One of the earliest and most prominent victims of COVID-19 in Nigeria was Abba Kyari, the long-time friend and Chief of Staff to President Muhammadu Buhari. The news of his death in mid-April was met with strong reactions on social media. Many considered it a potent victory against politicians who had failed over decades to build much-needed health infrastructure across the country. For others, like Mrs Ifeoma, a market woman in Lagos, it proved that COVID-19 was a ‘big man’s disease.’ As far as she was concerned, she had never been to an airport and was therefore not at risk of contracting the virus. Her sentiment cut across a huge chunk of Nigeria’s 180 million people.
The efficiency with which Nigeria’s public health agencies tackled an outbreak of the Ebola virus in Lagos in 2014 earned the country international recognition and respect. But this time it’s different. Health workers in communities point out that Ebola was a short lived affair unlike COVID-19. According to them, government was not proactive enough in curbing the coronavirus, and that community education was lacking right from the start. Initially only associated with the elite, the virus quickly reached wider society. In early September, Nigeria recorded about 60,000 confirmed cases and just over 1,000 deaths. Owing to stubbornly low testing rates, COVID-19 cases are likely to be massively underreported.
The announcement of lockdowns by the Federal Government imposed on Lagos, Ogun State and Abuja at the end of March meant that many of Nigeria’s poor, who rely on daily wages for their survival, were left destitute. After almost three weeks of total lockdown, a partial lockdown was instituted with conditions such as the wearing of facemasks in public and social distancing. By June, a large number of Lagosians could already be seen walking around without masks. Today, the masks are gone almost completely. Local buses were also quick in no longer adhering to the social distance regulations set out by the government. Life has gradually returned to how it once was; normal, carefree, overcrowded. The coronavirus of course remains in Nigeria but not everyone believes so, or cares.
A major driver is that the social contract between the Nigerian government and her citizens only seems to come into existence during elections, causing a lack of trust in the government, and widespread skepticism about its coronavirus messaging. For many Nigerians, despite a fresh wave of reported infections and deaths that led to the postponement of the opening of Lagos’ mosques and churches planned for the 19th and 21st of June respectively and finally implemented on August 21, the question remained: where are the bodies of those whom the government claimed the virus killed? In Nigeria, seeing is believing. If people don’t know anyone who has died from the coronavirus, it does not exist.
But why would Nigerians believe there is a deliberate effort to inflate COVID-19 figures? According to Chief Raymond Gold from Irede community, “the argument is if figures keep increasing and dead bodies aren’t littering the streets, then something isn’t adding up. It’s either there is no COVID-19, or it is not as deadly as the government has painted it to be. People thus see the initial lockdown as unnecessary and the government as being wicked and anti-people.”
Mrs. Bimbo Osobe, a community activist who works in the informal settlement of Ajegunle Ikorodu, confirms that many would have rather gone outside and faced the virus while looking for money, than watch their children starve during the lockdown. Although the Nigerian government put in place relief programmes, many communities such as Irede were not reached at all while what Ikorodu received was insufficient. “I saw people packing rice mixed with sand from the ground and going home to filter the sand away so they could eat.”, Mrs. Osobe remembers.
This glaring lack of government presence contributed to the public’s doubts about the virus. Most support these communities have received has come from non-governmental organisations and individuals. “We deployed hand washing stations to some public spaces within the communities. We also did big size banners which we put at entry points of the community,” Chief Gold explains. The banners contain information on COVID-19 and what symptoms to look out for. Though many still have their doubt, the people of Irede are more likely to listen to Chief Gold than the Nigerian government.
Money plays a huge role in how things are perceived in Nigeria, and government, which many see as a place for self-enrichment, is a prime driver of this perception. A total of N25.8 billion was donated to government to combat COVID-19 in Nigeria as of April 2020. Hearing of such dizzying amounts of money, the average Nigerian expects to feel its impact in real terms. Otherwise, they are quick to allege embezzlement. This has fed the belief that government officials inflate COVID-19 cases to receive more donations. Confronted by the usual lack of transparency and accountability, many have simply moved on with their lives, having to battle with the high cost of living that COVID-19 has caused.
Hospitals are not spared from this distrust, owing to past experiences people have had with cases of misdiagnosis and wrong treatment, which has sometimes led to deaths. A growing stigma around COVID-19 also deters many from going to the hospital out of fear of being diagnosed with the virus.
The government knows what is going on in the communities, Mrs. Osobe strongly believes and argues: ‘If the government can find its way to communities during elections to mobilise voters, then they could equally mobilise people for COVID-19 sensitization efforts’. But for now, individuals like Mrs. Osobe and Chief Gold fill the gap left behind by government and do the best they can to help prevent the worst from unfolding.