I don’t know which one is traditional medicine. Anything that is manufactured in the United States, whether it is a synthetic drug or not, is a traditional medicine. Whatever is manufactured in Nigeria is our own traditional medicine. If we talk about herbs – things that come from plants, most of them (drugs) have roots. They are from the environment. These are extracts. The issue is in the refinement. When we were growing up, all we needed to do was to get dogonyaro (English: neem. Botanical name: azadirachta indica), lemongrass (Botanical name: cymbopogon), put them in a bucket of hot water and be covered in a blanket so we could inhale the steam.
When you opened your mouth, the thing would steam the hell out of you. By the time you came out, any bacteria that survived it were considered strong. The point is this: why were they effective? If we can refine this and add dosages and all, I don’t think it will be derogatorily called traditional medicine. That is the assessment our people give and that is why it is not getting significant attention. Pay attention to it, that this is what will provide the cure for you; whether it is from roots, leaves or other things, pay attention to it. We have within the research institutes, divisions that are meant for that purpose. Why we are not paying attention is because we are getting our solutions from elsewhere. I don’t have any reason to doubt the capability or competence of our traditional medical practitioners.
The herbal tea from China, is it not all over the place? What is green tea? How do you describe coffee? How about the tea from Jos, Plateau? They are herbs. The issue is that your mind has to be properly tuned to the fact that these things can provide solution.
In other climes, the government turns to the academia for intervention when there are economic or health crises such as this. Why are Nigerian universities and their professors not visible in the fight against COVID-19?
I was going to get to that, with regard to the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19. The PTF should do an agenda setting and delegate the authorities given to them, to some other groups. Research institutes are academic institutions essentially, because they organise training. When I was going through their websites, (I saw that) they trained people from Burkina Faso and other countries. They should be academic outfits, where universities come to pursue their objectives. My expectation is that the PTF should have set up a scale of preference and set up a team of researchers. It is from the universities that you get them.
You can also get particular departments in the universities to pursue a particular purpose. You can also have a routine submission of findings. From all indications, there is no cure yet for COVID-19. It is also known that it is when you boost your immunity that you are capable of fighting (diseases) and that is what most medications actually do, because it is your immune system that does the fight. So, if we have things that can boost that, and we can locally source them, why are we not paying attention to that area? It is in our enlightened self interest to look inward. So, I agree with you that professors, apart from our research institutes, are not being utilised and optimised.
What about Nigerians doctors under the umbrella of the Nigerian Medical Association; do you think they have been fully involved?
It is even difficult to work with the Nigerian Medical Association, as it is evident from the Minister of Health (Prof Osagie Ehanire) and the PTF’s attitude. They could not even coordinate the entry of the (15) Chinese people who came here. At a point, it was reported that they came following government’s invitation. At another time, it was said that they were invited by a company (CCECC). At another time, the minister did not know where they were. At a point, you insisted that they (Chinese) must come but suddenly you didn’t know where they were. Something is wrong somewhere.
But how much can the universities do when the lecturers, under the aegis of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, are on strike?
It is unfortunate that they are on strike. You will recollect that the House mediated (between the Federal Government and ASUU) in that direction. We want them to stop that (industrial action). You don’t have to select universities; you can select individuals from the universities in order to find a solution. I said it: assemble a team of experts – it does not have to be from one university – and let them share experiences. It is unfortunate that they are on strike, but whether they are on strike or not, they are not working because we have all been asked to go on ‘strike’ by COVID-19.
Chairman of the House Committee on Health Services, Dr Paschal Obi, in a recent interview said though it was unfortunate, he was happy that the pandemic exposed the rot in the country’s health system and it levelled the rich and the poor, confining them to the poor health services. Do you agree with him?
I agree with him to the extent that it is a leveller because we are now subjected to the same health institutions. So, whatever we have baked for ourselves is self evident. But it is also not a leveller to the extent that some people can stay in their house and be giving themselves palliatives because they can afford it. You must also realise that there are some imperfections with regard to our formal and informal sectors. There are people who live on daily income. The problem they have is that if they don’t go out to push a wheelbarrow, they don’t get any income.
One basic problem we have in Nigeria is that there is no database, so it is challenging to identify those who are in those sectors. You will find out that palliatives are being given out at the whims and caprices of some people. Somebody says we have given three million people palliatives or fed out-of-school children, and you begin to wonder. (When you say) ‘give us the data’, they start fighting (you). When you say ‘give us the information’, they will start being bombastic. Tell us how you have ensured that it covers everybody; we are not saying publish (the data), give us, we are privileged people in the National Assembly.
As the representative of my constituents, let me go and find out who benefitted. It is a simple enquiry. But they are saying the World Bank says they cannot disclose it; that they (beneficiaries) don’t want to be defined as poor, even when they are on the streets begging us every day (for palliatives). What other advertisement do they want? So, there is something wrong here. The way we are dealing with it is not quite correct.
What lessons can Nigerians learn from this pandemic, considering the impact on the economy?
First and foremost, it is not just affecting our economy; it is affecting our health sector and the safety of Nigerians. The responsibility of the government is the protection of lives and property. We have not sufficiently protected lives because we are losing our citizens unnecessarily. Second, we look at the effects on the economy; the effect on our economy is a temporary setback because of our dependence on oil, and it is not selling. When it is selling, it is selling at a cheaper price. So, the lesson to draw from it will be to ‘look inward’.
Try to see what you can produce yourself and say ‘look, these are the things I will deal with summarily.’ It is then you can talk about things you want to bring in, where you don’t have competitive advantage. The minimum we should have done was to refine those products and sell them at N50. If you are not spending as much as you would have spent, that is money in your pocket. We need to look inward because the pandemic presupposes that everybody has a problem and they have to deal with it. The level of your self-sufficiency will help your savings. If we continue to import the way we are importing, then it is a problem.