I found Mallam Danjuma, a gravedigger at one of the biggest cemeteries in Kano State, leaning feebly on the short wall fence of Dandolo graveyard, waiting for a new corpse whose grave he finished digging to arrive. It had been a hectic day for a man of his age. He had dug more than 10 graves on the day and when I arrived he asked me to wait for him to rest.
The temperature was about 40 degrees Celsius, heightening anxiety over high numbers of mortalities whose causes are unknown as the cases of COVID-19 continue to rise in the state.
There is only one official record of death due to COVD-19 in Kano but the recent rise in deaths is raising concerns among the people.
Many say the mortality rate is unusual compared to the same period in previous years. They are even more worried that most of them are elderly.
Some attribute the deaths to inclement weather, while others suspect COVID-19 infection.
“I dug 12 graves today and the 13th is arriving, as you can see, now,” Danjuma said.
“We are witnessing an unusual rise in the cases of death in a few days,” he added.
“We dug more than 30 graves in three days,” Danjuma concluded as I witnessed the arrival of two corpses.
It was the same story at Wali Mai-Geza Cemetery in Kofar Mazugal, where Umar Muhammad was digging a grave for a corpse he was waiting to arrive.
“We buried 22 corpses as at 1p.m. today,” he said. “From Thursday when the state imposed lockdown started, we buried more than 100 corpses,” Muhammad said.
There is no clear record of burials per day in the cemeteries making it impossible to compare this year with previous years. Above all, most of the gravediggers are illiterate, making it difficult to keep records.
No Exact Figures
Meanwhile, the social media is awash with huge numbers of deaths in the city. One post on WhatsApp claims that 48 and 43 corpses were respectively buried in Gyadi-Gyadi Cemetery in two days. It also claims that 51 and 63 were buried in Tarauni Cemetery on April 18 and April 19, 2020 respectively.
However, Alhaji Yusuf Tukur, the Secretary of Kano Cemeteries Committee, dismissed the figures, saying only 11 burials took place in Gyadi-Gyadi Cemetery.
“People are exaggerating the figures,” he said. “We realise there are more deaths than usual but not in the way people are projecting it to cause unnecessary panic.”
HumAngle went to the graveyards to count the number of new graves but found it difficult as they were scattered around the large cemetery grounds.
Is it COVID-19?
There is fear across the state but many suspect the coronavirus infection, especially as many of the dead are elderly persons.
The suspicion becomes stronger considering that reports indicate that
15 per cent of people over 80 years die if they contract or get infected with coronavirus. The reports further say that people over 50 years have weaker immunity and are more vulnerable to COVID-19.
Kano is the most populous state in Nigeria with cases of COVID-19 rising everyday at an alarming rate. As at Wednesday, April 22, the state had 73 confirmed cases, ranking third after Lagos State and the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja.
Usman Yusuf, a professor of Haematology-Oncology, believes that Kano “will, if urgent measures are not taken, become the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic in Africa”.
Yusuf linked the recent cases of death to pandemic, arguing that “while some may explain this increasing death rates to the lack of medical care for the chronically ill due to the lockdown (which in any case is poorly observed and enforced in Kano), we should not forget that these same pre existing medical conditions make the elderly more vulnerable to infection and death by COVID-19.”
The only way to establish a link between the deaths and COVID-19 is to conduct autopsies on the corpses but no autopsy is conducted. Rather, family members bury their dead hastily according to Islamic injunctions.
Furthermore, none of the people related to any deceased person interviewed went for the COVID-19 test.
The shortage of kits in Kano state testing centre and unwillingness of many people to go for the test make it difficult for thousands of people who join burial processions, touch corpses or shake hands with family members of the dead to know their health status.
No, it is not COVID-19
Some people, however, say the harsh weather may be responsible.
This is the opinion of Abdulaziz Abdulaziz who thinks “there is [no] anything alarming that between 20 and 40 persons are buried there (Wali Mai-Geza Cemetery) in a day, especially in a season of inclement weather like this one,” he posted on Facebook.
He added that “[the] cemetery services a wide range of densely populated areas from Fagge to parts of the walled city to Gwammaja down to dense Kurna.”
Dr Abdullahi Dahiru, a medical doctor at Muhammad Abdulhadi Wase Special Hospital in Kano, also said: “There may be an increase but not significant enough the way people are saying.
“With COVID pandemic and the lockdown, most hospitals don’t see outpatients. There are sick patients that may not go to hospital due to challenges of transport and even funds to pay for hospital services as the banks are also closed. This may increase the mortality.”
Kano State government through the Commisioner for Information, Mallam Muhammad Garba, dismissed claims on social media linking the deaths to COVID-19. The government, however, promised to investigate the cases but urged the people to remain calm and ignore any rumour that might cause panic in this time of pandemic.
People are over-reporting the situation falling into the abyss of reporting bias, according to Saudat Sulaiman, a lecturer and journalist at Bayero University Kano.
“Although there are increasing cases of death in the state, the observation is influenced by the panic over the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said.
Also, Dr. Mustapha Hikima thinks “The fear of COVID-19 leads to denial of services for other ailments.
“If one has symptoms of pneumonia which typically are like that of COVID, he has every chance to die of it, either because he’s afraid of presenting or being rejected by health workers.
“And then in the background, there’s Lassa fever, also affecting many people, even killing more than COVID-19 presently. Only that our attention is not there.”