By Ehichioya Ezomon
With Lagos State – recorder of the first index in Nigeria – now having “a combination of imported cases and local transmission,” and over 1,300 people under surveillance, to find information about their health status, the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is here at last.
Interesting stories for you
So, in the course of this article, I engaged several persons in my community, to gauge their awareness, knowledge and implications of the pandemic for Nigeria and the rest of humanity.
My findings were frightening! As deadly – and widespread – as the novel virus is reported globally, the average Nigerian seems to believe it’s some made-up story to scare members of the public.
Those who believe in the disease’s existence are dismissive of its berthing in Nigeria, arguing there’d been no reported case(s) of a person(s) testing positive for or had died from the infection.
Another group of Nigerians thinks the COVID-19 is sprung to test the people’s faith in God who, in any case, “will not allow His faithful to be destroyed by a strange disease.”
Still, some Nigerians claim that the coronavirus isn’t as deadly as Ebola or Lassa fever, with the former speedily contained when it was “imported” into Nigeria a few years ago, and the latter, likely seasonal, has been controlled from spreading exponentially.
My first stop was a chemist-provisions store. The previous day, I had discussed with the store’s owners – husband and wife – about observing simple guidelines to preventing contracting the virus.
They should forbid customers entering the store or crowding the barrier fronting the store. As I discussed with the couple – and kept a distance – they laughed, making light of a serious situation.
So, I wasn’t surprised the next day to find the store crowded by customers. As the male storekeeper saw me, he smiled. Keeping my distance, I asked why he allowed the store to be crammed.
He smiled again, and motioned to a man – sitting on a bench, whom I assumed he had shared with my “advice” of the previous day. As if cued, the man said: “Ah, this thing (COVID-19) is not in Nigeria.”
But I said: “The government reported yesterday (Wednesday, March 18, 2020) eight new cases, and the death of an American in Ekiti. So, you still don’t believe the virus is in Nigeria?”
He fired back: “Did you see the reported new cases, and the ‘dead’ American? Did anybody see them? I don’t believe these stories. There is no (corona)virus in Nigeria. So, stop causing panic.”
My insistence that to prevent infection, people should wash their hands with soap regularly, avoid handshake, hugging, touching of the face, and observe social distancing elicited invoking faith in the power of God to deal with any eventuality.
And it’s interjected by a bike (okada) rider, who happened into the premises, and joined the debate. He asserted, without proof, that it’s the Chinese that “are bringing this disease into Nigeria.”
Before I could challenge him for proof, he said: “But God pass dem. Our God no go allow dem kill us with strange diziz wey dem make for dia country. God no go greeooooo!”
My initial respondent concurred. “Yesooooo, God will not allow the disease to have any effect on us,” he said, adding, “Whenever I am going out of the house, I cover myself with ‘the blood of Jesus,’ and nothing (with emphasis) will touch me.”
“Even if I touch my face with my rested hand on this bench – as you (addressing me) said that droplets from sneezing and coughing by an infected person could contaminate surfaces – nothing will happen, as I always cover myself with ‘the blood of Jesus’.”
Our greatest problem is contradictory beliefs. As doubting Thomases, we believe by demonstrable experience (Luke 6:46, Luke 13:25-27). But we also believe that only God can answer our prayers (Matthew 18:19, Matthew 21:22 and Mark 11:24).
Thus, in the face of imminent and obvious danger to our health and life, we rest our faith in God. Not for us the axiom that, “Heaven helps those who help themselves,” as the adage isn’t scriptural, and of no relevance in our lives, not even in the era of COVID-19.
As I mused, the storekeeper’s wife walked in. Noticing that I kept some distance, she smiled and moved towards me. Instinctively, I took a step backward. And she exclaimed: “Are you running from me? Ewoooo!” She clapped her hands and laughed heartily.
“No,” I said, and asked her to give me some wares. She waded through the crowd, got into the store, fetched the goods and handed them over through an opening in the barrier. As I walked away, I thought to myself, “These are signs of the times.”
At another part of the community, I encountered a different scenario on the COVID-19. I needed airtime for my phone. The shop owner offered me a seat, which I drew away from him. He got the message, and asked how serious the virus was in Nigeria.
I said it’s at a limited stage, but that we all – the government and the people – needed to act to prevent and contain its spread, as we don’t have the wherewithal to combat a total outbreak.
Specifically, I said the daunting task comes down to the people – to observe simple rules, to prevent infection, and in the event of the unforeseen, to self-isolate quickly and call for medical help.
The man asked how many times do people need to wash their hands daily. I told him I wasn’t a medical person or a scientist, but that it should be regular, and with application of hand sanitiser.
At the mention of hand sanitiser, he asked his adjacent female storekeeper to “give me that thing.” The woman offered a small green-capped plastic bottle – I thought was a hand sanitiser.
Immediately he received the bottle, he unscrewed the cork, and took two quick swigs. Unbelievable! He saw the surprise in my eyes and assured it’s alcohol he said “experts” had recommended to prevent COVID-19.
There you go! Who are the experts that recommended taking of alcohol to prevent and/or combat the coronavirus? Or Nigerians just want to indulge themselves, hiding under the pandemic?
Well, as I took my leave, I advised the man to follow “real” experts’ recommendations on the virus, thanked him for the airtime, and asked the store-woman to extend my regards to her husband.
On my way home, I noticed that the number of patrons at the chemist-provision store hadn’t reduced much. As I passed by, the man I had had an extended debate with saw me, and called out: “Oga Journalist.” I stopped to listen to his inquisition.
He asked, a note of ‘I-got-you-this-time’ in his voice: “You said this disease is in Nigeria, and in Lagos, and you have told us how to prevent being infected, including wearing of face mask, and yet, you are not wearing one.”
“Because I’m not wearing a surgical mask, you will not wear one?” I said, adding, “If you wear a mask, you may not necessarily save my life, but yours.” I waved him bye and moved on.
If people don’t believe in the existence or spread of the coronavirus – and they’re presented with symptoms of the disease – will they self-isolate, call for help or report themselves for treatment? We must change our attitude, to complement government’s measures to prevent, control and contain the spread of COVID-19.
* Mr. Ezomon, Journalist and Media Consultant, writes from Lagos, Nigeria.