By Victor Oluwasegun and Tony Akowe, Abuja
The House of Representatives on Tuesday expressed readiness to hold a public hearing on the contentious quarantine Act 2004 to replace the infectious diseases bill following criticism from the general public.
This is as the Speaker; Femi Gbajabiamila said the bill was conceived in the best interests of the Nigerian people.
Gbajabiamila said the allegation that the Bill is a sinister attempt to turn Nigerians into guinea pigs for medical research while taking away their fundamental human rights was far from the truth.
The Bill will now be subjected to a public hearing where Nigerians from all walks of life would be given the opportunity to contribute to the draft law, the Speaker said.
The bill was raced through the legislative process last week and was meant to have been passed into a law without public hearing due to the “exigencies of the time” according to the Speaker.
But on Tuesday, Gbajabiamila while addressing members at the resumption of plenary session confessed that since the introduction of the Bill a week ago, there has been a barrage of criticisms against it, with allegations of sinister motives.
“Suffice it to say that none of these allegations are true. Unfortunately, we now live in a time when conspiracy theories have gained such currency that genuine endeavours in the public interest can quickly become mischaracterised and misconstrued to raise the spectre of sinister intent and ominous possibility.
“This House of Representatives will never take any action that purposes to bring harm to any Nigerian here at home or abroad. As we have thus far shown by our conduct, the resolutions and actions we take in this 9th House of Representatives will always be in the best interests of the Nigerian people who elected us, and no one else.
“In the recent uproar, certain fundamental truths have been lost and are worth remembering. Our current framework for the prevention and management of infectious diseases is obsolete and no longer fit for purpose. The current law severely constrains the ability of the Federal Government of Nigeria and the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) to take proactive action to prevent the entry into Nigeria of infectious diseases and the management of public health emergencies when they occur.
“Even now, the government remains vulnerable to claims that some directives already being implemented to manage the present crisis do not have the backing of the law and therefore cannot withstand judicial scrutiny.”
The Speaker said he disagrees with the suggestion that this was not the proper time for a new law on the infectious diseases and public health emergency framework in the country.
He said: “the weaknesses of the present system have already manifested in the inability of the government to hold to proper account those whose refusal to adhere with Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) guidelines led to the further spread of the coronavirus in Nigeria. We have had people break out from isolation centres, and others, who fully aware of their status chose to travel across state lines on public transport.”
He said as the number of those currently infected by the coronavirus continues to rise alongside the number of those who have died, there is no timeline for when the disease will pass, “and nobody can predict when the next public health crisis will occur, just as nobody predicted the present predicament.
“It bears restating that we do not have in our country, a healthcare system or for that matter, a national economy that is sufficiently robust to withstand the dire consequences of a sustained infectious disease pandemic. We cannot tie our own hands in the fight against this disease.”
The Speaker said the world has changed irretrievably, and there is no ‘normal’ to return to as the pandemic has shown the fundamental weaknesses in Nigeria’s systems of law and policy “and left our nation at risk of devastating outcomes on all sides.”
He said the current task as a country is first to survive and then to set about building a new world.
“Inevitably, these demands that we should be willing to consider new ideas, explore novel possibilities, rejecting those ancient shibboleths we have long adhered to without benefit.”
According to Gbajabiamila, citizens may sometimes disagree with the how and the why of policy proposals, but that the parliament of the people is not an echo chamber.
His words: “It is a marketplace of ideas where only those proposals that gain currency with the majority should carry the day. However, our disagreements must be grounded in a shared recognition that our present travails demand urgent interventions. And we must not allow ourselves to become victims of the cynical assumption that every policy proposal or response is a result of personal inducement or a grand conspiracy to bring harm to the people on whose behalf we hold political office.”
Subsequently, the Control of Infectious Diseases Bill will be put forward to a public hearing where stakeholder contributions will be sought to make improvements to the Bill before it is reviewed and debated by the Committee of the whole, he said.
“It is from the accumulation of these myriad views, suggestions and good faith critiques from within and outside the House that we will arrive at final legislation that meets the present and future needs of our country, and which we all can support in good conscience,” he said.
The Speaker added that the social distancing guidelines that the House and the whole country operate for the time being would not allow for a usual format of public hearing, but that “If a socially distant public hearing becomes workable, we will certainly explore that option.
“Nonetheless, the House will provide alternative platforms for all Nigerians who desire to send in written documents that articulate their concerns, make recommendations on amendments and perhaps present other formulations for a new framework for managing infectious diseases in Nigeria.”
He said all the contributions received by the House will be considered and aggregated to improve the proposed legislation.