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Ebola: The rumours, fear and comic relief of a deadly scourge

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By Mike Ebonugwo, Features Editor; Charles Kumolu, Bose Adelaja

IT came like a thief in the night, unannounced but deadly. And since its stealthy arrival, death has been stalking the land, leaving tears, sorrow and fear in its wake.

At the last check, the death toll has  hit the 1,145 mark, according to the World Health Organisation, WHO. Indeed the world has known no peace but fear since an outbreak of the dreaded Ebola Virus Disease, EVD, went out of control, ravaging West African countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

It took an errant and unfortunate visit of the late  American-Liberian Patrick Sawyer to Lagos for the scourge to register its presence in Nigeria. One of several accounts has it that on discovering that he was afflicted with the dangerous virus, Mr Sawyer,  had rushed to Nigeria to seek medical relief. But he eventually died in a Lagos hospital.

His death and the revelation that he died of the highly infectious EVD had immediately triggered off widespread panic in the country. Subsequent death of two medical personnel who attended to him at the Lagos hospital and an ECOWAS protocol officer who assisted him during his plane ride to Nigeria only served to heighten the panic as Nigerians assumed that the situation has attained an epidemic proportion and desperately sought whatever means to safeguard themselves from contracting the disease.

Since the death of the Liberian, Nigeria has recorded a total of 12 people infected with EVD out of which four have died, five said to be recovering while 189 are under surveillance in

Lagos and six in Enugu. The swift and coordinated response by government has elicited unusual kudos across the country. The Federal Government and the Lagos State government, in particular, had responded to the Ebola threat by establishing isolation centres to contain the spread. Other states soon followed suit with their own versions of an Ebola containment programme.

‘’For the first time our government has acted in a very responsive manner. We are all aware that they were not proactive, but praises should be given to them for containing it and initiating measures against its spread,’’ a Lagos resident, Mr. Eziashi Dobe told Vanguard Features,VF.

Dobe is not alone  as the sentiment is shared by the World Health Organisation,WHO, which described government’s response as a model for other affected countries to copy.  ‘’What I would want to emphasise is the leadership from the Federal Government of Nigeria to tackle this epidemic. The presence and leadership from Mr. President calling on all governors and commissioners of health in order to understand the current level is commendable,’’ Country Representative of WHO in Nigeria, Dr. Rui Vaz said.

But while this timely emergency response to the scourge has received commendations in some quarters, it was obviously not enough to assuage the growing panic in most Nigerians who still harbour the fear that the virus lurks in every inconceivable place, including the air.  Findings by VF indicated that the coming of EVD to the country is reshaping the thinking and way of life of many.

 EBOLA ALERT  AT MMIA—A woman, wears protective face masks and hand gloves upon arrival at the Murtala Mohammed Airport, Lagos , yesterday. Inset: Security personnel with masks on duty at the airport. Photos: AFP.
EBOLA ALERT AT MMIA—A woman, wears protective face masks and hand gloves upon arrival at the Murtala Mohammed Airport, Lagos , yesterday. Inset: Security personnel with masks on duty at the airport. Photos: AFP.

Although Mr Sawyer is dead and his remains cremated in accordance with safety requirements, most Nigerians are yet to forgive him for being the harbinger of Ebola infection and death in Nigeria.

So enraged are Nigerians over the development that many of them have called the late Liberian unprintable names and would have gladly murdered him if the fellow was not already dead. Even the usually self-controlled President Goodluck Jonathan had in a rare public display of anger called him a mad man.

Apart from being on edge as death stalks the country through Ebola, Nigerians are also uncomfortable, and indeed embarrassed, by the increasing realisation that their country has been branded by some members of the international community as a no-go-area just like Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone which are presently under  some kind of pariah isolation.

Indeed it is no longer a pleasant experience for Nigerians travelling abroad for sundry reasons. Suddenly every Nigerian traveller is suspected as a possible carrier of the Ebola virus and subjected to all kinds of humiliating treatment and tests to ascertain and ensure that he or she is Ebola-free.

