Some of the most striking imagery of the impact of the coronavirus outbreak have been photos of empty streets and tourist hotspots in the world’s biggest cities.
As part of attempts to limit the spread of Covid-19, governments have instituted lock-down measures and banned public gatherings. Lagos, Africa’s largest city with 21 million people, is attempting to do the same. With 11 confirmed cases, by far the most in Nigeria, the state government has asked schools to shut down and banned public gatherings of more than 50 people, particularly religious congregations.
In the event of more cases, tougher measures will likely follow. Given Lagos’ standing as Nigeria’s economic nerve center, the threat of a highly contagious viral outbreak in a state where 20 million people are squeezed into land mass that’s about the size of Indianapolis (population: 870,000), is grim.
But shutting down Lagos on any scale will likely be an uphill task for the government. The city is defined by non-stop activity and a hustle and bustle spirit that perennially draws thousands of Nigerians from other states in search of better economic opportunities. It’s a city of ingenuity and chutzpah which most people need to be able to survive in an overwhelmed urban system. This means Lagos is often defined by lawlessness as people seek solutions for their daily life.
For example, it’s not an uncommon to see Lagosians drive on the wrong side of the road to beat the city’s notorious traffic jams. Neither is having roads blocked by tents for parties with hundreds of partygoers. Rather than being seen as breaking the law, in Lagos, these are thought of as being smart.
One long-standing government policy illustrates this point. For more than two decades, Thursday mornings have been set aside for “environmental” clean-ups. But for the last five years at least, the policy has existed only on paper and is now being enforced sparingly by rent-seeking government officials who punish shop owners for opening for businesses before the prescribed 10 am mark.
Beyond cultural and behavioral nuances, the government will also be up against the might of religion—Nigeria’s Christian population is the largest in Africa and is projected to double by 2060. Lagos itself is home to some of the countries most well-attended mega-churches with hundreds of branches that welcome millions in congregation every Sunday.
As such, attempting to enforce a ban on religious gatherings likely puts the state government at odds with powerful religious leaders whose co-operation is fundamental given their influence. Yet, there are already signs of potential conflict between the government and influential clergymen: the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) says a ban on religious gatherings is not necessary. “We believe we will never get to the point of having to ban all services and churches will be grounded,” CAN’s Lagos chairman has said.
These issues will also apply to Lagos’ vast Muslim population (Nigeria has the fifth largest Muslim population globally) when it comes to attending large mosques for customary prayer services on Friday.
One way governments across the globe have ensured that lockdowns are effective has been to assuage the effects of lost income on citizens with social benefits like suspending particular taxes and bills as well as offering cash payments. But even those measures are unlikely to work in Lagos.
Inefficient data capturing methods and agencies mean the Lagos government does not really know how many people live in its sprawling city as its suburbs keep growing out into neighboring states.
And there’s also the practical matter of being able to afford such palliative measures for 21 million people as recent events suggest otherwise: after a tragic gas explosion in the Lagos suburb of Abule Ado last week, the state government launched a relief fund asking citizens to donate to pay off medical bills and relocation costs of those affected.