COVID-19 has been less deadly in the African continent than many feared when the pandemic started. This trend extends to Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, where the number of infections and mortality has been lower than that of countries across the world with similar population densities. We spoke with SIS professor Carl LeVan, the Comparative and Regional Studies Program Chair and author of Contemporary Nigerian Politics: Competition in a Time of Transition and Terror, to learn more about Nigeria’s response to the coronavirus as well as how the country has been impacted by the pandemic.
Q: At the beginning of the pandemic, what were the expectations for how COVID-19 would impact Nigeria?
Here in the western world, expectations were low. Not necessarily because of negative stereotypes about Africa but because like many African countries, Nigeria’s health system has low capacity. More importantly, megacities like Lagos and the rapid growth of cities like Abuja and Kano raised practical concerns about density driving contagion. So, Nigeria checked off many of the standard boxes for a country at risk.
Q: How has Nigeria’s government responded to the pandemic?
Unlike the United States, Nigeria swiftly instituted a strict lockdown as early as April, and, at the same time, the government expanded programs for direct cash transfers to low income citizens. This cushioned economic hardship in a country where 40 percent of the nation lives below the poverty line (and a large share of those people live in extreme poverty). Importantly, the federal government led a coordinated response. This helped to minimize subnational competition or policy inconsistencies across the country’s 36 states.
Nigeria had some other unusual advantages in confronting COVID-19, too. Staying home due to a general strike or for a citywide street cleaning day is not uncommon. When I lived in Ibadan, a huge indigenous city bigger than New York, there were Saturdays when only even-numbered or odd-numbered license plates could drive. People see these regulations as cooperation for a common good, not necessarily an intrusion; the libertarian tradition is not so pronounced there! Another advantage Nigeria enjoyed when confronting COVID was the country’s relatively successful experience with Ebola; when the government realized that people with fevers should be quarantined, it deployed touchless thermometers to all the borders. I never had a touchless thermometer used on me in the US until recently, but it was standard procedure years ago every time I flew into Abuja. Finally, it’s hard to understate the value of leading by example: unlike US leaders, the president and the VP were social distancing and wearing masks at an early stage for all the world to see, and they weren’t telling people to inject themselves with cleaning solutions.
Q: How has the coronavirus impacted the country so far?
The most visible effect is that the country is basically back to work. There were fewer than a hundred infections per day last week in a country of 200 million people. I’ve been talking to civil society activists involved in the protests against police brutality, and they can’t believe it when I say the US is experiencing 60,000 or 70,000 infections per day. There was a point this summer when there were a thousand deaths per day in the US, and Nigeria had a thousand deaths total at that point. It’s a compelling counter-factual for what might have happened here in the US with different leadership and a public campaign to explain and defend science.
Debt is a less visible effect now and could have a problematic impact later. Like a lot of African countries, emergency expenses to counter COVID-19 diverted funds from spending in other areas, and borrowing ballooned. Someone will have to pay for this, and if the price of oil stays as low as it is, this will lead to fiscal constraints and austerity.
Q: Nigeria was in the news recently for its scientists’ development of a cheaper, faster COVID-19 test kit. What does this say about the possibility of Nigeria as a hub for innovation, either in health or otherwise?
I should have distinguished between the Nigerian health system and Nigerian doctors. The doctors do amazing things with what they have, while the political elites routinely run off to London or Delhi for health care. I am worried about Nigeria, the US, or any other country slipping into vaccine nationalism. But it also seems to be the case that there may be issues of access and different effects among different population profiles. It’s been great to watch Nigeria defy expectations.