Panic and Fear Will Set In If Nigeria Does Not Act Clearly And Transparently Against Ebola

While Nigeria’s health minister says he’s confident that the country’s Ebola outbreak will soon end, doctors diagnosed two new Nigerian patients. Nigerian Health Minister Onyebuchi Chukwu recently said the country may be Ebola-free within a week, but that looks doubtful.

Of course Chukwu, and all government bureaucrats, want to prevent panic. And the main tool they have for doing so is shielding the public from information about threats to public safety. Ebola is a virus which kills up to 90 percent of those infected, and in a rather unpleasant way. Yet, being kept in the dark is also worrying. It’s essential that state government and private actors know what the government is doing so they can work together, and not at cross purposes.

In addition, without easily accessible, round-the-clock updates on the status of measures against the virus, a number of Nigerians are relying on rumour and self-help, with comical, if not disastrous results, including the unfortunate salt water “cure” frenzy that was generated by a prank that went, well, viral.

This situation is not helped by the persistent distrust in the Nigerian government. For example, earlier in April, the Nigerian Minister of Information had confidently stated that the government was in control of the fight against the Ebola virus “including getting the vaccines and medicines in case there was any incident in Nigeria.” A little fact checking would have shown the inherent falsehood of that statement — there are no known vaccines against the Ebola virus — but the matter slipped. Now, that false reassurance has resurfaced in the light of the current reality, further reducing any public confidence in the ability of the government to contain the situation.

And so, in the absence of any known, direct public policy beyond the usual health warnings on personal hygiene, Nigerian society is gradually reverting to its default stance against inexplicable diseases — spirituality. Prayers are the first line of defence against the Ebola virus and faith healing will probably follow. This isn’t peculiar to Nigeria: in Liberia, Christian fundamentalists have already concluded that the Ebola virus is some divine punishment for homosexuality, amongst others. And it is likely that Nigeria, with its recent dalliance with anti-gay legislation, would soon generate its share of public officials and private citizens sharing a similar gospel.

Contrast these unfortunate developments in the African countries against the public attitude in the United States, Saudi Arabia and Spain — all countries who received Ebola victims within the last two weeks without any apparent threat to their societies, and without any agitation for divine intervention.

Of course, while it is too early for Nigeria to play the blame game, it is not too late to find a fix. The current social problem stems from a lack of direction rather than an unwillingness to take action. But the government has to go beyond public service announcements on personal hygiene and take some definite action to boost public confidence and contain the spread of the virus.