Home FEATURED Opinion (29/3/2020): Tackling The Myths Around COVID-19 – By Simon Kolawole

Opinion (29/3/2020): Tackling The Myths Around COVID-19 – By Simon Kolawole

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Simon Kolawole

Some recent events in Nigeria have gladdened and saddened me in equal measure. I was glad when prominent Nigerians who were diagnosed with the coronavirus publicly declared their status. I rejoiced, thinking this would finally take the lid off the disease. To start with, some cynics, particularly of the Jubril Al-Sudani movement, had said the Italian index case was a hoax and a ploy to steal money. They demanded to see the photo, the phone number and the birth certificate of the Italian before they would believe. I agree that we like petty politics in Nigeria but I felt this was a dangerous territory that could easily expose ignorant and gullible Nigerians to infection.

Also, I felt naming names would finally take the stigma off the disease that has been devastating and depleting the world. Revelations that Mallam Abba Kyari, chief of staff to President Muhammadu Buhari, Senator Bala Mohammed, governor of Bauchi state, and Mohammed Atiku Abubakar, son of the former vice-president, had contracted the virus would, in my opinion, encourage more people to go for the test. Ours is a very judgmental society, I know, but since there is no scientific proof yet that COVID-19 is contracted mainly through immoral behaviour, nobody should be ashamed to take the test and reveal the outcome. Well, I said “in my opinion”.

I became sad when the development produced negative reactions instead. Rather than help send the message that COVID-19 is real and not a respecter of status, it ended up encouraging some Nigerians to conclude that it is a disease meant for government officials. Some even said it was designed by God to fight corruption better than the EFCC. This particular sentiment is gaining ground among the poorly educated. How, then, can we explain to them — or try to convince them — that they too can catch the virus? How would they know that currency notes and public transport can be sources of contact with the virus? It just makes it tougher to educate the people.

The problem I thought removing the veil of anonymity would solve has now been further compounded. Twisting and trivialising the message has produced the “God catch them” gloating among low-level Nigerians — regardless of their education and social status — who are often excited when bad things, such as plane crashes and cancer, happen to “bad” people. However, the message needs to be passed strongly to all and sundry: COVID-19 does not distinguish between the rich and the poor, the high and the low, the prince and the pauper, and the saint and the sinner. It is an infectious disease. As long as you are a human being, you can be infected. Let that sink in!

Myths can only help the COVID-19 disease to spread more in Nigeria. The notion in the early days was that it was a disease for the white race. It did not help matters that the index case was an Italian. It reinforced the false belief that the black skin was immune. There were also a lot of jokes around how Avian Flu, Mad Cow disease and Ebola did not survive in Nigeria, meaning COVID-19 would also fall by the wayside in no time. There were reckless assumptions that the virus could not survive under our temperature, with this stupidity being promoted particularly on WhatsApp and Facebook. These myths probably made us lower our guard. And here we are today.

Another notion that is going round, which must be factored into the enlightenment campaign, is that it is a disease for the elderly and those with underlying medical issues. True, there is overwhelming statistical evidence that these categories of people constitute the bulk of the fatal cases, but that does not mean the seemingly healthy and young people cannot be infected. In fact, Nigeria recorded the case of a teenager on Friday. And, come to think of it, how many Nigerians really know their health status? Some have heart issues and diabetes without knowing. The wise thing is to get everybody to be careful. This “elderly” theory is half the story and could be misleading.

While it is good to keep emphasising the need to avoid handshakes as part of general measures to contain the spread of the virus, the information is, again, not complete. According to the experts, the coronavirus does not enter the body through the skin but through MEN — Mouth, Eyes and Nose. So while we must definitely avoid handshakes, we may still use our hands to touch infected surfaces, such as handrails and cups, and end up putting them on the face, thereby becoming vulnerable. If your hand mistakenly touches someone else’s — or you absent-mindedly shake hands with someone — please just go and wash up rather than start crying that you’re dead.

Who even says you will die? Having the coronavirus is not a death sentence. Most patients survive it. This must be said again and again. That should encourage people to come forward for the test if they suspect they have been exposed to the virus. If they test positive, they can then go into isolation to stop it from spreading as well as receive treatment for the symptoms, if needed. This is an aspect of containment that is crucial under the circumstances we have found ourselves. But when people think it is a death sentence, they are too reluctant to test and they may continue to spread the virus. All over the world, people recover from the disease. In Nigeria, people are recovering too.

