Background: Covid-19 in Nigeria

Nigeria confirmed its first case of Covid-19 on February 27, 2020, when an Italian citizen on a business trip from Milan who had arrived in Lagos on February 25 tested positive for the virus. By March 22, when governments at both the federal and state levels began to intensify measures to contain the contagion, about twenty-seven cases were already confirmed.1On March 22, the Federal Ministry of Health announced in a television broadcast that there were twenty-seven confirmed cases of Covid-19 with the following breakdown: Lagos State (19), Federal Capital Territory/Abuja (4), Ogun State (2), Ekiti State (1), and Oyo State (1). See also Paul Adepoju, “Nigeria Responds to COVID-19; First Case Detected in Sub-Saharan Africa,” Nature Medicine 26, no. 4 (2020): 444-48, https://doi.org/10.1038/641591-020-0004-2. There were widespread concerns that the fragile public health-care system of Africa’s most populous country, with a population of 200 million people, would be unable to cope with a rapidly spreading pandemic. It would require quick action to prevent a large number of people from being infected and provide treatment to existing Covid-19 patients. According to some projections, 39,000 infections could be recorded in the commercial capital, Lagos.2“COVID-19 Cases May Reach 39,000 in Lagos,” The Eagle Online, March 27, 2020, https://theeagleonline.com.ng/covid-19-cases-may-reach-39000-in-lagos-commissioner/. There were also fears that Covid-19 would exact a heavy toll on the country’s economy. The Presidential Economic Advisory Council in Abuja highlighted some of the challenges the pandemic could pose at a time when the global price of oil, the country’s chief export, is in free fall, and amid high levels of unemployment and widespread poverty. At the time of writing, Nigeria had 5,182 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 167 deaths, with 1,180 persons discharged from the hospital. Although Covid-19 has spread to thirty-four of Nigeria’s thirty-six states, indications are that infection rates have yet to peak, and the number of deaths has remained relatively low.

Explanations for the Low Incidence of Covid-19 in Nigeria

A number of explanations have been proffered for the relatively low incidence of Covid-19 in Nigeria. This includes the “hot climate theory,” based on the view that the new coronavirus cannot thrive in Nigeria’s hot weather.3There has been speculation that high temperature is capable of suppressing coronavirus. The hot climate theory has gained wide acceptance among Nigerians. For more on this, see Chukwuma Muanya, “Nigeria’s High Temperature Capable of Reducing Spread of Virus,” The Guardian, March 25, 2020, https://guardian.ng/news/nigerias-high-temperature-humidity-capable-of-reducing-spread-of-virus/. The belief that heat destroys the new coronavirus has also made the practice of steam inhalation popular among Nigerians. Another school of thought, especially among religious people, explains the low infection rates as being providential.4This view is reflected in some of the recent televised and online preaching. One example was the homily delivered by the Catholic Archbishop of Abuja at the Mass of the Lords Supper in Abuja on April 9. Meanwhile, some analysts argue that Nigeria’s low numbers of infection are more a reflection of the shortage of test kits, which limits the country’s capacity to capture the full extent of the pandemic. They argue that increased testing would confirm the existence of many more cases.5The director for the Nigeria Center for Disease Control (NCDC), Dr. Chikwe Ihekwazu, noted in one of his briefings that the number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 cannot be dissociated from the number of available test kits. This was further confirmed by the Nigerian Minister of Health who, in a response to a question on why some calls for testing were turned down, stated that only those with obvious symptoms are subjected to test due to the shortage of testing materials.

The government has rolled out a set of guidelines to help prevent the spread of the virus, including: lockdowns; stay-at-home orders; closure of government schools, borders, and domestic and international airports; wearing of face masks; social distancing; and restriction of social activities, including religious gatherings. However, some restrictive measures, particularly the ban on religious gatherings, have not been well received by many Nigerians.

Religious Restrictions: Reactions and Counterreactions  

Depending on the state, guidelines for social gatherings, including religious congregational worship, have limited attendance to between twenty and fifty persons, as well as requiring social distancing. In the case of Kaduna, a city in north-central Nigeria, religious congregational worship was suspended. In reaction to the banning of religious congregational worship, some religious denominations, in compliance with government directives, adopted new modes of practicing their faith. While some have resorted to online worship services, others have developed home cell worship services, splitting their members into smaller units. Some split their worship services across numerous buildings, parking lots, and fields at various intervals. Those with very large congregations, who deemed it impossible to adhere to the rules, have suspended all religious gatherings, enjoining their members to pray at home. Some religious organizations, in addition to making their facilities available for Covid-19 containment, have supported the government’s efforts by providing donations to the most vulnerable.6Paul Omorogbe, “COVID-19: Winners’ Chapel Donates Ambulances to Lagos and Ogun State, Test Kits, Food, Others,” Nigerian Tribune, March 31, 2020, https://tribuneonlineng.com/covid-19-winners-chapel-donates-ambulances-to-lagos-and-ogun-states-test-kits-food-others/; Abbas Jimoh, “COVID-19: FCT Imams Donate to Area Council,” Daily Trust, April 3, 2020, https://www.dailytrust.com.ng/covid-19-fct-imams-donate-to-area-councils.html.

