In the Yoruba language, there is no one word for a plague

The Nigerian poet and barrister Tade IPADEOLA received the 2013 Nigeria Prize for Literature for his poetry collection The Sahara Testaments, which has been translated into four languages. A Bellagio Rockefeller Fellow and a juror for the Nigeria Prize for Literature, he also translates poetry into Yoruba.


On the 27th day of February 2020, the first clinically-confirmed case of the new Covid-19 disease in Nigeria was established in Lagos. The victim, an Italian businessman, would go on to recover from the illness but would also infect the Nigerian driver taking him around the country. For a people familiar with all kinds of debilitating fevers, the new disease still managed to elicit genuine apprehension. This disease struck the Nigerian economy before it struck the first Nigerian down. The Nigerian crude oil that sold as high as $50 a barrel in January 2020 had fallen in value to $22 in the market by February 2020.

The medical doctor that ordered tests conclusively establishing the cause of illness in the first known patient to be the SARS-CoV-2 had a hunch. She looked at the travel history of the patient before her and made the call. In the way that history sometimes repeats itself, the doctor that spotted the first case of Ebola fever in Nigeria was also a woman alert to the details of the travel history of her patient. The challenge became how to prevent landfall Nigeria from becoming touchdown for the virus.

Some of the most virulent pathogens on the planet have made their presence known in Nigeria. At the time this latest Corona virus appeared, Nigeria was actively fighting a local scourge of the Lassa hemorrhagic fever, akin to the Ebola hemorrhagic fever, spread by rats. A country that is officially 180 million people with only 5 approved molecular laboratories capable of isolating the SARS-CoV-2 virus was going to need major ramping up. This new respiratory illness was unlike others before it: the original SARS, MERS, the Avian Flu, swine fever – all somehow never affected Nigerians this way.

The dominant indigenous language in Lagos, where the first case of Covid-19 was diagnosed, is Yoruba. In the Yoruba language, there is no one word for a plague. The expression "ajakale arun," most poignantly translated by Adeleke Adeekoas  as ‘scorched earth infestation,' is the generic term for pestilences. The expression retains the militancy which the Yoruba ascribe to all contagion, the presumed intention pathogens have not just to share but to emphatically establish occupancy.

Nigeria has no factories for hazmat suits, no enterprise for manufacturing respirators, ventilators, nose masks or protective goggles. What we do have are soap factories, and the vestigial presence of medical doctors who have not yet emigrated out of Nigeria. On the last day of March 2020, 331 victims of the disease had been identified. Seven patients had recovered enough to be discharged. Covid-19 had claimed two lives. The majority of those tested were politicians, members of the business elite and a handful of entertainment stars. Members of the working class who unwittingly had contact with patients are isolated and quarantined if they show symptoms. There is a sense that more widespread testing needs to be done, and fast. The problem is that Nigeria has so few laboratories, so the general population have resorted to washing their hands and faces furiously.

The federal government announced the total lockdown of Lagos and Abuja, the two Nigerian cities most hit by the Corona virus, for fourteen days. Different states have announced partial lockdown and governors are advocating social distancing. The hope is that these measures will slow down the spread and allow healthcare facilities, pitifully inadequate, stand a chance against the advance of the pale horse of Covid-19. For now, the soap factories go into overdrive.