International sporting tournaments

Nigerian sports men and women participating in international sporting tournaments appear to be worst hit. For instance, a Nigerian contingent which travelled to China to participate in a Youth Olympic Games was forced to return home after their hosts subjected the Nigerian athletes to humiliating treatment by quarantining them. Indeed, it has been reported that the International Olympic Committee, IOC, has officially announced a ban on all West African countries from taking part in the Youth Olympic Games.  Only recently, Lesotho had announced its withdrawal from an Under-21 football qualifying match with Nigeria on account of Ebola.

Funny, but no laughing matter
It would appear that the fear of death is the beginning of comic relief by Nigerians. Though not a laughing matter, but it is remarkably funny how Nigerians have been reacting since Ebola made its unwarranted appearance in the country. Indeed, the fear of Ebola now seem to be the beginning of how not to exchange greetings, dress, transact business, worship, behave  in certain public places, including government and private sector offices.

The general perception is that Ebola kills without exception. It is a disease that kills the strong as fast as it kills the weak. With it even the fittest does not survive, according to this fear-engendered perception. From Sambisa to Calabar, Sokoto to Yenogoa, EVD has created tension and panic among hitherto resilient Nigerians who now prefer to err on the side of extreme and sometimes comic caution.

This is why many fell for a widely circulated claim that drinking salt water and bathing with it would cure the EVD. It was reported that many in the villages took this strange prescription after town criers went around disseminating information to this effect which they claimed was prompted by national emergency alert from reliable sources.

Long sleeves, trousers, gloves and sanitisers please
In Lagos, most people now put on protective wears like long sleeve shirts and trousers. For now mini-skirts and other skimpy clothes have gone out of vogue on the streets of the metropolis. So it will not be strange to see people dressed Eskimo-style these days, all to avoid contracting the virus.

It has also been observed that many commuters, especially those travelling in commercial buses, never leave home without  face towels, handkerchiefs and sanitisers to protect themselves from co-passengers.  The situation was the same with hair dressing salon operators, as they now wash their hands after every transaction.

Perhaps the most common evidence of how scared Nigerians are of the Ebola virus is the now popular wearing of hand gloves and even nose protectors. This has become the vogue in both government and private sector offices. Even  at various bus-stops and motor parks, transport operators, security guards and law enforcement agents are seen wearing gloves.

A visit by VF to some banks showed that apart from gloves and nose protectors worn by the tellers and other staff while going about their work, the use of hand sanitisers, has become a condition for entering into the banks.

Why we gave directive on sanitiser—UBA
When VF sought the opinion of the Head of Corporate Communication and Media Relations, UBA, Mr Ramon Nasir on whether there was a directive on the use of sanitiser as a condition to enter any of its branches, he noted that the bank okayed the development.

‘’The use of sanitizer by customers who enter the bank, before they start any transactions, is a directive of the bank; it’s an extra care of the bank against this Ebola virus. It’s a standard thing in UBA now; the sanitizer is not only meant for the customers, but also for the staff of the bank. As a bank, we deal with all kinds of people and even internationally, so it’s just an extra care of the bank,’’ he added.

Same applies to most corporate offices like presently obtains at the Dangote Group where every visitor must sanitise his or her hand before entering any office.

