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Weekly Newsletter on the Ongoing Infodemic: May 25, 2020

8 mins read

The World is dying, Nigerians are laughing 

Jeet Heer, in the New Republic, made a compelling case for the use of comedy in American politics. In the Trump era where a president’s erratic authoritarianism is deeply unnerving, “jokes, even political jokes, aren’t about persuasion, but rather about psychological soothing in the face of difficult or painful situations.”

At the end of March, when the world had recorded a total coronavirus death count of 44,043 – a figure that would more than triple by the following month – Nigeria had only 135 cases and 2 deaths. It is, thus, understandable for funny pop-culture references to the mild crisis (in Nigeria) to spread like wildfire across the web. There seemed to be something good in the Nigerian air, although the fast jump to 7,016 cases and 211 deaths by May 21st stands to disprove that theory. Yet, Nigerians are still turning to the internet for comic relief through memes.

The earliest use of the term meme can be traced to the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book “The Selfish Gene.” Here, he likens genes to a phenomenon of human culture that “propagate themselves by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.” Just like genes, successful memes can be copied easily, are unoriginal, long-lived and capable of morphing into variants that help the memes spread even faster. 

Since that characterisation, memes have remained easy to copy, partly because of how simple it is to create memes that can last for decades. Internet memes typically in the form of images or videos are rich in humorous information that most often recycle erstwhile forgotten ideas that have political or cultural significance.

At first, coronavirus memes in Nigeria were lighthearted and focused on joking about the existence of the virus. Then, they became crucial tools for disseminating ideas about safety precautions. As the government got more serious and started to enforce lockdown orders in the major cities, memes surfaced on Twitter, TikTok, Instagram and Facebook, constructing political identities and expressing support or disdain for the state’s directives. At the same time, memes of Nollywood stars and locally sourced content emerged to communicate shared sufferings amongst Nigerians, fighting for our attention with foreign-made memes that trickled down into our media space.

Singing ourselves into reality

One of the earliest viral covid-19 memes was the “Wuhan shake” which replaced handshaking with foot-shaking. At this time, Nigerians were aware of an epidemic that was changing cultural norms in far off countries. When American rapper Cardi B ranted about the novel coronavirus, screaming “shit is real! Shit is gettin’ real!”, the situation seemed serious enough for a Nigerian record producer, Lord Sky to create a mash-up featuring shorter viral popular memes. The mash-up was actually inspired by an earlier similar version created by DJ iMarkkeyz who published a full song “Coronavirus” on YouTube. While entertaining, the meme alluded to a growing national acceptance of the threat of the virus.

Another meme trend was particularly fascinating because of its ability to “humorize” death. In 2017, a troupe of Ghanaian pallbearers went viral following BBC Africa’s coverage of their flamboyant coffin/carrying dances. In 2020, this group recorded another round of international internet fame, with social media users adopting the troupe as a dark-humoured symbol of death in coronavirus season. 

The trend became so pervasive that, in India, uniformed policemen danced along to the track while carrying a (healthy) man on a stretcher to warn its citizens of the imminence of death. In Peru, police dressed in riot gear did the same, with a mock coffin. In Nigeria, these memes, taken apart as videos, photos or just audio, compelled online viewers to obey social distancing restrictions or face death.

Finding humour in frightening times

Politics converges with almost any concept or field of human endeavour. In public health, the role of politics is even more important as the creation of realistic and evidence-based health interventions are dependent on political action (or inaction). When the Nigerian government announced a “gradual” easing of COVID-19 lockdown in three major states, data showed two contrasting things: (1) the reopening could be ill-timed as cases were mounting; (2) the lockdown may have been ineffective in the first place. 

Less than 12 hours after the “lift” was announced, what emerged from the collectivities of social media were memes, created as images to show public opinion and evoke comic relief in response to the heavy cost of the otherwise threatening reality of coronavirus pandemic.

The memes above are examples of such digital texts that question the rationale of the Nigerian president on the one hand and use the literary style of personification (i.e. giving the virus human characteristics) to comically showing how this could lead to an increase in infection cases and death. The memes also project the idea that Nigerian leaders often act without regard to data and evidence; it further shows how detached the elites can be from the realities of the average Nigerian.

In this meme which generated thousands of views and comments on Twitter and Instagram, Nigerians echo the belief that political office holders, not only act in their selfish interests but are often not mentally capable of making rational decisions. 

Laughing away our sorrows, together!

As the novel coronavirus is no longer culturally novel, people have started to share their experiences. Some memes look retrospectively at an era before coronavirus, while others relate to the new normal where zoom meetings play the antagonist.

