Editor's Note: This story is part of a series of two articles on the “mysterious” deaths of COVID-19 in Kano, Nigeria. Read here the second part.
The history of the mass deaths that occurred in April during the COVID-19 pandemic in Kano state, north-western Nigeria, has been shrouded for months in confusion and guesswork.
After several weeks of speculation and official denial, Nigerian Health Minister Dr. Osagie Ehanire confirmed on June 8 that the wave of mysterious deaths in the Kano state was “caused by or due to COVID-19 ″.
Ehanire claimed that Kano had witnessed 979 deaths “at a rate of 43 deaths a day” in April. The deaths, caused in eight local government areas of Kano State, affected 65 or more people with pre-existing conditions.
This official validation put an end to the conjecture regarding the cause of this spike in Kano deaths. On May 5, Ehanire stated that there was “no evidence” linking Kano's deaths to the coronavirus. This claim was made a day after the head of the COVID-19 presidential task force said that the deaths had indeed been caused by the virus.
The descriptions of the social networks, as well as the investigations and documentation carried out by citizen media and journalists can help to fully understand this story.
With Global Voices' Civic Media Observatory on COVID-19, I conducted qualitative and ethnographic oversight of Nigeria's social media space. It revealed several dominant social media narratives about Kano's deaths, including denial and suppression of news stories about the deaths, disinformation, ethnically and religiously divisive messages, political rivalry, and the wave of similar mysterious deaths in neighboring states. .
What really happened in Kano?
In late April, images of freshly dug graves in Kano began to circulate on Twitter, such as those seen below.
PRAY FOR KANO:
COVID-19 Or Strange Death.
150 people were reported dead in 2 days, no action but silence from Nigerian Govt.
PRAY FOR KANO pic.twitter.com/Z6zmKjqLFT
– Temitope (@Topeyardpipu) April 26, 2020
PRAY FOR KANO:
COVID-19 or strange death.
The death of 150 people has been recorded in two days, no action by the Nigerian Government, except silence.
PRAY FOR KANO
– Hamza Ibrahim (@hamzaish) May 1, 2020
There is both reality and misinformation about Kano's mass deaths. Our report will clarify this.
However, there was confusion as to the exact number of deaths.
A chilling news report from the Nigerian national television channel, broadcast on April 21 by activist Badero Olusola on the Facebook page Concerned Nigerians (Worried Nigerians), viewed 13,000 times, 127 likes and over 300 comments. The report showed that in just three days, from April 17 to 19, more than 150 people had been buried in Kano. Gravediggers could barely keep up with the deaths, given the minimum of 40 people who were reportedly buried daily in a cemetery in the metropolis of Kano.
However, an investigation carried out by Dr. Zainab Mahmoud, a youth activist from Kano, raised the number to more than one hundred, as expressed on Twitter on April 25:
Three days ago my colleagues and I decided to investigate the deaths in Kano. By day 2, we had received reports of over 100 deceased people. A large number highly suspicious for COVID 19.
– Zainab Mahmoud (@iNabmahmoud) April 25, 2020
Three days ago, my colleagues and I decided to investigate the deaths in Kano. On the second day we had already received reports of more than a hundred deceased. A high number that is highly suspicious of COVID-19.
That same day, the Nigerian newspaper The Nation tweeted a report It contained a list of some 20 prominent people who had died in Kano. The Nigerian online newspaper Premium Times also reported on the deaths of seven university professors in Kano.
Kano's victims were no longer faceless.
Analysis of the cause of death in Kano
The media description surrounding Kano's deaths revealed that the Kano State Government (KNSG) tried to suppress the news, denied the existence of a political rivalry in Kano that could have interfered with an early response to COVID-19 and was unable to explain the absence of adequate documentation of the deaths.
On April 26, KNSG stated that the deaths were “caused by complications of hypertension, diabetes, meningitis and acute malaria, and not by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Reuters reported. The governor of Kano Abdullahi Umar Ganduje, denied a report from the Nigerian newspaper Daily Trust and called it “false news”.
Despite that, not everyone accepted the position of the state government.
Usman Yusuf, professor of Hematology and Oncology, in an opinion article in the BussinessDay newspaper, stated that the “KNSG does not have the will, capacity, compassion, transparency and trust” to mitigate the crisis. Yusuf also stated that the government was in a “state of denial, and will do everything in its power to hide these deaths.”
In a Facebook post, Nigerian investigative journalist Fisayo Soyombo attributed the deaths and slow response to COVID-19 in Kano to the “collapse” of three agencies after their employees tested positive for the coronavirus, including the testing laboratory, the team responsible treating patients and the COVID-19 state committee.
Soyombo wrote that the situation had been further aggravated because the “state government played politics unnecessarily” with the initial right of the offer from the Federal Ministry of Health to take up the response to COVID-19. Furthermore, the KNSG rejected the donation of a hospital as an isolation center due to political rivalry.
FLASH: Ganduje rejects Kwankwaso’s Hospital as isolation center.
But why reject donation of a newly-built 60-bed hospital as isolation center for Coronavirus patients?
Is Kano aware they will need any free beds they can get? Are we still playing politics with people’s lives?
– #OurFavOnlineDoc 🛂 (@DrOlufunmilayo) May 1, 2020
LAST MINUTE NEWS: Ganduje rejects Kwankwaso hospital as isolation center.
But why are you rejecting the donation of a newly built 60-bed hospital as an isolation center for coronavirus patients?
Is Kano aware that they will need as many free beds as they can get? Are we still playing politics with people's lives?
On 20 April, the former governor of the state of Kano, Rabiu Kwankwaso, had donated the Amana Hospital in Kano, which had 60 beds and was owned by his foundation, to the state government as a coronavirus isolation center, but the government refused to receive such a donation.
Since 2015 a political attrition war has been waged between former Governor Kwankwaso and his then Deputy Governor Ganduje, who is now Governor.
Inadequate documentation and death certification
Kano is predominantly Muslim, with tensions between science and religion that can sometimes affect the government's handling of burials and death certification.
Carrying out autopsies is a sensitive subject in Kano, as there are “many things in science and medicine that not everyone accepts,” Dr. Sanusi Bala said in an interview with the Punch newspaper. Bala, head of the Kano State Nigerian Medical Association section, said autopsies could not be carried out without the express consent of the deceased's relatives.
Mubarak Bala, a Kano activist who claims to be an atheist, also noted in a Facebook post that the absence of birth and death certificates, and the inability of health officials to perform autopsies, also had an impact on the mass deaths of the Kano state.
Instead, KNSG conducted a “verbal autopsy” on April 28 to investigate the cause of the deaths. A verbal autopsy is an epidemiological method that uses techniques developed by the World Health Organization to examine the cause of death in populations that lack adequate documentation systems.
The result of the verbal autopsy performed by three doctors in Kano, Maryam Nasir, Zainab Mahmoud and Khadija Rufai, was alarming. In 48 hours, the researchers discovered “183 deaths in the metropolis that occurred between April 18-25, 2020.” The symptoms, “a disease with a feverish and respiratory tendency that progresses to death in one or two weeks,” coincided with COVID-19.
Dr. Osagie Ehanire's admission in June – linking Kano's deaths to the coronavirus – finally confirmed the information that had already been circulating in Nigerian public digital circles since April.