As the city began to shut down in March, I decided to stay indoors. I had rice in one pot, tomato stew in another, mangoes in a bowl, carrots in a small bucket, garri in a black nylon sack, more tomatoes in the freezer, and more rice in a bag. I would survive the apocalypse, and if I didn’t, I would go out on a full stomach.
When the lockdown was announced, the naira slipped further against the dollar, prices of commodities went up, and Lagosians thronged the markets for last-minute supplies. I went out to buy fish but there wasn’t any. I bought turkey parts instead.
There was a preacher on the road near the market, bible in hand. He returned the next day with a translator. He spoke English and she echoed his words in Yoruba. He reminded us that the coronavirus was not as severe as the hellfire waiting for sinners.
A pharmacist I know stocked up on chloroquine. We used to take it for malaria. I remember one night as a child when the itching it produced was so bad my father had to take me to hospital. As a treatment for malaria the drug has now been replaced by artemisinin-based combination therapy, but chloroquine is still produced and many people from my father’s generation still believe in its efficacy. To them, the itching is proof of its power.
By early April I had changed my mind about how to approach the apocalypse. I went with Adeyinka, a photographer colleague, to the Lagos State Government Secretariat to ask for accreditation to report on the emergency response.
I was also looking to speak to the police about a famous actress who had thrown a party and been arrested after her husband posted a video of the festivities online. According to reports, she had been taken to the State Criminal Investigation Department at Panti in Yaba, quite a distance from her home in Ibeju-Lekki. At the Panti police station the morning after the arrest, I was told she wasn’t there, that she had been taken to the State Command offices in Ikeja. I asked the officer speaking to me if he could speak about the case. No, he said. Only the deputy commissioner can comment.
The streets were empty. The drive to Ikeja, which would take more than an hour with regular Lagos traffic, took fifteen minutes. At the gate of the SCID there was a sign saying visitors were not allowed. In any case, the actress hadn’t been seen, an officer told me. Hours later I learned that she had been arraigned at a magistrates court in a different part of the city as I was making my futile enquiries in Ikeja.
I then went to the offices of the Ministry of Agriculture at Oko Oba, a lower-income area. The government was setting it up as a food distribution centre. The officials didn’t seem pleased when I said I was a journalist. They suggested I speak with the ministry’s public relations officer. As I walked around, I recognised a popular Yoruba actor working in Nollywood. Someone pointed out the state’s commissioner for agriculture and then the PR officer.
I asked him how the contractors who supplied the food had been selected. ‘That is not important,’ he said. ‘They were sourced. There is no need to ask that.’ He said the distribution plans hadn’t quite worked out for the first phase but a second phase would begin in a few days. He said to return on Wednesday.
When I went back on Wednesday, he said the distribution would begin on Friday. Returning on Friday, I was told the second phase had begun on Thursday. The PR officer wasn’t around. I put a call through to him and he directed me to one of his colleagues. She recommended following Covid Aid, a group helping the government to distribute food. That day they were making deliveries in the Coker-Aguda Local Council Development Area.
The group had a list of names, addresses and phone numbers. At the second stop, there was a death notice attached to the peeling walls of the bungalow. The men from Covid Aid asked a few questions and went in. They returned a minute later. It was the man they had brought food for who had died.
Most people weren’t waiting for the government to help. A video of a woman handing out food parcels from a van went viral when one of the recipients complained on camera about the quality of the meat.
One morning, Adeyinka and I went to Amala toh Sure, the restaurant run by the woman handing out food in the video. It was located off the usually busy Ikorodu Expressway. In the outdoor kitchen they were cooking breakfast to distribute to people on the streets. The restaurant is named for its speciality, amala, made from yam flour, but that day, Elizabeth Bello and her crew were preparing jollof rice. Some boys were playing not far from us. We were told that they had taken to waiting around the restaurant in anticipation of the day’s feast.
According to Oxfam and Development Finance International, Nigeria is the country least committed to reducing inequality. In wealthy parts of Lagos such as Ikoyi and Victoria Island, there was almost nobody outside during lockdown. In poorer areas like Agege and Iwaya, people were on the streets, if in slightly reduced numbers.
When I tried to speak to a shopper in the upmarket Lekki area, I was admonished to put up the mask hanging around my neck before approaching. Later the same day, Adeyinka and I found teams of boys playing football in Makoko and under a bridge at Adeniji, two poorer parts of the city. There were about as many spectators as players. When they saw us approaching, and especially when they saw Adeyinka’s camera, they shouted at us, asking if we were going to tell the police they were violating the lockdown. We said that wasn’t our intention but they looked unconvinced. ‘If you like call them,’ one young man said. ‘They know we are here.’
The lockdown was eased on 4 May. The seven-day moving average for daily new recorded cases in Nigeria peaked at 643 on 2 July, and has held steady between 500 and 600 since then. The streets of Lagos are full again. No one knows for sure that the apocalypse has been averted but the city for now has moved on.