Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the world-acclaimed Nigerian-born novelist and author of Half of A Yellow Sun, Americanah, etc, captured our collective feelings when, in her recent post on social media, she observed: “Coronavirus is a menace in the air, a menace inside our heads. Every day I am reminded of how fragile, how breakable we are…My daughter coughs and I worry. My throat itches and I worry…” Of all the liars in the world, sometimes the worst are own fears, said Rudyard Kipling, the Indian-born English journalist, novelist, poet and author.
On Easter Sunday, April 12, 2020, it became my turn to be bitten by the fear-and-worry bug, to listen to the worst liar in the world: my fears. Some days before that day, I had experienced some fever and continuous headache. But it became a bit unsettling when the symptoms continued for three days nonstop. I picked up my mobile phone and dialed one of the published numbers belonging to health officials in charge of the fight against the pandemic. “This is Lagos State Ministry of Health,” a male voice at the other end of the line, announced. “What can we do for you?”
Reporting to Lagos State health authorities
I told him the experience I had been having. He paused before asking for my name and where I was calling from. I told him. By the way, I live in a fully developed suburb of Lagos called Igando, located on the Lagos State University (LASU) – Iyana Ipaja Road. He asked when I started noticing the symptoms. I told him. He did some mental calculation and arrived at a date: April 9.
“Have you been coughing, vomiting, stooling or having a runny nose?” I said no. “Is this your phone number?” I said yes. “It’s ok. I have taken note of your details. We will contact you shortly.”
But before he hung up, he issued a directive to me to send a text message to the line I called, stating my name, street of residence, number, nearest bus stop and, once again, details of the symptoms that I just described to him. I dutifully did so.
He passed on the information to another health officer. Or, so I thought. This is because shortly after I finished speaking with him, another male voice, whose identity the “Truecaller” app revealed as Ope Ogundimu, called to acknowledge receipt of my complaint.
But he got me a bit irritated when he started asking for the same details I had earlier supplied to the first officer that I spoke with: my name, phone number, street name, number, nearest bus stop and symptoms of sickness.
Ms Oluwaseun Osowobi is the Executive Director, Stand to End Rape, (STER), a non-governmental organisation (NGO). The lady who was declared negative and discharged recently after undergoing treatment on COVID-19, at the Infectious Diseases Hospital (IDH), Yaba, Lagos, lamented about the lack of data-sharing between the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and Lagos State government. She said this while describing how she was made to provide answers all over again to the same set of questions she had earlier been asked. I must confess that I too found the operational phenomenon quite irksome.
“But I thought I had earlier provided you people with this information,” I protested mildly.
“I know. I am trying to crosscheck with you the information that I have with me, just to make sure we are not making a mistake,” Ogundimu said. “I see,” I said. With that explanation, I reluctantly went over with him the same information I had earlier supplied. “Have you, at any time recently, had contact with a returnee from UK, USA, Italy, Spain, Canada or China?” he asked. I said no.
He followed up with wanting to know my occupation. I said I am a journalist. He asked for the name of the media I work with. I told him. “It’s ok,” he said. “We will be at your residence shortly to collect samples from you for analysis.”
Rapid response by field workers
Twenty minutes or so after we finished speaking, he called to announce their presence and to request that I send someone to open the gate for them. I did, and shortly afterward, my son who I sent, walked in, followed by two young women dressed in Oxblood colour work clothes. A closer look showed that they wore white face masks and hand gloves and carried with them one metallic medical tools box each.
On getting to my flat, they stopped in front of the iron protector and asked my son to leave it wide open while they get dressed up. They walked into the verandah, opened the boxes they were carrying, brought out white personal protective equipment (PPE), the type you’ve always seen on TV, on health officials battling diseases and viruses, especially during the Ebola epidemic.
From the window, we watched with a mixture of curiosity and anxiety as the two ladies battled to kit themselves with the PPE. A more careful look showed that they were jittery while at it, a pointer to the fact that they were probably trying that on, for the first time. At some point, when they needed to help each other button up some points and straighten out some places on the protective garment, they did. Next, they disinfected the ground and atmosphere around them with some chemicals.
That done, they politely asked me to bring a chair with me and come out to the verandah for the sample-taking. “Open your mouth wide and bring out your tongue,” one of them instructed. I did, and she stuck a long swab stick into the lower part of my tongue roof, brought it out and held it up with an unsteady hand. I watched, with interest, as her colleague used a medium-size red-coloured scissors to cut off the swab end of it and allowed it drop into a small test-tube collector that she was holding in her left hand.
Her colleague repeated the same process by sticking another long swab stick deep into my left nostril, warning me, good-naturedly to brace up as it would irritate me a little. Indeed, it did, making me feel as if the air was being cut off from me from that part of the nose. Again, she held it up for her colleague to cut and allow the swab end fall into another small test-tube container. Then finally, they gave me a bigger test-tube to spit into. I did.
Having collected all the samples they needed, they asked me to go. After I took my leave, they sprayed the plastic kits in which they put the collected samples as well as the floor around them with an aerosol-like disinfectant. They also sprayed their kits before removing, folding and putting them back into the boxes they came with. Put together, the whole process lasted for about 30 minutes, with the dressing and undressing taking the major part of the time. “You will get the result in 48 hours,” the ladies said as they walked away with their boxes.
