The global Covid-19 pandemic has within the past few weeks proved to be a disruptive element more than anyone could have imagined. From football stadiums to work places, almost everything is now shut down save for those providing essential services. The government started from the reduction of gatherings to not more than 50, but now, that number has been reduced to 10 in some states while some other states have been placed under a total lockdown. But, with much surprise or maybe not, Nigerians have been disobeying these measures despite being told the serious effects the virus could have and how contagious it is. So, the questions really are: are Nigerians just simply unreasonably disobedient? Or perhaps there are justified reasons to be suspicious and distrustful?
In the early days of the virus break-out in Nigeria, concerned citizens, public health advocates, and the government hammered on the need to stay at home and stay extremely safe. But, no one ever really listened. Mosques and churches still opened for business as usual, as many of them either dismissed the reality of the virus or they placed their faith over the porosity of the virus. Another reason on the part of an average citizen was that the virus is a ploy for the government to siphon funds. The problem here exactly is that many people genuinely believe so. From the inception of the virus, there have been several claims that it is a conspiracy theory to loot public funds. For instance, a middle aged respondent told reporters with Legit.ng that Nigeria’s weather is so harsh for Coronavirus to survive… there is no trace for the so-called confirmed cases…it is an opportunity to steal our money. Similarly, Nigerian investigative journalist Damilola Banjo stated that Nigerians at the grassroots, where the majority live, think coronavirus is a ruse or even a ploy by the government to steal more money. In fact, a recent survey by NOI polls suggests that 26% of Nigerians believe they are immune to coronavirus. This is a worrying percentage. With all this, it then becomes understandable why many people take the virus with a pinch of salt.
Despite the assurances by the government on their readiness to tackle the virus, Nigerians continue to remain doubtful. But, given the Nigerian context, these doubts – even though potentially dangerous – are not unfounded. The doubts were firstly fuelled by the government’s sluggish and shady behaviour towards the virus. Isolation centres were not set up as early as necessary. For instance, in Abuja, there weren’t testing centres earlier on and even the one available, as sadly noted by the Senate President, Ahmad Lawan, was in a sorry state. These unnecessary delays in taking preventive steps easily spurred doubts on the sincerity of the government in tackling the virus.
On the 19th March, 2020, a Punch Newspaper reporter, Ralph Ede, reported the death of a seventy year old woman who was quarantined in a state facility, but died a day after being discharged. Although the woman tested negative to Covid-19, her family members established their utmost displeasure at the absolutely horrible state of the medical facility and the treatment she received. This is, however, no big news. Nigeria is a country where only the rich can risk having terminal illnesses and genuinely nurse hopes of survival. In such a country, the reality of the common man is very terrifying. Public healthcare is in a bad shape in Nigeria and the average man has all the incentives to doubt the government. For instance, in his undercover investigation titled Cancer is the Disease and Nigeria’s Health System is the Killer, Fisayo Soyombo noted how the lack of functioning radiotherapy machines across federal hospitals in Nigeria is impeding the treatment of cancer patients and aiding its spread from one parts of the body to another, thereby leaving many of these patients stranded in their treatment and at the mercy of the killer disease. This – and similar public healthcare calamities – is the day-to-day reality when there wasn’t a pandemic. How much more now?
Years after years of unfulfilled electoral promises, insensitive governance, high level of corruption, and unsustainable policies, Nigerians have invariably gotten to that point where individual responsibility – the placement of self-interest above collective responsibility – is all that matters. And it’s terrifying when a people have degenerated to this level, because it becomes difficult to know when the government is being genuine and when it’s just business as usual. Given the nature of Nigerians, since government has proved irresponsible over the years, the automatic default is God. It is why when the Coronavirus broke out, many Nigerians were found saying things such as “it is not my portion”, “I am covered by the blood of Jesus”. It is why preachers could leverage that instance to propel their sermons at the expense of the stay-at-home policy.
In a widely circulated video across social media platforms, we witnessed Pastor Innocent Kingsley, the General Overseer of Bible Believing Mission, dismissing Covid-19 by stating: “that thing cannot survive in Nigeria. What do you mean by coronavirus when there is corrosive anointing” Today, Nigeria officially has over 200 cases of coronavirus with fears that the numbers may actually be way higher than that. Similarly, reacting to government’s directive on the closure of all gatherings, Bishop Oyedepo asserted that shutting down churches would be like shutting down hospitals. This intersection of religion, science, and politics has also been a conflicting area enabling disobedience of citizens towards policies. There was a similar trail of events during the outbreak of Ebola and this won’t be the last.
