LAGOS, August 15 – Kate, Bright and Happiness sat on the lawn of a Lagos brothel, sipping lager and chatting with men in groups of two or four. Business had been good, they said, until Ebola arrived.
“I have been in this business for two years but business has never been this slow,” said Kate.
“I used to have an average of seven customers per day but I can hardly see four now since this Ebola disease came to town,” the 25 year old told AFP.
“Many of our customers are afraid to come to us for fear of contracting the disease. This Ebola wahala (problem) is really bad business. The government should do something about it.”
With Ebola spread through the bodily fluids of an infected person, including sweat, the sex workers say they’ve been particularly badly hit by public fears.
“This disease is bad-o!” said 23 year old Bright. “It is worse than HIV/AIDS. You can prevent HIV by using condoms but you can’t do the same with Ebola.
“If care is not taken we will soon be driven out of business because nobody wants to die.”
– Bushmeat hit –
Sex workers aren’t the only ones in the informal economy — in which an estimated three-quarters of Nigerians work — who are feeling the effects of Ebola. Three people have died of the disease in Lagos, and more are expected.
Sellers of bushmeat, a popular delicacy in Nigeria and elsewhere in the region, also complain of fewer customers.
The hunters, who catch animals such as antelope, porcupine and bush rats, fear for their livelihoods if the trend continues.
Fruit bats and monkeys are both thought to transmit the virus.
Guinea, which with Sierra Leone and Liberia has had more than 1,000 deaths from Ebola since the start of the year, banned the consumption of bats to try to control the spread to humans.
Nigeria has issued similar warnings about bushmeat but not outlawed the practice.
Vivian Lateef Koshefobamu has been in the bushmeat business nearly 30 years. But the 45-year-old’s stall stands alone and even then only displays a few pieces of roasted meat.
“The customers have all run away for fear of Ebola,” she told AFP. “They are scared. Most of the bushmeat sellers are also not coming to sell for the same reason. But I’m not afraid.”
The health advice was “mere propaganda to spoil our business”, she added.
– Everyone a suspect –
Elsewhere in megacity Lagos, home to more than 21 million, everyone from market traders and undertakers, bank workers to shop assistants openly discusses their fears and how they’ve changed their behaviour.
At the Oke Arin and Balogun markets in central Lagos, some traders wear gloves and protective masks and swear that trade is slack — although the teeming crowds suggest otherwise.
In banks, cashiers and other staff dealing with banknotes and the public do the same.
Taxi, motorised rickshaw and bus drivers fear carrying contaminated passengers. Few people shake hands. Everyone is wary. Even the bus queues have become slightly more orderly.
“If somebody should have sweat on his or her body and I get in contact with the person, I’m aware of the fact that I might get the virus,” said bus passenger Kolawole Olalekan.
“So, everybody now… we all get into the bus gently. No rushing like the normal Lagos hustle and all.”
At MIC Royal, a firm of undertakers potentially on the front line given that the bodies of Ebola victims can still pass on the virus after death, bosses decided to turn down business.
“Our company has not buried any Ebola victim since the outbreak and we will not handle such a job if given,” said senior manager Tunji Adesalu.
“As undertakers, we appeal to the bereaved to encourage the cremation of their dead in order to reduce the risks of contracting the Ebola virus.”
– Public awareness –
Combating ignorance is part of the battle. Bogus claims of remedies such as salt-water cures and even divine intervention have been rife in religiously conservative Nigeria.
The Lagos state government’s awareness campaign extends to radio and television advertisements, notices in newspapers and flyers as well as drive-by public health announcements to get the message across.
“The state governor met with religious and community leaders to stress the need for sick people to go to the hospital for treatment rather than seek divine healing,” said Tubosun Ogunbanwo, spokesman for the local health commissioner.
“There is no cure for Ebola but it can be prevented and controlled through public awareness campaigns and good hygiene.”
Sarah Adigun’s experience suggests Lagosians are listening: sales of hand sanitiser and soap have gone through the roof.
“I now sell a bottle of 50 ml Dettol for 1,050 naira (5 euros, $6.5) against 900 naira before the outbreak,” the cosmetics trader said.
“I’m almost running out of stocks as our suppliers are not meeting our demand.”