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COVID-19 and mass incredulity

By Allwell Nwankwo
31 December 2020   |   3:40 am
Do you think COVID-19 is real? That, nowadays, is the most important question to ask as Nigeria gets deeper into what has been termed the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

Do you think COVID-19 is real? That, nowadays, is the most important question to ask as Nigeria gets deeper into what has been termed the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic. The individuals’ response to that question ultimately determines their attitude to the dreaded disease and any information about it. Significantly, the response to the questions so conditions what people do about safety protocols such as the use of facemasks, hand washing, hand-sanitizing, and social distancing. Indeed, the answer to that question holds the key to the success we can expect in the fight against the coronavirus.

In my little corner of the earth, I have heard interesting responses. Please listen in: Well, I think COVID-19 is real but the media and government are just exaggerating it. No – there is nothing like that; they are just using it to make money. There is no COVID in Nigeria jare – what people have is malaria or typhoid fever, at worst. I have not seen anyone who has it yet; I will only believe when I see one case. Why is government not showing us those who have died from COVID? That disease is for big people who go abroad. That thing is a scam. What is COVID sef? Abeg!

Such incredulity during a global pandemic is itself incredible. I do not intend to explore the reasons people give for not believing but the fact is that many Nigerians still do not believe there is anything called coronavirus disease, whether the country is experiencing a second, third or fourth wave of it. When you walk the streets of Lagos (or any other Nigerian city), you get a sense of what people think about COVID-19. If you encounter a hundred people, you would be lucky to find 10 with facemasks. Out of those 10, at least five must have converted the mask to a decorative piece of fabric that supports the chin (you may call it chin mask). The more careful Nigerians permit the mask to cover only the mouth. They usually leave the nose open as a way of thumbing their nose at the disease. Thank God if you get two people with both mouth and nose covered.

Well, it gets a little worse. People are mildly stigmatized nowadays for wearing a mask. “Are you still wearing this thing, Dr Allwell?” I was asked when I went to renew my vehicle papers in September. Instantly, several eyes zoomed in on me. It seemed none of them had seen a facemask in a long while.“Coro don go now” was the final but gratuitous counsel I received. My response may bore the reader; so, let us skip it.

Yet, over 84,000 of our compatriots have been infected. Over 1,000 have died as a result. Every day, the media feed us with scary numbers that bespeak the rampaging disposition of this virus. It appears we sometimes need a poignant reminder that these numbers are not mere numbers. They are human beings with flesh and blood – like you and me.

Were COVID-19 a hoax – as some of our people believe – it would be the world’s greatest. A hoax that has afflicted over 82 million people, killed nearly two million, kept billions indoors for months, shut down economies, toppled some leaders, grounded airlines, locked up churches and mosques, retired some jobs, instigated violence, and frustrated many is no mean hoax. Those who crafted it would deserve top awards for creative craftmanship. Indeed, they would earn an invitation to lead a joint pantheon of Nollywood, Hollywood and Bollywood thespians to rescue us from reality because reality has failed us.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 is not a hoax. It is a tragedy. And there are no celebrity awards to win. The best awards are simply to keep ourselves, our families, neighbours and friends safe amid this crisis. We have been told that all it takes is using our facemasks religiously, washing our hands regularly, sanitizing them also, avoiding large gatherings, and maintaining social distance. What could be simpler?

We hear that those peddling different kinds of vaccines are a danger to humanity. And various conspiracy theories have been propounded to justify such a view. Perhaps, those vaccine people are a danger, indeed. To me, however, the real danger we face comes from our brothers, sisters, uncles, aunties, cousins, friends who believe COVID-19 is a hoax or, at best, a big (wo)man disease. Assuming COVID-19 was indeed a “big people” disease, who does not know that big people interact daily with the not-so-big like drivers, house helps, cooks, and cleaners who have families and friends?

The incredulous are a danger to us because, since they believe they are immune to the virus, they continue to live their lives as usual. They are a danger because they can infect all of us. They are a danger to our families and our communities. But we must not treat them like pariahs. We need to enlighten them for their own good and ours. In times of crisis, mass ignorance combined with mass incredulity can produce a lethal cocktail that could wipe away millions in less than the twinkling of an eye. We can pray for the second wave to go by quickly, but we can also act to knock it out swiftly. Leaders and influencers – in families, firms, churches, mosques, online groups – must all rise to beam the light of enlightenment on our people. Religious leaders have a special role to play in this regard as most Nigerians claim to be religious and whatever the pastor or imam says carries weight. They must help their congregations grasp the reality of the pandemic. Every opportunity, forum and platform should be utilized to make people aware of the direness of the situation.

As government contemplates its response to the fresh wave of infections, a lockdown may or may not be a great option. It all depends on what is considered critical. A fresh lockdown will make survival difficult for many people and the economy. On the other hand, unless people voluntarily comply with health precautions, only a lockdown will break the chain of transmission. It is a tough call either way. Ironically, the incredulous ones among us keep arguing that “something must kill a man.” We agree with them – but that “something” does not have to be COVID-19. This is one killer we can evade if we do simple things right.

Dr Nwankwo lives in Lagos and works in the development sector.

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