COVID-19: Multiplying narratives as Nigeria moves towards herd immunity


Jibrin Ibrahim

Herd immunity is an epidemiological concept that describes the state where a population, in this case a community, is sufficiently immune to a disease, either because a majority has been infected by and survived it or have been vaccinated against the disease. The idea of allowing a large percentage of the people to be infected by COVID-19 is that, since only about 1 per cent of infected people die (maybe, as it depends on so many factors that are not all known), when that happens, the remaining 99 per cent would survive from the disease and continue with their lives, while hopefully developing immunity to the disease. The United Kingdom thought about it but the tragedy of the massive loss of lives gave the government a rude shock, as the health system almost collapsed and people were becoming too distraught. Sweden has been trying it with a bit more success.

The results of serological tests in the countries most affected however show that no country has had much more than 5 per cent of its population infected, while herd immunity would require at least a 60 per cent infection rate. In other words, COVID-19 will be the core problem for humanity now and in the coming years. The fact is that we do not know the cost of getting herd immunity through allowing unhindered infections, so what makes sense is to avoid that path by going the path of vaccination, while hoping and praying that a workable vaccine would have been developed by next year. Meanwhile, for many countries, infections continue to expand but at very different speeds.

For most countries, the basic strategy has been to impose lockdowns – keeping people in their homes, to reduce the rate of infection, thereby slowing down the spread of the virus, as we wait for a vaccine to be developed. Lockdowns however have costs. The economic cost of those who need to go out daily to earn a living to feed their families is now well understood. Another heavy cost is that of the spiritual cost to people who rightly, or more likely wrongly, believe that they are being denied the spiritual benefits of congregational prayers. This has been particularly poignant during Ramadan. The result is that some religious leaders have been attacking their governors for the lockdown and many of the said governors are caving in to the pressure, irrespective of whether they think it is right or wrong. The principled governors who are bravely retaining the policy are getting into trouble. One example is Kaduna State, where over the past few days I have found it most distressing listening to a number of Islamic leaders insult, curse and wish death and destruction on Kaduna State governor, Nasir El-Rufai, his family and his cabinet over the State government’s decision to maintain the lockdown and promote physical distancing to keep COVID-19 at bay. Their narratives are so full of hate and danger that they cannot be reproduced here. Of course, El Rufai is strong enough to take the pressure.

In the current climate, only the very brave are able to argue for a continuation of the lockdown and/or physical distancing. One of them is Sultan Sa’ad Abubakar, the president-general of the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA), who has given a directive that Muslims should observe their prayers at home, as part of their observance of the COVID-19 protocols and to prevent the spread of the virus. He is daring to question the wisdom of States such as Sokoto, Kano, Bauchi, Yobe, Jigawa, Gombe, Borno and Zamfara that have lifted the ban on congregational prayers. Many states in the other parts of the country have also lifted the ban on congregational prayers, following pressure from churches.

The Sultan’s message is clear: “Muslims are enjoined to note that Eid-el-fitr is not a compulsory religious activity (fard) and at no point should it be observed if doing so will undermine the fundamental purpose of Shari’ah: security, a multifaceted concept which includes personal, community, national, environmental and health components, among others… Muslims should observe their Eid prayers while still taking necessary safety measures regarding personal hygiene, facial masks and social distancing.” Many Nigerians have refused to note that religious authorities in the Vatican and Saudi Arabia closed congregational prayers for months, as such Nigerian authorities are not carrying out some extraordinary anti-religious actions but that does not matter. COVID-19 came with the collateral damage of a massive amount of fake news and conspiracy theories about the work of the devil and associated agents, which rational arguments have easily pushed out of the door.

One of the most disturbing realities about COVID-19 is the search for the other, that has taken the obnoxious action of sending contagion to nations and communities. Countries and communities have been quick to shut their borders against others to keep their communities safe. In doing so, they forget one of the few known realities about the virus – it is the beneficiary of a globalised world, in which travellers had already carried it everywhere before the scientific community realised that it was developing into a pandemic. We now know that it was already in Europe and the United States in November last year. As countries announced their index cases long after the Wuhan crisis started, research is now indicating that it had arrived earlier than what was assumed to be the index cases. When most states in Nigeria closed their borders against their neighbours, they already had it imported by their citizens and natives returning from all over the world and all over the country, where they traded, attended conferences or holidayed. For people in power, however, deflecting blame to others is an important survival strategy, so blaming the other bears positive results.

In Northern Nigeria, for example, resolving the almajiri issue had been on the cards for decades. With COVID-19, Northern governors quickly found the courage to expel almajirai to their states of origin. Immediately the process started, testing for coronavirus was focused on almajirai and for weeks the message was that these almajirai had imported COVID-19 into the states. State governments were no longer concentrating on seeking their indigenes who might be infected, there was more propaganda value in the importation thesis. As majority Muslim states opened the floodgate of Almajiri infection, states in the Middle Belt and South jumped in and focused the entire strength of their governments on finding Muslim men within their territories who most necessarily were the almajirai exported to bring in COVID-19 to their healthy populations. Within days, there was competition between them – in Rivers, Lagos, Ondo, Benue, Ebonyi, Abia, Cross River, Enugu and Edo – to find, expose to the media and expel these almajirai. No one remembered that for the past hundred years, Muslim migrant workers have been going to the South to work. The profitable narrative was that they were either vectors of the disease or as The Guardian put it, “Boko Haram insurgents” sent to infiltrate the South and Middle Belt. None of the narratives I have read raised the possibility that some of the hundreds of thousands of people who have run away from villages in Katsina, Zamfara, Kaduna and Niger States due to rural banditry, are so desperate to raise money to feed their families that they are dodging the lockdown and travelling South to find work.

Moving forward, we as citizens should know that we have to rely on ourselves to try to save us from the pandemic. Some of us will fail and others will succeed. Lockdowns are crumbling, so education about physical distancing and hand washing with soap from enlightened community and religious leaders would be crucial in reducing the infection rate. Informed advice about the dangers of congregations and crowds at social occasions would be very important. Funerals and burial practices are particularly dangerous arenas for the community spread of the virus and communities that would have less mortality would be the ones that educate themselves on the best practices to adopt.

Governments are beginning to be overwhelmed and although they say they have strategies to massively scale up testing, tracking, tracing and isolating infections, it is simply not happening fast enough. The numbers of new infections released each night by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) have become meaningless because so many people whose swabs have been taken are not getting their results because of the queues in the laboratories, while others who have symptoms are not even succeeding in getting their swabs taken. The World Health Organisation has asked the world to prepare for the long haul, as COVID-19, they say, is in no hurry to leave. We cannot rely on the professionalism of NCDC alone. Each community must study their situations carefully and map out containment strategies that would help.

*Ibrahim is professor of political science and development consultant/expert, senior fellow at the Centre for Democracy and Development


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