Panic, pandemonium and placations
But, shortly after they left, all hell was let loose around our area as news spread like a wildfire that someone living in the neighbourhood had tested positive to COVID-19. According to what I was I told, here and there, on our street, Isiaka Olorunfemi, you could see frightened residents gathered in groups to discuss in whispers, the unfolding ‘scary’ development although the street was said to have been initially deserted when the news leaked out. It turned out that the rumour was fueled by the presence of the Lagos State Ministry of Health vehicle parked outside our gate and, of course, by the two field health workers walking in and out with medical tools boxes. Their presence, I learnt, caused considerable apprehension everywhere.
Unknown to us, a neighbour living in the adjacent building in the next compound and directly opposite us, had earlier used her phone camera to capture the photograph of the two ladies kitted in personal protective gears (see photo). This, she sent to one of our neighbours living upstairs, directly above us, to seek more information on the health officials’ visit.
Alarmed by the photo, the co-tenant, who, apparently, did not know what was going on, forwarded it to our common WhatsApp platform created for communication among the tenants, also seeking some explanations. “Please o, my people, what is happening in this compound?” she wrote.
But I did not see or read her post until about two hours later. And, when I eventually did, it occurred to me that I would need to make some clarifications before people set the whole area ablaze with unfounded rumours.
“I am just reading this text which was posted at 2pm,” I wrote back. “My answer: there is no cause for alarm yet. Just routine testing for Coronavirus, to make sure that everything is alright. I ordered for it because of some symptoms I seem to have – some fever and constant headache I’d been experiencing for some days now. Ordinarily, they should be no cause for alarm. But in these days of Coronavirus, one has learnt not to take some things for granted. Better err on the side of caution than on the side of presumption…The result would be out in 48 hours. I will disclose my status, negative or positive, on this platform. It’s a promise.
“But I need to add that what I have done is the standard practice all over the world. Many people, including governors, are doing it and coming out with negative results. I pray that mine will also come out negative. But even if it turns out the other way, it is not a death sentence. Perhaps, on this Easter Sunday, the Lord needs someone to press home that point and to give some people traumatized by constant bombardment of news about this pandemic, some hope. If that is His plan and will, I am available.
“As you all know, the world is now a global village in which what affects one affects others, either for good or bad, as can be seen in this photo taken from the opposite compound. It is well and I believe it will continue to be well. I have taken the time to go into this long explanation in order to calm some frayed nerves. May God bless you all.” In response to my post, the neighbour who asked the question, added: “Amen. It is well with you, sir! The resurrection power is at work in you; so, no fears!”
Battling anxieties while awaiting result
But her encouragement notwithstanding, I began to entertain some fears as the days of waiting for the result wore on. Like Chimamanda rightly noted, the virus is not only a menace in the air; it is also a menace inside our heads. The fear started right from the time the field workers finished taking my samples and left. But it got heightened when, after two, three days, the result was not out, contrary to the assurance they gave that it would be, within the next 48 hours.
What if I eventually test positive, I asked myself. What would be the reactions? How would my neighbours and colleagues in the office react? My wife had earlier expressed fears about our family getting stigmatised. If there is anything we learnt from the little experience we had, that Easter Sunday afternoon, it is that these fears can, sometimes, be surrealistic.
It is such that even if I eventually test negative, I am sure there are people who would continue to regard me as a pariah, someone to give a wide berth, even if Babajide Sanwo-Olu, the Lagos State Governor, were to go out of his way to post my photograph on his Twitter handle, to say so.
“I was apprehensive when we were told to isolate ourselves because…our people normally stigmatise people with some ailments, leading to people not disclosing their status. So, I wondered how I would be treated if eventually I got it,” Alhaji Zakari Abubakar, the Niger State Commissioner for Finance, said after he tested negative. Before this time he, along with other commissioners in the state were asked to go into self-isolation along with his governor, Abubakar Sani Bello, following the latter’s contact with some confirmed cases.
“I must confess that the period of waiting for the result of my test was a difficult moment for me,” Governor Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti State, said in an interview with journalists. During my short period of waiting, I found the experience that Abubakar and Fayemi spoke about, an all-too familiar one.
I am a Pentecostal Christian. The other day while the Coronavrius rage was on I had encouraged members of our congregation not to lose hope nor succumb to the paralysing fear informed by its ravages in countries like Italy, Spain, Britain, China and United States.
To drive home my message, I had quoted to them Psalm 91: 3-8, which read thus in New Living Translation (NLT) of the Bible: “For he will rescue you from every trap and protect you from the fatal plague. He will shield you with his wings. He will shelter you with his feathers. His faithful promises are your armor and protection. Do not be afraid of the terrors of the night, nor fear the dangers of the day, nor dread the plague that stalks in darkness, nor the disaster that strikes at midday. Though a thousand fall at your side, though ten thousand are dying around you, these evils will not touch you.”
Now I worried about what those members would think if they get to learn or hear that the person who encouraged them with those words tested positive to the virus.
“You will not test positive in Jesus name,” my wife said to me as if she was reading my mind. Lost in thought, I said what must have seemed to her a barely audible Amen. “I said you will not test positive in Jesus name,” she repeated as if I disagreed with her. I said a louder Amen.
Chinua Achebe, said, in Things Fall Apart, that if a man says yes, his chi (personal god) also affirms. On Friday, April 17, 2020, at exactly 3:27 pm, five days after the samples were taken from me, this text message came into my phone: “Good day, Chika Abanobi. Your COVID-19 test result is negative. Please, stay safe. NCDC.”