Breaking News

COVID-19: Fake Task Force on The Prowl in Anambra

Since the beginning of the global COVID-19 pandemic, countries across the world have continued to battle the scourge with all manner of science and technology.

Nigeria, which was not spared by the virus, has not also relented in exploring ways of tackling the pandemic.

Immediately the index case was recorded on February 27, 2020, governments at all levels have come up with strategies to either completely eradicate the scourge or at least, reduce the rate of its spread.
One of such measures included the insistence on compliance with the COVID-19 protocols by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The protocols comprise regular hand washing with soap and running water or the use of alcohol-based sanitisers, wearing of facemasks and observance of corporeal distancing, among others.

Aside that was the imposition of a nation-wide lockdown, closure of airports, flights (international and local) cancellation and closure of international and states borders.

Over and above these, schools, churches and mosques, markets, entertainment centres, National Youths Service Corps (NYSC) camps and other public and private institutions that could encourage the gathering of a large number of people were shut down.

At the state level, some governments went further to make wearing of face masks in public places compulsory, failure of which attracts penalties in the form of fines or community service or both.
Taskforce teams and other enforcement agents were set up to ensure compliance with the COVID-19 guidelines and protocols.

In Anambra State, for example, a fine of N10, 000 was to be paid by defaulters of facemasks directives or community service or both. Leadership of various markets in the state constituted enforcement teams saddled with the responsibility of ensuring compliance with the protocols among traders and visitors at the respective markets.

Commissioner for Trade, Commerce, Wealth Creation and Revenue Mobilisation, Uchenna Okafor, had, during the inauguration of the task force for the Main Market, Onitsha, charged the task force to enforce all government’s policies in the market by ensuring that traders and their customers wore their face masks, observe physical distancing and hand washing rituals.

Regrettably, however, some groups of people have taken advantage of the arrangements to harass, intimidate and extort money from unsuspecting members of the public, all in the name of enforcing the directives.

These groups of people, who parade themselves as officials of the government, disguise themselves with reflective jackets and operate in a shuttle buses/keke with stickers bearing COVID-19 task force to extort, especially those without face masks.

Three months ago, four of such people who claimed to be officials of the Ministry of Health were arrested in Onitsha, the commercial city of the state fully kitted with reflective jackets and caps with inscriptions “fight against COVID-19.”

They were not only found with several  COVID-19 products, including surgical masks, hand sanitisers against deadly Coronavirus produced locally under unhygienic conditions, but also distributing same to unsuspecting members of the public.

The Police spokesperson in the state, Haruna Mohammed had, while parading the suspects said preliminary investigation revealed that the syndicates were neither government workers nor health officials as they claimed.

According to him, the suspects whose names he gave as Anthony Chidubem Oyatubo (30) of Nimo, Njikoka Local Government Area, Nwachukwu Chidi (31) of Awka, Chris Okeke (30) and Olisa Moura (25) of Onitsha, were misguided elements who took advantage of the pandemic to market their unhygienic products to unsuspecting buyers.

He said: “Suspects, who allegedly claimed to be officials of the Ministry of Health, fully kitted with reflective jackets and caps with inscriptions “fight against COVID-19” were arrested.

Seized from them were flyers, hand sanitisers and face masks which they produced locally under unhygienic conditions.

These products they sell to the unsuspecting members of the public as well as distributing the same to various outlets in Onitsha before their arrest.

“Preliminary investigation revealed that the suspects were neither government workers nor health officials as they claimed but misguided elements who took advantage of the present pandemic situation to market their unhygienic products to the oblivious buyers.

“Exhibits recovered in their possessions include three cartons of hand sanitisers, flyers, several reflective jackets, four caps and over 50 nose masks.”

Assuring that the suspects would be charged to court after investigations, Mohammed said the Commissioner of Police, John Abang has enjoined the public to be wary of such syndicates, even as he advised them to refrain from patronising them in order not to expose themselves to other health hazards.

Narrating her ordeal in the hands of men of the fake COVID-19 task force, women who spoke on condition of anonymity, said she miraculously escaped from the den of the miscreants who were discovered to be ritualists.

She said: “I was forced into a certain bus on Friday, July 3 at Obosi Road along Minaj for not wearing my facemask on my way to the market.

