Simon Agagwu, a 70-year-old man suffering from breathing complications, died on June 28 after he was reportedly refused treatment by at least three public hospitals in Abuja, the Nigerian capital, his family members have said.
Mr Agagwu had battled stroke for almost 16 years. He was hypertensive and also had high blood pressure.
He was receiving treatment at the Federal Medical Centre (FMC) in Lokoja, Kogi State until the facility was closed down due to COVID-19 fears, family sources said. The family then moved him to Abuja to resume treatment on the advice of his doctors.
“My father did not return alive from that trip,” his son, Solomon Agagwu, told PREMIUM TIMES on Tuesday.
Mr Agagwu, who served in the Nigerian Army for 14 years, was taken to Gwagwalada Specialist Hospital, the National Hospital and Garki General Hospital on June 26 but was reportedly turned away by all of them.
“The major reasons they gave was that they were afraid of COVID-19. At Garki hospital, a nurse told us a patient died of coronavirus a day before and it was too risky to admit our father,” Mr Solomon said.
Mr Agagwu was moved to the Federal Medical Centre (FMC) Jabi as the final resort but there too, he was not allowed treatment immediately.
“It was not until my uncle called the CMD of the FMC in Jabi that my father was admitted but he gave up the ghost two days after his body touched the sickbed,” a teary Mr Solomon narrated.
New COVID-19 Trend?
Incidents like this have become common these days as many hospitals in the Nigerian capital are rejecting patients for fear of the dreaded coronavirus.
In Abuja, which has the highest number of COVID-19 cases after Lagos, complaints similar to that of the Agagwu family are prompting a new concern.
At least 10 Abuja residents interviewed by this newspaper complained of either being rejected or knowing someone that was refused treatment at one point or the other during this COVID-19 pandemic.
The social media has also increasingly been inundated with complaints from Nigerians sharing experiences of how health facilities in Abuja and other parts of the country are rejecting patients in critical condition.
Government’s COVID-19 warning
The health minister, Osagie Ehanire, had in early May even before Mr Agagwu’s incident warned health workers that it is unethical to reject people seeking medical help “at this crucial time in the nation.”
At a briefing of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 in Abuja, Mr Ehanire urged healthcare facilities not to reject persons seeking medical help, especially in emergencies.
But the warning has yielded no results across board as reports of hospital rejections keep piling.
Lacking the equipment needed to keep staff and residents safe as well as being unable to maintain social distancing, hospitals are increasingly becoming unwilling to admit patients.
Health facilities in the federal capital – and many parts of the country – have been unable to secure the masks, gloves and gowns necessary to protect their health workers against the virus.
Moses Ogidi, a hotelier, shared how a client took ill after checking into AGC hotels he manages in the Gwarimpa District of the capital.
“For three days, she didn’t come out from her room so we knew something was wrong. I went and discovered she was critically ill,” Mr Ogidi, who is also a rights activist, said.
The hotelier said that on June 20, he took the guest to the general hospitals in Gwarimpa, Maitama and Wuse but was turned away with excuses ranging from unavailability of bed space to fear of contamination.
“It was at the National Hospital that I got mad. They didn’t even want to touch the patient or give us any reason for turning us away. They simply refused to admit the patient despite seeing that she could not move,” Mr Ogidi said.
He said he was in a dilemma at that moment as he did not know what else to do. “I can’t take her back to the hotel because she was pooing and peeing on herself.”
The patient was eventually taken to a private hospital in Gwarimpa area of Abuja where she is still receiving care.
For Rhoda Ameh, who resides in Kubwa, a satellite town of the FCT, all her efforts to access care at the Kubwa general hospital failed as only a limited number of patients were given access to see doctors.
“I was here about two weeks ago when I was down with typhoid and fever. I wanted to see the doctor but they told me that the hospital was not attending to out-patients at the time, only those on admission. I inquired to know why, I was told it was management decision,” Ms Ameh said.
She said she had to go to a pharmacy to get drugs when she saw that nobody was willing to attend to her.
More rejection casualties than COVID-19
The Chairman of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19, Boss Mustapha, at a May briefing said Nigeria has recorded more deaths from hospitals’ refusal to attend to patients with other illnesses than from the COVID-19 virus.
“The PTF has received rather sadly, reports of continued refusal by medical institutions to receive and treat patients for fear COVID-19.
“This has resulted in several unfortunate and avoidable fatalities and statistics has shown that there is a drastic drop in the percentage of attention being paid to other ailments not related to COVID-19.
“Truth be told, we are having more deaths from non-attendance to other diseases than even COVID 19,” he said.
The health minister, Mr Ehanire, at the briefing, also said, “Over the last few days, I have also received reports of very sick persons being rejected at our hospitals. Many have died outside or on the way, having been denied attention in more than one hospital. It is not acceptable that persons lose their lives to health conditions which could possibly have been cured, or may not even have been COVID-19 related.”
