The pandemic that crippled most of the world for months has lumbered through Nigeria, most prominently by claiming the life of Abba Kyari, President Muhamed Buhari's chief of staff. it is the northern city of Kano, where the virus seems to have claimed the most lives.
The city of about 5 million has seen a surge in deaths that the nation’s health authorities do not attribute to COVID-19, at least officially. The Nigeria Center for Disease Control (NCDC) has reported only forty-five local COVID-19 deaths, yet the people on the street know differently. Gravediggers say they cannot keep up with the demand for burials. Locals say a lack of transparency has complicated the issue in Kano.
“Authorities have claimed that these deaths were mysterious”
“Some sources reported that over a thousand persons had died from April 20 to May 4 in Kano State,” says Paul Alaje, an economist based in Lagos. “A recent report also has it that over a hundred people have died in the ten days leading up to May 4. Authorities in these states have claimed that these deaths were mysterious. There has been clarification, however, by the Presidential Task Force that most of the deaths are linked to COVID-19.”
The virus has likely spread far more widely here than the NCDC is reporting, Alaje says.
“Kano State has lost close to, if not more than, fifty prominent citizens”
The disparity between anecdotal accounts of mass deaths and the official health records of the authorities has triggered distrust in the Nigerian government’s narrative.
“From April 17 to May 17, 2020, Kano State has lost close to, if not more than, fifty prominent citizens, including at least seven professors, top serving and retired civil servants, media executives, captains of industry, first-class traditional rulers, and serving and retired security personnel,” reads a press release from the NGO Intersociety (International Society for Civil Liberties and the Rule of Law). “Deaths of their likes have also been reported in Zamfara, Nasarawa, Sokoto, Taraba, Jigawa, Yobe, and Bauchi states. The Kano harvest of deaths sprang up first on April 17, 2020, killing 150 in under four days.”
Whereas the official Nigerian death toll reported by the NCDC by June 2 was 299, Intersociety claims thousands have died: more than 1,500 people have died in Kano, 470 in Yobe, 200 in Jigawa, and 150 in Bauchi, according to Intersociety. These figures could not be confirmed by New Africa Daily.
“There are also independent or unofficial reports of more deaths of low-income and middle-income earners in Sokoto and others, but were wickedly kept from public knowledge,” says Emeka Umeagbalasi, chair of Intersociety’s board of trustees. Where these deaths are reported, they are attributed to other causes, including meningitis, Lassa fever, high fever, high blood pressure, hypertension, acute malaria, hepatitis B, typhoid fever, cough, and catarrh.
“Contradictions abound,” Umeagbalasi says. “Our firm demand is that all the infections and deaths in the northern states and similar ones in the rest of the country must be forensically detected and investigated, and their findings made public.”
Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari reassured the nation in a late April broadcast that the mysterious deaths in Kano were not attributable to the virus. However, the lockdown in Kano was extended another month, but elsewhere lockdown measures were relaxed on May 2.
Several staffers were infected due to poor handling of samples
The government in Kano may have acted to conceal the true statistics, says Dr. Lazarus Ude Eze, a medical doctor who monitors infection surveys in Nigeria.
In fact, Kano’s spike in cases in late April reportedly sparked multiple crises linked to the government’s attempts to save face. First, shortly after Kano’s testing center was set up, several staffers were infected due to poor handling of samples; then some members of the Kano State Task Force got infected, too, forcing several medical staff to go into quarantine when they were needed the most. Meanwhile, Governor Abdullahi Umar Ganduje was seen spending his time lobbying the federal government to get a larger share of funding to battle the disease, which he previously said was not spreading in the state.
“The Kano situation as reported likely has been caused by a combination of meningitis, which kills several people about this time yearly due to the hot weather and poor ventilation,” says Dr. Tijjani Hussaini, coordinator of the state’s COVID-19 Technical Response Team. “Kano State is like any other place in the world battling with the scourge... We are in a rigorous investigation of the deaths in Kano, but as a scientist I can’t tell you exactly what the investigation will tell us about the cause of the deaths.”
Douglas Burton is a former US State Department official in Kirkuk, Iraq, and writes news and commentary from Washington, D.C.