What’s more, memes featuring veteran Nollywood stars like Osita Iheme and Chinedu Ikedizie (Aki and Pawpaw) perfectly capture our shared reality and help to define a national identity at a time when Nigeria seems to be very much divided on ethnic, religious and social grounds. 

Source: Naijamobile
Source: Naijamobile
Source: Naijamobile

While Nigerians may be laughing, the sounds are not connected to feelings of goodwill but interlaced with deep emotions of fear and anxiety. As Mikita Brottman asks: “Is it possible that laughter is, in fact, the most serious thing we do in our lives?”

Coronavirus Q & A 

  • Can this herb chromolaena odorata treat coronavirus successfully?

Chromolaena odorata is a medicinal plant in the family of sunflowers. It is considered as generally invasive and the world’s worst weed with common names like Siam weed, devil weed, French weed, communist weed, hagonoy, co hoy etc. In Nigeria, it is known as Awolowo Leaf but the Yoruba people call it Ewe Akintola.

As regards the question above, the answer is NO. Although claims about the weed’s potency against the new coronavirus have been shared widely, there is no scientific evidence to support them. For a cure to be scientifically established and recommended, it would have gone through pre-clinical and clinical trials which the weed has not been subjected to.

More so, according to the World Health Organization, there is no cure yet for COVID-19.

  • Can the COVID-19 be transmitted from food to humans?

Generally, COVID-19 is thought to be spread from human to human through respiratory droplets after a person inhales these droplets. Also, these droplets can land on objects and surfaces and are capable of contaminating the surfaces. An individual can be infected if he touches these surfaces/objects and uses his infected hands to touch his eyes, nose or mouth, hence, the advice to always wash your hands.

As to whether one can catch COVID-19 from food or food packaging, the World Health Organization has said there is currently no evidence. However, precautions are to be taken when handling or cooking food. Your hands can spread germs in the kitchen, so wash your hands often to prevent cross-contamination. Wash your hands thoroughly before cooking and specifically cook raw meat to the right temperature to kill harmful germs. (click here to see how to maintain a healthy habit in the kitchen.)

  • What is the total number of people with COVID-19?

According to the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 dashboard, as of 22nd of May, the total number of confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus across the world is 4,995,996 from which Africa has 71,752 confirmed cases.

In Nigeria, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control – NCDC –  as of Saturday, 23 May ( 8:46 am) recorded 7,261 confirmed cases, 5,033 active cases, 2,007 discharged cases and 221 deaths. The country has tested 41,907 samples so far.

  • Is it safe to wear a facemask during exercise?

Generally, the use of facemask is said to limit the spread of certain respiratory viral diseases including COVID-19. But it has been noted that using masks alone does not guarantee safety, hence, the advice to adopt other measures such as physical distancing and hand hygiene to provide adequate protection.

However, people have wondered how exercising with facemasks would affect their breathing, performance, chances of spreading the virus and even vision. Regarding this, the NewYorkTimes after gathering thoughts from experts said that generally outdoor exercise, with or without a mask, seems to be safe. From the report, an expert – Benjamin Cowling, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Hong Kong and the senior author of a study published in Nature this month that looked at breathing, viral shedding and masks – said, “I think relatively little Covid-19 transmission would occur outdoors, except perhaps in large crowds,” “Running is good for health,” “and transmission risk should be minimal, both for others if a runner were infected, or for the runner, if they passed by infected people.” (continue reading)

Tip of the week

#FakeNews Alert 

Since the new coronavirus arrived in Nigeria, the media space has welcomed different prophetic claims, including the one that claimed that the Siam Weed cures the virus. We advise that you look closely and question this claim, you may be surprised to see a publicity stunt.

Granted that Trump and Obama have their differences, the duo have also been victims of fake attributions. So, while you hold on to this claim check for loose ends and do not share unless it is true.

Make sure your information is from the right source. Dubawa recently checked a claim relating to this one and the verdict was false. There is a probability that this may be as well. So, verify!

Ebele Oputa is a frontline leader who helps organizations do new things or do existing things more efficiently. She has provided strategic, technical and programmatic oversight as well as editorial support of Dubawa since its inception. She is an experienced Programme Officer with a demonstrated history of working in the non-profit organization management industry including the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime. Skilled in Negotiation, Training, Leadership, Project Management, and Strategic Communications, Ebele has a Master of Laws (LLM) focused on International Trade and Commercial Law from Durham University.

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