Sr. Rita Schwarzenberger, OP
Dominican Sisters of Peace
My response to COVID-19 in Nigeria is colored by other personal experiences at the onset of information on the disease here in Nigeria. I was in the hospital recovering from surgery when the government began to speak about COVID-19 and the need to engage in protective measures against the disease.
A national task force was set up, and nightly on the news there was a press report on what was happening regarding measures the government was taking, both in terms of structures and of the spread of disease in the various states. Two states and the Abuja were ordered to lock down.
In Kaduna State, the governor who was among the first to announce that he was infected, ordered a complete lockdown that lasted more than a month. Only hospital personnel and others offering essential services were exempted from the lockdown. Others who were caught were subject to fines.
This lockdown affected people in different ways. People in rural areas were able to eat what food they had on hand, but they were not able to market the necessary goods to buy what they did not have. People in the outskirts of the main city moved about on foot to go to nearby shops to buy necessary items. But from all the cry was that the government is trying to starve them, that they would die of hunger rather than from the virus.
In Kaduna, the government initially within the second month lifted the ban for only one day in a week to allow people to go to market for foodstuff. No other shop was allowed to open unless it was for service for essential services, e.g., petrol station, pharmacies, etc. According to government directives, masks were to be worn, but this was ignored, and because of the desperation of people to get what they needed within the 24-hour free period, there was much pushing and shoving in the markets, no local distancing observed at all. After about two weeks of such, the days were extended to two a week. But again, safety protocols were largely ignored, though the government tried to set up areas for food so that markets would not be overcrowded.
Sr. Julie came daily to the hospital to bring me food. She was able to pass through all the checkpoints (manned by military and police and other security bodies) because she had a national ID card as a nurse. Two of our staff who took turns staying with me at night were also able to pass because of their IDs as health workers. Their bigger problem was getting transport to come to the hospital because cars and buses were not plying the road due to the lockdown. But as is often the case in the Nigerian system, ‘big’ people were able to come to visit me, e.g., priests, highly placed people, etc. Others such as parishioners and staff took their chances of not getting caught.
Regarding work, the clinic purchased hand gloves, sanitizer, soap, buckets, and containers for water supply, etc. Patients came into a situation where social distancing had been established through placement of areas to sit. Visits to rural communities were curtailed, and the main ones carried out were related to the pandemic. Sensitization was done and accompanied with distribution of buckets, soap, masks, etc. This was done for community groups in general and in some communities, for children. An assessment was made in five communities to determine those most vulnerable, i.e., elderly, disabled, widows/widowers, the sick, single-headed households, etc. These were then given palliatives such as cooking oil, bouillon cubes, rice, soap, etc., when funds were available for these goods.
Places of worship were not allowed to open. Easter was celebrated by people in their homes. Some priests did defy the orders and instead of having Mass in the parish church, they would have it for a small group in their home or go to one of the outlying areas of the parish to celebrate in someone’s home. No social distancing was observed in such cases. People love the Mass, so they did not bother about the virus, for them, it was most important to have Mass. Several Sunday Masses were available online so that is how most people ‘attended’ Sunday Mass. Most people did not believe that COVID-19 is real; they believe it is a government scam to get money from international agencies. Thus now, with the society open, few wear masks or even consider social distancing. Churches and mosques are now allowed to hold their worship services. Among the doubters have been the priests who have been stating that there is no COVID-19 in Nigeria, that the numbers of cases and deaths are just made up numbers.
Their opinion was shattered several weeks ago when one of their brothers, Fr. Augustine Madaki, was infected and died within 3-4 days. He was diabetic thus more susceptible to the worst effects of the virus. His funeral was well attended (more than 110 priests) by large numbers of friends and ex-parishioners of his as well as his living family members. The reality of the disease was made more graphic by the fact that his casket was not brought into the church but taken straight to the cemetery for burial.