Unilag Housing Centre


Cities and COVID-19: Key Lessons and Research Imperatives for Nigeria




Damilola Taiye Agbalajobi

Researcher and Senior Lecturer, Department of Political Science, Obafemi Awolowo University




COVID-19 came suddenly like a ‘coup d’etat’ and caught many nations napping and unprepared for its destructive effects. There have been viruses in the past, but this one has come possibly without a cure. The history of its origin has been contentious, although the first reported case was from Wuhan in China. Though the American President, Trump has openly called it Chinese flu, China and other nations have condemned such comments. COVID 19 is in a class of its own and possibly, this present generation has never seen its kind before. It has had an impact on every nation of the world.


COVID-19 has exposed the weaknesses in all our systems all over the world, and Nigeria is not left out. It has revealed the deep-seated inequalities, and the disproportionate impact it has on the urban poor and exposed us to the need to create safer cities for all. The pandemic has also  affected the way we relate. It has affected the way cities are organised and reveals how Nigerian cities are not planned. COVID 19 has also betrayed how ineffective the pandemic protocols are in unplanned cities and has exposed cities bedevilled with a lack of necessary infrastructures.


In response to COVID-19 in Nigeria, government policies have affected our ways of life and the civil liberties of individuals and as members of the communities. For example, freedom of association has been restricted from Federal to Local government, and there are restrictions on the number of people that can assemble. This approach is not so different from the responses in most other countries and social distancing, where people stay some metres apart from each other, has become the norm. Freedom of movement has also been severely curtailed with interstate travel restrictions, and curfews within the states, thus abridging the fundamental and constitutional rights of citizens.


Generally, COVID-19 has impacted our health response, on our social inclusivity, and in terms of our governance structure by challenging the fundamentals of democracy as it is currently practised. In terms of our health system, COVID-19 exposed the dilapidated state of our health system and forcefully revealed the need to maximise the experience of COVID-19 to ensure our health sector does not remain the same. Similarly, COVID-19 has made people appreciate the need to stay in hygienic cities, more evidently as most public buildings now have water outlets, hand sanitisers, and soaps to ensure people maintain the protocol to avoid the spread of the virus.


On social inclusivity, COVID-19 exposes the reality of the level of poverty in our cities, both urban and rural. Providing for vulnerable and have-nots has been so difficult because of the unplanned nature of our cities, and unavailability of structures (such as data in terms of population figures, household figures) to cater to such in our cities unlike in Europe, North America, and the United States. Good governance would also include the provision for and meeting of the welfare needs of the citizens. In Nigeria, no welfare system could have been relied on when COVID stuck. Furthermore, to make matters worse, the government enforced lockdown of activities without adequate palliative measures. Although there was the news of some pockets of palliative measures, there were also widespread allegations of diversion of such palliative materials by some agents working for the government.


In regards to our governance structure, the pandemic has further exposed the weakness of our nation – that Nigeria is a failing state, a soft state on her knees. The availability of baseline information/data to enable the nation to plan, and strategise against the pandemic is non-existent. In Nigeria and her communities, there is no social security, and there are no centralised medical or dental records anywhere. Going by the prevalent use of affidavits, more people are likely not to have their births adequately registered. These are some of the difficulties presented and makes it impractical to advise or support the populace rightly to contain the pandemic.


Significant lessons from COVID 19 

In responding to COVID-19 in our cities, one of the strengths identified in the way it has been handled so far is the protocol put in place to tackle the spread. People have realised the perpetual need to keep their environment clean and keep a safe distance from those who are sick or showing symptoms.


In addressing the issues, measures such as lockdown were enforced, and people have been forced to reduce money spent on social outings, and ceremonies, possibly for the first time in our history of extravagance. Before now, Nigerians are known to spend lavishly on weddings, burial outings, birthdays, and such but the COVID 19 pandemic made people realise these things can still be done without necessarily spending so much. Hence, there is potentially a diversion of resources to only the needful such as feeding and health care.


Also, there have been innovations in the way things are done, in the ways meetings are conducted from the Federal Executive Council meetings to the State and even the judiciary. There have been virtual meetings[i], judges have taken decisions without people appearing in court, and these are things people would have thought are impossible. Many business meetings are now conducted online and save travel time, and road congestion has reduced.


In response to COVID 19, in some countries, for example, Australia, and Cambodia, schools were closed, and lectures and teachings have been offered as online packages. Still, in Nigeria, not everyone is learning from these online possibilities. Institutions of learning, especially private universities, are going on with lectures and examinations. An example of online possibilities is the virtual matriculation conducted by the Osun State University. As good as online teaching seems to be, if only private universities offer lectures through that means, it will further widen the knowledge gaps of students in public institutions, who have no such opportunities.


One major weakness this crisis has highlighted given its associated lockdowns and restrictions is the realisation of how unsafe our cities are for women and girls. COVID-19 has brought an increased rate of untold hardship on many households given that the majority of households have women as heads. Some of these hardships are economical but have extended to social misadventures and safety concerns. This pandemic has complicated the situation of many of these women who were only managing to survive even in the absence of any pandemic.


