Managing Cynicism And Unbelief In The COVID-19 Era

By Ikenga Chronicles June 28, 2020

You do not need to have special skills to deduce the cynicism and unbelief amongst the majority of Nigerians with regard to Covid-19. This regrettable situation is accentuated by the fact that those who should know better, the elite or the more educated citizens, are driving the cynical narrative which tends to discredit the effort being made by the government to manage the pandemic.

Of course, the consequence has been low compliance with the health and safety instructions being disseminated to the public. It must be stated, however, that the cynicism and unbelief is not peculiar to Nigeria as can be seen on global news channels and social media.

A friend recently narrated her experience with cynicism, skepticism and unbelief among some market women in Lagos. According to her, she and her colleagues, as part of a volunteer work with an NGO, went to some popular markets to distribute face masks and hand sanitizers to the women. They also gave them pep talks about Covid-19 and how to avoid getting infected-handwashing, social distancing, mask wearing, the whole nine yards. They were utterly shocked and disappointed to return a week later to find none of the women wearing the masks or keeping any distance, social or otherwise. When confronted, the women said the masks made it difficult for them to breathe, to talk and transact their business. On whether they were not afraid of Coronavirus, they replied that the virus didn’t affect black people and that government people were using it as an excuse to steal money!

The question many ask is why this perception? In my opinion, the reason for this cynicism and skepticism is basically a failure in the social contract between governments and the people. Specifically, Nigerians have felt hard done by, over the years, by successive governments that have promised so much and delivered so little. So, every government official or programme is viewed with suspicion.

In the case of Covid-19, many believe (and actually say) it is a scam methodically orchestrated by government officials to steal public funds. Sometimes I wonder how possible it is for government officials to just sit down and set up Covid-19 so they can steal public funds, but at other times I start believing it considering our past experiences. And I do not need to chronicle past cases of eye-watering heists planned and executed by government officials most of which are unresolved even if detected.

When people lose faith in their leaders, everything becomes a joke or a scam. Conspiracy theories begin to thrive. The loss of faith is fuelled by the obvious incompetence daily demonstrated by some people in government and public service as seen on television and on social media. There is also the little matter of lack of leadership by example which, by the way, is not peculiar to Nigeria.

Isn’t it disturbing that most presidents and Heads of governments do not wear masks? Neither President Donald Trump of the United States nor his brother President Muhamnadu Buhari of Nigeria wears a mask. Are they showing their citizens how strong they are or disproving the existence of the pandemic or both? And how do they want their people to manage the dissonance between the messages calling for mask wearing and social distancing and the behavior of their No. 1 citizens, who openly and recklessly ignore  and disobey the guidelines?

The next question is: now that we have found the problem, what are we going to do? Perhaps, where to start is by showing good examples. If the people in leadership positions, both in the public and private sectors, are not wearing masks or keeping social distance, there is no way the masses will do otherwise. You cannot enforce good behavior in your children, if you behave badly.

For example, if you’re good at screaming and cursing out other drivers while your kids are in the car with you, that is precisely what they will do. As a matter of fact, your kids will start from asking why you are shouting and graduate to shouting themselves! It once happened to me and I swore (pardon the pun) to change-and I have. It is basic child psychology, but we are not only talking about children here. We are talking mainly about adults who look up to their leaders and seek to emulate them good or bad. So, the leaders need to mend their ways urgently-and make it a priority.

Secondly, we need to communicate with the people consistently and creatively using professionals to design, develop and disseminate the messages. It isn’t enough to send text messages, broadcast jingles and all what not on radio, TV and social media. The content must be clear and powerful. The messengers must also be credible. The credibility of the messengers could even be far more important that the message.

Nigeria still has many credible and notable people who can be used to pass important messages to the people. This is where our actors and actresses, musicians, footballers and prominent business leaders come in handy. People are used to them and their stories and are more likely to pay attention to their messages-and believe them. This must not be one of those stop-start or one-off kinds of campaigns. It has to be consistent, focused and durable like the pandemic it is meant to fight.

Thirdly and as a corollary to consistent communication is consistent engagement of the masses especially by government officials. It is confusing to follow the daily situation updates on the Covid-19 pandemic by the Boss Mustapha-led Presidential Task Force and the NCDC and then follow the words and actions of some state Governors.

There is so much misalignment and disagreement, which tend to feed the doubts, the cynicism and unbelief. When you watch the conduct of some state governors and other powerful politicians, you will stop wondering when, where and how the rain started beating us, in a manner of speaking. A situation where a state governor literally calls Covid-19 a scam is more than unfortunate. One threatened to arrest and quarantine officials of NCDC for daring to pay a status verification visit to his state. This has got to stop, and the president, even as a father of the nation, must call these politicians to order.

Fourthly, the time has come for traditional and religious rulers to live up to their responsibilities. It is not enough to dress like Mansa Musa and distract people at public functions but traditional rulers must,as a matter of urgency, start talking to their subjects. Ditto the religious leaders, some of who appear to be more interested in the pecuniary gains from their role than winning souls for God. It’s about time they started ministering to the hearts and minds of their flock on their civic responsibilities.

As a matter of fact, most of them still have significant control of and influence on their followers. They should (or should be told by the government) to infuse Civics in their messages. I can say with utmost certainty that an average adherent of the Redeemed Christian Church of God would more easily and more willingly heed an advice from Pastor Enoch Adeboye than that from any state governor or any constituted authority for that matter (apologies to the late Senator Ajimobi).

Like corruption, we’ve got to kill cynicism or cynicism will kill us.

  • Oparah, a public affairs professional, wrote this piece from Lagos.
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