“The Minister of FCT and I had a meeting today with the medical directors of both Federal and FCT government hospitals in the FCT catchment area, where it was emphasised that no patient be denied treatment or rejected, and that all health workers will be trained and retrained on infection prevention and control and issued PPE and materials required for discharge of their duties.
“In addition to this, all government hospitals in FCT will become COVID-19 sample collection sites, so that walk-in cases can have samples taken to be forwarded to NCDC for testing. This assures users and caregivers of reduced bottlenecks and improved efficiency in our response.
“We intend to scale this up to other states of the Federation,” the minister noted.
FCT health official, hospitals react
An official of the FCT administration, Francis Alu, explained why facilities reject patients.
He said caregivers are afraid of risking their own lives too.
“Many of the staff have contracted the disease in the course of attending to patients,” Mr Alu, the Director of Clinical and Diagnostic Services at the FCTA, said.
“You are also aware that two of our major hospitals (Asokoro District Hospital and Karu General Hospital) have been converted to isolation/treatment centres. This implies that all the patients who were assessing care in these hospitals would have to do so in the other hospitals.
“So there is a lot of pressure and competition for spaces in these hospitals that were always overcrowded even before COVID-19.”
“The major reason why hospitals are afraid to take patients is that they don’t know their status immediately,” said the general secretary at the University Teaching Hospital, Gwagwalada.
“If you don’t know the status of a patient you will be afraid and again some hospital staff are not trained to manage such a situation. Some might even lock their gates and run away. They are afraid too,” the official who insisted on not giving his name because he is not authorised to speak explained.
“Health workers are sceptical and also afraid because some patients are not honest about their condition,” Tayo Haastrup, the spokesperson of the National Hospital, said.
“That is why we check patients first inside the car before any other step,” he noted.
Health workers, being the first respondents to patients, have continued to be at risk of exposure to COVID-19 virus.
Although health workers have been advised to use full PPE before attending to patients, many do not have access to this equipment and as a result, nearly a thousand health workers have tested positive for COVID-19 in Nigeria.
Resident doctors, certified doctors undergoing residency to become consultants, had downed tools over lack of protection and nonpayment of hazard allowances.
JOHESU, a body of other health workers other than doctors, also threatened to go on strike over a similar issue.
Doctors in Lagos are currently on strike over unpaid salaries.
Meanwhile, the president of the Association of Resident Doctors in Abuja, Rolland Aigbovo, described the situation as a “perennial problem waiting to happen”.
“This kind of thing is bound to happen when the government has not put enough infrastructure in place. It would have helped in this emergency situation,” Mr Aigbovo said.
“There is not enough bed space so there’s no space to keep patients and that is a major problem.”
‘We are complying with minister’s directive’
Mr Haastrup of the National hospital also denied claims that the facility reject patients.
He said the facility is complying with the minister’s directive. “Even before the ministers’ directive, we don’t just reject patients. We must make sure you are stabilised then if our beds are full, we now refer.”
PREMIUM TIMES visited the Wuse General Hospital on Thursday and observed an influx of patients. They were not denied entrance into the facility.
Staff at the hospital’s general secretary office said the facility was complying with the directive of the health minister that no patient should be rejected but feared that the hospital will soon be overwhelmed.
“Our emergency ward is filled up. We are now treating a higher number of patients and as a result, we can no longer maintain social distancing protocols and safety guidelines and all that,” the official who refused to give her name because she was not authorised to speak on the matter, said
For the Gwagwalada teaching hospital staff, “it is only hospitals that don’t have an isolation centre within its wall that reject patients.”
“Here we are lucky, we have a testing area, we have everything so we don’t have any problem with that. If you are positive they take you to the isolation centre, if you are negative they take you to the wards. We test patients in the facility.
“We have the biggest isolation centre in Abuja. Where the problem lies is when health workers cannot determine your status immediately and you know some patients tell lies about their condition.”
Many patients are still complaining of being rejected despite the minister’s directive.
Last Friday, Dolapo Adisa complained of being rejected at the Kubwa General Hospital. She had no COVID-19 symptoms.
“I was told there was not enough medical personnel to attend to me so I had to come the following day which I did.
“After waiting for a long time, the doctor came and said she couldn’t attend to me. This was despite complaining of severe pain,” she said.
Lucky Osagie was lucky to have taken prompt steps, else he might have become a widower, a few years after marriage.
“My wife, six months pregnant with our first child suddenly started bleeding. She couldn’t even stand properly. Neighbours came to our aid and she was rushed to the Kubwa General Hospital.
“On getting to the hospital, the nurses refused to attend to us. We also met a crowd of people who were shouting and protesting. Some were even crying to be attended to.”
Mr Osagie’s wife was later taken to a private facility. “We lost the child two days later,” he said.
Patients still thronged Kubwa hospital on Monday when our reporter visited.
Muideen Lasisi, the hospital’s CMD, who was going on a ward round during the visit, declined to comment on allegations of rejection of patients laid against the facility.