Over the weekend, when the letter of Ibrahim Mohammed Baba to President Muhammadu Buhari made the news, it swiftly became part of the occasional controversies surrounding the number of people dying as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, especially in the north.
Ibrahim Mohammed Baba, a former member of the House of Representatives had written to President Buhari over the death of over 100 people in Azare town, headquarters of Katagum Local government Area of Bauchi State.
In his letter titled: ‘Massive COVID-19 Outbreak in Azare: Request For Urgent Action,’ Baba said that the cemetery bears witness to the fact that people have died in unusual way in the past weeks, and begged for Buhari’s intervention as he said that the Federal Medical Center in the State is getting overwhelmed.
“If you go to the graveyard, they have a register there and you would see it yourself. In the last two weeks, they registered more than 286 bodies at the Azare graveyard. The normal death rate in the town was about one to two per day. So you have to raise the alarm when you are burying 200 to 300 persons in two weeks and over 100 per week. Our people are dying, do we have to keep quiet”?
About three weeks ago, a similar alarm was raised in Kano. Over 640 persons were buried in eight LGAs of the State: Nasarawa, Gwale, Dala, Ungogo, Fagge, Tarauni, Kumbotso and Municipal. It was a tale of horror that kept Nigerians wondering what the killer could be even though to some, it was a political mischief.
However, the events have brought Kano and Bauchi to a familiar terrain. In April, when the alarming number of interments in Kano caught the attention of the general public, and calls for investigation went out, the Sub Committee on COVID-19 issued a defensive statement, dismissing suggestions that coronavirus could be the cause of the deaths. In a statement then, the Secretary of Risk Communication Sub Committee on COVID-19 in Kano State, Alhaji Auwalu Abdu Fagge said it’s all rumor.
“This particular rumor has been investigated and found to be untrue. I beg of you with massive social media followership to help in clearing the air,” he said.
Though the Kano State Ministry of Health, in its own statement said an investigation has been launched and the general public will be informed of the outcome, many bought the Secretary’s statement and defended it against the realities evidenced in the cemeteries.
Aminu, a Kano resident said the deaths were not unusual; they only became noticeable due to the lockdown that halted the hustling-bustling in the Kano Metropolis.
“People die every day in Kano even before this COVID-19 pandemic. Kano is a big city, it’s because the city is crowded that’s why people don’t observe the daily deaths. But now because of the lockdown, people tend to observe. So please let’s not turn natural cause into politics,” he wrote on Twitter.
The numbers rose significantly the following weeks in Kano, prompting Buhari to impose a 2-weeks lockdown on the state and to give marching orders to the Presidential Task Force to unravel the cause of the deaths.
On May 3, the Chairman of the Presidential Task Force, Dr. Nasiru Sani Gwarzo told the press: “Let me inform us that most of the deaths recorded of recent and test carried out showed that Coronavirus was the cause. So before the final report which would be ready in the next one week or few days, it is necessary for people of Kano to wake up from their slumber that this is a serious issue,” he said.
While there have been questions about the credibility of the Presidential Task Force’s report (due to the fact that it was based on verbal autopsy), the fears of many were confirmed and the objective voices in Kano died down. Nevertheless, the consequences have been contagiously fatal and teach a lesson that Bauchi State is failing to learn.
In his letter to Buhari, Baba has pointed out the similarities in the deaths of Kano and Bauchi States – community transmission that its mystery has the simple explanation of a pandemic.
“We are not blaming anybody; this is a pandemic, we are just asking the government to take further action. The Federal Medical Center there is doing well; they have over 20 people in isolation there. It’s a case of community transmission like the one in Kano,” he said.
But while the calls for urgent action ring louder, the Bauchi State Government is refuting the claims of many deaths. In a press briefing held on Saturday, the Deputy Governor of Bauchi State, Baba Tela, who also is the Chairman of the state’s Rapid Response Task Force Committee on COVID-19 and Lassa Fever, said the deaths come seasonally in Azare town, and people with existing health conditions always die.
“It is a seasonal thing in the area especially during the hot season when people with underlying illnesses get complications which always lead to their deaths,” he said.
The same excuse used in Kano in the early times of the deaths that only encouraged social life against the precautionary measures of COVID-19. There was no “what if it is coronavirus” question to encourage safety practices.
