Among the many different Nigerian interpretations of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, I have extracted three.
First is the Minister of State, Labour and Employment, Festus Keyamo, who claimed God allowed the disease to afflict the human race “only to redirect our steps back to Him.” He urged us to beg God for forgiveness to end the global epidemic.
Second is Apostle Johnson Suleman of the Omega Fire Ministries International, who went from claiming the virus would “just disappear” to now peddling anti-vaccine conspiracy theories. He also shared some fabu about how powerful forces (including the Pope) are trying to get rid of the US president, Donald Trump, and create a new world order.
The third is the leader of the Izala Muslim sect in Plateau State, Sheikh Sani Jingir, who warned his followers that the pandemic is nothing but a Western conspiracy against Muslims to stop them from performing their religious rites.
On the surface, these stories appear disparate, but they are tied together by superstition. We should not dismiss these claims as creations of unreconstructed minds, but to, in fact, take it very seriously. We live in uncertain times and, understandably, people are trying to imbue a moral meaning into a bewildering historical event. Stories like those are ways people process complex information and generate the resolve with which they would respond to the situation. At the same time, it would be a strategic error to assume that Keyamo, Suleman, and Jingir are just naïve.
First, Keyamo is a lawyer with the tag of a SAN. Not that it confers wisdom on anyone, but that level of training also means we cannot dismiss him as a simpleton. Keyamo’s line of thinking is not exactly novel. Recall that in 2001, when an eclipse of the sun occurred in Maiduguri, hundreds of youths rioted because they thought it was fallout of the preponderance of sins in society. They attacked Christians, burned brothels, and bars. Rather than be amused that Keyamo, a SAN and public official, is reasoning like illiterate Borno youths, I want to be sceptical.
Even if Keyamo was not aware of previous diseases in Nigerian history -Yellow Fever, smallpox, cholera, influenza, leprosy, tuberculosis- he should at least know that as of last month, Lassa fever had killed more than 160 Nigerians. He should also know that for malaria fever, Nigeria holds the global record of infections -25 per cent-and global death at 24 per cent. Keyamo could have, maybe, looked at pneumonia, too. UNICEF posits that in 2018 alone, about 162,000 Nigerian children under age five died of pneumonia, the highest in the world.
It is possible that even though Keyamo regularly sits at the Federal Executive Council meetings, he is genuinely unaware of these staggering mortality figures. It is also possible that Keyamo’s blaming God is proactive rallying of the All Progressives Congress supporters who will echo him if the epidemic escalates in Nigeria. Rather than blame public officials whose corruption, ineptitude, and inhumanity have left Nigeria with scant resources to provide health infrastructure, they will blame God.
As for Suleman, his outlandish message was not even original. It was mostly a plagiarised retelling of a sermon by one Pastor Sandy Armstrong of Soldiers for Christ Community Church, LA, California, USA, that was live-streamed on March 15, 2020. Pastor Armstrong’s video is online, and a comparison of both sermons will indicate which flesh and blood spoke to our dear Apostle.
It is, of course, Suleman’s prerogative to join an American preacher to pre-emptively provide a moral cover for Trump in case he loses the election in November. However, it is grossly irresponsible of him to tell people not to take vaccines because some superpowers somewhere would infect them with the COVID-19 disease.
For a long time, Nigeria battled with wild poliovirus because of that kind of misinformation by some northern Muslim preachers. Their campaign against vaccination sowed seeds of distrust in modern medicine into their communities. Many northern children who would have escaped a preventable affliction like polio became victims of ignorant preachers. Suleman, too, has started on that path, creating the disbelief that will hinder public health initiatives. We should severely rebuke him, so he does not get innocent people killed.
As for Jingir, underlying their paranoia is also the problem of resolute self-importance. These fringe collectives presume that someone somewhere cares about their existence so much they will murder thousands of people around the world simply to get at them. How they manage to leap over the obvious facts that the pandemic has killed people all over the world, and conclude Muslims are its target is befuddling.
Again, I doubt the clerics teaching anti-western conspiracy lack the necessary information about the interconnectedness of the world. Rather, they preach this way to raise a wall in the minds of their ignorant followers. If they can discredit western society, they can also ensure that those ones will never seek the knowledge that will set them free of the chokehold of religion and politics. Those poor folk will always rely on their preachers as interpreters of their experience, and that is how those preachers maintain their clamp over their flock.
This list of three is by no means exhaustive, but they are representative of the wild stories flying around on social media networks. We need to counter them as much as possible, however exhausting that task might be. If the reasoning of the likes of Suleman and Jingir should go mainstream, it will short-change public health programmes.
The case of the USA, an advanced country, is instructive in this instance. For years, epidemiologists have relied on mathematical models to understand disease transmission, predict the consequences, modes of flattening the curve, and strategies towards eventually defeating it. That was how Bill Gates -in a video that has now been religiously circulated in the past few weeks-could warn the world as far back as 2015 about the consequences of a pandemic if we do not prepare well enough.
What those epidemiologists never anticipated, however, was political partisanship. Rather than heed experts’ warning and make certain adjustments on time, people wrinkled their noses at science. They claimed the pandemic was a hoax created by Trump’s opponents to make him look like a failing leader. Today, the USA has the highest cases of COVID-19 in the world.
Nigeria needs to be careful so that misinformers will not lead us to a woeful situation that will distress our already stressed medical systems. Undercutting their mystification of the epidemic is, therefore, imperative. People like Keyamo, Suleman, Jingir, should be reminded that this pandemic is not the first to occur in human history. The 1918 Spanish flu killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide. It is unlikely we will have that scale of death anymore because of the advances in modern medicine.
In fact, linguists are now pulling us back from labelling COVID-19 a “plague.” For a disease with more than a 90 per cent recovery rate, it does not-technically-rise to the level of a plague. It is not a death sentence either, and it needs not be if we listen to trained experts rather than charlatans.
Each time someone comes up with the nonsense that COVID-19 is some supernatural force or Mother nature pressing the reset button because of our sins, we should tell them they watch too many sci-fi films. For billions of years, people have died every day. People are born every day too. No malignant God is sitting down somewhere in heaven and waiting for us to either beg him for survival or we perish. People who reason that way serve a malevolent God they made in their own image.
Not to minimise the reality of COVID-19, but God is not punishing us with the disease. Epidemics are perfectly natural events, and even science cannot fully prevent their outbreaks. While the uncertainty of the times will inevitably draw some people nearer to God, the grifters who want to hawk superstitions should be asked to stand down and let modern medicine take its course.