I have been indoors for almost two weeks with my daughter, her nanny and her nanny’s sister. There are things in my pantry that I’ve never bought before, such as disinfectant wipes, refillable bottles of hand sanitiser and a small stash of masks.
Armed with short videos from news outlets, I have terrified my household into compliance with a social distancing regime that is only just now beginning to gain any kind of popularity in my city. But I’m slowly coming to the realisation that the fear I’ve been feeling in the past two weeks is not exactly my own.
My fear has come mostly from the awareness of how quickly and easily this disease spreads, how many people it has killed in the last few months, and how costly an inadequate response to it can be. Consuming news updates from Europe, Asia and North America, I allowed myself to become convinced that if we just take responsibility by slowing or shutting down public life, we’ll somehow be able to cope with the localised effects of this global pandemic. And if we don’t do that, this fear told me, we’re doomed.
Social distancing in a ‘slum’ that never sleeps
But here’s the thing. My family and I live in Lagos, Nigeria, a tightly packed city with a land mass of only 1,171 sq kilometres and a population anywhere between 15 and 22 million, depending on who you ask. If New York never sleeps because the lights are always on and there’s always somewhere to be, Lagos never sleeps because there’s no power, it’s much too hot indoors and you might as well have a good time while you’re out trying to catch a breeze.
Going by the dictionary definition of the word "slum" - "a squalid and overcrowded urban street or district inhabited by very poor people" - my home city is the largest one in the world. And across my continent, more than 200 million people live in one. I live in one of the nicer parts of Lagos, and my decision to self-isolate two weeks ago was informed by my relative socio-economic privilege. But while my social distancing may protect me and my family, it is unlikely to make much of a difference to the overall rate of infection in my city or country.
If New York never sleeps because the lights are always on and there’s always somewhere to be, Lagos never sleeps because there’s no power and it’s much too hot indoors
In Lagos, daily power cuts are normal, with several neighbourhoods either being completely unconnected to the grid or receiving such irregular electricity supply that they might as well be. As a result, most people don’t stay indoors. Much of the city is not yet connected to any water mains, which date back to colonial times, and the sections that are connected to the mains receive unpredictable supply. Sourcing water is arduous and expensive, so people are unlikely to prioritise frequent hand-washing. Public transportation consists mostly of privately owned vehicles in which intense proximity is inevitable. We sit shoulder to shoulder in Volkswagen minivans retrofitted with wooden benches, squash ourselves into the ubiquitous tricycles known as Keke NAPEP, or perch chin-to-sweaty-back on the motorcycle taxis we call okada.
Lagos is one of the largest urban economies on the continent, and its informal sector is not only vibrant but also crucial to the city’s survival. Street trading and open-air markets are such a fundamental part of the fabric of Lagos that we joke that you could leave home in just your underwear and arrive at your destination fully dressed. Hawkers, roadside manicurists, waste pickers, vulcanisers, food sellers, agbo and ogogoro brewers, Baba Ijebu dealers, porters, hair stylists and homeless people who sweep bridges and curbs for a token are among the key players that keep the city functioning. All of these people work in public and are dependent on the city’s almost non-stop public activity for their livelihoods.
The cost of living in Lagos is also very high, which means that home ownership is the exception for Lagosians rather than the rule. The majority of renters live in extremely close quarters, in a kind of private proximity that mirrors the density of public life. Traffic, whether pedestrian or vehicular, often looks like a heaving mass, its component parts indistinguishable from one another. In the same way, the front yard or verandah of the average Lagosian rental is invariably packed with people, possessions, shops and, depending on the time of day, multiple naked children being enthusiastically scrubbed clean in large basins.
In my city, grimy currency notes go from hand to hand throughout the course of everyday life. People sweat on one another in transit. Communal toilets, kitchens and bathrooms are typical in low-income neighbourhoods, and can be shared by as many as 40 people in one building. In the poorest neighbourhoods, sanitation is non-existent because neither piped water nor sewage management systems are available. Face Me I Face You tenements, one of the most popular solutions in the Lagos rental market, generally house multi-generational family units in rooms usually measuring just under 7.5 sq metres.
What if you can’t afford social distancing?
