COVID 19: ‘Social Distancing Is Not Our Culture; We Care For The Sick Amongst Us’

By Senator Iroegbu and Maureen Okpe
The reality of social distancing and lockdown measures being championed by federal and state governments to contain the COVID-19 pandemic being difficult to implement in densesly populated shanty towns across Nigeria with low income earners is staring us in the face. This is a wake-up call on relevant stakeholders and authorities to fashion out a targeted, effective but humane response…
Since outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), the world has never been the same again as the pandemic has shattered many myths and rendered the long-held economic, political and socio-cultural structures indolent.
 Apart from the fears associated with the invasive disease, which has affected over two million and killed 200, 000 people across the world, the mitigating measures put in place by various governments, stakeholders and supporting institutions have not only evoked consternation but equally raised suspicion amongst the people including Nigerians.
It is not easy dealing with the hysteria associated with COVID-19 but having your established ways of life: beliefs, norms, customs, and values truncated all of a sudden are hard to bear. This is added to the fact that peoples means of livelihood and strategies for survival learnt, fine-tuned and structured over the years have been desecrated on the alters of lockdown and social distancing measures put in place by relevant authorities aimed at defeating the pandemic.
Unfortunately, people’s lives are being put on hold and in Nigeria like most other developing countries; the most affected are the low income rung of the population whose little incomes and wages are earned on daily basis. More importantly, most of their economic activities and financial survival are woven in social interactions that are now threatened by these measures.
Consequently, for most Nigerians who are still deeply rooted in denial accentuated by religious and cultural beliefs, the enormous dangers associated with COVID-19 remain a ruse. Most of them are also angered by the fact that the so-called invisible disease, which was considered foreign and imported, could challenge their survival and spiritual well-being in such arrogant, mendacious and malicious manner.
To this end, this set of Nigerians have chosen to rebel, battle and unbowed, thereby constituting risks to their neighbours and making the lives of law enforcement agents difficult. Some of them also believed that Coronavirus is disease packaged by God to punish the wicked elite. This reality came to the fore when Global Sentinel observed that most artisans and traders hawking their wares around the popular GSM Village, Zone 1 in Wuse, Abuja, in complete disregard to the social distancing and lockdown advisories.
When confronted if they were not scared of the fact that they might contract the dreaded virus, the answer was telling. One of them retorted in Nigerian broken English; “Na for them, not for us. Na big men disease wey God bring to punish them. E no fit catch us” meaning that they are immune to COVID-19 as the disease was a divine punishment targeted at the ruling elite who has been unkind to the already suffering masses.
Also, for the fact that most of them have seemingly been abandoned by the Federal and State governments with much touted palliative nowhere to be found aggravated matters. Even some of the palliative gestures that have been rendered by concerned individuals and groups are like a drop in the ocean of ever insatiable needs.
Therefore, the essence of this article was to draw the attention of the pubic, stakeholders and relevant authorities to the lean possibility of social distancing rules, especially in the highly populated Nigerian ‘ghetto areas’ and shanty towns of low income earners living in close quarters. This therefore, requires that government and other supporting instructions, especially the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and Presidential Task Force (PTF); intensify efforts through strategic communication, orientation and sensitisation programmes targeted not only to these densely populated clusters of low income earners but to all Nigerians if we are to truly defeat the COVID-19 pandemic and avoid the doomsday predictions by the World Health Organisation (WHO), United Nations, Bill and Melinda Gates on Nigeria from being a reality.   It was for this purpose that Global Sentinel went to town with some startling revelations.
“Our culture allows us to embrace and show concern especially to those who are sick, we do not abandon our family members because they are ill, that is not our culture, and it is the culture of white people who love to be away from each other.
“We are our brother’s keeper if you avoid them who will take care of them, no one can care for you as much as your family members can. I am not praying for such but if any of my child has the disease or is suspected of it I will not abandon that child I will be with him till he gains back his health I will not distance myself from my family,” Hajia Zainab Saidu popularly called ‘Maman Kowa’ (mother of all), a food vendor in Zamani in Mararaba of Nasarawa state disclosed in anger as she explains how people are avoiding each other because of the virus.
“My older children engage in Okada business (Motorbike) when they come back home we all sit and eat together. We sleep as we have always done before whether ‘corolabirus’ (Coronavirus) or not because we are family and cannot abandon one another as together we can overcome any obstacle.
“Apart from that if you ask us to carry out social distancing where is the space, my husband is late he owns this land there we have just three rooms my oldest son lives here with his wife and children my other five children also live with me in this situation where is the space for social distancing or isolation,” Saidu asked in rhetoric.
She nevertheless, acknowledged that the advisory by the NCDC aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19 through washing of hands regularly, social distancing of at least 2 meters as well as regular surface cleaning with disinfectants, amongst other necessary measures are important. But beyond the numbers specific to COVID-19, she however, stressed that structural inequalities within the Nigerian society will seriously derail the fight against the pandemic.
This was the case for Mrs Kasham Barachat a hair stylist and a mother of four living in a single room popularly called batcher in Ruga area of Nyanya district in Nasarawa state.
“When I heard that one of the ways of not letting the virus spread is through social distancing I did not understand what it meant until one of my customers explained it to me, I laughed because to me that is impossible, I have to touch my customers when making their hair.
 “See, my business is to braid people hair and that is what I use to feed my children so how can I maintain social distancing with my customer.” Barachat queried.
 “This social distancing can only work with rich people who have money, work in big spacious offices and live in big houses with many rooms not for people like us who even with the situation we still have to run our business.
“Aside that in my house we are six; I my husband and four children we live in one room, we have just one bathroom and we defecate in the bush and we are not the only people that defecate there, “she concluded with air of resignation to fate.
Similarly, Mr.  Nasiru Abubakar who sells fried spiced fish in the evenings at a junction close to his house is also worried about the disease and the possibilities of social distancing because of the limited space they live and operate their business.
“I understand that washing of hands and surfaces staying at home and social distancing are some means of reducing the spread of the virus but this cannot be possible in our area
“This is because of the place we live the room spaces are not much as we do not have money to rent bigger houses where we live now it’s even difficult to pay the little rent of 4000 a year, “Abubakar explained.
He continued: “We talk of social distancing that is not possible in my house because I live in a room with my wife, son and younger brother in this small room, my brothers and I share the same bathroom and toilet and because of the small room we all stay under the tree most part of the day for air.
“Mine is even better than some of my brothers here, like my elder brother has two wives and seven children in this same size of room I am living they all still go out to source for daily bread and share the same space, though we are scared as we hear of people dying of this disease but the truth is we can do nothing about our space, we can only try to increase our hygiene and pray that God help us from this pandemic, “he said looking worried.
Against this backdrop, findings revealed that while social distancing and self-isolation have proved effective in the West,  a typical Nigerian family that lives in a “face-me-I-face-you” run-down flat, that is certainly not possible as most families lack sufficient sleeping areas with shared restrooms, public utilities and kitchen. In these types of living conditions, a lockdown and restriction of movement may not produce the desired effect. So with this prevailing situation across Nigeria, what do we do?
*Iroegbu is a media practitioner, security and public affairs analyst. He can be reached on [email protected], and Okpe is a reporter with Global Sentinel
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