Policy implementation is perhaps the major area that suffers the backlash of public distrust. That’s when you realize majority of the populace have no regard for the government. Clearly, entertaining doubts on the reality of the Covid-19 pandemic can be a leeway to a severe humanitarian disaster. However, even while not appropriately justifiable, the experience of Nigerians with the government is enough enabler of disobedience. Two of the foremost promises of this administration were to fight corruption and to tackle terrorism. This same government has been an agent of witch-hunt with the corruption radar specifically on persons of the opposition, rather than fighting corruption wholesomely. Similarly, some 6 months after resuming office in 2015, President Buhari declared that BokoHaram had been “technically defeated”. However today, with several bomb blasts, killings, abductions, and video evidences, it is very clear that this Bokoharam sect is otherwise growing in numbers and capacity
As such, to ensure nothing impedes their daily survival, the average Nigerian – such as market-women, taxi drivers and petty traders – is quick to dismiss the reality of Covid-19. Even if these people genuinely believe in the existence of Covid-19, the next problem they are faced with is how to not stay hungry while staying at home. Again, the Nigerian government has not demonstrated efforts in this regard. So, if an average Nigerian – who lives under a dollar per day and who survives based on what he or she makes daily – is to stay at home, how does hunger not kill them while doing so? This question is largely left unanswered and, with no definite governmental relief fund in sight, the stay-at-home policy is bound to face serious obstacles.
Case in point is a middle aged man in a video interview by LegitNG (below). In his words: how can I stay at home unless they (government) provide something for us… America gives money to their citizens during this period. That is a government that cares for the citizens. Nigerian government doesn’t care for her citizens. Similarly is the viral video of a middle aged woman, lamenting that just within two days of lockdown, her pot of soup already got stolen: we cannot continue like this, she said.
Realities like this pose challenges to the stay-at-home policy, because giving the status of the virus, no one can say for how long the pandemic will last. So, for a government that does not have a track-record of caring about its citizen, where is the safe space for the common man. If nothing happens in time, these people will, out of resort, revert back to their markets and hope the holy-spirit protects them since the government can’t. And no, this will not be the first time public distrust will occasion policy gaps.
In 2011, during the Jonathan administration, the government made a move to remove the expensive petrol subsidy program. To this end, the government explained that the subsidy program had been used to siphon about 6.8 billion naira meant for importing petroleum products. Further analysis estimated that the removal of subsidy would reduce the cost incurred by government, as 1.3 trillion naira was allegedly being spent on petrol subsidies. However, regardless of all this analysis and alternative measures sought by the government, citizens and trade unions still protested the elimination of the subsidy program – an action which largely stemmed from the distrust level in the country. A similar case happened in 2016 when the National Electricity Regulatory Commission sought to increase electricity tariffs. Despite the explanation by the Minister of Power that this step is needed to incentivise investment in the power sector for better power supply, citizens still met this action with total resistance.
So, are Nigerians just naturally belligerent? That doesn’t seem to be the case. Rather, the case is that our trust level in the government has degenerated to nothingness. No one wants to trust that the government is trying to take a citizen-oriented step, especially if it will affect the citizens’ current way of life. Years of governmental failure have conditioned Nigerians to be suspicious of the government. This is not exaggerated, it’s the reality. A Pew Research Centre poll in 2016 revealed that Nigerians do not consider the political and economic system to be fair. And why would they? Is the political and economic system actually fair?
The Nigeria government commands a very low level of trust from her citizens and this is not an appealing reality. While the status of Covid-19 is terrifying, it has somewhat further helped us to see how wide the trust gap between the leaders and the people is. In the early days of the pandemic, concerned persons and public health advocates clamoured for the government to shut her borders to foreigners or, at the very least, ensure an immediate quarantine of travellers. None of this was done as early as required. Had it been recent travellers had been quarantined, the Covid-19 could have been contained in Nigeria before we started worrying about the spread. This initial absence of a sense of urgency is worrying and more worrying is the fact that it has almost always been like that with Nigeria.
This problem of distrust didn’t start today and can’t be brought to an end suddenly. It’s going to take deliberate efforts and intentional good governance. But, while this pandemic lasts, the government needs to do more. Truth be told, they have done some things well such as clarifications on who can be tested and provision of information on isolation centres. However, more levels of transparency are needed. There are still cases where powers that be are covering up positive Covid-19 patients. Also, the general public needs unbridled information about the capacity gaps Nigeria is facing in tackling this problem. The government should also work on making relief funds available to those who are deeply affected by this new work reality – those whose daily incomes are largely what they live on. This should also be properly monitored to avoid cases where these funds do not reach the target people. We should also have regular updates on how the money donated by several donors is being spent. These are few of the things that can be done to alleviate this situation.
One thing the Ebola experience showed us was that a high level of community trust in authorities helps in the fight against any pandemic. If trust was not lost in a day, it cannot be regained in a day. But, while this pandemic persists, the government has to do more in guaranteeing a more successful implementation of policies. The strength of a policy, just like a chain, lies on the strength of the links. In this instant, the people are the link. And a quality synergy of the two is how we can beat Covid-19.