Government under fire over COVID-19 evacuation, emergency flights

The frequency of international flight services in and out of Lagos and Abuja airports amid the lockdown has raised fresh safety concerns in the fight against coronavirus disease spread.

The evacuation flights, according to stakeholders, may lead to increase in the number of new infection with more flights ferrying crew and passengers from COVID-19 endemic countries. Regulators have, however, dismissed the claim as untrue.

By yesterday, no fewer than 2500 foreign nationals had been evacuated through the Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA) Lagos and Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport (NAIA), Abuja by the governments of United States, Canada, France and United Kingdom, among others, in two weeks.

The evacuation was in response to requests by the nationals, who apparently felt insecure staying in Nigeria despite the comparatively low prevalence of the coronavirus spread and attendant deaths in their host country.

A medical practitioner and aviation enthusiast, Michael Ajaguna, yesterday said that the free foreign flights in and out of Lagos got him worried, describing it as a contrast to the lockdown order of the city.

“I have been observing the movements of foreign airplanes into Lagos lately and I am uncomfortable. The government cannot tell the whole of Lagos and Abuja residents to stay at home, and still be welcoming foreigners, some of whom are coming from where coronavirus is biting very hard.

“Coronavirus is a foreign disease and it makes no sense to be allowing flights from overseas and expect to eradicate the problem soon. If our people at the airport were that effective at screening for possible threats, we will not be where we are today. I understand that other countries are evacuating their people, but it should not be endless. The government should be decisive on tackling this problem,” Ajaguna said.

The Federal Government lately placed a restriction on all foreign and local flights as it shut down all airports as part of efforts to contain the spread of the virus. The drastic move, however, exempted cargo, emergency and other essential flights, though subject to the approval of the minister of aviation.

The apex regulatory body, Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), in an earlier circular issued to airlines and other stakeholders outlined the protocol in handling cargo and other essential flights during the lockdown over COVID-19.

Among the directives is that “Nigerian operators on any approved flight to any destination with over 1000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 shall ensure the provision of reinforced flight crew (two sets) for immediate return in accordance with relevant protocols.”

Aviation Security consultant, Group Capt. John Ojikutu (rtd) said though the government made provision for special flights and the risks should have been considered, the local airlines should have been at the centre of evacuations and cargo movements at both Lagos and Abuja airports.

Ojikutu said there was nothing in the aviation ministry’s lockdown directives that stops the domestic airlines from operating special flights, especially cargo freights, as Air Peace is doing with the medical supplies from Turkey and China. He said not only would it help to guarantee safety and prevent free infections, it would also help to sustain the industry financially.

“Any financial intervention to the private airlines must extend to the private ground-handling companies too as well as the public services providers, Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA), NCAA, and so on. Where would the funds come from if the private operators are not flying at least special and cargo freights?”

The Regional Manager of FAAN, Victoria Shin-Aba, confirmed the rapid evacuation amid restriction of all commercial flights.Most recently, Air France airlifted 399 French and European nationals; Lufthansa 238; Middle East Airline (MEA) 140; Ethiopian Airlines 137 Canadians and 375 Americans, Air Peace 87; Delta 200 Americans, and Qatar Airways.

She said: “So far, the activities have been okay and well-coordinated. Since the closure of the airports, we have had about 10 evacuations with different nationals. The condition for approval is that you have to get an approval from the authorities. Most importantly, there is a procedure in place for the Covid-19 virus pandemic which has to be followed.

“For instance, Port Health Service has to check everyone that is going out. Sometimes, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) will be on ground. Even, to access the terminal, there is a checking by the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS) and others. It has been smooth sailing.”

On efforts of the management to prevent the essential workers from contracting the disease, Shin-Aba said the agency had adopted social distancing practice, deployed metal detectors for security checks, rather than the initial pant down, encouraged use of hand gloves and face masks, while sanitisers were positioned in strategic and open areas of the airport.

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