In isolation together: Bigotry, fear and empathy in the time of coronavirus

In these uncertain times of coronavirus, when the whole world should be united together in a war against a common enemy, it is unfortunate that a portion of humankind, so unconscionable and insensible of the risks, believes that what is at stake is not serious enough to warrant the ‘hysteria’ that is being witnessed across the globe or that the threat posed by this enemy is not beyond what their religion or faith is able to defeat.

I refer to that section whose reaction to the coronavirus disease 2019 (coronavirus) pandemic has been a flippant dismissal of its seriousness or blatant denial of their own vulnerability and the possibility of contracting and spreading the disease. Some of them are religious and racial bigots, either claiming that the disease infects only a certain race or adherents of certain religions or that because of their faith or religion, they are immune to the pathogen.

In Nigeria, Voice Notes, memes, images and broadcasts are being shared with alarming frenzy on WhatsApp/ in WhatsApp groups and other social media platforms with fake news and various outrageous claims about the virus (For instance, former Senator Dino Melaye, in a video that is currently making the rounds on social media, expresses this sort of foolishness when he likens himself to a grain of maize in a bottle and that like that maize, he cannot be reached by the coronavirus infection). In one such ridiculous claims, it is purported that a good dose of hot pepper soup is an efficacious antidote against the disease.

Another misleading claim, which gained considerable traction over a couple of days, was that the disease could be cured with chloroquine or a combination of hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil) and Azithromycin, a claim which was linked to President Donald Trump and which resulted in the hospitalization of a number of persons due to drug poisoning.

For me, the most foolhardy response to the pandemic has been the one by religious bigots, mostly in compliance with directives from their leaders and ‘General Overseers’ and in blind obedience to something they had heard on social media. In one WhatsApp group in which a friend is a member, someone shared a message appealing with members to comply with social distancing instructions and behave more responsibly but other members, citing the injunction of their pastor to the contrary, took umbrage at the message and bullied the member into deleting the message and apologizing because ‘the blood of Jesus is enough to protect us.’

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On Sunday last, some churchgoers, still obviously deluded by the unreasonable belief that they could not be infested by the disease, went ahead to defy government directives to stay away from churches and other places of worship. These are churches—and mosques—in which their leaders have assured them that they could not contract the virus. How foolish and irresponsible! Even more irresponsible, in my view, is the claim that the pandemic would reveal ‘those who serve God faithfully and those who do not’ or that Nigeria would be spared the impact of the pandemic because of regular prayer and fasting by Christians in the land.

This kind of monologic thought process and blatant bigotry are what is mostly responsible for many of the ills in our society—the belief that your religious conviction and avatars are THE ONLY WAY, the ONLY TRUTH. It is the same kind of belief and conviction that underpin the murderous campaign of the Boko Haram and other religious fanatics who kill and maim others who are opposed to or different from their way of life. It is why a Muslim cleric recently declared to his followers that the coronavirus pandemic was a biological weapon invented by Donald Trump to keep Muslim faithful from performing the hajj. In a country where Lassa fever and malaria are still killing people in large numbers and the percentage of people living in absolute poverty is a crying shame, one wonders how anyone would come up with the idiotic notion that prayer and fasting are the reason coronavirus will not ravage Nigeria.

Fear is a natural response in times of uncertainty but fear is also another kind of virus. As the coronavirus disease 2019 (covid-19) pandemic spreads worldwide, fear remains the dominant emotion, leading people to adopt much irrational behaviour and intensifying social anxiety. In Nigeria, fear of contracting the virus and of the social and economic implications of a national response in the shape of a lockdown appears not to have caught on yet. But this may be set to change with the escalating number of confirmed cases of infection and death.

The news that the son of former Vice President, Atiku Abubakar, and the Chief of Staff to the President, Alhaji Abba Kyari, have tested positive to the disease, may now lead to some sort of national awakening. The news would hopefully also not trigger moments of blind panic. Blind panic can lead to all sorts of irrational behaviour and we see a clear manifestation in the ingestion of chloroquine by some ignoramuses and the blind faith which some religious people have expressed in the words of their leaders over clear, scientific injunctions from health practitioners. It is this blind panic that is also responsible for panic buying and irrational stockpiling of food and supplies. This is understandable, but it is not an excuse to be greedy and show a lack of empathy. It is no reason to increase prize or seek to bilk others out of their money or investments.

In times like these, with the world embroiled in an experience that is extraordinary in scope and impact, it is important to constantly remind ourselves of our shared humanity. It is a period in which we are in isolation together; isolation from a contagion that does not respect racial or religious differences and that is blind to local or national geographies. Sections of social media commentariat have been celebrating the news of infection among some high profile politicians and some people have openly confessed that they could not resist a touch of Schadenfreude on learning that most of the people who have tested positive to the virus belong in the upper rung of the social ladder, people with means and opportunities for international travel.

Some people have even extended their envy of others to those Nigerians living in Europe, China and the USA—places where the pandemic is most rampant—taking a malicious pleasure in blaming them for relocating from the country, like rats deserting a sinking ship, rather than remaining as true patriots should. This kind of narrow-minded excoriation is misplaced in a time when empathy should be the dominant emotion. In the final analysis, we are all in this together and we are all going to sink or swim as one Human Race. This is a global health crisis demanding that all hands should be on deck—it is no time for irrational or reckless behaviour, and it is certainly no time to be insentient, insensible and to show lack of empathy.

Dr Abayomi Ogunsanya, an Anthropologist, lives in Dublin, Ireland.



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