COVIDIOTS, COVID-19 and a Question of Trust

Let me set the stage for this article by juxtaposing quotes from two American politicians.

“The real cost of corruption in government, whether it is local, state, or federal, is a loss of the public trust”

Mike Quigley

“We can only have true public safety with public trust”

Betsy Hodges

A literal reading of both quotes paints a scary picture for efforts to combat COVID-19 in Nigeria. If Nigerians do not trust the Government, why would they believe any statistics released by the Government or willingly obey issued guidelines?

Three incidents influenced the writing of this article. Firstly, I had a discussion, inside a commercial tricycle in Lagos, with a man who appeared to be in his early fifties. The crux of the matter was whether COVID-19 in Nigeria was real or not. This person was adamant that the Nigerian Government was lying about the presence of COVID-19 in Nigeria. When I pointed out that Abba Kyari, former Chief of Staff to President Buhari, had died from COVID-19, my counterparty boldly asserted that Abba Kyari was “killed by God”. When I tried addressing his ignorance, he appeared to believe I was part of the “corrupt Government officials” and advised me to change before God’s judgement also falls on me.

Secondly, in the last three weeks that I have had to move outside my residence, I have noticed a trend of Lagosians wearing face masks “chin masks”. In essence, people would pay homage to the Government’s stipulation for face masks to be worn in public places, but would either cover only their mouths, or leave the masks on their chins. From my interactions with some persons regarding this behaviour, it is clear quite a good percentage of the population do not think COVID-19 is serious enough of a threat for them to properly wear face masks.

The third incident is likely the most important, as it also featured a conspiracy theory. I engaged some young men in a debate while waiting for a locksmith to duplicate some keys. The debate pitched me against seven persons, as I tried to convince them that it defies logic to claim the number of COVID-19 cases in Nigeria is false and is being “padded” by Government officials who are using it as an avenue to steal public funds. To summarise a central claim that was made: “I’m not saying that COVID-19 is not real, but not in Nigeria. The Government is lying. Are you not a Nigerian?” To buttress their conspiracy theory, one of them cited the “example” of an elderly woman who was rushed to a General Hospital in Lagos State, and a doctor “advised” her son to quickly take his mother away if he wants her to stay alive, else “they” would say she has COVID-19 and inject her to take her life. The debaters argued that the Government was exploiting persons with diabetes and hypertension and killing them systematically.

As I listened to the bizarre claims being made, I tried unsuccessfully to let them see that their conspiracy theory failed to pass any smell test. Four reasons should ordinarily eviscerate their theory:

  1. Why should corrupt officials go through the stress of faking COVID-19 cases just to steal some extra funds when they could easily issue spurious infrastructure contracts (“as usual”) worth billions of naira?
  2. If there is significant money to be stolen via the COVID-19 route, why are states like Kogi and Cross River doing all they can to report zero cases? Are these the only states with the most honest officials that have no interest in stealing funds?
  3. Why is the number of cases rising so slowly in Nigeria? Nigeria’s index case was recorded on 27 February 2020, and going by trends in countries like Italy and the United States, Nigeria ought to have more cases and deaths in its thirteenth week than currently published by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC). If Government officials are after inflating case numbers to steal more funds, they have a clear precedent that can be used to justify a much higher toll.
  4. Is it logical to believe that NCDC is able to conspire with 34 State Governments and the FCT Administration to inflate figures? How would NCDC get its own “share” of the funds being stolen by the states?

As I would realise, logic does not usually work when people have swallowed conspiracy theories, especially when there is existing distrust of the Government at all levels. A 2018 survey by Pew Research Center showed that about 72% of Nigerians believe that “Most politicians are corrupt”. If the majority of a population do not trust their leaders, why would they believe them or follow their instructions? Leadership is ineffective if the followers do not believe in the credibility of their leaders. Lack of trust is clearly a recipe for disaster.

To move forward, there has to be a conscious effort by Governments at all levels to gain Nigerians’ trust. While this would take time, an immediate effort would be to improve transparency and disseminate information faster and better, using channels that already have some level of trust such as religious leaders, community groups, market leaders, trade unions, etc. In a highly religious society, it would be easier for some persons to accept why they should wear face masks properly and observe social distancing when the message is coming from their pastor, or imam, or Ifa priest. For a Government with an immense trust deficit, exploring these channels may be the fastest approach to getting Nigerians to fall in line and help us avoid the worst of COVID-19.

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