Cities and COVID 19: Key Lessons and Research Imperatives for Nigeria
Lindsay Sawyer1 and Taibat Lawanson2
1Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow, Urban Studies and Planning Department, University of Sheffield firstname.lastname@example.org
2Centre for Housing and Sustainable Development, University of Lagos
In May of this year, fifteen urban researchers from Nigerian Universities and Institutes and leading urban scholars from the UK and Nigeria were to have gathered for the first in a series of writing workshops called Critical Thinking and Writing for Urban Studies Researchers in Nigeria. Although the actual workshop couldn’t take place in May due to the ongoing Coronavirus crisis, the workshop series has been reimagined into another form in order to achieve its goals of generating and publishing a body of critical urban work from the crucial research being done by the emerging cohort of fifteen participants.
There will now be online workshops where leading urban scholars will share their experiences of writing and publishing, and participants will hear from editors of leading journals. The program will provide support and mentoring to shape the strong work of the participants into articles that will make a valuable contribution to global urban studies. The workshops are organised and hosted by the Centre for Housing and Sustainable Development at the University of Lagos in partnership with the Urban Studies and Planning Department at The University of Sheffield, and funded by the British Academy.
In this blog series, the cohort of urban researchers reflect from their positions and expertise on the current moment and how it is affecting not only cities themselves, but how we understand and research them.
The blog pieces highlight the contradictions and unequal dynamics of Nigerian urban life that responses to COVID-19 have exposed. Many of the authors note that the lockdown measures put in place by the government have created serious friction with many of the everyday realities of Nigeria’s cities. As a strong example, Adegun, Afinowi, Daniel, Ezeanah, Omoegun and Onifade all observe that housing conditions for the majority of people are simply not good enough to expect people to adhere to the stay-at-home proviso; housing conditions are not adequate for providing a safe and healthy environment to stay in all day. Beyond lockdown measures, even the most fundamental actions for combatting the disease can be a real challenge - Oluyitan gives the example that for people to be able to frequently wash their hands, they must have available clean water, which the majority of urban residents do not have at home and which is not freely available in public spaces. Overall, the coronavirus crisis is exposing existing urgent urban challenges and the inequalities and dynamics that intersect with them and increase their impact, not least those of youth and gender (Surajo; Agbalajobi) and climate change (Bununu; Adegun).
What these frictions make visible is the frequent discrepancy between policy and reality in Nigerian cities. Policies are often modelled on those created for very different contexts and do not take into account the actual workings, dynamics and patterns of everyday life. In this way, policies are difficult to implement, adhere to, enforce and maintain. As Elias, Daniel and others point out, what is needed are context-specific solutions that pay careful attention to existing conditions, patterns and ways of doing things. The authors, Adegun and Elias in particular, further point out that without sufficient data, which is severely lacking on all scales, it will be impossible to imagine and implement appropriate solutions to the myriad challenges of urban life in Nigeria’s cities.
What comes through strongly from many of the blog pieces is that the most effective measures have been taken by the people themselves, and that the crisis has exposed critical weaknesses in governance and government bodies. Adedire and Omoegun give examples of how community groups and individual actors have worked to mitigate the effects of COVID and the lockdown measures – by organising additional security for example. Local government especially has been noted to be largely ineffective, undermined by poor knowledge of areas from the lack of data but also the lack of engagement with local people. The authors make the point that while communities and individuals can be powerful and effective, an unfair burden is being placed on them. Again, for effective solutions to be imagined and implemented, government must work with the people and with the infrastructures of provision and care that are already in place. However, Agbalajobi notes that the trust between the people and government has been sorely tested over many decades, and this relationship must also be addressed.
The crisis is also observed as a potential moment for change, as Adedire writes, it could be seen as a break in the status quo that provides an opportunity to imagine a different urban future. While the lockdown measures that restricted movement were incompatible with how most people make a daily living (e.g. Daniel; Afinowi; Ezeanah), Adejumo and Koleoso note that it has opened up the possibility of new working patterns for those that can work from home, and that this could have implications on wellbeing and also reductions in commuter traffic. For this to happen however, the current deficiencies in ICT infrastructure and building infrastructures would have to be addressed. Once again, while the crisis presents new possibilities, it also exposes long-held and underlying urban challenges and the dynamics between them.
There is also a focus on the relationship between the climate change crisis and coronavirus crisis. Adegun and Bununu in particular focus on the dual crisis facing the world, and impacting low-income communities such as in Nigeria especially. The difference in the scale and scope of government responses to the crises are vast. While the coronavirus crisis has demanded immediate and forceful action, the government has been slow and vague to respond to climate change even though the need to act is no less urgent and the consequences of not acting will be just as severe. The fact that the government responses to COVID-19 have been inadequate does not bode well for Nigeria’s ability to mitigate the effects of climate change. The authors also note that as with many other dynamics, the coronavirus crisis has exposed the environmental challenges faced in cities, and how these intersect with other pressing challenges such as housing conditions and deficient infrastructure being made worse by increased levels of flooding.
Finally, Basirat Oyalowo focuses on the challenges and opportunities the crisis presents to urban research itself. Researchers must take unprecedented levels of care to ensure the safety of residents, and also themselves. This will require forging strong partnerships with residents, to find ways to work together to produce research that is more necessary now than ever to address the challenges in informal communities. The researcher is now required not just to be an academic, extracting knowledge for their own benefit, but an advocate for these communities, helping to identify and bring about the changes that they desire.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Centre for Housing and Sustainable Development or the University of Lagos, Nigeria.