By Reuben Abati
“Social distancing is a privilege. It means you live in a house large enough to practise it. Hand washing is a privilege too. It means you have access to running water. Hand sanitisers are a privilege. It means you have money to buy them. Lockdowns are a privilege. It means you can afford to be at home. Most of the ways to ward the Corona off are accessible only to the affluent. In essence, a disease that was spread by the rich as they flew around the globe will kill millions of the poor. All of us who are practising social distancing and have imposed a lock down on ourselves must appreciate how privileged we are. Many…won’t be able to do any of this” – Jayshree Shukla, India, March 22, 2020.
To the relief of many Nigerians who had been inundated with conspiracy theories about the status and whereabouts of President Muhammadu Buhari, and his level of involvement in the war against COVID-19, the President, obviously in response to pervasive public opinion addressed the nation in a televised broadcast on Sunday, March 29, more than a month after the first index case in Nigeria was reported. As at the time of that broadcast, the country already recorded 97 confirmed cases and 2 deaths. This was a jump of more than 400% in one week. The numbers kept increasing. Fear gripped the land. Whereas Africa had significantly low numbers compared to the numbers of confirmed cases and deaths in Europe and the United States, African countries faced a similar exponential rise in COVID-19 figures. With the fragile health systems in Africa and shortage of medical personnel, many African countries were compelled to ramp up their COVID-19 containment measures. President Buhari’s broadcast could not have been more auspicious: a better late than never effort nonetheless. He provided an outline of all the measures that had been introduced so far by the Nigerian Government to stem the tide of COVID-19. He also announced additional measures to protect livelihoods, businesses and the Nigerian economy.
There were many grey areas in the President’s speech, but it was obvious that the government was going through a learning curve. How for example would Nigerians access the cash transfers that was promised? Schools across the nation are all on holiday, yet the President announced a school-feeding programme? Attempts have since been made to either modify or clarify some of the grey areas. The biggest of all the measures, and the most far-reaching is the announcement of a cessation of all movements in Lagos, and Ogun states and the Federal Capital Territory for an initial period of 14 days with effect from 11 pm on Monday, 30th March 2020. “All citizens in these areas are to stay in their homes.” Food processing, distribution and retail companies, petroleum distribution and retail entities, power generation transmission and distribution companies, media workers, seaports and private security companies were exempted. The lock-down became effective as directed, except in Ogun State which asked to be allowed to commence its own lock-down on Friday, April 3 to allow the people to stock up on food and other items. President Buhari singled out Lagos, and the FCT because these are the two areas with the highest number of COVID-19 cases, and Ogun – because of its proximity to Lagos. As it turned out, state Governors also took the initiative to either declare a curfew in their states or shut down their borders. There has been a race to set up isolation centres across the various states.
The lockdown in Nigeria is meant to enforce social distancing, and to check the spread of COVID-19, a measure that has been adopted globally to prevent persons from transmitting the disease. But here in Nigeria, the lock down has done more in terms of exposing and highlighting the character of our people, their circumstances, the attitude of state agents and the socio-political implications of the initiative. This has prompted calls for an African solution to COVID-19, and the description of social or physical distancing as an imported Western response. Africans by nature are communal; they are brought up to imbibe the philosophy of “ubuntu”: that is “I am, because we are”, and this is expressed in various forms: they eat together, indeed in many cultures, out of the same plate or bowl. They are happier when they are in a gathering either in the villages or in the cities. To ask an average African to lock himself up at home could be an inversion of his social reality. Even if it is possible for the mentally colonized middle and upper middle classes in Africa to observe social distancing at home and outside, it is near-impossible for the poor. The rich live in comfortable neighbourhoods, in flats, mansions or duplexes with small household units of not more than 4 or 5 persons, the poor live in slums and rural areas where they are huddled together in one room, or a room-and-parlour, in a six or eight-room building occupied by probably eight families, with each family having a minimum of six children, and all the tenants have at best access to just one communal bathroom, one toilet, and a well in the yard as source of water supply. In the rural areas, most families live inside a small hut. It is probably better to disperse such persons than to ask them to stay at home in the face of a communicable and deadly disease like COVID-19.
Besides, many Africans earn their living on a daily basis. They are farmers or fishermen or traders who must go to work in the morning to survive. Sub-Saharan African countries do not have social safety nets, the types that exist in developed countries. In Nigeria, more than half of the population lives below the poverty line. Over 40 million persons are unemployed or underemployed. They have no access to food stamps or unemployment benefits. For these persons, life is a daily struggle. Even the employed are either under-paid and over-worked and their salaries and pensions are not paid as and when due. The other problem is that not many Africans believe in science: they are committed to traditional, superstitious beliefs: the animistic belief that there is no problem that cannot be solved spiritually through witchcraft, sorcery or the use of herbs and rituals, or the religious conviction that pastors and imams have the powers to solve any human problem. Getting such persons to respect science is a problem. In Osun State, for example, one Corona patient ran away from the isolation centre. He had to be hunted down and brought back by security agents. Poverty and ignorance complicate the people’s situation. The worst part is that the people do not trust their governments. This alienation between the people and their leaders makes the management of COVID-19 in Africa far more challenging.