In addition to the gendered economic implication, many people have been exposed to various cases of human rights abuses, gender-based violence of various forms, and this seems to have increased during this pandemic, and the associated lockdown. There has been an increase in cases of sexual violations, rapes, harassment, and even deaths through various police assaults. Girls are gang-raped, and killed in an unprecedented way and thus making the cities unsafe. In Kaduna, a 13-year old lady was gang-raped by four men, killed and dumped. In Ibadan, there was a case of a lady raped in her apartment and another a young lady from the Federal College of Animal and Health Production was raped and stabbed to death. Also, a Sokoto cleric made a display of how a five-year-old girl was ‘raped’ by an adult male[ii].


Likewise, there are cases of women, and girls in our cities challenged with reproductive health issues, and the policies put in place during the lockdown made no provisions to cater to the needs of these groups of women, and girls. Although COVID 19 was not the primary cause, more women have been forced to stay in abusive relationships with grave consequences on their health, and wellbeing, since they cannot quickly move away from danger in the lockdown.


There are several cases of police brutality, and abuses such as a woman in Iwo, Osun State, who was beaten by police officers in an attempt to get drugs for her daughter, and the case of the man in Edo tortured to death by the Police SARS officers and dumped in the morgue without the knowledge of the family[iii]. These and many more reveal the unequal impact of the pandemic on individuals in our cities.


How this Crisis make us Think Differently 

Right away, the COVID-19 pandemic exposes governance issues as it brought about the realisation of the need to have good leaders, who have the capability, and capacity to lead the society well, and ensure priority is given to the welfare of citizens across levels.


Good governance usually increases the trust of the people in government and make the people believe more in government policies and decisions, that is, bringing to reality the issue of trust, and accountability between the citizens, and the state[iv], but the fallouts from COVID 19 casts doubts on the legitimacy of those in governance.


The COVID-19 crisis has made us think differently about how our cities should have been planned. The measures put in place to tackle the pandemic have not been efficient, and useful given the unplanned nature of our cities, beyond paperwork as the absence of amenities become more glaring. Necessary infrastructures are lacking, the health sectors are ill-equipped, and they are without standard facilities. Individuals are becoming more aware of the need to live in a hygienic environment and to maintain personal hygiene, especially hand-washing.


Proper governance would have ensured the readiness of the medical and allied-health sectors by providing adequate training and support for them. It took the outbreak of COVID 19 to realise the need to give adequate training to frontline workers. The provision of the right hospital and emergency equipment, facilities, and proper compensation for health workers were not in place before COVID 19. The gap in this area has also become more evident and can be attributed to the failure of governance, generally.


Governance includes the provision of excellent education for the populace. With the COVID-19 pandemic, came the realisation of how ill-prepared our educational institutions are to tackle such a grave challenge. The Universities have multiples of talented personnel but lack funding for research because that has not been the priority of the government, as their yearly budgets depict. Universities are supposed to be centres of learning and research such that at times like this, they should lead innovations. Ideas on how to fight the pandemic should have proceeded from our ivory towers. This period has tested the relevance of our institutions, and organisations, and aside from not being ready or ill-equipped to carry out research to fight the virus, online teaching facilities are missing in most of our public universities. Private institutions may not fare any better, but the public institutions should ideally be the hallmark of excellence in such things. This development calls for a rethink on the part of our leaders on how to ensure our universities as centres of learning and research have what it takes to perform their functions, and contribute to the development of their respective cities.


The pandemic has not only made the safety status of women more prominent, but it has also brought to the fore the need to restrategise the planning of our cities and the provision of infrastructures. Also, provisions should be made for girls, and women to have proper and safe avenue to report all abusive cases without any form of stigmatisation and regrets. COVID 19 has exposed the ill-preparedness of the government to tackle serious emergencies. The news of monetary diversions by government functionaries has expanded the scope of the distrust between the governed, those in government and their policies.


Future Challenges and Research Questions 

Many areas need further interrogation concerning the experience of COVID-19, and some of these include: how the cities can handle cases of security forces who were to enforce the restriction and lockdown who became lawbreakers themselves by aiding and abetting? What has led to this high level of distrust between those in government, and the people, and what can be done to restore trust in governance structure and policies?

[i] http://venturesafrica.com/covid-19-buhari-ministers-to-hold-first-virtual-fec-meeting/

[ii] 13-year-old Girl Drugged, Gang-raped By Four Men In Kaduna, It was gathered that the girl was dumped underneath a vehicle near her house after the incident. http://saharareporters.com/2020/06/07/13-year-old-girl-drugged-gang-raped-four-men-kadunahttp://saharareporters.com/2020/06/07/another-young-lady-raped-killed-her-apartment-ibadanhttp://saharareporters.com/2020/06/07/another-young-lady-raped-killed-her-apartment-ibadanhttp://saharareporters.com/2020/06/07/sokoto-cleric-sparks-outrage-sharing-story-how-five-year-old-girl-%E2%80%98raped%E2%80%99-adult-male

[iii] https://www.premiumtimesng.com/news/more-news/388697-lockdown-police-officers-caught-on-camera-assaulting-woman.htmlhttp://saharareporters.com/2020/06/07/sars-officers-arrest-torture-man-death-deposit-corpse-morgue-without-family%E2%80%99s-knowledge

[iv] Nigeria’s Political Leaders Need to Win Trust to Tackle COVID-19 23 April 2020 https://www.chathamhouse.org/expert/comment/nigeria-s-political-leaders-need-win-trust-tackle-covid-19#

No 7 – This blog article is written under the auspices of the British Academy supported Critical Thinking and Writing Workshop for Urban Studies Researchers in Nigeria.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Centre for Housing and Sustainable Development or the University of Lagos, Nigeria.