My mother called me August 8 at the tick of dawn. “The news is all over, from Jos and Kaduna, everyone is calling their people,” she said, her voice panicky, high-pitched. “You and your siblings must all bath with salt water before 7am today. It’s extremely imperative in light of the new epidemic.” I lay still, gripped by the new salty wonder. I got to work only to find it had become a national festival of panicky pre-dawn calls. This is Nigeria in the days of ebola, unfounded rumour reigning unfettered.
In actual sense, shouldn’t we all exhibit some form of anxiety at this mysterious illness which spares no mortals and spares no time in claiming its victims? Ebola, which a stubborn Liberian has brought to our homestead; which has already claimed almost a thousand lives in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, and so far, at least at nurse here in Nigeria. Ebola, whose end no one knows.
Yet the crux of the matter is that in such national health emergencies, when the right public health messages and accurate awareness is not QUICKLY spread by the relevant authorities, Rumour, with its all-knowing fangs would ride high on the crescendo of public ignorance. And, in this case, while we still run the risk of having the ebola virus spread to various parts of the country, people will continue to drench themselves with salt; the salt making companies will proverbially smile their salted ways to the banks and telecommunications companies, with pockets bulging with bulks accrued from frightened calls and SMSs, would look down and guffaw at our ignorance. Ebola, alas, turns adults – educated or otherwise — to victims long before their time.
In all fairness, we must commend the Lagos State Government and the Minister of Health, Onyebuchi Chukwu, for rising relatively well to the occasion. The government has, to my knowledge, provided a number of isolated camps and wards, and in Lagos about 70 persons that came in contact with the infected Liberian, Patrick Sawyer, were screened after which six were certified infected and quarantined. A national committee has already been set up and presently, people entering the country are being screened at entry points.
On their parts, many organizations in Lagos are also taking precautionary measures by providing hand sanitizers in their offices. Comparatively, and characteristic of our government, in pre-ebola, times, a ‘high-wired’ committee would have been set up, a day set for presidential inauguration and while the committee members are cocooned in the famous Abuja Hilton, sipping tea and throwing banters, waiting to get the brief of their work whose report we would never see (not to mention implement), ebola would have gone ahead to town and finished its business.
Yet, much more needs to be done in terms of disseminating information that is really accessible to people in every strata and corner of the country. While the urbane Lagosian can easily digest the information and take precautions, what about the market woman in Otukpo, Benue State? What about the farmer in Kebbi State? What about the trader in Ariaria market in Aba? What about the fisher folk in Ikarama, Bayelsa State? The messages must be broken down in broken (pidgin) English, in the major languages as well as other minority tongues. In this matter, media houses (TV, radio, print) and even those that straddle the cyber space must see it as their civic duty to spread the message, actually, the right message (in the end, it will be life-saving for us all since at this point, everyone is vulnerable).
Because information is key, again, media organizations should see it as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility to ensure that the viewing or listening public remains safe as much as possible. For now, from what one can glimpse, only a few like Silverbird Television are up to the task. The majority others are still busy playing raunchy videos of ‘do-me-I-do you’ or ‘baby-baby’ crooners complete with repulsively suggestive dance-steps even with an emergency at hand.
Now, in the absence of that, the salt merchants will continue to reap the proceeds from our collective ignorance. I hear already that bitter kola has since run out of stocks in places like Abuja. Without any doubt, in the days of ebola, when government doesn’t take charge of the information machinery, rumour will ride very high in salted waves and salty merchants and communication giants (who have in recent times made fortunes from selling prayer points to cracking dry jokes) will smile their pot-bellied ways to the banks through selling fake panaceas. We must leave big grammar in the days of ebola!
The unlucky Nigerian public has always been left to its fate, sometimes even to its devices in times of national emergencies, such as the ongoing, virulent ‘salt water therapy’. This gap in contact and communication is also exactly why many families are still huddled and sleeping inside bushes in the North East, out of fear of Boko Haram, children in internally displaced camps dying of hunger or cholera, while the PDP and APC continue their self-centred political fisticuffs and the Presidency keep insisting on an extra One Billion Dollars to sweep Boko Haram into oblivion. This is ebola, this is about life and death, and the response must be different.
The Ministry of Education, National Orientation Agency, the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) and most importantly, the Ministry of Health must collaborate seamlessly with relevant groups, agencies and governments at the various levels, working across party lines, dispensing duties irrespective of tribal or religious sentiments, to tackle the deadly virus before it wrecks more harms, and now, before Rumour takes a destructive stronghold on our people, sometimes so easily gullible. While America holds back its secretive serum and may hold us to political ransom to have a sip of it, we can keep ebola at a distant, perpetual bay, armed to the teeth with information.
The public must be told in plain terms to take extra precautions during massive religious gathering and the now ubiquitous political rallies. People must be told in everyday language to reduce body contacts with sick persons and made to know that ebola is not an airborne disease and can only be transmitted via contact with body fluids such as blood, saliva, urine or semen.
Also, that ebola symptoms, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) includes fever, vomiting, diarrhea, sore throat, joint and muscle aches, stomach pain, headache, rashes, red eyes, hiccups and bleeding from body openings.
We must increase the current level of public health information. This is a major public health emergency, and we stop Nigeria from reaching the casualty levels of affected West African countries.
Meanwhile, let people know that salt (sodium chloride) does no good to our bare bodies. According to medical experts, direct contact with the blood stream may actually increase the risk of high blood pressure and heart failure. An added ebolarated ‘wahala’.
Abah is a Lagos-based child and women’s rights activist, and public health advocate.