By Thomas Vandi Gbow
Wonders, they say, will never end. Such is the unprecedented controversy swirling over whether or not to go ahead with retesting 85 Sierra Leoneans, who were deported from Kuwait to their native land sometime last week. All the 85 citizens were tested negative at the airport in Kuwait before boarding the plane, according to the Sierra Leone Ambassador to Kuwait, HE Haja Isata Thomas, who told the local press that the 85 deportees ‘flew direct to Freetown without transiting anywhere.’ But in a controversial test result, 67 of them were tested positive for the COVID-19 pandemic, thereby leading to ‘puzzlement or even bewilderment’ from especially our Ambassador to Kuwait, who believes they had all been tested negative at the Kuwaiti airport before boarding the plane direct to Freetown.
Notwithstanding, the National Coordinator of the National COVID-19 Emergency Response Centre (NACOVERC), Brig. (Rtd) Kellie Hassan Conteh, conceded that he had ordered retesting on all the 85 Sierra Leonean deportees.
According to the General, they took two samples of each of them and two laboratories carried out put the test, noting that he has confidence in the country’s testing regime, which he described as ‘vigorous and the kits among the best in the world.’ The General furthered that they were happy to carry out another test on the people amid the controversy.
To corroborate his stance, the NACOVERC Spokesperson, Solomon Jamiru, emphasized at the COVID-19 recent press briefing that ‘our position is that Sierra Leone is using the (PCR) Polymerase Chain Reaction, which is the gold standard recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO).’ The spokesperson believes that the ‘professionals we have been relating with this testing model are some of the finest, some of the best you can talk about analysis in the world.’ He suggested that ‘if Brig. Kellie Conteh as the Coordinator for the response has spoken about retest, it might have been an expression of some form of willingness.’
Be that as it may, the retesting of the 85 Sierra Leonean deportees from Kuwait after they had tested negative before they boarded a place straight to Freetown is the most controversial one since the index case of the COVID-19 pandemic was announced by His Excellency President Dr. Julius Maada Bio on Tuesday 31st March, this year.
That the PCR, which Sierra Leone is using to test for COVID-19 as recommended by WHO, is more accurate and sophisticated than the testing kits in Kuwait makes the whole issue laughable and controversial because Sierra Leone is least considered in terms development in the country’s health sector as compared to the much sophisticated Kuwaiti health sector, a country that has funded numerous development projects in Sierra Leone, including the construction of the Peninsula highway and boosting the country’s health sector during the Ebola outbreak.
What is perhaps more controversial about the retesting of the 85 Sierra Leonean deportees in Freetown is the fact that over 200 of their Ghanaian counterparts, who were also tested negative before their deportation from Kuwait to Ghana, were all tested negative after they were subjected to another test in Accra.
The Guinean deportees from Kuwait were kept in quarantine in a hotel in Conakry and after they were retested, they all proved negative. So too were the Liberian deportees from Kuwait; they were all retested and were proved negative too. It is only Sierra Leone, with the weakest health sector as compared to Ghana and Guinea that has come out with a very controversial result that has puzzled everyone and embarrassed the Sierra Leone Ambassador to Kuwait.
The controversial result of the retesting of our compatriots deported from Kuwait after they had all been tested negative for COVID-19 pandemic before they flew straight to Sierra Leone has not only put the credibility of NACOVERC in question, but also the professionalism of those handling the COVID-19 fight.
What medical experience or knowledge does the National Coordinator and other senior officials like the official spokesperson have to champion NACOVERC? Which yardstick did both Brig. Kellie Conteh and Solomon Jamiru use to convince Sierra Leoneans that the country’s testing regime is vigorous and among the best in the world when their naiveté in the medical field is no hidden secret?
Like Major (Rtd) Alfred Palo Conteh, I believe President Maada Bio did not appoint Brig. Kelli Conteh as National Coordinator of NACOVERC because of his medical background; instead, the President merely replicated what happened during the Ebola outbreak, when a former senior military officer was appointed to lead the Ebola fight. He is not a medical expert to convince the general public that their testing regime is among the best in the world, when most Sierra Leoneans are still very much critical about the existence of the virus.
Who are these so-called professionals Solomon Jamiru is bragging about when most of our Sierra Leonean medical doctors, including the only Consultant Pathologist, have been marginalized in the COVID-19 fight? Are they being imported or are all members of the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces (RSLAF)?
I want to submit that if other African nationals who were deported from Kuwait were retested in their home countries and proved negative, then something is fundamentally wrong with the so-called PCR the spokesperson is talking about.
For the Government not to be fooled by NACOVERC, I believe the President should order another retesting of the 67 deportees whose COVID-19 status still remains controversial, especially when Kuwait, Ghana and Guinea are more medically sophisticated and renowned than Sierra Leone with an extremely weak health sector. But if the alarming figure remains the official position of Sierra Leone as has been clearly stated by the COVID-19 spokesperson, then Sierra Leoneans with critical minds would start asking whether or not the number of cases is being invented to trick the general public.
If the retesting stands, it could also be a source of embarrassment for the Government of Sierra Leone (GoSL) at diplomatic level. Even our Ambassador to that country is completely puzzled and bewildered by the positive test results of the 67 Sierra Leonean deportees, given that each of the 85 was tested negative at the airport in Kuwait and was issued with a certificate before they were allowed to board the waiting flight, whilst the same protocols were followed for hundreds of Ghanaians, Guineans and Liberians who have been retested negative back in their home countries.
In other words, of all the deportees from various African countries who were tested negative before they were flown to their various countries, only Sierra Leonean deportees were retested positive. What an irony!
I therefore strongly believe if the controversial retesting of the Sierra Leonean deportees from Kuwait is not revisited, the general public will continue losing confidence in how the Government is pursuing the COVID-19 fight. For the Government to save its face it should call in foreign professionals, not those alluded to by the spokesperson, to do another retest to prove NACOVERC right or wrong. Or better still, to involve Sierra Leonean virologists (if any) that are not part of NACOVERC to conduct another test on the 67 deportees tested positive in Sierra Leone after they had been cleared of the virus in Kuwait before their arrival in Freetown. And if they prove positive for a second time, then one would surmise there is so much COVID-19 mystic blowing here that even if you were tested negative in another man’s country, you become positive immediately you kiss the soil of Sierra Leone. I hope this is not the negative impression NACOVERC is giving Sierra Leoneans and the entire world to justify its expenditure for COVID-19 activities.