Cosmas Odoemena

The Governor of Lagos State, Babajide Sanwo-Olu has shown courage and tact expected of a leader, by cancelling indefinitely the plan to reopen mosques and churches billed for Friday, June 19 and Sunday, June 21 respectively. The governor based this on the rising cases of COVID-19 in the state. According to reports, the Governor, the Deputy and the Commissioner for Health, at a virtual meeting with faith leaders on Saturday, June 13, carried them along in taking the decision. They saw the gloomy statistics, in Nigeria, and elsewhere in the world. The facts were as clear as day. And they knew the only sensible thing to do. 

But it was predicted. Yet, many Nigerians, especially those who still don’t believe the virus exits, are living their lives with a devil-may-care attitude.  My medical doctor cousin in Imo State, in a WhatsApp chat said: “We are in for a time bomb.”

“I risked attending a nearby church last Sunday and had to leave the church halfway.”  “The church was filled to capacity.”  “There was no form of social distancing.” “I counted less than 10 people wearing masks with me.”  “The priest in his sermon sounded as if he didn’t believe COVID-19 existed.”  “I ran for my dear life!”

On hearing the governor’s announcement to stay action on the reopening of religious houses, a medical colleague here in Lagos said “Thank God!”

As healthcare workers, we have seen for ourselves the upsurge in the number of COVID-19 cases in the hospitals. Unfortunately, healthcare workers themselves are among those who have contracted the virus. I shudder to think what will happen if healthcare workers are overwhelmed by these cases. They are already short-staffed and overworked, because some of their colleagues who got infected can’t come to work. What’s more, the isolation centers are filled up.

It was Sir Winston Churchill who said, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”   With a chilling sense of déjà vu, the 1918 Spanish flu killed about 50 million people in the world. It was the second wave that killed more people. Pandemics occur in waves. And these waves must be anticipated. I have harped on the same string, that science, and not emotions should determine scientific decisions. As at 4th of May when restrictions were lifted, Nigeria had 245 new cases of COVID-19, with a total of 2802, with 93 deaths. A brief breakdown showed there were 76 cases in Lagos State, 37 cases in Katsina State, 32 in Jigawa State, 23 in Kano State, 19 in Abuja, 18 in Borno State, 10 in Edo State, nine in Bauchi State, six in Adamawa State, five in Oyo State, five in Ogun State, one each in Benue, Ekiti, Niger, Osun and Zamfara states.

On 15 June, when Sanwo-Olu took this decision, we had 573 new cases, with a total of 16658, with 4 new deaths bringing the total number of deaths to 424. In Lagos State, we had 216 new cases, 103 in Rivers State, 68 in Oyo State, 40 in Edo State, 21 in Kano State, 20 in Gombe State, 17  in Abuja, 13 in Delta State, 12 in Plateau State, 12 in Bauchi State, 10 in Niger State, nine in Kebbi State, eight in Ogun State, eight in Ondo State, seven in Abia State, five in Nasarawa State, one each in Kwara, Anambra, Borno and Benue states.

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In all this, Lagos is the epicenter, with 7,319 confirmed coronavirus cases, 82 fatalities and 1,137 recoveries.  In a recent op-ed, “Perilous reopening of religious houses”, I had argued that it was not yet safe to reopen religious houses. But, some Nigerians countered that if markets are allowed to operate, and people can enter buses, religious houses are “better organized”, so should be allowed to reopen.

Yes, the markets and buses may not be well organized, but you are probably safer in either of them than in a religious house!  The market place most times is an open place. Religious houses are enclosed places. In the open, with the air moving, you are less likely to contract the virus. In the buses, with the windows open, airflow may keep the virus away. Again, some reseachers think that at warmer temperatures you are less likely to get the virus. The markets being open, people are likely to be under the sun. Now, is there adequate ventilation in those religious houses? Often, you see people begin to fan themselves or mop their faces in the church. Some churches may have air conditioners, and might be tempted to use them.

Again, even if the churches decide not to use air conditioners, and use ceiling fans, won’t the air be flowing directly on people’s heads? And, if they are using standing fans, who will the fans be directed at? Who will the fans not be directed at?

How will the number of people in the religious houses be determined? Religious houses are not like banks, or stores that people stay outside, and enter in batches, while maintaining the maximum number of 20.  How will churches or mosques determine the so-called 40% of their capacity? Does it even make sense to be talking of 40% capacity? What if that does not allow for adequate social distancing? Okay, if it’s a church and we say they have gotten the required 40%, the usual thing is for the rest to stay outside, because they are unlikely to go back home. They will likely cluster outside of course, without social distancing, with their face masks as usual below their mouth. After the service, those outside will wait to exchange pleasantries with their friends inside the church. Next Sunday, perhaps those who made it early last week might be late this time, while those who came late last time, might make it inside. After the service, those outside, will also wait to exchange pleasantries, with those inside. And, this will be the vicious circle that will propagate the virus.

An Igbo proverb says “one does not tell a deaf person that war has broken out.” Nigerians must take responsibility for their safety. Standing close to someone who is not wearing a face mask is like standing close to a suicide bomber. This is the time you can offend people in the name of protecting yourself, and your family from the virus. Anyone, who won’t confirm to the safety guidelines health officials have laid down to protect us all from the coronavirus, is a very dangerous person and should be avoided. The same people who want the doors of religious houses to be flung open cringe at the thought of their children going back to school now.

I am sorry for those beclouded by religious zealotry, as well as the fool-hardy, in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. They won’t understand why Sanwo-Olu had to take the hard decision. It’s just too bad that we can’t wait for them to understand!

Dr. Odoemena, medical practitioner, writes from Lagos