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The 48 hours before social distancing segregated Lagos into social classes

LAGOS, Nigeria —  The bus is full to capacity. Fourteen of us – fifteen if you include the driver – are going from Ojuelegba to Aguda. It is a twenty-minute ride within Surulere, the Lagos town famous for hosting 17,000 participants in a boisterous, extravagant festival of Arts and Culture in 1977. Nothing seems unusual on this ride because the fare is normal. But Aisha Abdulateef and Raji Idris, seated at the back, are both wearing face masks.

Abdulateef, who works from home and had been indoors all week, tells me they are out to get food. They don’t know it yet because it’s barely noon on this Sunday but there will be a presidential proclamation by 7pm ordering a 14-day lockdown in Lagos, Abuja and Ogun state. In a pre-recorded broadcast, President Muhammadu Buhari will declare a restriction on movement except for essential services. That means Idris, who had continued to go to work because he could lose his job if he did otherwise, would have to compulsorily stay home. 

Lagos has been forced into a lockdown to prevent rapid community transmission of COVID-19. The city has over half of Nigeria’s 276  confirmed cases as at April 9th. Akin Abayomi, the Lagos state Commissioner of Health, said the state has an “excess testing capacity” of 150 tests a day. But he has also noted that 39,000 can be infected if proper social distancing measures are not followed. Forty-eight hours before Buhari’s announcement, Nigeria’s Minister of Health Osagie Ehanire was on Channels Television suggesting Nigeria possibly has more cases than has been reported. Both minister and commissioner gave weight to some suspicions that Nigeria was not yet testing enough. Perhaps without directly intending to, they prepared the way for the public to accept the president’s social distancing orders.

There was no social distancing at Oritse street in Ikeja, the state capital, on Friday afternoon, just before Ehanire’s appearance on TV. When a state government relief truck loaded with food items for aged and vulnerable people appeared, a crowd flooded the streets. Youth groups demanded cash as a substitute for food. There were complaints that the food items were grossly insufficient. “They gave three bags to our CDA [Community Development Association] and in our CDA, we have more than 60 houses… It can only feed three households,” says a representative. When six people fall into poverty every minute in Nigeria, you can expect one of them to be a Lagosian. Those living below the poverty line cannot but detest the gruelling cost of staying indoors, without the freedom to hunt for their subsistence. 

A lockdown reveals the social inequities between the state’s rich and poor. To the extent that public spaces facilitate inter-class interaction, social distancing has differentiated us into cadres. We are all reminded of where we belong. No more meeting up in offices, schools, malls or public buildings. Fuel stations will remain open because many don’t have light, but that was never a good arena for inter-class conversation anyway. The affluent have taken cover in the safety of their castles and rainy-day savings, leaving families who depend on daily earning to draw puzzles over the probability of a next meal.

“Some people in Lagos still believe it is not real, or it is a disease of the rich,” a Lagos-based doctor told the BBC. You will find that many are displeased with the rich who have gone abroad and imported a disease that renders the poor temporarily jobless. If the poor know no neighbours who have contracted the virus, it would be interesting to see how they fully comply with the lockdown. 

While in the bus that Sunday morning, Lagos did not feel like a city with 55 cases (at the time). The coronavirus threat was real, but no passenger looked worried about the worst-case scenario projected by the state’s Ministry of Health. I was coming from a location where a congregation of over 100 people managed to split itself into random batches of 20-or-so to fulfil their obligation for the Lord’s Day without vexing secular authorities.

Next Sunday, a week after Buhari’s order, is Palm Sunday. Public parades are unlikely and by virtue of the presidential order illegal. The Nigerian Army have already started enforcing the mandatory lockdown. They are determined to “implement all restrictions on movement, in line with the Federal Government of Nigeria” even if their authority to do so is heavily contested. The hope is that they apply a humane standard of discipline, condemning the Police officers in Ikorodu who chose callous measures over empathetic deterrence. As Amara Nwankpa, the director of the public policy initiative at the Shehu Musa Yar’Adua foundation said, a ruthless approach to enforcement will quickly make the lockdown unsustainable. “Anger will build inevitably and compliance will collapse.”

I don’t know how much food Abdulateef and Idris got that Sunday afternoon. Does Idris still have to go to work, or has his employer become reasonable to let him be safe at home? We won’t know how much freedom we, as a society, had in those crucial hours before the lockdown until free movement returns. Hopefully, in the early hours of April 13.


Alexander Onukwue is a journalist based in Lagos

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