An Italian citizen who returned from Milan to Lagos, on February 25, 2020, was confirmed as Nigeria’s index Covid-19 case by the Federal Ministry of Health on February 27, 2020.1Osagie Ehanire, “First Case of Corona Virus Disease Confirmed in Nigeria,” Nigeria Center for Disease Control, February, 28, 2020, https://ncdc.gov.ng/news/227/first-case-of-corona-virus-disease-confirmed-in-nigeria. This provided ample time for the Nigerian government to take necessary preventive measures, including the closure of borders and requiring individuals coming into the country to quarantine themselves for two weeks. It took President Muhammadu Buhari one extra month to respond to the situation in two states (Lagos and Ogun) and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja, which were experiencing high rates of Covid-19 prevalence. President Buhari also declared an initial two-week lockdown (which was further extended) and ordered residents of the two states and the FCT to stay indoors, practice caution, and observe social distancing protocols. President Buhari, however, exempted health workers, security personnel, pharmaceutical companies, oil and gas workers, the nation’s food supply chain, media, and other essential service providers from the restrictive measures. Not long afterward, other states relying on Section 8 of Nigeria’s Quarantine Act enabling state-specific laws announced their own versions of preventive and treatment measures to curtail the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. Citizens were instructed to stay at home, wash their hands regularly, and follow social distancing protocols in order to avoid the risk of infection and transmission. These actions came a little too late, as more states (Bauchi, Edo, Ekiti, FCT, Lagos, Ogun, Oyo, Osun, and Rivers) confirmed Covid-19 index cases and more.2Nigeria Center for Disease Control, March 26, 2020.

In late March 2020, Port Harcourt, the capital city of Rivers State, recorded its first case of Covid-19 as confirmed by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC). The index case was an Edo State–born nineteen-year-old female model, who had just returned from a trip to Europe on March 16. While she was moved to the state isolation center for treatment, efforts were made to trace all the persons she had been in contact with since she returned to Nigeria.

The exponential spread of Covid-19 beginning with this index case (for example, the state recorded 127 positive cases on June 20) necessitated the state government to impose stringent preventive protocols, including a one-week twenty-four-hour dusk-to-dawn curfew in Port Harcourt, Nigeria’s oil hub, in early May.3The twenty-four-hour dusk-to-dawn curfew, which was further extended by a week, covered the entire city of Port Harcourt, Obio-Akpor LGA, and parts of Ikwerre, Oyigbo, and Eleme LGAs. State Governor Nyesom Wike attributed the rise in Covid-19 infections to infected oil workers flown into the state from an offshore oil facility in neighboring Akwa Ibom State in late April by Bristow Helicopters. Before that, Governor Wike had detained some oil workers and two Bristow Helicopter pilots for moving into and around the Port Harcourt metropolis, thereby disobeying the state’s Covid-19 protocols. While the pilots were released through the intervention of the Ministry of Aviation, the oil workers were only released after threats by their umbrella union to embark on a nationwide strike. However, these measures and the dusk-to-dawn curfew imposed by the governor in early May failed to curtail the spread of infections. In spite of the continued spread of infections, restrictions were later relaxed due to their economic effects and citizen pressure in late May.

Before long, attention shifted to Bonny Island, a small oil-host community, where “mysterious” deaths and hospitalizations suddenly began to surge: more than ten deaths occurred and 500 people were hospitalized within two weeks.4Ignatius Chukwu, “Secret Burial in Bonny as ‘Mysterious’ Deaths Spread Panic in Rivers State,” Business Day, June 7, 2020, https://businessday.ng/features/article/secret-burials-in-bonny-as-mysterious-deaths-spread-panic-in-rivers/. See also “Rivers State News: Wetin We Know So Far about Deaths for Bonny Kingdom,” BBC News, May 23, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/pidgin/tori-52779669. Efforts by the local council, state government, and the NCDC to uncover the cause of the increased deaths and hospitalizations were unsuccessful.

Beyond Covid-19 Pandemic: The Climate Change Challenge

Apart from the Covid-19 pandemic, another possible explanation for the surge in illnesses and deaths in Bonny is a petro-epidemic, one of the fallouts of climate change. A petro-epidemic relates to widespread respiratory disease and other adverse health impacts caused by oil pollution among the inhabitants of oil-bearing and oil-host communities, including its adverse effects on their livelihoods. Incidences of respiratory tract infections, certain forms of respiratory cancer,5Jerome Nriagu, Emilia A. Udofia, Ibanga Ekong, and Godwin Ebuk, “Health Risks Associated with Oil Pollution in the Niger Delta, Nigeria,” Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 13, no. 3 (2016): 346. and cancer-related deaths among residents of oil-bearing communities in the region have surged.

