Learning from the Past: Pandemic, Lagos and History

State actors appear to have learned nothing from history. We are replicating old control measures to tackle a new virus operating in new social and geo-demographic spaces.


This post comes to us courtesy of the Lagos Studies Association, where it was previously published.

Throughout recorded history, disease outbreaks have ravaged humanity, decimated population, dislocated economies, modified human behavior, changed consumption patterns, altered geo-politics, reconfigured social spaces, and in some instances destroyed an entire human civilization. From early times to the twenty-first century, civilizations have encountered many diseases, epidemic and pandemic. Their demographic and socio-economic effects differ across spaces and times.


Mufutau Oluwasegun Jimoh

The outbreak of corona virus (COVID-19) in Wuhan China is perhaps proving to be one of the most devastating pandemics in modern history. However, the responses of various governments appear to follow the same pattern. Various state actors appear to have learned nothing from history. We are replicating old control measures, including establishing cordons sanitares and closing public spaces, to tackle a new virus operating in new social and geo-demographic spaces.

The most recent pandemic with world-wide socio-economic and demographic effects of COVID-19 magnitude was the 1918-1918 Spanish-flu. Its outbreak defied racial and geographic divides, its diffusion was fast, and its demographic effects was huge. In Nigeria, it came through the sea, the main international gateway to the wider world. The pandemic was introduced to Nigeria by S.S Bida, a merchant ship from the Gold Coast (modern Ghana). Nigerians, especially the urban poor, dominated the fatalities. Casualties were higher among Africans than Europeans. The colonial state was decisive in its intervention as it meddled in religious activities, regulated burial procedure, and curtailed the movement of people. This forceful intrusion into private domains of Nigerians was not only “dramatic and brutal but also novel and unprecedented.”

The present outbreak of COVID-19 and the responses of the Nigerian government appears to be a replica of the colonial responses 102 years ago. The memory of the 1918-1919 pandemic, the Bubonic plague of 1924, the Ebola outbreak and the perspective of international public health regime “perhaps played a determinant role in the political construction of the pandemic.” The present approaches call for caution. Epidemic management must not be treated as a single global event; rather, public health measures must take into account local peculiarities. The imposition of governmentality would intensify and quicken panic among the populace. Social stigmatization would hinder effective identification of index cases.

Nigeria Pandemic 1919

Mufutau Oluwasegun Jimoh, Federal University Birnin Kebbi, Nigeria

Professor Jimoh is a historian of Lagos medical history. His publications on medical history have appeared in the “Canadian Journal of African Studies” and the “Journal of Asian and African Studies.” His essay comes to us through VP Jonathan Reynolds


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