“The inscription on the bus was COVID-19 Taskforce, and the boys wore exactly the same outfit for COVID-19 task force in Anambra State. Out of fear, I entered the bus because they flogged me.

“In the bus were nine other people. Suddenly, everyone became dumb and quiet. After long hours of travelling, the bus stopped and we all marched into an uncompleted building. I realised myself and asked them where they were taking us to.

“The boys shouted at me, beat me up and said they will kill me first. Then in that room they hung a fan and on the floor was a generator meant to be used to cut our heads. I was the first to go. I called Jesus, Jesus and the generator stopped and the fan went off immediately.

“I told them my head is too big for ritual. Out of anger they threw us all out. It was almost getting dark. We walked all through the bush and arrived at a road we don’t know. We were panicky. I looked at a signpost there and I saw Isele Ukwu, Delta State. They took from Obosi down to Delta.

“I left those people in search of my way. Then I saw a woman and narrated my story to her. She felt for me and told me that the bush was a danger zone and whoever goes in there never comes out. I should thank my God.

“Praise God, she gave me some money and I found my way home. The same night I entered Onitsha and reunited with my family.”

Describing herself as lucky, the woman cautioned residents of the area to always put on facemasks to avoid being victims of similar ugly experience.

Another victim, Mr Cosmas lbe said they extorted the sum of N1,000 from him even when he had his face mask, though under his chin.

He said they suddenly left immediately they discovered their tricks had been exposed.

“Let the police lookout for these boys. Some of them are found around Awka Road to Ose and Main Market, Onitsha operating daily.

A businessman, Mr Adewale Olu called on the government to set up a task force with the responsibility of checkmating the menace.

He said: “Government should set up a task force to check the harassment and collection of the illegal levy by some touts parading themselves as market COVID-19 task force.

On his part, Mr John Ide called for training and retraining of men of the task force for easy identification.
“The way people are being parked in one vehicle without observing physical distancing could increase the spread of the virus.

“Police are also involved, especially those ones that call themselves SARS that carry people and dump them in People’s Club along Owerri Road and extort money from them,” he said.

Mrs Bassey Effong said she was fortunate to have escaped by the whiskers.

“They put me in their vehicle and was driving when they met another victim and had to push me out from the moving vehicle,” she said.

A journalist, Jude Atupulazi insisted it was about time activities of the miscreants, who he described as criminals were nipped in the bud before they caused further calamities.

He said: “At Main Market they cause people to remove their masks and then pounce on them. A lady was pulled from behind by one of them and when she shifted her mask to protest, they pounced on her, saying she didn’t wear it properly. They ended up extorting money from her.

“There’s this group at Traffic Light Junction Amawbia Old Road. They do it in full glare of the police. Are those ones genuine?”

The residents appealed to the state government to look into the activities of such miscreants in order to check the ugly development.

Reacting, the state’s Commissioner of Police, John Abang has ordered the arrest of illegal task force teams claiming to be enforcing COVID-19 measures, including wearing of face masks.

Abang, in a statement issued by the Police Public Relations Officer, Haruna Mohammed, said the Command would arrest and prosecute those found extorting money or intimidating members of the public in the guise of enforcing face mask protocols.

The statement reads: “The attention of the Anambra State Police Command has been drawn to the incessant extortions, harassment, intimidation and assault by illegal task force teams claiming to be enforcing COVID-19 measures, including wearing of face masks.

“The Commissioner of Police, John Abang, frowns at such atrocities and has ordered the immediate clampdown on all people involved, especially in Onitsha and its environs.

“Reports further indicate that the hoodlums wear reflective jackets and operate in shuttle buses/keke with stickers bearing COVID-19 TASK FORCE.

“For the avoidance of doubt, no such task force has been constituted by the state government to operate on the streets and highways within Anambra State.

“Only organised markets are authorised to operate such enforcement teams within their respective markets only.

“In view of the above, the Command will henceforth arrest and prosecute anyone found extorting money or intimidating members of the public in the guise of enforcing face mask protocols, including buses, keke riders and people bearing COVID-19 task force stickers or jackets on the streets/highways within the state.”

No comments