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Social distancing or farce?

COVID-19 has mastered the world. Everywhere it has reached, the virus has compelled people and governments to conform to its own rule. Senate faults high…

COVID-19 has mastered the world.

Everywhere it has reached, the virus has compelled people and governments to conform to its own rule.

Senate faults high cost of COVID-19 test

FG tells states to audit LGAs COVID-19 accounts

This rule is called social distancing, the various practices of keeping reasonable distance or avoiding close contact between one person and another, particularly in public spaces.

Without cure or vaccines yet, governments and societies have fallen back on social distancing measures to keep this rampaging virus at bay.

Social distancing is, indeed, a vaccine of some kind, since it is directly correlated with the rate of transmission of coronavirus, and ultimately with the number of people who get sick or die from it.

The more socially distanced people are, the more immune they will be from the virus particularly in countries where it remains a serious threat to public health.

But because its practices are new and inconvenient for most people, experts have devised creative public communication strategies that encourage people to embrace social distancing, from circles in parks to footprints in queues.

Moreover, masks abound in exotic designs, making an otherwise inconvenient device a bit more appealing to wear.

It has, in short, become part of everyday fashion everywhere.

Even then, it goes beyond public health or fashion.

They may be relatively new, but social distancing practices are also deeply enmeshed with politics and culture.

Many masks come with engravings that reflect the political inclination or cultural orientation of the wearer.

Some wear masks to make a point, or refrain from wearing them to make a different point.

Many supporters of US President Donald Trump, for example, are making a political statement when they defiantly refuse to wear masks at his rallies, likewise those at other rallies who do.

In Nigeria, our own decidedly different way of doing social distancing says something about us that we should at least reflect upon.

It looks to me that in our case, the appearance of social distancing matters more than its public health function.

By this I mean that the way we do social distancing here reflects our deeply entrenched tendency to emphasise form over substance.

Let me explain by first illustrating this tendency.

Consider the libraries in our universities or state capitals.

On the outside, you are likely to find a huge building, sometimes several stories tall, which creates the impression of a book-loving people.

Inside this huge building however, things can be very different.

And the careful observer will quickly notice the sharp contrast between form and substance.

You are likely to find the shelves empty of books, the desks and chairs empty of people.

In fact, in many cases, you will find the whole place empty: no shelves, no books, no desks and no users.

It is the name and size of the building that make it a library, not the books it stocks, nor what people actually do there.

The library is in the name, not in the function.

The bigger the building, the more a library it is, even without any books.

This is precisely how governance works in Nigeria, at least for the most part.

The appearance of a government policy or project is often more important than the intended results.

So it is not in just libraries that you find this tendency for form over substance. It is everywhere in our government and society.

After all, the headquarters of our raw materials research institute is a particularly large and beautiful building.

And yet, the head of the institute, a professor, recently admitted publicly that they have not done any research in 30 years.

The form, you see, is more important than the substance here.

In my view, this is precisely how we have domesticated social distancing in Nigeria today.

The federal government and most states have social distancing regimes in place.

Yet, millions of Nigerians go about their everyday business in crowded places like mosques, motor-parks and markets without any form of social distancing.

But if you go to a bank, or to the airport, or to a hospital, or to the large supermarkets, you’ll be required to observe strict social distancing rules.

Schools are closed in the name of social distancing, but crowded markets are open.

The same person who wandered around in the market or attended a wedding without social distancing must observe the rules at a bank or airport.

In fact, there is a pattern to it all.

Social distancing rules apply in settings associated with the government or the formal economy like schools, hospitals, banks or supermarkets.

But they do not apply anywhere outside of these settings like motor-parks, markets, places of worship or streets, even though the same people go to both sets of places.

That these contradictions have largely gone unnoticed to those who make the rules is itself an authentically Nigerian way of doing things.

So the point should be clear now; our own way of doing social distancing is not about science or public health.

It is a reflection of the contradictions in our mode of governance and citizenship.

It is what one of our finest sociologists, Peter Ekeh, called two publics in Nigeria more than forty-five years ago.

If you are in certain public contexts, you are required to behave in a ‘civilized’ way, but in other public contexts, you can behave ‘primordially’, or anyhow you want.

Never mind that the same person can move in and out of the two publics many times in a day.

It is this way of doing things that we have transferred to public health policy.

But if social distancing has any value in protecting public health, it must be applied universally in all public places and contexts.

It cannot be applied selectively.

It must apply in the street as it does at the bank. Otherwise, it is a farce.