However, a number of religious ministers who defied the government’s restrictions were harassed or arrested by security agents during worship services. Arrests were made in the capital city, Abuja, and Ogun, Lagos, and Kaduna states in the first two weeks following the restriction orders. One of the incidents that generated widespread criticism on social media took place in Abuja and involved a group of security men led by Ikharo Attah who invaded the Jesus Reigns Family Church in Apo district on March 29 and arrested the presiding pastor during church service.7“COVID-19: FCTA Enforcement Squad Arrests Pastor, Shuts Churches,” The Punch, March 30, 2020, https://punchng.com/fcta-enforcement-squad-arrests-pastor-shuts-churches/. It was alleged that the same security group had earlier spared some imams and worshippers in a mosque in Abuja’s Maitama district from arrest, instead appealing to them to abide by the government regulations. This fueled speculations that some security agents and enforcement squads were applying the rules differently to churches and mosques.

Furthermore, some church ministers who saw Covid-19 and its concomitant restrictions as satanic claimed to have quick solutions to the pandemic. Among them were T. B. Joshua, who predicted that Covid-19 would disappear after heavy rainfall on March 27, and Elijah Ayodele, who claimed he was in possession of holy water and oil that could cure the disease.8“Coronavirus Will Disappear by 27th March 2020 Says, TB Joshua,” The Independent, March 2, 2020, https://www.independent.ng/coronavirus-will-disappear-by-27th-march-2020-says-tb-joshua/; John Owen Nwachukwu, “Coronavirus:  I Have Cure for All COVID-19 Patients – Primate Ayodele,”  Daily Post, April 2, 2020, https://dailypost.ng/2020/04/02/coronavirus-i-have-cure-for-all-covid-19-patients-primate-ayodele/. In addition, on April 13, Goodheart Val Aloysius of Father’s House International Church in Calabar asked the government to gather all those who had tested positive for Covid-19 in an isolation center for him to heal them. To emphasize his seriousness, he called on the government to hang him if he failed to heal all those who had tested positive.9Bassey Asuquo, “Gather All COVID-19 Patient in Nigeria Let Me Heal Them – Pastor Tells FG,” Paradise News, April 10, 2020, https://paradisenews.ng/49357/gather-all-covid-19-patients-in-nigeria-let-me-heal-them-pastor-tells-fg.

Following the extension of the restrictions, some religious leaders who were earlier silent on the government measures added their voices to the criticism of the restrictions. For example, the Anglican bishop of Amichi, Ephraim Ikeakor, while criticizing his fellow clerics for shutting down their churches, argued that the masses need both physical and spiritual food to survive the pandemic.10Chukwuebuka Chukwuemeka, “COVID-19: Anglican Bishop Decries Clerics Neglecting Members,” The Guardian, April 19, 2020, https://guardian.ng/sunday-magazine/ibru-ecumenical-centre/covid-19-anglican-bishop-decries-clerics-neglecting-members/. Buttressing the perspective of the critics, a cartoon depicting the devil mocking Christ for having destroyed his churches was circulated through social media. Arguably, these criticisms partly informed the move by some state governors to relax religious restrictions at a critical period of the anti-Covid-19 drive in Nigeria for Easter celebrations.11Among them were Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State, Governor Udom Emmanuel of Akwa Ibom State, and Governor Rotimi Akeredolu of Ondo State. For details, see: Bayo Wahab, “Wike, 3 Other Governors Relax Restrictions on Religious Gatherings Because of Easter,” Pulse Nigeria, April 9, 2020, https://www.pulse.ng/news/local/coronavirus-wike-3-other-governors-relax-restriction-on-religious-gatherings-because/yr47hss; Peter Dada and Daniels Igoni, “Ondo, Bayelsa to Relax Restriction for Easter Celebration,” The Punch, April, 9, 2020, https://punchng.com/ondo-bayelsa-to-relax-restriction-for-easter-celebration/; “Governor Wike Reverses His Decision to Relax Lockdown for Easter Celebration,” NewsWireNGR, April 11, 2020, http://www.newswirengr.com-2020/04/11-governor-wike-reverses-his-decision-to-relax-lockdown. Although some of them later changed their minds, such moves, together with the criticisms following the arrests of religious leaders by security agents for violating restriction orders, underline the potential of religion to jeopardize the government’s efforts to contain Covid-19. However, dragging the fight against coronavirus into the complex politics of religion may have adverse consequences for peace and security in Nigeria.

Lessons

Religion has the potential to promote as well as impede the public good. Although Nigeria’s religious community is contributing to the fight against Covid-19 in Nigeria, given the reactions that have followed the restrictive measures, it is equally capable of frustrating the government’s efforts to check the disease. Therefore, in responding to the pandemic, the government should not overlook the volatility of religion. As for religious leaders who proffered quick and miraculous fixes to Covid-19, the controversies that followed attempts to politicize the government’s restrictions and mounting evidence of the trajectory of Covid-19 point to the limitations of religious interventions. There is a clear need to expand the search for solutions to the pandemic in a country with high indices of poverty and unemployment and weak health infrastructure.

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