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REPORT: Social distancing a tough choice for people living in slums

DANIEL Nnamdi is a butcher. He trades solely in goat meat at the popular Lugbe Market within the Abuja Municipal Area Council (AMAC). He strives to maintain social distancing as precautionary measures recommended against the raging novel COVID-19 disease which has held the world to ransom, as he engages in his daily business. But the more he tries, the more difficult it is to sustain.

When The ICIR visited his stall, as many others visited, he was not wearing hand gloves while buyers freely touch the red meat on the table before him.

He said it is rather tough practising social distancing, and so it is for his customers.

“Oga, how much is this goat head,” a middle-aged customer asked. “N1,000,” he responded even as he continued talking with The ICIR reporter.

Daniel Nnamdi, Butcher in Lugbe market Photo Credit: Olugbenga Adanikin, The ICIR

The two bargainers seemed oblivious of the close distance between them. The buyer keeps touching the piece of meats carefully arranged on the table. Though the health authorities recommend two meters distance, this advice is disregarded in many local markets in Nigeria.

The first buyer at Nnamdi’s shop eventually, left only to return about three minutes later.
Before he returned, another customer had visited his stall, touched the same piece of meat, unconcerned whether other customers had infected the meat or not. The buyer renegotiated, maintained closed contact and opted for a different piece of meat.

“But what can I do?” Nnamdi queries the reporter out of a clear state of confusion. “I don’t even know who is already infected,” he said.

“Once in a while, I wash my hands with soap and when I get home, I sanitise both hands before meeting my family. So, it is really a disturbing situation.”

Social distancing a tough choice in slums, markets

Since the COVID-19 outbreak broke out in Wuhan China, last December,  infections and deaths have spread across the world, even those nations considered most powerful – record deaths virtually on a daily basis.

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The infection is highly contagious and could be contacted easily via sneezing, coughing on any hard surface or once droplets from a confirmed case get in contact with uninfected persons.

As of 2 April 2020 the World Health Organisation (WHO) has recorded 827,419 confirmed cases, 40,777 confirmed deaths in 206 nations. It also warned the pandemic could spread to 1 million cases in few days.

In Nigeria, 174 cases have so far been recorded with two deaths while nine cases discharged.

Sadly, the situation is not only peculiar to Nnamdi but other traders involved in food commodities across most conventional markets within the federal capital territory and the neighbouring states.

For either economic or cultural reasons, social distancing appeared to be a tough choice for the less privileged masses.

Most families live in small apartments, dine together and so maintaining a social space in a room becomes a tough choice. Unfortunately for those whose source of livelihood is dependent on small scale businesses, they are rendered helpless in the face of the scourge as they are also required to avoid crowded places for safety.
What also comes to mind, is the religious, turned cultural belief of the al-majiri practice, mostly in northern Nigeria where children of school ages are sent out to the streets to fend for themselves.

Social distancing impossible for the poor – Motor mechanic spare part dealer

In Dape community, for instance, Rasheed Olawale (43) year-old father of four is a motor mechanic spare part dealer. He lives with his wife in a room apartment known as a ‘self-contain.’ To start with, he has never heard of the term ‘social distancing or self-isolation’ but the place he calls home is just a room which consists of toilet and bathroom merged together as a unit, with a small kitchen carved out.

Rasheed Olawale’s single-room apartment in Dape Community, Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja Photo Credit: Olugbenga Adanikin, The ICIR

Yet, the rented apartment is far better than other families who reside in a popular face-me-and-face-you building which might as well be difficult to maintain a social distancing and good hygiene.

The structure would usually consist of at least 12 rooms apart, almost facing each other but residents still share at most two toilets and bathrooms – a toilet for each line of the structure, thus makes compliance a bit tough.

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The WHO says maintaining a social distancing of a minimum of six feet or two metres apart is one of the vital preventive measures to prevent the spread of the highly contagious COVID-19 disease.

“How do you do that?” Olawale asked. “It is difficult to know who has it and it is normal that a child who sees his father’s friend would run to exchange greetings, so also to his friends across the streets.”

His most concern was how to comply with the social distance advice without palliative measures from the government. Taking care of his family is another worry and why he would be left with no choice to remain in the same room, with his family if peradventure, he or any of his family members gets infected.

“What do you expect? Are they not my family? I don’t even want to think about it,” he said as he prayerfully counters the disease – it will never near my household, he exclaimed.

“Aside, my wife does not go that far other than to purchase some commodities in the nearby market and supply the estates,” Olawale adds oblivious that his wife could get infected in the supply process.

But, one interesting quality about Olawale is that, despite his doubts, he strives to maintain a good hygiene in his family. As he speaks with The ICIR, he brought out his hand sanitizer, and called for more awareness.

“Aside from governors and other rich people, who else among the poor have contacted the disease?” He queried. “Please don’t be deceived. During the Ebola outbreak, we beat the disease. There is currently Lassa fever so we will beat this as well.”

Headache, flu normal occurrences so we are not bothered

In the course of this report, the spare part dealer also exhibited a similar mindset held by most individuals in the slums and local communities. People are used to coughing and flu from time immemorial, he argued.