In his statement, Tela acknowledged that the situation in Bauchi has been spurred by the events in Kano considering the proximity of the two states, though he dismissed the suggestion that it is coronavirus; and that’s where the danger lays, the incredible denial that keeps birthing contagious consequences of fatality.
Over the past two weeks, the number of dead persons in northern Nigeria has seen an alarming increase. With coronavirus being responsible for a sum, the larger sum has been categorized under “mysterious death” caused by ailments that bear symptoms similar to the pandemic though not confirmed. The main reason being that there is a little or no medical provision to ascertain the cause where these deaths are happening.
As the state governments and medical practitioners issue statements to discredit the link between the deaths and coronavirus, there are suggestive hints in their words that give credence to the claim that it could have been the virus.
Dr. Nagoma Sadiq of the Aminu Kano Hospital said: “It’s shocking to most of us that the count of the dead is alarming. But it is likely due to reduction in the number of health institutions available in the state.
“Because there are a lot hypertensive patients, diabetic patients, asthmatic patients, cancer patients, and they don’t have much access to the hospitals. The lockdown is affecting everybody. Our poor majority don’t even have a vehicle to take them to the hospitals,” he said.
In his statement, Dr. Sadiq mentioned underlying ailments that experts said decrease the survival chances of coronavirus patients. Alas, they are not good enough to give credibility to the link of the deaths to coronavirus, not even when death has not been witnessed in such alarming numbers for years.
Ali, a grave digger in Kano told BBC: “We have never seen this, since the major cholera outbreak that our parents tell us about. That was about 60 years ago.” His statement comes against the governments’ side of the story that attributed the deaths to season, malaria, typhoid fever and old age. Ibrahim Hassan Hadejia, the senator representing Jigawa north, even attributed the deaths to fasting and heat. He said old people with health challenges are dying because of Ramadan fasting and the hot clime in the northern region.
Amidst these excuses coming from government officials, a large number of people are being confirmed coronavirus positive in northern states, among them, the almajiris who roam the streets begging. The Kano State Government had on May 7, as the Northern Governors Forum (NGF) had agreed to deport each one of the almajiris to their states of origin, and deported a lot of them to Jigawa State. Among those deported, over 40 almajiris have tested positive for coronavirus in Jigawa State alone, and it cuts across the northern states.
The proximity of these states appears to be enabling the spread of the coronavirus and the mystery disease, a fact Tela acknowledged in his statement. He said that Bauchi State has been so infected due to its closeness to Kano. An indigene of Azare, Inuwa Umar said the situation must have been a spill-over from the Kano events.
“I think the situation might be as a result of what is happening in Kano. We have strong economic ties with Kano. Over 30 buses go to Kano from our town daily, which means that anything that happens to Kano people might easily happen to us. Even during the lockdown, you would be surprised to see the number of people travelling to Kano for business. Our people know the routes to Kano,” Umar said.
Kano, Bauchi, Jigawa and Kaduna states all share common boundaries that make integration easy. So, according to Umar, no matter the height of restriction imposed, the people will always find their way to each other states, unless the fear of being infected by a deadly disease stops them. The villagers in Azare said that a large number of traders have voluntarily stopped going to Kano for fear of being infected. This development adds yet again, credence to the claim that whatever is killing people in these axes is more than malaria, fasting and heat; and needs more attention than it is getting right now.
As of May 10, Kano remains the epic-center of coronavirus in the north with 602 confirmed cases; Bauchi has 181, and Jigawa 118. The numbers increased unprecedentedly in a matter of days, and it is believed that more people are infected in these states than are recorded by the Nigerian Center for Disease Control (NCDC), but many are unaccounted for due to poor testing facilities in the region.
In the wake of this health crisis, the authorities are failing to stop migration of people from states, a large number of them, the almajiris. Many of them are heading toward the south, others move to other states in the north. However, the consequence of the free movement continues to be seen in the numbers of those infected or those dying.
As the health controversy thrives on inadequate health facilities and governments’ deniability, whatever is killing people in northern Nigeria is spreading with unprecedented speed, and it is fast reaching other states like the notorious coronavirus. Currently, Yobe State is reportedly burying more people than it has done in the recent past.
It is believed that the affected state governments are denying the realities for political correctness and to save face from perceived lax and poor leadership in the face of critical health crises. Against the backdrop of coronavirus containment, the northern governments have been reminded that the dark cloud they think is rain is actually a tsunami that will wreak devastating havoc if it is not contained now.