FROM LEFT: MINISTER OF WATER RESOURCES, MRS SARAH OCHEPE; CHAIRMAN, MINI BUS UTAKO PARK, ABUJA, MR OLUGBADE  OLAGUNJU AND FCT  DEPUTY CHAIRMAN, NATIONAL UNION OF ROAD TRANSPORT WORKERS,  ALHAJI GABI IBRAHAM, WASHING  THEIR HANDS TO COMMENCE THE NATIONAL EMERGENCY HANDS WASHING CAMPAIGN TO PREVENT THE SPREAD  OF EBOLA VIRUS IN NIGERIA AT UTAKO  MOTOR PARK IN  ABUJA ON MONDAY
FROM LEFT: MINISTER OF WATER RESOURCES, MRS SARAH OCHEPE; CHAIRMAN, MINI BUS UTAKO PARK, ABUJA, MR OLUGBADE OLAGUNJU AND FCT DEPUTY CHAIRMAN, NATIONAL UNION OF ROAD TRANSPORT WORKERS, ALHAJI GABI IBRAHAM, WASHING THEIR HANDS TO COMMENCE THE NATIONAL EMERGENCY HANDS WASHING CAMPAIGN TO PREVENT THE SPREAD OF EBOLA VIRUS IN NIGERIA AT UTAKO MOTOR PARK IN ABUJA ON MONDAY
FROM LEFT: MINISTER OF WATER RESOURCES, MRS SARAH OCHEPE; CHAIRMAN, MINI BUS UTAKO PARK, ABUJA, MR OLUGBADE  OLAGUNJU AND FCT  DEPUTY CHAIRMAN, NATIONAL UNION OF ROAD TRANSPORT WORKERS,  ALHAJI GABI IBRAHAM, WASHING  THEIR HANDS TO COMMENCE THE NATIONAL EMERGENCY HANDS WASHING CAMPAIGN TO PREVENT THE SPREAD  OF EBOLA VIRUS IN NIGERIA AT UTAKO  MOTOR PARK IN  ABUJA ON MONDAY
FROM LEFT: MINISTER OF WATER RESOURCES, MRS SARAH OCHEPE; CHAIRMAN, MINI BUS UTAKO PARK, ABUJA, MR OLUGBADE OLAGUNJU AND FCT DEPUTY CHAIRMAN, NATIONAL UNION OF ROAD TRANSPORT WORKERS, ALHAJI GABI IBRAHAM, WASHING THEIR HANDS TO COMMENCE THE NATIONAL EMERGENCY HANDS WASHING CAMPAIGN TO PREVENT THE SPREAD OF EBOLA VIRUS IN NIGERIA AT UTAKO MOTOR PARK IN ABUJA ON MONDAY

No more handshakes, say hi!
Before now, handshake was a popular way of exchanging greetings between two or more people. It was a common way of expressing mutual feeling of goodwill.  But not any more since the outbreak of Ebola. The new safety rule now is: Please avoid handshake for now as the virus can be transmitted through the sweat of an infected person. On account of this, Nigerians have resorted to what is popularly known as hi-five to avoid coming contact with those infected. The more daring settle for what is called ‘chop knuckle’ believed to expose one to minimal contact.

Even  most churches in Nigeria have under the present exigency had to modify their mode of worship in order to check the spread of the virus among members. Practices like handshakes and hugging have either been banned or restricted to a level considered safe. For instance, the Catholic Church in Nigeria that is well known for encouraging handshake among the faithful as a sign of peace during the celebration of Holy Mass has suspended the practice. According to the Archbishop of Lagos, Alfred Adewale Martins while announcing the Church’s new guidelines on the prevention of the spread of Ebola: “Taking into consideration the fact that this rite is optional, we shall henceforth omit(it)…When you get to this rite, skip it…”.

It’s time to wash your hands
Considered very crucial in the Ebola prevention effort is the washing of hands, according to health experts. While for reason of their safety many Nigerians have enthusiastically embraced this,  again others are taking it to comic extremes. Some organisations in Lagos have readily adopted the ‘wash your hands initiative’ by even designating places their customers can wash their hands before any transaction takes place.

Boom time for dealers in disinfectants, bitter kola, sanitisers
But while Ebola is not a laughing matter to most Nigerians, dealers in locally made disinfectants are said to be smiling their way to the bank as demand for the products has been on the rise since Mr Sawyer died in Nigeria. A hawker of local disinfectants at Mile 12 Market, said she has has been making a daily turn over of N15,000 .
Some traders in Lagos also told VF that there is a sharp demand for detergents even though the prices have largely remained stable.
However, it was not the case for sanitizers and other sanitary products, as most dealers claimed they have run out of stock. In addition, prices of the products have skyrocketed. For instance, a 60 ml bottle of hand sanitiser that previously sold for N250, now goes for N600 or more.

