‘COVID-19 is a Big Scam’ Citizens’ Distrust and the Challenge of Combating Coronavirus in Nigeria

Although it is dangerous to entertain doubts towards the threat of COVID-19, Nigerians may have justifiable reasons to be sceptical about the government’s approach.

In the wake of the rapidly spreading novel coronavirus (COVID-19), with its debilitating effects on humanity, the Nigerian government launched a social distancing campaign, restricting movements in certain parts of the country. The government also encouraged self-isolation for Nigerians returning from high-risk countries. A major aspect of Nigeria’s approach to the COVID-19 pandemic has been the prohibition of gatherings that exceed 50 people, including worship places and all forms of social events.

With much surprise, many Nigerians have continued to defy the state directives. As at last week, churches and mosques opened their doors for worship, fun-lovers continued with their normal parties and clubbed like nothing was happening around them. When questioned about their refusal to follow precautionary measures established by the government, most of them dismissed the reality of the disease. One of the reasons being that several Nigerians perceive the virus to be an attempt by political elites to create an emergency and siphon public money. For example, a middle-aged respondent confidently told reporters with Legit.ng that he is a scientist and can confirm that, ‘Nigeria’s weather is so harsh for Coronavirus to survive…no individual has the virus in the country…there is no trace for the so-called confirmed cases…it is an opportunity to steal our money.’

Nigeria’s Delayed Start

In a similar vein, many Nigerians are sceptical about the daily assurances given by the government about Nigeria’s preparedness to fight the coronavirus in the event of a possible outbreak. Despite the government’s attempt at assuring citizens, the people doubt the capacity of public healthcare facilities, which are in a decrepit state, to handle an outbreak such as COVID-19. But these doubts are not totally unfounded. In the early days of the coronavirus outbreak in China, Nigeria’s Minister of Health declared that an isolation centre had already been provided in a public health institution in Abuja. Soon after, however, on an inspection tour, members of the Senate, discovered that nothing of such existed; more so, not even a cent had been released to execute the project.

In addition, on 19 March 2020, Punch Newspapers’s Raphael Ede, reported that a seventy-year-old woman that was quarantined in a state facility died a day after discharge at the hospital in Enugu, Enugu State. Although she tested negative to COVID-19, her family complained that the horrific state of the medical facility and the treatment she received at the hospital contributed to her sudden death. It is, therefore, not surprising that many individuals who had developed the symptoms and may have contracted the disease prefer not to report to the state. Clearly, this lack of trust is a worrying issue that can escalate the human security threat of the coronavirus.

Following years of disappointment—failed campaign promises, unfulfilled state programmes, large-scale corruption and failure to deliver on the dividends of democracy—Nigerian citizens largely distrust the government. In a 2016 Afrobarometer survey on the level of trust citizens hold for their governments in 36 African countries, Nigeria recorded the least score with a mere 31 per cent indicating a positive attitude towards the government. In addition, in 2018, the World Economic Forum (WEF) found that Nigeria ranked 130 of 137 countries for citizen distrust of government officials.

The distrusting reaction to the deadly viral disease is further fuelled by false assumptions about the perceived immunity of Nigerians to the disease. According to a recent ‘nationally representative’ survey by NOIPolls, 30 per cent of the Nigerian population believe that they are genetically immune to the disease. This is because respondents felt the disease did not originate from either Nigeria or Africa.

Before Africa reported its first case of the virus, public health experts like George Washington University’s Dr Jeremy Brown, optimistically suggested that warmer weather may inhibit the spread and viability of the disease. Still common, this assumption builds on the conjectural claim that the virus cannot survive high temperatures, a view, which German virologist, Thomas Pietschmann, may have encouraged in stating: ‘Coronavirus is not very heat-resistant, which means that the virus quickly breaks down when temperatures rise.’ The African version of this supposition, which, before now, was pervasive among the Nigerian public is that the COVID-19 cannot survive in warmer climates and ecosystems like Africa’s. It is no surprise, then, that NOIPolls survey reported that 17 per cent of the Nigerian population felt immune to coronavirus because the country’s weather is too hot for the disease, with 5 per cent stating that the disease is not for Africans.

Children of God

Religion also intersects with distrust in determining how Nigerian citizens have responded to COVID-19. Globally, Nigerians are renowned for their religiosity; a 2018 Global Attitudes Survey by the Pew Research Center estimates that 65 per cent of the Nigerian population specified that religion plays a very focal role in their country, with 96 per cent pinpointing religion as the most important factor in their lives. It explains why when COVID-19 broke out in Wuhan China and was becoming a global pandemic, many Nigerians responded with, ‘it is not my portion’ or that they are immune toCOVID-19 because they are ‘Children of God’—views, no doubt, inspired by the disavowal of coronavirus by some Nigerian religious leaders. Just last week, in a widely circulated video of a church service in Abia State, Pastor Innocent Kingsley, the General Overseer of Bible Believing Mission dismissed the existence of COVID-19 in Nigeria. Commandingly, he claimed: ‘That thing cannot survive in Nigeria. What do you mean by Coronavirus, when there are corrosive anointing? It can’t survive here. I don’t know about other places. There is no coronavirus here. Coronavirus does not exist in Nigeria.’ To much ovation from his church members, he added, ‘how can it survive here, coronavirus against corrosive anointing? It can’t survive here. It is not possible. It doesn’t exist in Nigeria. I am being very sincere with you, it is not in Nigeria. Coronavirus hasn’t entered Nigeria yet.’

