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.
For example, the government can declare a pre-emptive seven-day emergency in Lagos State (where the first contact with the Ebola virus occurred) and its environs. This would give the public authorities the space and calm necessary to monitor the established cases of contact; and, more importantly, it would contain and eventually manifest the locations of any unidentified cases.
A pre-emptive emergency could be unpopular, and it would require some political will by the government. But it is better to have a voluntary and pre-emptive state of emergency to prevent the spread of the virus, than an involuntary one after the spread. A pre-emptive emergency is a reasonable step in the circumstances, when compared to the possible ramifications of its alternatives.
Nigerians — and Africans — cannot continue to look to the United States and Western Europe for aid. There is a point where a society has to get off its knees, stand on its feet and act for itself. In Nigeria, that time is, urgently, now — and, for once, it is the government’s duty.
Ayo Sogunro is a Young Voices Advocate and author of The Wonderful Life of Senator Boniface and other Sorry Tales.