Climate change is attributable to human activities that alter the composition of global atmospheric conditions, particularly in relation to rising temperatures and erratic rainfall patterns. It is also reflected in natural climate variability observable over comparable time periods.6United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 1992, https://unfccc.int/resource/docs/convkp/conveng.pdf. Climate change is considered one of the greatest challenges of our time, nowhere more so than in the semiarid, and coastal regions of West Africa. Oil and gas operations in the Niger Delta result in over 1.5 billion cubic feet of gas flared daily into the atmosphere, making the region one of the highest emitters of greenhouse gases globally, with over a hundred flare sites.7Olamide Akinro, David Akinyiwola Opeyemi, and I. B. Ologunagba, “Climate Change and Environmental Degradation in the Niger Delta Region of Nigeria: Its Vulnerability, Impacts and Possible Mitigations,” Journal of Applied Sciences 3, no. 3 (2008): 167–173. The heat and particulates from gas flares (with over 40 billion kilowatts energy emitted into the environment daily) have polluted the air and raised the atmospheric temperature to an all-time high, making the region particularly vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate change.

At the moment, the Niger Delta is dotted with footprints of climate change. Locally, the excessive heat and air pollution resulting from gas emissions are contributing to increases in existing health problems. Globally, these trends are also contributing to a rise in sea level, further exacerbating the threat of flooding in most coastal oil-bearing communities and the spread of waterborne diseases that can be fatal. Similarly, the effects of acid rain and rising acidity of the ocean present enormous challenges to human habitats and livelihoods in the region. Another source of pollution is the dumping of toxic waste in coastal waters. Exposure to polluted waters or the ingestion of fish and other marine creatures from the ocean can cause severe illness among local people.

Recently, flooding has become more rampant in coastal oil-bearing communities. Unless drastic action is taken, some communities, such as Ogulagha, Odioma, and Oporoza, are at risk of being washed away into the ocean. Weather conditions in the Niger Delta are becoming hotter and harsher than ever. This is the cumulative effect of pollution caused by over five decades of oil extraction from the fragile environment of the Niger Delta.

The people of Bonny, even without much scientific knowledge, have also attributed the recent surge in deaths to the excess gas emitted into the atmosphere by the Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG) company that took place in Bonny during the Covid-19 lockdown declared by the state government. This may have informed the Local Government Area (LGA) health report on the need to test the air quality in Bonny for a possible lead in unraveling the cause of the recent spike in deaths on the island.8Chukwu, “Secret Burial.” It should be noted that the loss of lives in Bonny is not limited to human beings; aquatic creatures are also affected. In the past year, many dead fish, including two whales, have washed ashore in Bonny and Akassa, two coastal oil-bearing communities. There is no study commissioned by government (state or federal) agencies to determine the cause of these deaths.

A polluted environment, with dirty air and black soot covering most objects and being inhaled by inhabitants, could trigger an unprecedented level of respiratory illness in oil-bearing communities like Bonny. Pollution in the region is not limited to the air; the earth is not spared either. Of immediate concern is the finding of a recent report that some community members are drinking water from wells contaminated with benzene, a known carcinogen, at levels more than 900 times exceeding the World Health Organization’s guidelines.9United Nations Environment Programme, “Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland,” 2011, https://postconflict.unep.ch/publications/OEA/UNEP_OEA.pdf. All relevant government agencies and stakeholders should urgently expand the effort to identify the cause of recent deaths on Bonny Island as an important step toward mitigating the adverse impacts of climate change and stemming the tide of fatalities. Such efforts should also include investigations on the way Covid-19 is impacting the spread of and responses to preexisting health conditions on the island.

Conclusion and Recommendations

While we strive to prevent infections and deaths arising from the Covid-19 pandemic, we should also bear in mind other preexisting conditions that may be related to a climate change–induced petro-epidemic in the oil-bearing communities of the Niger Delta. In the absence of a comprehensive national climate change policy, oil-bearing communities and the livelihoods of their residents are being endangered. Therefore, the government (federal, state, and local) and other stakeholders need to commission research studies on the harmful effects of climate change to inform actions and interventions directed toward mitigating the risks of climate change and its attendant ecological despoliation.

There is an urgent need for the development of a policy framework by government, civil society, and other stakeholders for addressing the impacts of climate change at the international, regional, national, and community level. Governments (federal, state, and local) should mobilize resources and implement public education programs on the health implications of climate change. Provisions should also be made for highly trained medical personnel and adequate health-care facilities in oil-bearing communities.

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