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Thursday, April 2, 2020

Why Coronavirus May Be Deadlier In Nigeria: A Housing Perspective

Jelili Adebiyi discusses why the coronavirus may be even deadlier in Nigeria than in other countries considering the housing problems we have.
File photo
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, 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, Prof 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”.

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