Nigeria: Covid-19 Deniers and the Rest of Us

8 August 2020
column

Covid-19 hit the world unlike anything has in a long, long time.

We've had plagues in the past, and dealt with them in different ways. But this time, it's different. It's a world that's connected in unprecedented ways, so when a virus breaks out, you can only imagine the speed with which it'd travel. In the blink of an eye, the whole world was under lockdown, as infection rates spiked, and death tolls climbed. Confined mostly to home, and only skeletal office visits, where else would one get a daily fix of human connection? Yes, social media. At once a demon and a darling, it meant you could still keep up with the happenings around the world via family and friends. Or so I thought.

Online, more info about the virus trickled out, and questions began to be asked. Countless news reports broke findings, as thousands more echoed them. So also conspiracy theories sprang up, their premises ranging from ludicrous to wild. Even the name of billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates popped up, accused that his charity foundation is planning to use the Covid-19 vaccine to implant microchips into the global population. The Microsoft founder had to respond, dismissing the accusations, and hoping the misinformation would die down, but the theory rages on.

A friend of mine, in real-life and on Facebook, always posts news updates from various sites from around the world. He would comment sarcastically on each one, suggesting that the info - gathered and presented by scientists in some cases - is false. I regularly ask him for proof, and he of course comes up with blanks. The dyed-in-the-wool conspiracy theorist is just one, of many millions in Nigeria, as well as other countries, who deny the existence of the Coronavirus, chalking it up to some unexplained, shadowy conspiracy hatched by the West (or China, depending on who you're listening to).

Then go around Abuja. You'll be shocked to see the number of people in public spaces who don't - who refuse to - wear masks. They carry on, touching everyone and everything, shouting at the top of their voices at full wind, without a care in the world. I think they're called 'Covidiots', or something like that. And believe me, if you're that reckless with the safety of others, as well as yours, that's an insult that's even far too mild. I've overheard, countless times, people who say things like 'Ah, that Covid-19 na scam!' It always makes me cringe.

Even more cringe-worthy, perhaps, is the way some governors fuelled Covid-19 denial by facing the matter politically, when a humanitarian approach was clearly required. I get it: It's a new problem. But crude chess was played with infection rates ('My state has fewer numbers than yours!'), as well as shouting matches and chest-thumping ('I don't have a single case in my state!'). The unfolding drama, while unfortunate, showed Nigerians versions of their elected officials they hadn't seen. But thankfully, not all of what we saw was negative, as a few actually acted in ways expected from leaders, with strict monitoring of timely lockdowns, leading by example, and so on.

Looking at the whole situation some more, one thing became clear: Covid-19 denial itself is borne of a deep-rooted distrust of the government, here in Nigeria, or wherever else around the world. So how, one would wonder, will the trust of citizens be regained? The answer, while simple, might be difficult to achieve. Do the needful. Address the people, directly and/or via officials, across media, ads, billboards, jingles, TV spots, and however else, in as many languages as possible. If there's doubt about a treatment, quickly address it and clarify. If there's a breakthrough, share it with facts for all to see. Is a large chunk of the budget going to be affected? State it, clearly, showing how and why. I know, I said trust is difficult to regain. I never said it's impossible.

Postscript:

Starting a brand-new column isn't as easy as you're made to believe. Mavens like my bosses Mahmud Jega, Aisha Umar-Yusuf, Tunde Asaju, and Bala Muhammad, do it so effortlessly, week after week, so you can excuse my impression that it's a cake walk. But it's not, as I learnt the hard way.

Topics are easy, yes, in a country like ours with tons of material to mine from. But starting from scratch meant another thing was needed: a title. I pondered for weeks (yes, weeks), yet nothing came up. 'Jagged Little Pill' (you know, the type that's hard to swallow) was already taken by Canadian rock star Alanis Morissette.

The writer Toni Kan suggested 'Weekend with Baba Aminu', but I told him it sounds too much like a 70s Lagos magazine offering. Many other titles popped up, all sounding only somewhat interesting, or bought from Kasuwan Barci in Kaduna.

At the eleventh hour, after brainstorming sessions on the phone with Managing Editor Nasiru Abubakar, as well as fellow newbie columnist Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, I settled for the simple-sounding 'Column No.6', because it's the sixth column in the Daily Trust's Saturday edition. So, there you have it. By God's grace, next week I'll be here getting stuff off my chest, and hopefully you'll be here for the ride. Even if it's a bumpy road - like Nigerian ones tend to be - I sincerely hope you'll enjoy it. Thanks!

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