By the third day of the lock-down in Lagos State, the chickens had come home to roost. On the first day, there was relative calm as people generally tried to obey the stay-at-home order. On the second day, Lagosians had begun to complain, and rebel. I saw young men on the streets, playing football. Or simply walking up and down. On Wednesday, April 1, the Federal Government modified the directive by declaring that shops and supermarkets could be open from 10 am to 4 pm, and food markets from 10 am to 2 pm. It was a rather strange announcement because there was nothing said about how people are supposed to access the shops and supermarkets, since the ban on transportation was not lifted. What was meant to be a form of relief for the people ended up fuelling their anger. In parts of the country some state governments set up emergency food relief centres and embarked on the distribution of food items. Private individuals and non-governmental organisations also provided food and water in various places which in principle is a demonstration of public-spiritedness, but the relief efforts, public and private, were poorly co-ordinated.
The poor fell over each other to collect packs of food or COVID food items, without observing social distancing. Government officials in Lagos State ended up receiving condemnation rather than praise. The people protested that they would rather be out on the streets to seek their own food and survival. One woman, a mother of four, disclosed on television that all she had left was N700, which is less than two dollars. The President announced cash transfers but we have only seen some government officials distributing raw cash. The Private Sector Coalition against COVID-19 and some individuals have raised as much as N19. 9 billion, but the poor people of Nigeria are more concerned about the risk of part of the funds ending up in the pockets of government officials.
Many Nigerians remain in denial, both rich and poor. They don’t understand why they should be told to stay at home or maintain social distance. In Cross River State, the Governor has made the wearing of facial masks compulsory for every one in the state, with penalties for disobedience. It is a way of forcing the people to realise that in these unusual times, health safety guidelines must be obeyed. The people’s reluctance to do so, has brought them in conflict with the security agencies. On Friday, April 3, a strong-headed Muslim cleric decided to hold evening prayers in Agege, Lagos in violation of the lockdown order. The worshippers were dispersed by security agents. Market women who did not obey the rules have also been forced to comply. On Sunday, April 5, the police arrested a celebrity actress and her husband for staging a crowded house party in Lagos. They have been charged to court and convicted.
The only problem here is the high-handedness of the security agents. Rather than help the people through persuasion and advice, they have for the most part resorted to force. In Warri, Delta State, a soldier shot and killed a man who allegedly refused to stop at a checkpoint when he was flagged down. In Lagos, two soldiers in a recorded video that went viral, threatened to rape women and infect them with HIV for daring to challenge the military. In Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, a Police Sergeant assaulted and broke the arm of a medical doctor who insisted he was out and about on essential duty. The situation is the same in Uganda where security forces have been accused of excessive use of force. The best way to save the people from themselves is not by killing or maiming them. African governments must resist the temptation to use the excuse of COVID-19 to further dehumanize the people. In Botswana, however, where a 28-day lockdown has been declared, the people are complying without the security forces having to enforce the order. Different scenarios in Africa depending on the level of trust between the state and the people and the level of engagement. What is important is that the enforcement of lockdowns must be strictly within the ambit of the enabling laws.
State authorities must be careful not to ignite a social crisis that may result in riots and mass revolt. Rather than take advantage of the people, because of the lockdown, security agencies should pay more attention to a likely rise in crime and social unease. One woman was on television the other day to lament that someone stole her pot of soup in the communal building where she lives. She had left the kitchen briefly. By the time she returned, her pot of soup had vanished! That is how it starts. For as long as the lockdown persists, without sustainable support from government, people will steal food and other things in order to survive. African leaders may end up paying a bigger price for neglecting their people over the years and for failing to build strong institutions.
Steps should also be taken to stem the tide of infodemic, that is the alarming spread of misinformation. On Saturday, while taking notes for this commentary, I was bombarded with stories about how Corona Virus is linked to the 5G communication technology. I learnt that 5G masts were already being destroyed in the UK by angry citizens. Before I could investigate this any further, I received an international call from a very jovial friend:
“My brother,” he said. “I greet you Coronally, Coronally”.
“Ore, compliments of the Corona season oh,” I responded.
“A ku lockdown oh”
“I hope you are good at your end. Please keep safe.”
Then all of a sudden I thought I heard something that sounded like a cough at the other end. I didn’t know when I threw my phone away on the bed. I had just read about 5G and the internet of things (IOT) and the likelihood of a radiation tsunami. What if it is true as alleged that viruses can travel electronically?
“E ma wa ko ba mi jare? If you know you have a cough, or you are sneezing, don’t call me on phone! It is not good to take chances with this heartless COVID-19,” I muttered.
The truth has since been told about 5G by those who should know. It is not the anti-Christ. It is not the Corona Virus. People are just so hysterical, one of the ways they try to cope is to just make up stories perhaps to manage the terror of time and uncertainty. Some Nigerians insist for example, that Nigeria should not seek the assistance of Chinese medical experts or accept any donations of test kits or ventilators from any foreign source. They think there may be a covert attempt to turn Nigerians into guinea pigs. After all, two French doctors – Jean-Paul Mira and Camille Locht – openly identified Africa as the best testing ground for possible COVID-19 drugs. Race is a worrisome dimension of the Corona Virus debate.
So is the spike in cases of domestic violence and gender-based abuse. Lockdowns ordinarily should strengthen filial relationships especially between husbands and wives, but the opposite has been reported in France, the UK, Spain, the United States… and even here in Nigeria. Self-isolation and social distancing seem to be putting all relationships on trial. Even commercial sex workers have registered their displeasure! On April 1, we forgot to play pranks. On Palm Sunday, the churches opted for elegies, instead of odes. Our world is unravelling.