Eating of bitter kola

Following  a 2009 report published by the BBC, suggesting that eating bitter kola is an antidote to EVD, many Nigerians, including those who previously could not stand the bitter taste had resorted to eating bitter  kola, leading to a sharp rise in demand for it. Of course, this translates to dealers in  bitter kola making hay while the information remained unconfirmed.
Consequently, the price of bitter kola has been on a steady rise, selling three pieces for N100 or even N200 three weeks ago. “This is our best season ever since I started this business. In the past one week, I have sold three baskets of bitter kola. All praise to Allah,” a trader in Lagos Island said.

But if dealers in bitter kola and sanitisers are smiling, the same cannot be said of those in the hospitality business, including operators of relaxation centres who now lament declining patronage. Reports have it that many are now avoiding such places like a plague. Also, the noticeable drop in social activities in Lagos has been traced to people avoiding places where they may likely come into contact with those infected with the Ebola virus.

For the owner of a popular relaxation spot in Ikotun, Mr Sunday Maduemena, Ebola has been bad for business. According to him: “Since Ebola came from nowhere, people have been scared to come out to enjoy themselves. They no longer frequent here anymore. When they manage to come, their topic is always Ebola and how deadly it is. Everybody is now cautious’’.

Improved hygienic habits

Continuing, he said: ‘’I have noticed that people are now eager to wash their hands unlike before. Some customers have even now formed the habit of carrying sanitisers about. It sounds funny but that is the reality here.’’

Also complaining of lack of patronage are commercial sex workers or prostitutes. Since Ebola is believed to be transmitted through body contact, many of their patrons appear to have taken a break for now, at least until the situation returns to normal.

The development has also hit food vendors hard. A canteen operator at Ojota, Madam Saidat Oyedeji, lamented thus: ‘’Patronage has really reduced. People no longer trust themselves because they were told that dirty environment also causes Ebola. Some of my customers now prefer to eat at home”.

Mrs. Charity Orji, a trader in Oshodi Market, says the fear of Ebola has made her to avoid going to cafeterias or crowded places. She said: ‘’It was for that reason that I failed to attend the last Holy Ghost Congress at Redemption Camp. Since then, I no longer go to public functions to avoid being infected”.

A trader at Iyana-Ipaja who simply gave her name as ‘’Mama T” said she was contemplating of stopping her only son from attending school, come September. ‘’Government said we should avoid going to public places and schools are one of them,”she noted.

It was further discovered that even some sick people are scared of going to the hospital, to avoid contracting the disease.

Yes to orderliness in Lagos

Another astonishing side of EVD in Lagos is the orderliness it has brought about among residents. The usual rush and chaotic manner of movement at bus-stops seem to have given way to orderliness, as people now avoid body contacts.

At a Mile 12 LAGBU park, apprehension was clearly written on the faces of intending passengers who stood metres apart while queuing to board the bus.

Rumour galore

For the rumour mill, the fear of of Ebola in Lagos presented another opportunity to spread falsehood. For instance, when the nation was yet to come to terms with the claims that salt prevents the infection of EVD, it was reported that the someone had contracted the virus at Alimosho General Hospital Igando. One of several text messages circulated to this effect read thus: “Please do not go near Alimosho General Hospital Igando Lagos. A case of Ebola was confirmed there. A Liberian who came for deliverance(at a popular church based in Ikotun) was seen in the hospital with all the features of Ebola and he died today…Send this to people you care about until it gets to the right authority”.

VF later found the story to be untrue following a visit to the Alimosho General Hospital.

An enquiry from one of the hospital staff, revealed that there was nothing of such. The Lagos State Commissioner for Health, Dr Jide Idris, later dismissed the rumour.

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