I have observed with great consternation, even surprise, and I’m sure you too have, that most Nigerians do not believe COVID-19 is real in spite of very compelling evidence including the spiralling infections and rising fatalities. Aside from what’s happening locally, the media is replete with news of the mounting death toll across the world, especially the United States and Europe.
While the jury or rather scientists are still out on why Africans are not dying as much as people from the aforementioned countries, it is incontrovertible that COVID-19 is deadly and killing Africans too. So, it is surprising that in the face of all these, Nigerians, to be more specific, still doubt the reality of the virus. This scepticism has led to the dismissive even derisive and dangerous disposition of people to every warning and danger signs.
There are three major factors fuelling the scepticism. One, which is unfortunate but not too far from the truth, is the fact that people are not dropping dead as they are in the US and Europe. Two, the body language of influential Nigerians. And three, the role of religious leaders and conspiracy theorists.
As I already premised, it’s not untrue that Nigerians are not dropping dead everywhere you look, but it is equally not untrue that the virus is killing Nigerians. We’ve lost over 1,300 lives, precious lives, many of who are people we know, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, children, friends and families. How many more do we have to lose before we start believing and taking the pandemic seriously?
Body language is, to me, a major factor, if not the most important factor. Renowned comedian, Ali Baba, a COVID-19 survivor himself, was quoted recently as saying that the order making it mandatory for Nigerians to enrol for the National Identity Number in the heat of the deadlier and more virulent second wave of the pandemic is one of the factors fuelling the scepticism. His assertion is hard to question considering the high risk involved in the mad rush to beat the deadline. If COVID-19 is as deadly as the government purports, people are asking, how come it is the same government that took such a dangerous policy decision? That’s one.
Secondly, most government officials, political leaders, influential people and celebrities have generally carried on like there’s no COVID-19. It is not a rare sight to see them at events (otherwise super spreaders) without masks and not observing social distancing. During the Christmas and New Year festivities, many damned the warnings and hosted or attended weddings, funerals, chieftaincy ceremonies, etc. As we say in communication, perception is reality. A perception gap analysis shows that there is a big gap between what the aforementioned influential people are saying and what they are actually doing. This gap is what the ignorant and sceptical are exploiting to doubt the existence of COVID-19.
Recently, we read of the emergence of a new mutated strain of the virus in the UK, the US and South Africa. One would have expected the government to respond by banning flights from those countries but no, it didn’t. And it hasn’t. The reason adduced for the shocking decision was, if neighbouring countries didn’t ban flights from those countries, it wouldn’t make any difference to ban them from Nigeria. What an excuse! Hard to believe! Of course, the consequence is the unrestrained influx of Nigerians vacationing from those destinations with scant regard for government’s quarantine and other safety guidelines.
There’s also the little matter of “payment for negative test results”, which was widely reported by many media organisations and some observant individuals on social media. That has contributed to putting a lie to the story of COVID-19 and even further fuelled the sorry belief that COVID-19 is a smokescreen for government officials to steal public funds, funds that hardly exist, by the way.
Finally, there’s the scandalous effort of religious leaders save for a few to dismiss the existence of COVID-19. Notwithstanding that they neither predicted nor cured COVID-19, these greedy religious leaders have stridently undermined government’s effort to create awareness for the pandemic and curtail the spread. It could be out of pecuniary considerations or ignorance but these influential religious leaders have misled several millions of their ardent followers.
A corollary to this is the booming Conspiracy Theory Industry! There is a powerful thriving anti-COVID group deliberately and creatively manufacturing misleading literature and videos which are virally circulated. A particular influential Nigerian pastor has been at the forefront of those dishing out these conspiracies and falsehoods, which have unfortunately gained grounds, popularity and credibility.
I’m happy to say all is not lost, yet. Government can still turn things around. One, it should be a deliberate policy by government to insist on fewer public events where strict COVID-19 guidelines are implemented. Every government official and politician must not be pictured without a mask. Some top government officials who have openly discredited the anti-COVID efforts must be named and shamed. This is leadership by example, ladies and gentlemen! Two, government must implement all the guidelines and restrictions regarding events and curfews and punish offenders to send the right message to the populace. Three, government should engage religious and traditional leaders and recruit them to join the war against COVID-19. These folks are too influential to be antagonised or ignored. Four, influential individuals who are COVID-19 survivors must step out of hiding and tell their stories to enhance believability around the entire COVID-19 pandemic. Their testimonies can turn around the narrative.
Finally, the media should do more on-the-spot reports covering the isolation or treatment centres as well as interviewing survivors and publishing human angle reports of deaths so that people can begin to put faces not only to the dead but also the survivors.
We may have got away with our indiscretions during the first wave, the second wave may prove devastating. And there seems to be a third wave with the results coming immediately after the Christmas and New Year holidays! Let’s get serious, Nigerians.
Emeka Oparah January 12, 2021