COVID-19: Mass Deaths In The North As The New Reality 

By Suleiman Uba Gaya
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It all started in Kano about a month ago, and a week later, specifically on April 21, 2020, a prominent national newspaper reported that, in the space of three days, 150 people have died in Kano. Undertakers in three graveyards in the commercial city, who also doubled as gravediggers, said the frequency at which they were receiving corpses around the time was very unusual when compared with the number of people they were burying before the advent of the coronavirus ravaging the whole world.

Even those losing their loved ones around that period confirmed to various journalists that those that were dying were exhibiting symptoms of coronavirus. The figure excluded tens of other graveyards spread over the eight local government areas that make up metropolitan Kano. At that time also, Kano had only recorded 59 confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to figures released by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC).

The Guardian of London reported the case of a certain 75-year-old Musa Abubakar, who has been digging graves at a graveyard near the Kano Abbatoir for 60 years. He told the paper that, throughout these years, he had never dug more than three graves in a day, but, since the outbreak of coronavirus, he, in concert with his colleagues, are now digging at least 40 graves per day. He categorically said that, from the beginning of Ramadan three weeks ago to now, they have buried at least 300 persons. And that is in just one cemetery in a city that has tens of other burial grounds. Musa Abubakar also told the same newspaper that four of his colleagues exposed directly to the corpses have died, and that the state government has not yet fulfilled a simple promise to provide them with protective gear.

Very strangely, however, the government of Kano State denied the story, with the governor insisting that the number of those who died was being exaggerated. When the government was confronted with superior facts, more so when 20 days ago Kano lost 22 very prominent persons in a single day, including a newspaper editor, it now said the reason for the deaths had nothing to do with coronavirus, that those who died were already managing such terminal ailments as diabetes, hypertension, asthma, etc. Very shockingly, the government made this categorical statement without conducting autopsy on even one corpse.

I travelled all the way from Abuja to Kano to ascertain the true position of things and, after going round at least 10 graveyards in the city, one can confirm that citizens of Kano State have continued to die in hundreds. In terms of the figures of positive cases released daily by the NCDC, I can also confirm that it has jumped from 59 to around 700 as at the time of this publication. But even this figure is only for those who had the privilege of getting tested, meaning only God knows the huge number of persons suffering from the ailment.

I wonder whether it requires rocket science to decipher that, bitter as it may sound, what was at play in Kano was simply a case of community transmission of COVID-19. Indeed, a committee set up by the Federal Government to ascertain the truth came up with the same conclusion, though it was made to eat its words a few days later when the minister of a health appeared before the House of Representatives to say no conclusion was reached yet.

But look at it this way. Diabetes, hypertension and asthma, some of the ailments being cited by government officials as responsible for the spike in the number of deaths, are not in any way strange ailments. They have always been with us. Why is it that it is only now, with the advent of coronavirus, that these ailments are killing people in an unprecedented manner? The simple answer is that there is more to it than these ailments.

Now, we need to ask ourselves: why is it that governments at various levels are denying the truth and have been busy trying to divert our attention from reality? The simple answer is politics and irresponsibility. For many days, the only testing centre for COVID-19 in Kano had packed up, and the mysterious deaths started getting noticed at that time. The NCDC, an agency of the Federal Government, clearly doesn’t want to be blamed for that failure.

The NCDC had done something that a lot of people found very strange and shocking. It was busy setting up testing centers even in places that only got their first index case weeks after Kano, but was foot-dragging in doing same in a state that is officially the most populous in Nigeria. It only did so when it was rather late. So, it is not in its interest to admit that people were dying in Kano owing to community transmission of the ailment. Of course, after that false start, the NCDC had stepped up its game, and has since made Kano a top priority.

And what of the state government? The Governor Umar Ganduje administration probably thought Kano people were immune to COVID-19. For many days, the ailment had refused to register its presence in Kano, and all that was being heard was cases upon cases in Lagos and other states in the southern parts of the country. A serious government would have used the grace period to get fully prepared. But what did the governor do? He set up a task force and made his daughter, yes, his own biological daughter, a key member of the task force. Though the Deputy Governor, Nasiru Gawuna, was chairing the task force, reports in the public domain indicated the governor’s daughter, a rookie doctor, was in charge of almost everything in the task force, so much so that meetings were delayed or even outrightly cancelled or postponed if she was not available.

With the spike in the number of the so-called mysterious deaths, and with heavy criticisms and condemnation of his actions (and inactions) left, right and centre, Governor Ganduje probably is realizing his mistakes, and very little is now being heard of his influential daughter whose membership of the state task force was allegedly slowing down affairs.

In any case, his request for N15 billion to attack the coronavirus has since been turned down by President Muhammadu Buhari, to the delight of the people who alleged the governor was going to divert it to some other negative use. The Federal Government has instead been paying a lot of attention to Kano and providing as much tools and medication as it could in the bid to scale down the number of deaths. To his credit, Governor Ganduje has now been cooperating with the NCDC, and was lucky to get serious support from Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote, who donated a well-equipped isolation centre and has partnered with his colleagues in the private sector to provide another one, converting a urology centre to a well-equipped treatment centre.

Now, I used the example of Kano because it was there that the first case of mass deaths was recorded in Nigeria since the advent of COVID-19. But what happened after that? Hadejia, in Jigawa State, and Azare in Bauchi State also started recording mysterious deaths. But like Ganduje, the governors of these states also resorted to living in denial of what is clear and obvious. They all don’t want to be blamed for failure to save the people.

But the frightening reality is that problems are only solved when those affected believe there is a problem. You cannot be having headache and take medication for ulcer and expect to get cured. So, if our governments at various levels are truly committed to curtailing this pandemic and saving the people, it is best they admit the truth and stop worsening the situation by their needless denial. When you keep telling the people that their loved ones were not being killed by coronavirus, chances are they will not use any protection in preparing the dead bodies for burial and, in the process, they, too, will get infected.

The three cities cited as an example, Kano, Hadejia and Azare, are renowned commercial centres in the North with huge population density. Now, Sokoto, too, has become another state witnessing strange deaths on a mass scale. We do not pray to get more states, but then that is only wishful thinking. One sad reality is that the people themselves are doing very little to protect themselves.

My fear is that, with some people in the North still arguing that coronavirus does not exist, curtailing the pandemic in those areas is going to remain a Herculean task. What, therefore, government at all levels needs to pay more attention to is massive sensitization of the entire populace. There is no way COVID-19 or any other ailment could be curtailed without the buy-in of the people. We simply must forget about denial, set aside our political differences and collectively embrace this new reality, like other sane societies have done. Only by so doing could we defeat and extinguish COVID-19 and other ailments

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