In February 2020 when the novel coronavirus first hit Nigeria, the people were quite indifferent about it. Not that they cared less about their health but they had other equally life-threatening problems to deal with. The belief was that the virus was for the rich while poverty, killings and insecurity were for the masses. Indeed, these problems seemed to have killed faster than the virus and so for the majority, staying alive from them was more important than staying safe from the virus.
Later on in April, the Federal Government of Nigeria announced movement restrictions, interstate travel ban, 8pm-to-6am curfew and total lockdown in some states with social distancing rules to slow the spread of the coronavirus. It was not unsurprising that only a fraction of the country could obey this order. The truth was that Nigeria already had a virus named ‘poverty virus’ and fighting this poverty virus was the exact opposite of what the government demanded from Nigerians to fight COVID.
Hunger and poverty are very relatable experiences in Nigeria as up to 40 per cent of the entire population live below the poverty line according to a “2019 Poverty and Inequality in Nigeria” report. Nigerians have firsthand experiences of being killed by poverty and so a “rich man’s disease” that seemed so far away could not be taken very seriously. Staying at home was impossible because people had nothing to eat. People needed to constantly go out, work and make money to survive.
In addition to this, massacres have become regular news in Nigeria. For instance, the Northern part of Nigeria has continued to experience all kinds of violence such as terrorism, religious conflicts and herdsmen crises. Particularly, the North Central and North Eastern parts are majorly affected by this seemingly endless unrest. In July 2020, Sahara Reporters estimated that within seven months, at least 178 persons were killed by gunmen in southern Kaduna, a part of Kaduna State in Northern Nigeria. At that time also in July, Nigeria had recorded up to 740 deaths from coronavirus across the 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory of the country. This is not to compare unruly killings to a deadly disease but rather to indicate that while the virus was fearfully taking lives, Northern Nigerians also had an existing menace they were dealing with.
While the North has continued to endure this chaos, police brutality has also begun increasing in the South. The police have become among the most feared entity in Nigeria. They have continually harassed, exploited and even killed people on sight without fair hearing. Apparently, during the COVID pandemic, law enforcers generally became more destructive than the coronavirus itself as they had killed more people than the virus did. In fact, in April, security officers had killed 18 people following the COVID lockdown orders while the virus itself had killed only 12 people at that time. Certainly, many people who obeyed COVID lockdown regulations did so not because they feared the coronavirus but because they feared having to contact law enforcers who killed faster than the virus.
Disheartening as it may be, girls and women feared, more than the virus, being abused, mangled and killed by an unknown person. In April and May 2020, Nigeria recorded back to back rape cases followed by mutilation and murder. At that time too, the police had begun arresting culprits including some 11 men who gang-raped a 12-year-old girl in Jigawa State, Nigeria. In sum, between January and July 2020, the Nigeria Police had recorded over 700 rape cases. These stories spurred unrest on social media and physically as Nigerians demanded justice for victims and survivors. More so, the fear of being abused caused girls to learn self-defense and move around with pepper spray which of course seemed more important than face masks or hand sanitizers.
The abnormalities of severe poverty, unruly killings, police brutality and sexual abuse are happening side by side with the coronavirus pandemic. Clearly, Nigerians are more concerned about surviving from these issues than staying safe from a deadly virus. In spite of this, the Nigerian government has been more attentive to the pandemic thereby neglecting local issues that are equally life-threatening to Nigerians.