Nigerians Take Coronavirus Precautions, but Threat Seems Far Away

A man wears a face mask in Lagos.

People in Nigeria are less concerned about the coronavirus than other problems in the country. But some fear the true case numbers are not yet known. DW's Fanny Facsar reports from Lagos.

I could never have imagined people in Europe asking me to send them hand sanitizers from Nigeria. But nothing is normal these days.

In West Africa, a region where people already face security and infrastructure challenges, people are watching in disbelief as others fight over toilet paper in parts of the world considered much better off: Europe, the United States.

But there is no panic in Nigeria regarding COVID-19, or coronavirus, as most of us call it. At least there is no panic so far, as only a small number of cases have been confirmed across the region. "Are we just lucky?" people ask each other, or "simply much better prepared with lessons learnt from the Ebola crisis?"

'We do not panic as long as it is not in our face'

As I stroll through the supermarket, I see shelves full of imported products, especially from the US: A huge assortment of cornflakes, ketchup, peanut butter and chocolates.

Supermarkets, however, are usually not the places ordinary Nigerians frequent. They prefer local markets.

Nigeria is very dependent on oil revenues to keep its budget stable. With stock markets worldwide highly volatile, oil prices are plunging. People here seem less concerned about catching the virus, and more about how its economic impact will trickle down to them.

How will it affect what people here will be able to afford in a few weeks or months? With about half of Nigeria's population of roughly 200 million living in extreme poverty, most people will not have money to stock up on food. And those who could, aren't buying more than usual yet.

"We do not panic as long as the virus is not in our face," says Ugonna Ajoku, one of the customers I meet in the supermarket. "I get information only from the news as well. What the news is saying, we are relaxed, we only have two cases. But we are taking precautions: Washing hands for example."

Millions of Nigerians lack basics

But in poverty and violence-stricken Nigeria, millions lack access to the very basics, such as clean water, let alone soap. Skeptics believe the number of cases may be much higher than officially confirmed. Everyone just hopes the virus will simply ignore most of the continent. With only five laboratories currently available to diagnose Covid-19 in a country of this size, the Nigerian government has vowed to invest in preventive measures.

After my colleague and I arrive from our recent assignment in Togo at the Lagos airport, we are simply given a questionnaire about possible symptoms before we pass through customs. "Anyone can say anything on that document," one of the arrivals says in the line waiting for a quick screening on entry.

'We welcome European refugees'

As we drive through Lagos towards our DW studio, we turn the radio on. The coronavirus does not top the news broadcast, nor is it the main headline in newspapers. People worry more about inter-ethnic and inter-religious violence spiraling out of control in the north of the country - about jihadist attacks and banditry.

The virus still seems far away. People here are in the phase Europe was in around late February; the jokes have largely dominated conversations. One of the "jokes" I overhear these days amongst Nigerians is about turning the tide: "Corona will not come to us. But if Europeans want to come, we will welcome them as refugees, we will not send them away."

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