There are arguments over the effectiveness of lockdowns. Wuhan, the Chinese city where the virus emerged in December 2019, went into a total lockdown for two months. About 11 million people were shut in. The latest figures indicate that there are no new infections in the city. That means the lockdown worked. It is always very difficult believing figures from China, but we can at least take it on the face value that the lockdown produced results. But will lockdowns work in every country? Does every country have the capacity to lock down without creating a different set of serious problems? That is the debate that is raging as lockdowns are being considered worldwide.

Lockdowns may work more easily for a fraction of the populace. The average Nigerian relies on daily earnings. What Iya Mufu makes from selling akara is what she spends to make dinner for her family. She does not have the money to stock up food stuff and other supplies for the next one week, much less two months. Lockdowns will hurt her and her family. There is also the danger of forcing younger people to stay in the same space with the elderly, thereby exposing their fragile bodies to the virus to which they are mortally vulnerable. There is definitely going to be a price to pay for any decision we take about lockdowns — but we must choose the greater good for the community.

There are indeed several measures being taken to contain this virus which I believe are proving effective. Physical distancing is one measure that should be taken seriously. It doesn’t matter if we test positive or negative — we just have to keep some distance from each other. Personally, I have this impression that the virus has spread so rapidly across the world principally because it is airborne. According to scientists at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), a part of the US National Institutes of Health, Covid-19 survives outside the body system. A virus from the droplets of infected persons remains viable in the air for hours and on surfaces for days.

When we find ourselves in enclosures or confined spaces such as aircraft, trains and halls, there is a high chance that we will come in contact with the droplets of an infected person; if not directly then on surfaces. I am, therefore, working with the theory that many people caught the virus by being in the same space with infected persons. That is why physical distancing will play a very important role in slowing down the virus. The primary focus globally is to slow down infections while the scientists work round the clock to develop treatment and vaccine. Physical distance could be tough on the mind but we have a war to win. We will reconnect when all this is over.

Finally, I would appeal to Nigerians to spend more of their time fighting the virus — through personal hygiene and communal responsibility. They should volunteer, where necessary, to help where their skills fit in. I have written this article as my contribution to public enlightenment. Do whatever you can to support those who are working to keep us safe. Spend less time attacking and distracting them. There will be plenty time to play politics if we survive this pandemic. I will say this as many times as I can: everything cannot be politics and politics cannot be everything. We are faced with a crisis that can turn Nigeria into a graveyard. If you can’t help us, please don’t hurt us.

AND FOUR OTHER THINGS…

SCATTERED STRATEGY
At this critical juncture in human history, I insist that President Muhammadu Buhari has to be at the forefront of the war against COVID-19. We need his face. We need his voice. Nigeria is at war and the commander-in-chief must lead from the front. He cannot disappear. He cannot be aloof. We need him to comfort us, to give us confidence — in addition to any other measures he has put in place to prosecute this war. It is even ridiculous that we are discussing this! It is not about personal style — it is about what is right and what is expected of any leader in these unprecedented times. All is not lost. He can make amends, redeem the time and stand up to be counted. Leadership.

FAKE NEWS WEEK
Are you a fan of fake news? You must have had a wonderful week. On Monday night, Buhari was rushed to the UK having tested positive for coronavirus, according to a WhatsApp audio that went super viral. On Wednesday, he was rushed to the UK again. In fact, somebody saw the presidential jet at the Dubai International Airport. Although Abuja is six hours to London, the jet first flew seven hours to Dubai and another seven hours to London! Emergency indeed! On Friday, yet again, Buhari was rushed to the UK after the minister of aviation gave him approval to fly a Challenger jet. Buhari was flown to the UK thrice in five days! And you believed it. And circulated it. Jokers.

RISING FIGURES
Now that Nigeria has more testing kits, expect the number of Nigerians testing positive for the coronavirus to be on the rise. I have always believed the figures being released by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) are going to go up as soon as we start carrying out more testes. Until recently, we had done less than 200 and there is no way that can reflect the reality on the ground given what we know about our travelling habit. As at yesterday, there were 89 confirmed cases. Definitely, there will be more as tests are ramped up. It is now very important for people who think they have been exposed to come forward for tests so we can manage the spread. Urgent.

STIGMATISING COVID-19
Did you hear Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers state celebrate his victory against a COVID-19 patient on Wednesday? Listen to him: “It is with gratitude to God that I announce to you that our state would have been infected with coronavirus yesterday but for the vigilance of security agents who, acting on a tip-off, prevented an infected person from boarding a flight from Abuja to Port Harcourt. The infected person beat all security measures that were put in place at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, and was to sneak into Port Harcourt before security agents stopped her.” This is exactly how to stigmatise people and force those infected to go underground. Absurd.

– Kolawole is a respected journalist and publisher of Thecable

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