• Saturday, June 22, 2024
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The End SARS movement – a public health lens


The peaceful protests across the country, pushing for an end to the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of the Nigerian Police, due to unlawful arrests, extortion, sexual assault, and killings of young Nigerians is the largest organised protest across the country in the past few years – underlining the extremes and extent of police brutality in Nigeria. Addressing this issue is important, not only because standing against injustice is always essential, but also because police brutality poses a public health risk, which disproportionately affects the youth – Nigeria’s most valued resource.

Reports in March 2020 showed that the police had killed 18 Nigerians while enforcing the COVID-19 lockdown, compared to the 12 lives that had been lost to COVID-19 in the same period. More recently, data from the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) shows that COVID-19 has taken three lives since the peaceful protests started last week, compared to at least 10 people killed by the Nigerian police at the “End SARS” protests in the same time frame.

Police brutality also poses other health risks according to a 2018  study, which investigated the effects of police violence on African Americans in the US. The study showed that police profiling and assault of a specific demographic segment can pose significant health risks as people fear for their safety when going about daily activities – a scenario applicable to the everyday, young Nigerian. Anxiety from police profiling can spark stress-related diseases, including diabetes, hypertension, and poorer overall health. There are also mental health and stress-related risks posed to the families and loved ones of victims of assault and killings. It is important to note that these health risks posed by police brutality are occurring at the same time Nigerian youths face uncertainty, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, as millions face a lack of healthcare cover, and significant loss of income due to rising unemployment in the face of the highest levels of absolute poverty in the world. 

Addressing COVID-19 risks amid mass protests

Studies from global protests during the pandemic are yet to show conclusive evidence that these mass protests lead to a spike in COVID-19 infections. As we face what is Nigeria’s largest protests in the past few years, we need to reduce the risk of increasing the spread of COVID-19. There have been several protests globally since the COVID-19 pandemic began, as people address issues from sexual and gender-based violence, to racial injustice, and poor governance. We can learn from the measures protesters took that likely helped to limit the increase in cases. 

While there is no evidence of a large COVID-19 outbreak from mass protests, there are still infection risks due to the inability to observe social distance, as well as some protesters using masks improperly, or foregoing them entirely. Further, it will be impossible to track the effect of the protests until after 2-3 weeks – the average gestation period for the virus. The inaccessibility of COVID-19 tests (it costs over N50,000) might make it difficult for young Nigerians – who have already been affected financially by the pandemic – to pay for COVID-19 tests and other quarantine measures. 

It is helpful that the youth, who are disproportionately affected by the SARS brutality – and who have shown up in large numbers at the recent protests – face some of the lowest risks of infections and chronic symptoms if infected. Additionally, studies have proven that COVID-19 transmission risks are lower in open-air spaces, compared to indoor spaces. Nonetheless, it is paramount that we take the right protective measures to stay healthy and push for justice for all. One of the highest transmission risks at mass protests is the use of tear gas and pepper spray by the police, which will force protesters to take off their masks to breathe – increasing the risk of transmission from infected protesters.

What to do? Ending police brutality is everyone’s business

There have already been efficient community activations from individuals and MSMEs, organising orderly peaceful protests, caring for victims of assaults, providing free legal services to arrested protesters, and providing food for protesters. Women have played a crucial role in leading the protests and organising, raising funds, releasing dozens of peaceful protesters from police custody, and cleaning the streets after protests. 

Furthermore, financial technology services, founded by young Nigerians, have been key in raising and tracking funds for the organisation of the protests. Examples from these young leaders show some light at the end of the tunnel. Amid the madness of police brutality, there is a generation that will take nothing less than justice, while adopting a united and efficient front.

While some companies may face a conundrum when deciding to voice support on this issue, which addresses the inefficiency of a public service, the business of ending police brutality is everyone’s business. Business leaders interested in joining the movement can support their employees through the following activities:

  • Show empathy and care by discussing the issue of police brutality with employees, to better understand the impact of police violence and profiling, and provide a safe space for employees affected by this issue
  • Provide mental health support to young staff who might be affected during the protests
  • Allow days off for employees who wish to exercise their civic duties by engaging in the peaceful protests
  • Donate masks and other PPE to employees who will be taking part in the peaceful protests

Nigeria recently celebrated 60 years of independence. However, for the young Nigerians protesting on the streets of Lagos, Abuja, Oyo, Plateau, Enugu, Edo, Kaduna, Rivers, and other states across the country, the vision of our nation’s independence is not what is being experienced. We are not fully independent, until every person feels safe to be who they are, while obeying the law, without the fear of extortion, arrest, or death from those sworn to protect them.

Samuel Kanu is a Nigerian youth who works with Dalberg, a global strategy consulting firm, working to tackle society’s most pressing issues. Like many other young Nigerians, he has been harassed by the SARS unit.