COVID-19 mutants and the Need to Decongest Custodial Centres in Nigeria
By Francis Enobore
Since the first reported case of the dreaded Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) aka COVID-19 in December 2019, disease control experts round the world have continued to issue warnings of imminent outbreak of new strains, with each lineage said to be more virulent than their ancestors.
The scare created by the emergence of the Delta variant had hardly dissipated when Omicron BA.4/BA.5 sub-variants surfaced. These variants, we are told, have incredible mutation capability, highly transmissible, causes more health challenges and are immune-evasive. These strains, though taking their toll in some parts of Asia, Europe and America, have luckily not been linked to any increase in death or hospitalization in Nigeria.
The narrative is that China relaxed their Non pharmaceutical interventions (NPis) that is, prevention and control measures such as wearing of facemasks, crowd control, hygiene practices etc and like a bang, an explosion of variants feared to surpass the previous strains now walk the streets. The situation may have been exacerbated by the winter but letting down their guards in a compromised weather condition is certainly playing a role in the insidious health challenge.
My concern is about conditions that promote the spread and mutation of COVID-19 and indeed, communicable diseases vis-à-vis the situation of custodial centres in Nigeria. Experts tell us that apart from exposure to hazardous chemicals and weather conditions other factors that could facilitate spread of such diseases include air pollution, poor ventilation, high population density and poor sanitation. We are further informed that one or a combination of these factors is sufficient to trigger growth and spread of diseases. If we interpret this message against the recalcitrant overcrowding phenomenon and obsolete colonial inheritance still standing as inmates’ cells in some locations, one comes to a frightening realization of the precarious balance the life of staff and inmates hangs.
It is praiseworthy though that the management of the Nigerian Correctional Service has overtime successfully weathered health storms even when more developed societies capitulate. For instance, the amoebatic nature of COVID-19 and its characteristic speed of spread thought to be fertilized by crowded environments, sent a scare down the spine of many who reconned that the pervasive overcrowding of custodial centres in Nigeria will make the outbreak inevitable. Against all permutations however, not a single incident has been recorded in any Nigerian Custodial Centre. Whether by stroke of rare luck or dint of administrative ingenuity, the Service is celebrated even in international platforms for checkmating the disease. Similarly, the devastating Ebola of 2014 that troubled many countries in Africa, including Nigeria and the cerebrospinal meningitis (CSM) that ravaged states like Sokoto, Zamfara, Yobe, Katsina, Kano, Kebbi and Niger claiming over 1,000 lives in 2016, were averted from custodial centres hence, no inmate was lost to either of the outbreaks.
While we applaud the dexterity of the management of the service in this respect, I believe it is important to address a fundamental issue that experts round the world have identified as a critical factor in propagating communicable diseases, which is high population density in an enclosure.
Now that the world is sadly on the threshold of another hideous journey, no thanks to COVID-19 progenies, it is important to integrate measures and efforts directed at reducing inmate’ population in custodial centres where adequate ventilation is significantly compromised.
Admittedly, improved knowledge of the disease has enhanced better management hence, Mr. President in December 2022, approved relaxation of COVID-19 safety measures but in his wisdom, he clearly and strongly recommended sustaining good environmental/respiratory hygiene and ventilation. The question is, how can respiratory hygiene and good ventilation work in a densely populated enclosure like detention centres.
Except in isolated cases, which is rare, custodial centers in Nigeria have traditionally had no real issues with hygiene-related health complications. Rather, what has always made a travesty of genuine efforts is pervasive overcrowding. Times without count, Controllers General and Ministers of Interior, including development partners have had cause to advocate for the decongestion of custodial centers in Nigeria. In October 2022, the incumbent Minister, Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola sought the support of State Chief Executives in releasing 30% of the inmates. He rightly posited that over 90% of them were being held for contravening state laws. Also worthy of note is the fact that about 75,635 inmates are holed up in a space meant for less than 59,000 persons and worse still, over 70% of this population has not been found guilty of any crime.
The Federal Government, through the Presidential Committee on Custodial Reforms and Decongestion, under the retired Chief Judge of the Federal Capital Territory, Justice Ishaq Bello, has so far released over 70,000 inmates from different custodial centers across the country. Some State Governors also carryout releases, sometimes to celebrate festivals but the efforts have remained tokenistic and the problem will not abate because case disposal mechanism is far slower than rate of inflow. Moreover, the rate of recidivism is high even though this cannot be accurately measured because majority of those being released to decongest custodial centres have not been found guilty of any crime hence, when they come back after a short while, they cannot be counted as repeat offenders.
I believe a more sustainable approach to prevent overcrowding in custodial centres is to promote systems that guarantee speedy disposition of cases.
Secondly, managers of custodial centres in Nigeria should ensure that Public Health and Social Measures (PHSM) and Infection Prevention and Control (IPC) protocols as enunciated by NCDC is ingrained in every staff and inmate in readiness for the unknown. While acknowledging the Correctional Service for past successes, it is important that they do not drop their guards and veer too far away from the winning ways.
Furthermore, members of the public should endeavor to avail themselves of COVID-19 vaccines as prescribed by NCDC. It should be noted that recent discoveries have shown that the new variants reside more in unvaccinated and under vaccinated population, including environments where NPis have been relaxed. It is also stated that when COVID-19 virus has the opportunity to spread, it replicates fast and undergoes speedy mutation. Therefore, the continuous traffic between the public and places of detention especially custodial centers and the concomitant unavoidable intermingling must be managed according to expert advice.
Finally, while remaining optimistic that the unfettered support from relevant agencies coupled with the resilience of the managers of the Correctional Service will again work more miracles, the NCDC should sustains its collaboration with the Service and see custodial centres and indeed all places of detention, as Populations of Interest (PoI) while observing the new trend.
Francis Enobore, mni
Controller of Corrections (rtd)
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