COVID-19 denial stems from a yawning distrust in the government
Nigerians are reducing the effect of COVID-19 denial narratives with powerful online Twitter campaigns such as #MyCOVID19NaijaStory and #COVIDStopswithMe.
These counter-narratives aim to prove that the deadly coronavirus is not a hoax and more importantly, to encourage people to adopt good public health behaviours to mitigate its spread.
As of July 29, Nigeria had recorded 41,804 confirmed COVID-19 cases,18,764 recoveries and 868 deaths.
COVID-19 denialism in Nigeria
Many Nigerians believe that the coronavirus pandemic is a hoax, according to Yemisi Adegoke, a journalist at BBC Africa who spoke in an investigative documentary featuring Lagos University Teaching Hospital, where COVID-19 patients are being treated.
#COVID19 cases in are rising, but some people still don’t believe the virus is real.
The scenes at LUTH tell a different story.@josh_akinyemi and I were granted access to the COVID wards there & met the doctors and nurses on the front lines.
Full video out 08/07/20 pic.twitter.com/eqyIwLgH4W
— Yemisi Adegoke (@briticoyemo) July 6, 2020
In addition, the thinking on streets is that the pandemic is a foreign invention embraced by Nigerian politicians and their cronies who see it as a new cash cow.
For instance, Bill Gates recently donated $1 million US dollars (383 million naira) to Nigeria to fight COVID-19. Also, Nigeria’s various state governments continue to receive COVID-19 funds from the federal government.
Sadly, this perception has gained traction because public officials indeed stole funds meant to fight COVID-19.
On July 27, Aderemi Ojekunle of Dataphyte, a media think tank, reported that some federal agencies’ unbridled kleptomania mismanaged a COVID-19 fund for masks and liquid soap worth 1.69 billion naira, or about $4.4 million USD.
Similarly, in Enugu, southeastern Nigeria, the COVID-19 relief package meant for distribution to the poor and vulnerable during the coronavirus lockdown never got to them, reports Ripples newspaper.
On the other hand, other citizens think coronavirus sickness only affects the wealthy and upper class — or that it is being blown out of proportion.
While this does not justify the denial of coronavirus, it explains why this attitude is rife among most Nigerians. This explains why these two campaigns are making concerted efforts to reclaim a factual and more trust-based narrative.
#MyCOVID19NaijaStory has popular validity because it brings together Nigerians from all walks of life who have recovered from the disease or are working to mitigate or treat infected patients, humanizing the conversation by centering on real people in local languages.
Nigeria’s Ministry of Health Twitter account shared this video of a woman who contracted COVID-19 who tells her story in Nigerian Pidgin, as part of the #MyCOVID19NaijaStory campaign:
Many people don’t believe that COVID19 exists in Nigeria. #MyCOVID19NaijaStory makes us understand how this disease has affected people across the country.
— Federal Ministry of Health, NIGERIA (@Fmohnigeria) May 30, 2020
In the video, the woman stated:
I did not believe that COVID exists. They brought the coronavirus samples collection unit to my area and asked us to get tested. I accepted and did the test. I did not believe that COVID was real because I thought our government was using this as another new means to embezzle funds.
After three days, they [health officials] called, informing me that my test result was out. I was told I was positive. […] I also did not travel. That’s why I’m puzzled how I got the virus. When I was told that I have the disease, I said that it was impossible, that I don’t have it. Being infected is real. But that’s not a death sentence.
COVID-19 denial in Nigeria is not confined to the lower class.
Abuja-based lawyer Damilare Ojo tested positive for COVID-19 on May 18, and was discharged from the Gwagwalada Isolation Centre after seven days on May 25. On June 8, Ojo shared his story on Facebook with the admonition that the “COVID-19 virus is real in Nigeria.”
In a brief Twitter thread, a medical doctor and resident of Abuja, Nigeria, shares his COVID-19 story, including his symptoms, treatment and how he coped. The thread ends with an assertive plea for good hygiene and protective measures and urges listeners to resist COVID-19 denialism:
I started having symptoms of COVID-19 23 days ago. I got tested and result came out positive.
I went through a torrid time with symptoms such as; fever, headache, throat pain, chest pain, vomiting, diarrhea, swollen lymph nodes and chicken pox like skin eruptions for 14 days pic.twitter.com/hRvNjDStrz
— TH3 L3G3ND (@the_drterry) July 15, 2020
#MyCOVID19NaijaStory also pays tribute to courageous frontline Nigerian health workers such as Dr. Opeyemi Adeyemi, who works in a COVID-19 isolation centre in Ogun State, southwest Nigeria.
Adeyemi had the daunting task of getting relatives of a deceased COVID-19 patient to accept that their mother’s burial would have to be different than usual, Nigeria Health Watch reports. Adeyemi endured long 10-hour shifts as well as stigma from fellow health workers, who didn’t want to come near him because they feared the risk of infection, he said.
Nurse Adebusola Adewole volunteered in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) of the Eti-Osa COVID-19 Isolation Centre in Lagos. “There were a few times when I contemplated pulling out,” she said. She became overwhelmed by the rising cases and the general stress of working on the frontlines.
Dr. Adedapo Adesanya also volunteered to work in the ICU for COVID-19 at the Eti-Osa Isolation Centre, Lagos:
“I waited many years for the opportunity to serve my country during a pandemic. You can only imagine the joy I felt when I got the phone call to inform me that…”
— Nigeria Health Watch (@nighealthwatch) June 19, 2020
Due to the harsh economic reality in Nigeria, most Nigerians cannot afford the privilege of volunteering. Hence, it is doubly heroic for Adewole and Adesanya to volunteer as frontline health care professionals during the pandemic.
#Covid19StopsWithMe is a campaign to raise awareness and promote good public health behavior launched by Nigerian music producer Michael Collins Ajereh, popularly known as DonJazzy. He wants Nigerians to take ownership of efforts to halt the spread of the coronavirus.
On June 23, DonJazzy shared a video showing the precautions he takes before getting a haircut. In the video, his barber was seen using sanitizer while DonJazzy wears a face mask.
— ITS DONJAZZY AGAIN (@DONJAZZY) June 23, 2020
DonJazzy used his social media clout to push the message. With 4.7 million Twitter followers, the video has 19,000 views on Twitter and 212,208 views on Instagram as of June 29.
He also enlisted other celebrities in the #Covid19StopsWithMe campaign.
— ITS DONJAZZY AGAIN (@DONJAZZY) June 23, 2020
In the above video, retired professional footballer and former assistant manager of the Nigeria national football team, Daniel Amokachi, in a mixture of English and Nigerian Pidgin, advised Nigerians to wash their hands regularly, observe physical distancing and take responsibility for stopping the spread of the coronavirus.
The protagonists of these campaigns speak directly with fellow citizens, making a strong impact on the lives of ordinary people because they can relate to them. These counter-narratives successfully confront the root cause of the coronavirus denial because they lack the usual distrust associated with government interventions.