abroad,” Monday explained. “After the relaxation of the 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.” After a thorough negotiation, Monday agreed to take N6,500 for a card and 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 organizations 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. Nigeria Info 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 on an official assignment.

Abuja Health worker Also Laments Unpaid Vaccination Allowance

Corroborating Monday’s claim, Zainab Usman, a staff of the Primary Health Care facility in Gwagwalada Area Council, Federal Capital Territory, Abuja also lamented the unpaid allowances to health workers. “We just started the vaccination again last week Thursday (30 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, agreed to issue me with a COVID-19 card without the jabs. “Many of my clients like you are outside the country now,” she told me.

She insisted I pay N10,000 for the card and swiftly sent her bank account number for the payment before I excused her. Unlike Esther in Rivers State who 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 center in Gwagwalada Phase 3 in Abuja simply identified as Felicia, outrightly declined my attempt to obtain the card without jabs.  She described the move as criminal. Just like the Port Harcourt Airport, the PHS at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja no longer issues COVID cards to outbound travelers. Its officials referred me to the nearest facility.

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

The relaxation of the COVID-19 protocol also affects the issuance of the COVID card to outbound travelers 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 travelers are predominantly 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 the Murtala Muhammed General Hospital confirmed the issuance of the cards without jabs. They showed me details of outbound travelers who benefited from the illicit deal.

The situation is no different at Sheikh Muhammed Jidda Hospital, (KRODA) in Kano. The official in charge of the COVID vaccination there, Ahmed Sani, charged me N10,000 for the card and provided his account details for payment. But the reverse was the case when Nigeria Info visited Abdullahi Wase General Hospital. The officials in charge of the vaccination were seen administering the jabs to some would-be pilgrims. They resisted my moves to obtain the card without a jab. Mr. Dan Magaji, an outbound traveler 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,” he said. “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.”

Another pilgrim, identified as Mr. Tukur says did the same thing. “Honestly, I didn’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,” he said. To Tukur, following 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 Server -Official 

When I contacted Dr. Shehu Abdullahi Mohammed, Kano’s Immunization Officer, he boasted that about 10 million people have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in the state. He described the racket situation as worrisome when I queried the data and the credibility of the cards that have been issued. Dr. Mohammed 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 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.

J & J Vaccine

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’m the secretary of the nationwide task force 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. The agency’s spokesman, Ohitoto Mohammed, 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 one point, he stopped taking calls to his mobile phone. 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.

Nigeria Info contacted the Federal Ministry of Health for comment on the matter, but the ministry insisted only the NPHCDA could respond to the issues raised.

COVID Cards Racketeering Could Lead to Poor Health Decision-Making -Expert Warns

Reacting to the development, a Public Health Consultant at the Lagos Teaching Hospital (LUTH), Dr. Alero Ann Roberts, said the card racketeering is a multi-level process and that 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.

Nigeria confirmed 266,675 cases of COVID-19 from 3 January 2020 to 12 July 2023, with 3,155 deaths. But Dr. Roberts said the credibility of the vaccination data on the NPHCDA portal


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