Ebola virus and the salt water of ignorance

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A Medical Doctor who is a very senior officer with one of the key FGN agencies involved in managing this crisis confirmed… that he also bathed in salt! Can you imagine the implication of this…?…This has brought to the fore how vulnerable our people are to narratives that could harm them! Any wonder then that our Muslim and Christian clerics have such awesome power to mislead once they go toxic?” – A contributor to an Online discussion on the mass salt bathe in Nigeria.

NIGERIA went into panic mode last week! From all corners of Nigeria, people were receiving and exchanging texts; Whatsapp and BB messages as well emails on the same issue: wake up in the night, get a dip into salt water and oh, don’t forget to drink some too.

There were variations to the messages, with one telling my wife to ensure that our children drink but before, she should ensure that she prays fervently into the water. A workman early on Friday morning sent a similar message to my wife again: “Morning Ma; they said one should add a little salt into warm water and bath with it this morning. Have you been informed? Maybe BOKO HARAM chemical or so; I don’t know much yet”! A contributor to our online thread reported that he had a rough time convincing his hypertensive father not to take the dip in saline water. While report also emerged from Gombe, that town criers went round and announcements were made in several mosques to encourage the bath in salt water. Our correspondent in this report said that his houseboy and driver took the bath too.

Matrimonial pressures

And to be sure that this was a nationwide deluge, that spared neither the low nor the high, we were informed that a Professor of Vet. Medicine happily took the bath and other top professors were also not left behind, including one who confessed to one of our colleagues: “don’t tell a soul; but I did take a little saline bath too, and I ain’t feeling too good as we speak…”

There were also matrimonial pressures that many Nigerians could not dodge, such as a former top government official who was woken up at 3.30am by the wife, thrusting a cup at the husband and ordering: “Drink this”! When asked what that was, the matron of the house answered that many people had been phoning to make sure the whole family drank and bathed in salted water.

Someone was reported to have tweeted to Classic FM that if your mother didn’t call that morning with instructions to drink and bath in salt water, you might very well have been adopted! To expose the absurdity of the situation, an interlocutor visiting the USA, jocularly added that he would compile the different stories as grounds to seek asylum, by telling the Americans that if he returned home, he would be forced to drink and bath in salt! And the final comical twist, was one posted late night on Friday, which asked people before going to bed, to tie a palm leaf and a red cloth around the head and waist; then dance around any banana tree singing: “ebelebe, ebelebe, ebelebe”, seven times! That will also do the trick being asked of salt water, and maybe even faster! Such was the height of the absurdity!

The national mass salt drinking and bathing hysteria, was all because of the outbreak of Ebola fever in Nigeria, over the past three weeks! One of the earliest responses was the story that eating Bitter Kola (Namijin Gworo in Hausa and Orogbo in Yoruba), could prevent Ebola; and before long, it was said to have disappeared from markets in Abuja. A friend in Ilorin couldn’t get to buy, while everybody just seemed to have converted to eating kola!

Predictably, reports started emerging that people were already suffering from their dips in salt water. VANGUARD newspaper last Saturday reported that two people had died while twenty were hospitalized over excessive ingestion of salt. Hypertensive patients were particularly at risk and the Nigerian government was eventually forced to remind Nigerians to disregard the rumour and that there was no cure yet for Ebola.

What started as a Nigeria-originated deployment of hysteria, superstition and mumbo-jumbo, was to eventually spread to other Ebola-infected countries in West Africa, as the BBC reported people in Sierra Leone also joining the salt bandwagon!

It is very frightening to
behold the depth of ignorance and superstition in Nigeria; and the advent of new technologies, mobile telephony and the internet along with the deepening of fundamentalist religions, have become the combustible mix helping to spread ignorance today.

And to underline this mix, last Saturday, Prophet T. B. Joshua was reported to have sent an aeroplane load of 4, 000 bottles of holy water to Ebola patients in Sierra Leone and Liberia! It is incredible to note that highly educated people also get caught up in these backwards campaigns quite often.

A few years ago, there was a similar nationwide outbreak of hysteria, about “Acid Rain”, which they alleged was going to fall on some particular days. A well-known Senior Advocate of Nigeria forwarded the text to me and in my anger, I asked why he had not bothered to even Google “Acid Rain”. There was an equally absurd text message warning against picking calls from certain telephone numbers.

They then add that people who had unfortunately picked the calls have been reported dead in Taraba State or some such distance that one was never likely to be able to verify. When someone forwarded one of such numbers to me I doubted his rationality: Which service provider in Nigeria issued such a number?

And was it possible or even feasible to receive a call that will kill? Why won’t people ask basically rational questions and attempt to interrogate the possibilities of some of these outlandish claims?

The truth is that we have become more and more religious and superstitious at the same time. Faced with the crises phenomena associated with an incomplete, arrested and contradictory transition to modernity, people carry very troubled and equally contradictory consciousness. The educational system does not rigorously entrench rational, scientific interrogation of natural and social phenomena; even those trained in scientific enquiry lapse into religious and superstitious modes when confronted with natural and social problems.

Religion has become more and more fundamentalist, with the advent of rightwing Pentecostal Christianity and fundamentalist Islam; then there are survivals of pre-modern belief systems which also enter the consciousness more and more, with the collapse of the social fabrics of society. Confronted with all these issues plaguing society and the emergence of diseases like Ebola, without cure yet, in a world of fast transmission of information, with the all-pervasive presence of the internet, where people access all kinds of information, often ill-digested and improperly transmitted, it becomes easier to fall for the national hysteria, that Nigeria habitually falls into.

The Salt wash and drink as well as the bitter kola hysteria of the past two weeks are only the latest in the lapse into a superstitious mode in our country. It is not likely to be the last!

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