He attempted to further paint a scenario of his everyday work demand, all to make the reporter understand rationale why developing a headache or flu would be a usual experience in his line of work.

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He would struggle daily in the scorching sun to persuade clients to his automobile spare parts, so “you can’t comprehend the kind of stress I undergo daily.”

“I’ll be in the sun from dawn to dusk. Aside, developing headache, cough or sneezing has always been a norm. So why is it an issue?” he noted. “Though I learned the disease is dangerous. It won’t come near us.”

Literarily, Adewale’s case is not so peculiar. There are many other self-employed struggling entrepreneurs who have found themselves in a similar situation for either social or economic reasons.

They believed the lockdown order without any palliative would mean impoverishing the poor, as a result, would not make any preventive recommendation much effective.

“Sincerely, the government just wants to kill us with poverty,” he said with clear seriousness stressing that for so long they stay away from work, and remain at home, taking care of the home front would be a great challenge. So, to Adewale, for instance, meeting people is inevitable yet, staying out of business would come at a great cost.

It is a battle between the devil and the deep blue sea. “How long shall we stay at home to maintain social distancing,” he chuckled. And because he manages in a single room with his family of five, the social distance might only be a tale.

He emphasised that if for instance, he possibly gets in contact with a case unknowingly, where would he resort to? He queried, as he only has one-room apartment.

“Before nko? Why won’t I sleep with my wife and children? He said.

On 12 March, the WHO labelled the viral disease a pandemic due to its fast spread, claiming more lives. Sadly, more cases and casualties are still expected since the pandemic currently has no cure.

In Nigeria, confirmed cases keep rising with very limited testing centres for an estimated population of 200 million people.

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But, notable among precautionary measures highlighted by the WHO and the Nigerian government through the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and the Federal Ministry of Health are to remain indoor, engage in proper handwashing and the social distance directive.

Adopting these gestures, it is believed, would check further spread of the virus, particularly in cases of social gathering. But findings during this report revealed that awareness is still low and maintaining social distancing is difficult for the masses due to socio-cultural and economic reasons.

But to enforce the measures, the federal government had to shut down schools and the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC). Major civil service activities at Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) were subsequently put on hold except for those in essential services such as health workers, emergency and humanitarian services included the security operatives.

The federal government later suspended the Federal Executive Council (FEC) meeting and directed religious houses to restrict gathering to only 50 persons. It was later reduced to 20 while some states rolled out curfew to restrict movement.

Latest in the plan is the lockdown of two states – Ogun, Lagos and Federal Capital Territory (FCT) by President Muhammadu Buhari as a measure to stop further spread of the disease.

Our hope is in God, he will end COVID-19

Like other respondents, Nojeem Akinwale, 37 year-old-plumber put his sole trust in God.
He strongly affirmed he cannot possibly adhere strictly to all the recommendations, except with divine help, as it is easier to unconsciously dip hands in the nose, the eye or the month, all in an effort to stay safe.

Nojeem Akinwale one-bedroom apartment in Dape Community, FCT Abuja Photo Credit: Olugbenga Adanikin, The ICIR

“I prevent my wards from going out and I try as much as possible to wash my hands even though I cannot afford hand sanitisers.”

“All we do now is to plead for God to divert whoever wants to bring it close to our dwelling,” Akinwale adds.

Mrs. Omotayo Abdulsalam, (35) mother of two resides in a two-bedroom flat with her husband in Jabi. She teaches in a public school along karmo-life camp axis, AMAC. But, unlike others, she has managed to maintain social distancing and good hygiene.

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“I have been in-door since the lockdown announcement. We do not also entertain any visitor and we have maintained good hygiene,” Abdulsalam said.

“All I pray is for God to provide our needs to avoid hunger.”

Emmanuel Epete, in his opinion, said asking people to stay at home and their income comes from their daily businesses could cause more harm than the COVID-19 pandemic itself.

“There are people with many children with other expenses, how will they survive, so I believe it will be a difficult time to maintain social distancing.”

Oyin Komolafe, a lawyer also observed it might be difficult for the poor masses to maintain social distancing without government supports as they would need to survive. She added that people might die of starvation or forced to seek help from neighbours, thus defying the social distancing recommendation.

“For starters, a large number of Nigerians are living below the poverty line. Some, even less than a dollar and these meagre sums are gotten from their menial jobs,” Komolafe says.

“Most menial jobs only give daily wages. Simply put, no going out, no food. Many may die of starvation. We might even have cases of starved people raiding houses and not caring whether there’s a disease outbreak.”

However, she advised for more financial inclusion stressing that the poorest of the poor might not get any palliatives, even if the government decides to support citizens via the Biometric Verification Numbers (BVN).

An expert, Dr. Alero Robert, Public Health Physician, though acknowledged the importance of social distance, there is a need for more awareness.

“It is a behavioural change that needs to change and needs to change quickly,” she said during Channels television live television programme on Wednesday.

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“We have to do it and we have to keep emphasising on it and creating awareness to it with all the jingles, announcements on televisions on what to do and what not do.”

She further mentioned handwashing, stressing that prior to now, handwashing was not so popular until consistent messages.

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