By now, even babies sucking their mother’s breasts know what social distancing is.
To be clear, I sought out Merriam Webster’s dictionary and it describes social distancing as; ‘the practice of maintaining a greater than usual physical distance from other people; or of avoiding direct contact with people or objects in public places during the outbreak of a contagious disease; in order to minimize exposure and reduce the transmission of infection…’’
In Africa – Lagos, Nigeria, to be precise, we missed much of that; we missed the part that says…greater than usual physical distance, the avoiding direct contact with people in public places…
And all this isn’t any of our fault, really.
Space is expensive, wide spaces, even more so. You can only afford social distancing if you do not live in a crowded space; if your three bedroom, four bedroom, duplex or two bedroom or one room; is just for you and your immediate family of no less than one or two; maximum of four to six.
Social distancing is possible if you do not share your kitchen, toilet and bathroom with several other families; especially in face- me- I face- you houses; if you do not use a pit toilet or have to share the clothesline with a multitude of others; who aren’t impressed with hygiene; if you have no need to hop on an Okada or Keke Napep or Danfo; come to think of it, even BRT buses; where you’re NOT bound to rub bodies, touch objects or handles that infected persons may have touched; social distancing for you may just be practical.
Most of us live in crowded apartments. We live with multitudes of relatives. Take Mohammed, my gateman, for instance. He has a gate house; one room with a small window and every night. From about past 11pm to midnight, I see a throng of young men; able bodied. They park their Okadas (even after the ban, I still see these ones zipping around the side streets); and huddle to sleep. Three INSIDE that gatehouse; the rest, numbering no less than seven or eight; are littered in small groups on mats, wrappers, some on the ground around the houses.
They are not all Okada riders. Some are shoemakers, one is a roving tailor, two I know sell fresh fruits; one pushes a trash cart which the neighbours insisted had to be parked far from the houses; because of the toxic odour. They all come to sleep there every night.
Walk down the streets at dusk and you will see more of them. They sleep in the open, in street corners, in front of locked shops. They huddle together for warmth, all waiting for dawn to break; so they can take a quick wash by the public tap Uncle Sam put outside his house to help the neighbourhood.
After the President’s announcement of a lock-down, I went out to replenish a few items. I discovered that just a few were actually observing the stay-at-home the Lagos state government ordered the previous week. The rest of humanity – the pepper sellers, potato merchants, butchers, tailors, laundromat owners, road transport workers; were buzzing about their businesses, regardless of the coronavirus threat hanging over our heads like the sword of Damocles.
At the local supermarket, I found it crowded with everyone jostling for items on the shelves. The jostling got me. I backed away and asked the sales boy what they were doing about social distancing.
‘Aunty na rich man’s disease bi dis coro, o but we get sanitizers, sha. It’s just that we are doing fast business, we just can’t stop people from coming. Everybody go do the distance themselves.’
Aha, there you are!
‘Coronavirus affects only the rich, abi you don hear say any poor man get am?’
This kind of stupidity is very common!
I tried moving away from a few shoppers but they kept moving closer; oblivious of the need for distance. When I mentioned it, a few smirked and continued shopping. One murmured, ‘Where is the space?’
Because people must eat; especially those who earn their meals daily; because the market places/bus stops, buses and Okadas and Kekes will always involve physical contacts. Also, because people will always believe they will be immune to this virus; (only the rich have it and at the rate our politicians are announcing that they’ve tested positive; it’s almost like a badge of honour).
Because we see the helplessness of advanced countries at handling this pandemic; because of the fear that the spread will be huge is real; with hundreds of thousands living in such enclosed spaces…let’s pray because only God can help us now.