Which brings me to a simple fundamental truth: even if we wanted to, we simply don’t have the space to socially distance from one another. What’s more, most of us likely don’t want to either. And that’s not simply because we don’t believe that the threat of coronavirus is real or significant (even though many don’t).
It’s because there are other threats more real and more immediate than a respiratory infection which has so far tended to kill old people in faraway places most of us will only ever see on TV. The idea of social distancing is not just alien to us, it is impossible for social and economic reasons too. Cities such as Lagos are kept alive by the kind of interpersonal interaction that the global north is currently discouraging or criminalising.
Social distancing as a containment solution assumes certain things that are just not true of Lagos and many other cities across Africa. For one, people have to be able to embrace reduced or zero productivity for an extended period, without that leading to immediate disastrous consequences.
In Lagos, about six million people live on incomes largely earned on a daily basis
In Lagos, about six million people live on incomes earned largely on a daily basis. This represents millions of families who can only start buying or making meals when the primary breadwinner closes from work on any given day. For such people, the possibility of catching a previously unheard-of illness is a far less dangerous one than the knowledge that not having anything to eat is always a sunrise away.
To make matters worse, most Lagosians who can’t afford the financial hit of taking an extended period off work are already accustomed to the ever-present nature of death or danger. Since Nigeria returned to democracy in 1999, the Lagos state government has embraced increasingly aggressive anti-poor policies that have had devastating effects.
Street traders, okada riders and survival sex workers are regularly harassed and brutalised by state agents while trying to earn a living, but the urgency of their economic situation blunts the edge of any risk aversion that they might otherwise have. If rape and torture are not enough to deter people from leaving home every day to try to make some money to survive, a novel coronavirus outbreak is not likely to succeed either.
On top of all this, the complete inadequacy of the healthcare infrastructure in Nigeria makes the rate of infection almost irrelevant. "Flattening the curve" assumes that the healthcare system has an operating capacity that can make a difference, as long as it is not overwhelmed by too many cases at once. In Nigeria, it won’t matter whether we get 20,000 cases all at once or over the course of a few months; with fewer than 500 ventilators for a population of 200 million, our healthcare system simply doesn’t have the capacity for a pandemic.
We need an African solution to a global problem
Two weeks after the first coronavirus case was confirmed in Lagos, doctors in the Federal Capital Territory of Abuja announced that they were going on strike over unpaid salaries. People here already have a distrustful relationship with hospitals, thanks to the frequent avoidable deaths that result from an acute lack of equipment or qualified staff. Self-medication and herbal remedies are a standard part of people’s health-seeking behaviours, and most people opt to treat serious illnesses, such as malaria, typhoid and bacterial infections, at home.
In all likelihood, the social expectation that female relatives will care for the sick and dying will hold sway in this outbreak, which means that in the immediate term, girls and women may be at disproportionate risk of infection and re-infection. Still, as 80% of coronavirus patients report mild to moderate symptoms, it is likely that this illness will be experienced by most Nigerians only as yet another difficulty to be endured until we can continue as normal.
For generations, the cultural idea that your family will take responsibility for you in times of crisis has provided a buffer, to varying degrees of effectiveness, for Nigerians. Better-off people often contribute to the cost of rent, private school fees and medical care for loved ones who can’t afford it.
It is common for people to house multiple extended family members and friends for several years at a time, sometimes throughout childhood and into adulthood. The failures of the government have been mitigated by the fact that we are socialised to see to the wellbeing of our communities and their members; this has been a workable solution until now.
Social distancing is a valid containment solution for the novel coronavirus, yes. But it is a solution that doesn’t grasp a reality that is extremely widespread across Africa: people survive difficulty by coming together as communities of care, not pulling apart in a retreat into individualism.
The World Health Organization is promoting social distancing as an essential response to this pandemic, forgetting that there are many parts of the world where this single solution is contextually inadequate or even dangerous. Perhaps the African continent had a chance to escape this pandemic, but it’s too late for that now. We are facing a crisis of unprecedented social, economic and health-related proportions.
It’s time for us Africans to start thinking about solutions that are not based on the legitimate fears of other nations, but on our own established realities.