There have been discrepancies in reports of the number of lives lost to Ebola in Nigeria. How does one expect a government that can’t properly manage information to convincingly tackle the crisis, asks Tolu Ogunlesi
In crisis situations, rumour mills – long a prominent feature of daily life in Nigeria – take on a frenetic urgency. Add the push and reach of social media and the impact grows exponentially. The least any responsible government can do is make available accurate and credible information.
Yet when I attended a briefing by senior officials of the Lagos state government on the rising threat of the deadly Ebola virus in Africa’s most populated city yesterday, I found journalists struggling to confirm exactly how many lives had been affected by the outbreak so far.
The Lagos commissioner put the total number of confirmed cases (including fatalities) at eight, but the number released earlier in the day by the federal authorities in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, seven hundred kilometres away, was seven.
Given that the number victims of the worst Ebola outbreak in history had risen to at least 932 across four countries, according to the World Health Organisation, some might say a difference of one is a modest discrepancy.
But I imagine that not a few minds in the press briefing audience silently toyed with this thought: if there are two different figures, it must mean that at least one is wrong. And if one is wrong, then both could easily be wrong. If both are wrong, what else might be wrong?
A similar, albeit much worse scenario comes to mind. In the nine weeks it took Nigeria’s federal government to officially determine and announce the exact number of schoolgirls kidnapped by terrorists in northern Nigeria in April, several conflicting figures emerged. The profusion of different numbers permitted one false view to gain currency – the suggestion that perhaps it was all fiction, there were no girls missing, and the alleged abduction was a ruse meant to embarrass Nigeria’s president in front of the world.
Ten years ago, a number of Muslim-dominated states in northern Nigeria suspended polio vaccination programmes, alleging that the vaccines were a western strategy to render Muslim girls infertile. It took great effort by the federal government and the international community to mount an information campaign that would convince state governments and residents of those states that the rumours were false. By then of course the damage had been done – a sharp rise in polio infection rates followed.
Today, religion still holds great power in shaping crisis narratives. In response to the news that a Liberian man had brought the Ebola virus to Nigeria, a Pentecostal preacher took to Facebook to post a message claiming that “at the Name of Jesus, Ebola will bow out!”
The post drew loud condemnation, causing the preacher to add a clarification, insisting that he was “not in anyway an attempting to deny the existence of the virus in Nigeria, or to encourage anyone to seek interaction with the virus.”
But there was also strong support as well, for his views. One commenter posted: “God is not man, believe Him, He will defend His words.” Since then I’ve sighted at least one similar message circulating on mobile phones, saying that “Jesus brings life, Ebola brings death. Choose life!!!
In Liberia, where more than 300 people have been infected in the Ebola outbreak, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf this week called for a three-day stint of fasting and prayer to ask for divine intervention against the disease.
The implications are obvious. If Ebola victims choose to believe that the solution to Ebola actually lies in churches, mosques or with traditional healers (which, in the absence of a medical cure, is not such a farfetched scenario), they will flock to these places in search of healing, dramatically raising the chances of an outbreak of a real epidemic.
In the earlier stages of the outbreak, confusion about the origins of the disease combined with distrust of Western medical intervention to trigger anger and mass protests in Sierra Leone. Some relatives of victims kidnapped their loved ones from hospital, apparently in an attempt to offer them better treatment at home from traditional healers.
Governments clearly have a role to play in decisively countering observed and impending misinformation with correct and timely information. Which would explain why the Lagos state government has since visited the headquarters of at least two prominent Pentecostal churches, to dissuade them from actions or teachings that might undermine efforts to check the spread of the virus.
Generally, the way a government manages information in a crisis is a proxy for its capacity to manage the crisis proper. It doesn’t take long for public perception to boil down to a single question: how does one expect a government that can’t properly manage a symptom (the flow of information) to convincingly manage the underlying condition (be it rampaging terrorists or a viral hemorrhagic condition like Ebola)?
So far the Lagos state and federal governments have held regular press briefings, and launched a telephone helpline, and Twitter and Facebook pages – all of these are much welcome, as is the assurance by the state government to cooperate with the federal government.
If the discrepancy over victim numbers is put aside, the unusual urgency, honesty and transparency demonstrated thus far in managing information has been impressive, but will need to be kept up in the weeks and months ahead, as the temptation to succumb to a habitual official tardiness or tightlipped-ness mounts.
In theory, accepting that lying to the public or obfuscating issues is not an option should serve to encourage governments to refrain from action they might have to lie about. The net effect of that stance for Nigeria’s governments would be a greater quality of action; the very thing the country needs the most to stand a fighting chance in the face of an enemy as lethal as Ebola.