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08.01.2021 Nigeria

Lagos battles indifference as virus 'tsunami' looms

By Camille MALPLAT
A teacher at the Rising Sun Children School in Lagos prepares to measure the temperature of a pupil.  By Benson Ibeabuchi (AFP)
LISTEN JAN 8, 2021
A teacher at the Rising Sun Children School in Lagos prepares to measure the temperature of a pupil. By Benson Ibeabuchi (AFP)

Hospitals in Lagos are facing a tidal wave of Covid as the authorities warn of the dangers from a new viral strain, yet many people in Nigeria's mega-city seem indifferent.

The New Year's break saw thousands of people gathered on the city's beaches for fun and relaxation, and social distancing was as rare as mask-wearing.

At night, young people have been crowding blithely into the city's discotheques -- for those stopped at curfew roadblocks, a small banknote slipped into a policeman's hand has often been enough to ease any problems.

Gaudy weddings have taken place without a hitch, sometimes with a hundred or so guests, double the 50 officially allowed for gatherings.

Denial or insouciance in this famously bustling city seem widespread.

"If I feel ill, I'll do the test for malaria, not for Covid, it doesn't kill," said Ali, a 27-year-old taxi driver.

'Tsunami'

The city's government and medical community have multiplied warnings, urging people to wear masks, respect social distancing and obey the curfew.

"We are well into the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. Yesterday, Lagos scarily recorded its highest number of infections in one day," Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu said on Tuesday.

"This second wave comes with severe symptoms and (a) higher number of positive cases," he said. "2021 will only work for us if we take #COVID19 seriously."

According to official figures, Lagos -- a city of around 20 million souls -- has so far notched up 33,329 cases of coronavirus, of which 250 have been fatal, in a national tally of 94,369 cases, 1,324 of them fatal.

But these figures, in a population of around 200 million, Africa's largest, are likely to be far short of the true tally, given the paucity of testing.

Mind the gap: Lagos Police Commissioner Hakeem Odumosu, pictured in March, as he urges social distancing on a city bus. Public transport, streets and markets are notoriously crowded, making it hard for Lagosians to keep their distance.  By PIUS UTOMI EKPEI (AFP) Mind the gap: Lagos Police Commissioner Hakeem Odumosu, pictured in March, as he urges social distancing on a city bus. Public transport, streets and markets are notoriously crowded, making it hard for Lagosians to keep their distance. By PIUS UTOMI EKPEI (AFP)

At Paelon Memorial Hospital, a private facility in the business district of Victoria Island, managing director Ngozi Onyia likened the surge in cases to a "tsunami" rather than merely a second wave.

"My phones are ringing off the hook," she said.

"I'm making tough calls -- who to take into the treatment centre, who to put on one of our four ventilators -- ethical decisions I've never had to make in 38-plus years."

At Lagos University Hospital, a public facility, director Chris Bode said Covid's resurgence "is ravaging our land, claiming many lives."

He blamed the second wave on a new local viral strain that he said was "deadlier" than the first -- an assertion that for now is not supported by the variant's discoverers.

Vaccine cavalry

The authorities are stepping up well-worn appeals to prevent viral spread, although social distancing in the crowded streets, markets and public transport of Lagos is notoriously difficult.

Even so, "prevention messaging is the best approach" for now, said Yap Boum of Epicentre, the research branch of Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

Like other countries, Nigeria is looking urgently to vaccines to stop and reverse the tide.

The government says it hopes to receive 100,000 doses by the end of January and inoculate 40 percent of the population by the end of the year.

Already, rich countries are finding vaccination to be a major task, both in securing sufficient supplies and administering formulas that have to be kept extremely cold.

But it is an even greater undertaking in a large underdeveloped country like Nigeria, where transport problems and unreliable power supplies can disrupt the cold chain.

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