COVID-19 test chaos at Sierra Leone’s Lungi Airport – officials accused of corruption

Mamos Media

There was confusion and chaos at Sierra Leone’s Lungi International Airport last week, when passengers arriving at the airport from overseas were told to pay $80 for a COVID-19 test that does not exist.

Hundreds of arrivals who had already taken COVID-19 test in their country of departure at a cost of over $100 so as to comply with the requirement of the authorities in Sierra Leone, were also forced to pay another $80 for another COVID-19 test upon their arrival at the Lungi airport.

But shockingly, once arrived at the Lungi airport swabs were taken despite the authorities knowing fully well that they do not have the kits in the country to test the swabs.

Many passengers arriving at the Lungi airport are accusing the authorities of conducting a ‘419-scam’, aimed at duping visitors and Sierra Leoneans arriving in the country.

Commenting on the COVID-19 airport fiasco, the Director General of Sierra Leone Civil Aviation Authority –  Mr. Moses Tiffa Baio told reporters that “the COVID-19 RDT test kits are not available at the Airport due to delays in the procurement process,” for which he apologized.

Passengers who arrived at the Lungi airport last Thursday paid $80 for their COVID-19 PCR tests which they did not receive, were told to go home and self-isolate.

Critics of the government are accusing government officials of using COVID-19 to line their pockets, as hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid and loans keep pouring into the country.

“The government of president Bio is now awash with cash. And the problem they have now is how they are going to spend all that money that keeps coming in,” a local journalist commented.

“When they came to power two years ago, they complained there is no money in the country. Now they have hundreds of millions of dollars – almost half a Billion Dollars to spend. Some government officials and ministers are now too busy building their mansions in the capital Freetown”.

Responding to last week’s apology to unsuspecting passengers at Lungi airport by the Director General of Sierra Leone Civil Aviation Authority – Mr. Moses Tiffa Baio over the COVID-19 $80 test that does not exist,  a UK based Sierra Leonean told reporters: “Why should the government ask us to pay such a large sum of money only to be told that Test Kits are not available? This is not correct”.

Last week, the Sierra Leone Telegraph reported that the World Health Organization Country Office has secured a grant of €500,000 from the German Technical Cooperation (GIZ) through a strategic partnership to increase COVID-19 testing capacity from 500 up to 1000 tests per day in Sierra Leone.

Critics now say that authorities in Sierra Leone are hoping that these planned increased tests would include passengers arriving and leaving Lungi airport – for which the government is already charging a whopping $80 in advance.

But up to going to press last week, the additional WHO tests had not arrived in the country.

WHO said it will facilitate timely procurement and supply of the consumables and equipment for coronavirus testing including polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests which are the gold standard, viral isolation kits, and viral transport media with swabs.

“We realized that limited testing is a constraining factor, with a significantly low lab capacity in the response in Sierra Leone. We are therefore very thankful to the German government through GIZ for the support to rapidly scale up the testing capacity of COVID-19 by procurement of the much need laboratory diagnostic supplies. This support has both short and long term benefits as it will inevitably help to improve the skill sets of laboratory staff and in the long term, the diagnostic sector in general”, says Evans Liyosi, WHO Representative in Sierra Leone.

“We feel that our surveillance, laboratory and treatment centres have interrelated so well in this response. However, we have been quite selective with regards to testing. We have mainly tested primary contacts because of the limited availability of test kits. But today it is pleasing that what this support could procure would double what exists in country as we move towards community testing and testing in the various hotspots”, says Prof. Alpha Wurie, Minister of Health and Sanitation.

Laboratory testing allows early detection of COVID-19 cases and is critical in effective control of the spread of the disease. Approximately 16,000 tests have been conducted in Sierra Leone since the onset of the pandemic with a positivity rate of 11%.  The PCR test is being done in five molecular laboratories in the country including Jui P3, Connaught National Teaching and Referral Hospital, the Central Public Health Reference Lab, 34 Military labs and Kenema Government Hospital.

WHO is supporting the scale up of laboratory testing in Sierra Leone through the recruitment and training of 30 laboratory scientists to support COVID-19 testing in multiple laboratories including Makeni and Freetown Lungi International Airport.

The Organization has hired two international consultants to support training and mentorship of laboratory scientists.

This WHO support is in line with the government’s national COVID-19 response strategic plan and seeks to fill existing gaps in availability of kits to expand testing capacity which is one of the five key national strategies to achieve the response objectives.

Authorities in Sierra Leone must be transparent and honest about the unavailability of COVID-19 testing facility at the Lungi airport, instead of collecting $80 from passengers.

This is not good for the government’s effort at rebranding the country and shaking off its corruption image.

Last month, the government of Sierra Leone through the Ministry of Transport and Aviation in collaboration with the Ministry of Health and Sanitation, Sierra Leone Civil Aviation Authority, Sierra Leone Airports Authority and the National COVID19 Emergency Response Centre (NACOVERC) issued the following safety and public health guidelines for all arriving and departing passengers at and from the Freetown International Airport.

