BY Jelili Adebiyi
Before this moment, Nigeria has been commended across the world for her readiness to combat and contain coronavirus. Now that the virus is ravaging Nigeria and other countries in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), we must brainstorm the absences in how we are preparing to mitigate and alleviate the spread of the highly pandemic disease in the sub-region. As an effort in this direction, this article speaks to one of the reasons Coronavirus may be deadlier in Nigeria than elsewhere in the world and why place-based creative responses are necessary. My other goal is to get the conversation started about the omissions in coronavirus conversations in developing countries like Nigeria.
A common type of low-cost residential real estate/vernacular dwellings in Nigeria is popularly known in local parlance as Face-me, I-face-you. It is a Constabulary corridor style rectangular architectural housing design that has been catering to the housing needs of low income and disadvantaged families in Nigeria, since the pre-independence era. Face-me, I-face-you dwellings can be bungalows or story buildings. The design comprises a narrow central corridor, around which rooms are linearly arranged and from which the rooms are to be accessed. It is so named Face-me, I-face-you, because the rooms face one another, with the central corridor separating them. The central corridor is a place for many things, including close-contact socializing and cooking.
In Face-me, I-face-you houses, it is emblematic for residents to share a kitchen, bathroom, and toilet. In non-bungalow types, tenants share a common balcony and staircase through which upstairs are accessed. Customarily, the rooms are of small sizes, mainly, to maximize rental income. Besides, the population densities in Face-me, I-face-you dwellings are usually more than the required carrying capacity of the rooms. It is not unusual that about 8-10 persons may be living in one single bedroom in a Face-me, I-face-you apartment. As a result, a Face-me, I-face-you apartment of about 10 rooms may inhabit about 80-100 persons, who are sharing rooms, a kitchen, a toilet, and other facilities. This is for many reasons including the poverty conditions of the majority of the residents.
Discussion on the spread of coronavirus is yet to get at how overcrowded tenement buildings like Face-me, I-face-you properties may aid and worsen the spread of the disease in Nigeria and some other SSA countries. This article addresses this gap by drawing on my lived experience in Nigeria and such dwellings, as well as the science of the spread of coronavirus. This topic is particularly deserving of attention for many reasons including that a conservative estimate suggests that more than 70% of the tenement rooms in Nigeria are Face-me, I-face-you. As explained below, another reason is that the nature of this type of dwellings makes the classic social distancing of 6 feet as a way of mitigating the continued spread of coronavirus very difficult to observe.
Coronavirus is known to be highly contagious. It spreads easily among people who are within 4.5-6 feet of one another and through respiratory viral droplets that are inhaled from the coughs and sneezes of a nearby infected person. The virus transmits more quickly in crowded areas. Besides, droplets of the virus can remain viably infectious in the air for about 3 hours. The virus can also sustain its infectivity for between 2-3 days hours on metallic, steel, and plastic surfaces. Certain strains of the virus can also survive for about 9 days on surfaces, all else equal. Contacts with such contaminated surfaces, through for example touching, is one of the pathways through which coronavirus spreads.
Let’s now situate the science of the spread of coronavirus in Face-me, I-face-you properties. To do this, let’s assume a hypothetical scenario of an asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic carrier that is a resident of a Face- me, I-face-you household. Let’s so assume because preliminary findings from a study of 91 cases of coronavirus in Singapore suggests that 48% may have contacted the diseases from asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic carriers. The same study reported that 62% of 135 persons who tested positive to coronavirus in Tianjin province, China, possibly got infected by asymptomatic carriers. A computer-based simulation study also attributed 86% (two-thirds) of the infections in China before full-scale travel restrictions were imposed in Wuhan, to undetected carriers of coronavirus. Anecdotal evidence also attributes the pandemic grip of coronavirus in Italy to stealth transmission by asymptomatic carriers of the disease. As to this, Professor Massimo Galli, an expert in infectious diseases at the University of Milan noted: “We have an epidemic because of one person who returned with an infection in an asymptomatic phase and it spread underground in the ‘red zone’. The fire spread in a large part of our region. The virus circulated for several weeks before people were identified and sick people were found. People became infected without significant symptoms”.
Let’s further assume that the asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic carrier of coronavirus sleeps in a congested one-bedroom in a Face-me, I-face-you apartment that’s overcrowded by 10 persons. Because the virus spreads rapidly and easily in crowded areas implies that all of the 10 persons can contract the virus. Also, the asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic person may sneeze on his/her hands and touch on the staircase that is used by everyone in a two-story face-to-face apartment. Because coronavirus can last up to 9 days on hard surfaces means everyone that touches the infested staircase is likely to be infested by the disease. This means about 80-100 inhabitants of our hypothetical tenement property can become carriers of the virus.
As mentioned earlier, a single toilet and bathroom are typically shared in Face-me, I-face-you properties and they are often in poor sanitary conditions: “I hate Face-me I-face-you, I just manage because that is what I have money for. They don’t even clean the bathroom and toilet when they are done” – Sola Sodipo. And, toilets and bathrooms are places where things happen, including sneezing, spitting of saliva, mucus and flowing of droplets from mouth, nose, and etcetera. Those are more likely to happen in filthy bathrooms and toilets as it in most Face-me, I-face-you properties. Imagine the asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic carrier of coronavirus sneeze and spit saliva in the toilets and bathrooms in a Face-me, I-face-you property. Sharing such facilities could mean sharing and spreading the viral loads of coronavirus. Thus, this is another pathway through which residents of Face-me, I-face-you property can become infested by coronavirus. It is also typical for residents of Face-me, I-face-you to gather in the rooms of co-tenants to watch home videos. This is another avenue through which the asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic person can spread the disease in a Face-me, I-face-you tenement property.
Given the above, the question to be asked and answered is, how should we prepare occupants of Face-me, I-face-you apartments from becoming less vulnerable to contacting and making coronavirus increasingly pandemic? Again, we are yet to have this conversation. And it is important that we do because we are not able to close down Face-me, I-face-you properties, just like we have done with schools and worship centers in some places. I believe that all measures that are being promoted to help curtail the spread of the virus are part of the solutions to this problem. However, locally adapted and place-oriented responses to stopping the communal and pandemic spread of the disease are needed. Drawing on my lived, experiential, and professional insights, I will argue for collective action of residents in tenement properties with the attributives of Face-me, I-face-you dwellings. For this to happen, the starting point should be community conversations of all residents in such apartments. Someone in the tenement property would need to call a meeting, where all the residents will discuss coronavirus and develop protocols and community actions that every resident will strictly obey. The meeting can be facilitated by the landlords, or, the property managers, who in this case, may be the persons helping the property owners to collect rent. This may be a big one to do, given the low trusting social capital in most Face-me, I-face-you facilities, even, among couples: “One day I fetched water to bath and went to the bathroom with it but I forgot my sponge and when I went back for it by the time I came back to the bathroom the water was gone and not that alone they steal my food in the kitchen no privacy at all” – Sola Sodipo. But conveying the meeting is possible and has to be done. Governments should leverage the instruments and voice of state through avenues such as adverts and jingoes, to direct and educate the public in such tenement properties about the need for the meeting. The meeting should discuss individual household and compound-level mechanisms through which coronavirus can spread. Building on that, the meeting should also discuss and develop a routine for disinfecting shared utilities like bathrooms, toilets, staircases, and etcetera. Strategies should be mapped out to prevent and mitigate the spread of the disease. What are your thoughts? Let the conversations begin!