In another viral video, Prophet Dr David Kingleo Elijah, the General Overseer of Mount of Possibility Church, Ojo, Lagos, also proclaimed to his congregation that, he would travel to China to use his spiritual healing prowess to ‘prophetically destroy coronavirus’. Pompously, he declared, ‘where there is a prophet, people will not die. I am a prophet. I cannot be a prophet, I am in this world and China is dying. It is not possible.’ Two medical ‘professionals’ also shared a testimony confirming Pastor David Ibiyeomie (of Salvation Ministries)’s ability to prevent coronavirus from infesting whoever seeks his healing powers. The testifying duo claimed to be the first medical personnel to have contact with the patient zero of COVID-19 in Nigeria. They stated that the prayers and Holy Communion ministered by Pastor Ibiyeomie during their isolation time saved them from being infected by the deadly virus.

Similar reactions had also trailed the Ebola outbreak in 2014. Sometime in August 2014, Bishop David Oyedepo thunderously proclaimed with a godly certainty to his congregation: ‘Ebola knows it cannot come near where I stay. Can Ebola access Jesus? Science is eternally inferior to scriptures. Every man is a victim of his fear.’ He concluded that Ebola ‘is not a parasite, it is an attack of the devil. By the blood of Jesus, Africa is delivered from Ebola.’ Reacting to government’s directive shutting down all religious and worship centres over COVID-19, Bishop Oyedepo averred: ‘Shutting down churches would be like shutting down hospitals…There are churches today that where you sit down and you are healed. Many are around the world. A family of four ravaged by tuberculosis sat down in this church. They literally carried them here. Family members have left them alone. And for 30 minutes the husband looked at the wife and the wife look at the husband and said this cough fears God. It ended there. The four were healed the same time. That means that the sickness is purely an oppression of the devil, which no hospitals have no answer to…There are many, many places that would never have any medical solution but in church’.

The Challenge of Distrust

Although it is dangerous to entertain doubts towards the threat of COVID-19, Nigerians may have justifiable reasons to be sceptical about the government’s approach. Our past experiences with nationwide threats provide enough reasons. For example, in 2015, the country got to know that most of the money meant to fight insurgency—about $2 billion—in north-eastern Nigeria was actually pocketed by a few individuals. This was despite official assurances that Nigeria was committed to fighting Boko Haram and that the terrorist group would soon be confined to history. In December 2015, six months after assuming office, President Muhammadu Buhari declared that Boko Haram had been ‘technically defeated’ and claimed displaced people in the epicentre of the conflict zone could start returning to their homes.

However, daily attacks—which led to a huge number of deaths—and video releases by Boko Haram’s leadership—demonstrating their growing capacity to continue with the war—contradicted state declarations and promises. In fact, since then, community stakeholders in the conflict zone have repeatedly dismissed the government’s claims that the Boko Haram insurgents are not in control of any geographical area in Nigeria. Community stakeholders insist that many local governments are under the control of Boko Haram, casting doubt on the situation as described by the government.

Among the Buhari-led government’s campaign promises was to ‘kill corruption before it kills Nigeria’. Many Nigerians rejoiced over the statement and voted for President Buhari in 2015. Indeed, people trusted the retired general because of his modest lifestyle. Moreover, his past record as a Head-of-State had seen him use extreme measures to bring corruption to its knees in the 1980s. However, in the last five years, since President Buhari emerged as president, the reverse has been the case. Corruption continues like before. Arguably, many Nigerians, including some human rights activists, notable public commentators, civil society organisations, professional associations, and opposition politicians are of the view that the government’s war against corruption is highly selective; close associates of the president allegedly involved in many corruption scandals remain untouched, while people in the opposition have been targets of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).

The Nigerian state commands low trust from its citizens and may encounter serious challenges in convincing citizens about the existential threat of the novel coronavirus. Unfortunately, this low trust may lead to a humanitarian disaster. To forestall the imminent danger, greater levels of transparency are essential from the government in the present fight against the pandemic.

To start with, the government needs to provide more details about the available COVID-19 isolation and testing centres in Nigeria and how these centres can be accessed by the public. Authorities also need to clarify insinuations that testing for the deadly virus is currently limited to only big men in the country. In addition, the public needs more information about the capacity gaps that Nigeria is facing in fighting and containing COVID-19; as well as more regular updates about the amount of money that has been spent on fighting the spread of COVID-19.

Presently, a lack of transparency on these fronts is fuelling public distrust. However, experience with Ebola has shown that high levels of community trust in authorities and institutions can drive faster containment of deadly viruses. In building this trust, the government would need to go an extra mile to convince citizens of its commitments to containing and, eventually, overcoming the coronavirus

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