ARRIVING PASSENGERS

1. All passengers shall produce a negative Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) COVID-19 test result issued no longer than 72hrs before departure at point of origin.

2. At the check-in desk at the airport of embarkation, passengers are required to display travelers’ authorisation to Sierra Leone, received through the Government of Sierra Leone travel portal (www.travel.gov.sl). The travel authorization consists of:

• Negative PCR COVID-19 test result issued no longer than 72 hours before departure,
• Pre-departure public health passenger locator form

• Proof of payment for COVID-19 testing on arrival, paid through the online platform

3. Health officials will collect temperature, basic health screening data, and seat number on arrival.

4. All passengers shall be subjected to a mandatory COVID-19 test upon arrival:

• Passengers will simultaneously have a PCR test swab and an RDT test on arrival.

• If the RDT screening is negative, passengers are allowed to depart from the airport and observe public health protocols (mandatory proper mask wearing, hand washing, and physical distancing) while awaiting their PCR test result.

• If the RDT screening if positive, passengers will be isolated at a hotel in Lungi while awaiting their PCR test result. Note, the cost of the accommodation at the hotel shall be borne by the passenger.

• For all test results, the PCR result supersedes the RDT result.

• PCR results will be disseminated via the local contact number confirmed by the passenger on arrival.

5. All children under 2 years shall be exempted from pre-departure and arrival PCR test requirements.

6. Airline crew are exempted from the pre-departure and arrival PCR test requirements and should follow airline policy for testing. Airline crew must adhere to public health protocols.

7. Two temperature screenings will be conducted by Port Health Services. If temperature is
37.5 degrees Celsius or above, passenger will be taken aside for further observation.

8. All passengers shall go through a walk-through disinfectant channel/Infrared temperature scanner at the entrance of the arrival hall.

9. All passengers with machine-readable passports shall go through the Immigration E-gate system. Passengers with Emergency Travel Certificates or non-machine-readable passports shall go through the Immigration booth.

10. At the Baggage Reclaim section passengers shall maintain social distancing and observe all public health protocols, including proper use of face mask at all times.

11. All passengers will be directed to a Reception Lounge while awaiting their COVID-19 test.

12. Passengers with a negative RDT screening test are cleared to proceed to their destination, while awaiting their PCR result and adhering to public health protocols. PCR test results (available in no more than 48 hours) will be distributed via the contact confirmed on arrival.

13. If a passenger’s PCR test is positive, s/he will be contacted by public health authorities and taken to an appropriate treatment centre.

14. Passengers sitting near a positive case on the plane will be considered primary contacts. Self-quarantine and monitoring by public health officials will be required.

15. All passengers are strictly advised to observe all public health protocols (proper and constant use of face mask, hand washing/sanitizing, observing social distancing) as directed by the Ministry of Health and Sanitation / NaCOVERC.

16. The same protocols shall apply to all VIP passengers.

DEPARTING PASSENGERS

1. All passengers are subjected to a mandatory Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) COVID19 test with a negative result issued no longer than 72hrs before departure at the Freetown International Airport. Cost for this test will be borne by the passenger.

• Passengers will use the Government of Sierra Leone Travel Portal to request their pre-departure test, to pay for the test, and for scheduling sample collection.

• Passengers with negative PCR results will receive e-confirmation and certificates ahead of travel. Physical copies can be collected at the airport at a designated desk.

• Passengers with positive PCR results will not be permitted to travel and must follow public health protocols for isolation and contact tracing. They will be re-tested after seven days.

• Passengers who have entered Sierra Leone within five days shall be exempted from the mandatory additional test on departure.

• All children under 2 years shall be exempted from PCR test requirements.

2. On arrival at the airport, passengers shall be directed to a reception area to avoid congestion and ensure social distancing during the check-in process.

3. All passengers are encouraged to complete their check-in online before arriving at the airport.

4. All departing passengers shall go through the thermal screening/disinfectant channel at the airport’s departure entrance.

5. All departing passengers shall have their passport/travelling document verified before proceeding to the check-in counter.

6. Departing passengers shall proceed to the check-in counter for baggage drop and collection of their boarding pass. While at the check-in counter, they are mandated to produce their COVID-19 PCR negative test certificate or e-certificate issued within past 72 hours.

7. Departing passengers shall proceed to the immigration services for onward travel authorization via the e-gate or immigration booth.

8. All departing passengers shall go through security screening before proceeding to the departure hall.

9. All departing passengers shall proceed to the waiting lounge where social distancing, proper use of face mask and other health protocols shall be strictly observed.

10. All passengers shall proceed to the final screening and verification point prior to boarding the aircraft.

11. Boarding procedures shall be in accordance with the approved SOPs of the respective airlines.

12. All passengers are strictly advised to observe all public health protocols (proper use of face mask, hand washing/sanitizing, observe social distancing) as directed by the Ministry of Health and Sanitation / NACOVERC.

13. The same protocols shall apply to all VIP passengers.

Culled from Sierra Leone Telegraph.

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