The novel coronavirus is not only devastating humankind, it is also disrupting the settled certainties and spiritual verities of religious fanatics for whom atavistic and superstitious frames of reference are the only ways to make sense of the world around them.
I’ll start from fringe members of my own religious community. When the new coronavirus first emerged in China, a lunatic fringe of the Nigerian Muslim community celebrated it and said it was Allah’s punishment against China for mistreating its Muslim minority population.
They said the clearest indication that it was divine pestilence to avenge the persecution of Chinese Muslims could be seen in the fact that all Chinese people were compelled to cover their whole bodies in ways that were reminiscent of the sartorial choices Allah enjoined Muslims, especially Muslim women, to make, which China denies its Muslim minority.
I recall telling a religious crackpot who made this silly argument early this year that it wasn’t the first time that people had covered their bodies in response to a pandemic. The 1918 Spanish Flu, which killed nearly half a million Nigerians and more than 50 million people worldwide, caused people to wear face masks.
I added that his theory would fall apart if the virus made its way to Muslim communities. But, like other simpleminded, delusory loonies, he was certain that Muslims were providentially inoculated against Allah’s pandemic for infidels.
Shortly after, Iran became one of the epicenters of the new coronavirus. It killed people, including political and religious leaders, with the same viciousness that it did Chinese atheists, Buddhists, and Taoists.
Then Sunni zealots among the conspiracy theorists changed tack and said Iranians became susceptible to the virus because, being Shiites, they are not real Muslims, and that the Hazrat Masumeh Shrine in Qom, Iran, which was the principal way by which the virus spread in the country, isn’t “Islamic.”
Of course, we all know the virus has infected Sunni Muslim strongholds in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia. For the first time in decades, al-Masjid al-Ḥarām in Mecca and Al-Masjid an-Nabawi in Medina, Islam’s two holiest mosques, were closed to worshippers because of COVID-19.
As of the time of writing this column, there were 3,651 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 47 deaths in Saudi Arabia. An April 8, 2020 New York Times report said up to 150 members of the Saudi Royal family have been infected with the virus and that Faisal bin Bandar Al Saud, the king’s nephew, is in intensive care unit arising from COVID-19.
The tenor of the conspiracy theory has changed again. Coronavirus is now a grand plot by “Jews” to halt the inexorable march of Islam, to disrupt Muslim rituals in Mecca, and to dominate the world to the exclusion of Muslims!
There are different Christian versions of this superstitious lunacy. Enoch Adeboye, the General Overseer of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), for instance, said the new coronavirus would not infect, much less kill, people “who serve God wholeheartedly.”
Since thousands of Christians, including medical professionals who were on the front lines in the service of humanity, were killed by the disease, Adeboyean logic would have us believe that they died because they didn’t “serve God wholeheartedly.”
Abia State governor, Okezie Ikpeazu, upped the ante of religious irrationality when he said “Abia is the only state (in Nigeria) that is mentioned in the Bible. We have been promised by God that none of these diseases will get to us. We saw Ebola and pox. Even this one (COVID-19) it won’t get to us.”
If Abia State is immune from COVID-19 because of the phonological accident that caused the word “Abia” to appear once in the Bible, why is the virus running riot in Israel, the very scene of the Bible?
As of Friday when this column was written, more than 10,000 people have tested positive for the new coronavirus in Israel, and nearly 100 people have died from it. But Israel was mentioned countless times in the Bible.
Italy, the headquarters of Catholicism and of Christianity for centuries, has been one of the worst-hit countries in the coronavirus pandemic, with 147,577 infections and nearly 20,000 deaths as of April 10.
What is so special about Abia that God would spare it of the coronavirus but let it fatally maraud Italy and Israel? Even the United States that Nigerians like to call “God’s own country” and whose motto is “In God we trust” is now the epicenter of the coronavirus.
The unvarnished, unsentimental truth is that COVID-19—and other natural calamities that periodically befall humankind—isn’t a providential, celestial missile that faith can give us cover from. Nature is insensitive to our emotions and sensibilities. Our piety, prayers, and religious affiliations can never provide us with safeguards against the ruthlessly unstoppable march of nature.
A rational, scientific mindset free of the encumbrances of silly, retarded superstitions is what we need. And that’s precisely what is lacking in Nigeria—and many developing countries.
The vast majority of our people stand in uncomprehending awe before the littlest natural complexity and quickly take recourse to mythic, superstitious explanations for confounding but knowable phenomena. It is this mindset that explains why Nigerians give “testimonies” of “God’s mercies” on them for surviving car crashes in which others perished. They imply that God hates the people who die in car accidents.
This is a country where many people still believe that one can become wealthy through the ritual murders of other humans, where deaths, including car accidents, are attributed to witchcraft and sorcery, where the ability to perform cheap magic tricks is invariably associated with the possession of supernatural powers.
Sadly, in Nigeria, superstition and anti-scientific attitudes often take refuge under religion so that an attack on superstition and pre-scientific attitudes is usually mistaken for an attack on religion. But that’s a fallacious association. Both historical and contemporary examples show that religion and science can co-exist.
Religion isn’t necessarily synonymous with superstition, nor is science necessarily the anti-thesis of religion. Superstition, belief in witchcraft and sorcery, and a disdain for the scientific method represent the infancy of human reasoning. It’s sad that many Nigerians have not evolved from this.
I have no doubt that unthinking obsession with supernaturalism and metaphysical claptrap is Nigeria’s, nay Africa’s, biggest stumbling-block to progress.
Maryam Uwais and COVIK 419 Writ Large
“Those who benefit from the conditional cash transfer of the Federal Government as palliative to cushion the effects of the lockdown caused by the deadly Coronavirus don’t want to be addressed as poor people. That is why we can’t publish their names. Also, the beneficiaries of the Federal Government’s gesture are invisible and dwell where the conventional society cannot see them, and carrying journalists along to investigate the authenticity of the payments to the target persons will be cost implicative to the scheme because the funds at hand can’t pay for extra burden as we are only managing what we have.”
Maryam Uwais, Special Adviser to the President on Social Investment on Channels TV Sunrise Daily.
When I received the above text on WhatsApp on April 10, 2020 from several people, I thought someone initially just made it up for comic relief and that it was being shared by people on social media in ignorance.
In fact, I persuaded an older friend that the quote couldn’t be real, based on what I’d read of Maryam Uwais who strikes me as an extremely smart woman. But after watching the video clip of her interview a few hours after I’d read the text, where I heard her express sentiments that were consistent with the first sentence, I was compelled to go back to WhatsApp and retract what I said to my older friend about the quote.
Anyone who is too proud to be called poor is clearly not poor. The pangs of hunger are stronger than the vanity of self-esteem. That’s why there are hordes of Nigerian “e-beggars” who drop their names and account numbers on social media without shame during social media “giveaways”—and sometimes without “giveaways.”
But the whole point of asking for the identity of the people who benefited from the government’s “palliatives” is to be able to authenticate government’s claims.
In any case, the minister of humanitarian affairs, who supervises the disbursement of the “palliatives,” was reported by the Daily Nigerian to have stolen 200 tonnes of date palms (dabino) donated to internally displaced persons in the northeast by the Saudi Arabian government in 2017. This is COVIK 4-1-9 writ large!