Two cases of SARS: Fighting police brutality and COVID-19 in Nigeria

 

Over the last three weeks, young people have taken to the streets across the country, in the middle of a pandemic, to protest against police brutality in Nigeria. In some instances, the peaceful protestors have been met with more violence and to one of the darkest days in modern history in Nigeria now infamously known as the Lekki massacre. The protests have not only shed light on the weaknesses in Nigeria’s governance system, but also put more lives at risk as people gathered in large numbers with minimal adherence to COVID-19 preventive measures.

The now disbanded and controversial police unit, Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS),  bears similar name with the virus that causes the coronavirus disease. Apart from the similarity in names, the Nigerian SARS is often referred to have killed more people since its inception, than the COVID-19 pandemic. Sadly, there are no statistics to back this claim as the data on deaths from police brutality are not systematically collected.

On the 3rd of October 2020, a video was shared widely on social media that showed a SARS police officer shooting a young Nigerian in front of a hotel in Delta State. The trending video caused public outcry on social media, especially on Twitter, with the #ENDSARS hashtag trending. Within 24 hours, various group of young people in Nigeria including celebrities and activists, mobilised resources and began peaceful protests in Nigeria’s major cities including Lagos, Abuja, Port-Harcourt, Kano and even in the diaspora.

Police brutality has massive direct and indirect effects on public health, especially during a pandemic. Despite this, it has received very poor attention from public health authorities in Nigeria and globally. At the time of writing this blog post, there has been no formal statement from any national or global public health institutions to address this event specifically.

The most direct connection between police violence and public health is perhaps the fact that police violence causes bodily harm, mental stress and kills people. Although Nigeria’s public health surveillance data is below par in most disease areas, it is worse on the effects of police brutality.  The government does not keep track of the number of people injured or killed from police brutality. There is limited data across levels of government for evidence-based decisions, thus, people continue to depend on individuals with wide-reach, especially on social media, and civil society organisations to share their experience.

In the context of the ongoing pandemic, one of the major direct effects of police brutality on Nigerians is the risk of spread of COVID-19. As people shared images from protest grounds, it was more glaring that Nigerians were more interested in advocating against police brutality, than protecting themselves from COVID-19. Most protesters sang, chanted and spoke without wearing face masks and while in close contact with each other. Nigeria has recorded just over 60,000 confirmed cases, but only tested about 600,000 people in nine months. It remains to be seen in the next few weeks, what the effect of the gathering will be on Nigeria’s COVID-19 cases.

Police brutality also has massive indirect effects on public health by breeding mistrust in the institutions meant to keep us safe. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, various members of the public have expressed their mistrust in the Nigerian government. This has its attendant effect on adherence to public health and safety measures, as well as willingness to access public health services for testing and treatment. This lack of trust may have a rippling effect such as with people’s acceptance of a COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available.

Finally, the events of the last few weeks have provided further evidence that Nigeria’s public health system is ill-prepared for accidents and emergencies. Although a nationwide emergency number was launched in March 2020, this service was unable to provide ambulatory or First-Aid services for Nigerians affected by the protests and accompanying police brutality. Mental health support was provided by private organisations and other trained individuals in their personal capacity. In addressing police brutality, the accompanying poor emergency response system must be addressed.

The October events in Nigeria should kickstart various reforms in our public health system, in addition to other public sector reforms. Firstly, public health professionals should be better involved in studies around police brutality, to provide evidence on how this impacts the number and causes of deaths in Nigeria. Secondly, Nigeria must build and fund a functional emergency medical system that can provide first-aid services including mental health support for people injured during accidents or incidents such as police brutality. Finally, and perhaps critically, issues such as police brutality should receive more attention in global health discourse such as the World Health Assembly. From the United States of America’s #BlackLivesMatter to Nigeria’s #EndSARS, we cannot ignore the effect of police brutality on public health.

 

About the author: Oyeronke Oyebanji is a Nigerian public health professional based in the United Kingdom. She is at the final stage of her Masters in Global Health Policy at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Conflict of interest: The author declares no conflict of interest.

Handling Editor: Neha Faruqui

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