Living in a Developing Country Prepared Me for the Coronavirus Crisis

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Photo by Daniel Case.

I’ve mentioned several times, I spent most of the ’80s and early 90s living in Nigeria, the country of my birth. Nigeria is classified as a developing country so it struggles with some of the basic necessities of life in the developed world such as regular running water, power and access to medicine. During the ’80s, I vividly remember coming home from school and having to get in the family car and go fill up cans of water so we could have dinner and bathe.

Even if you live a middle-class lifestyle in Nigeria, as I did, you still have to deal with these issues. So this means, while you might have had a VCR and TV, you might not be able to watch them half of the time, because there was no power. (Wealthy Nigerians get around this problem by having their own power generators, which automatically kick in during the frequent blackouts.)

Needless to say, making the transition from London to Nigeria was a huge culture shock. Apart from dealing with the aforementioned issues, I also had to cope with a school system that still practiced corporal punishment.

However, in the Nigerian school system, the teachers were allowed to get away with what would be considered child abuse by Western standards. When I was in school in Nigeria, I was beaten with an open hand, hit with the flat end of a machete and whipped. All for minor infractions for crimes like being loud in class or laughing. It was only while watching an episode of “The Walking Dead,” in which Negan, one of the series’ main bad guys, is inflicting a beating on the heroes that I realized that I had been subjected to torture.

When I tell Americans these stories, most people have a hard time believing me. But this is because they have no frame of reference. These kinds of things simply don’t occur in American society.

However, these experiences taught me a valuable lesson about what’s considered to be normal. A few years ago, I was invited to a What’s App group featuring my graduating class. Interestingly enough many of them said their high school years were the best years of their lives. I said it was the complete opposite, living through that experience gave me life long nightmares and PTSD.

I finally realized that to my Nigerian classmates, physical abuse was normal to them, but being raised in the West it was abnormal to me. However, Nigerian emigres still often send their kids to the brutal local boarding schools with disastrous results. One of my friend’s son is one of these schools and he told the story of an American born-Nigerian boy whose parents had the bright idea to put him in a local boarding school. They had to come get him after he attempted suicide.

These are mild annoyances or first world problems. Americans are not used to them because they’ve lived comfortable lives where everything is just around the corner or a mouse click away. The coronavirus crisis has shown us how fragile life is and how easily everything can fall apart if the supply chain breaks down.

Needless to say, these experiences left their mental scars. This has led to a lifetime of battling depression and PTSD. My ex-wife and long-term ex-girlfriends can attest to this because I would often wake up screaming or having vivid nightmares. Now, I have to warn potential partners of this.

Still living through this experience does have its benefits. At least it prepares you to deal with a crisis. I’ve learned some survivalist skills such as knowing how to boil and filter water with a cloth and how to flush a toilet when the water’s not running. Having said that, I’ve always been scornful of Westerners who go on survivalist courses. To them it’s a lark, when I lived in Africa it was my life.

So I was scornful when I learned of Americans freaking out because their local grocery stores were out of toilet paper. I’ve seen long lines at my local store, hours reduced and even seen stories about people stabbed in lines.

Americans need to relax, there are ways to clean yourself without toilet paper. Yeah, it’s annoying that you can’t find your staple food items, such as milk and bread, in the stores. (I went through this in Nigeria, but that was related to the collapsing economy.) At this stage, you have to abandon your healthy diet and learn to eat what’s available. So if there’s no eggs and bread, you might have to eat rice and potatoes for breakfast. I’ve had to abandon my vegan diet and go back to eating meat.

These are mild annoyances or first world problems. Americans are not used to them because they’ve lived comfortable lives where everything is just around the corner or a mouse click away. The coronavirus crisis has shown us how fragile life is and how easily everything can fall apart if the supply chain breaks down. I think many Americans are following the idea proposed by former intelligence czar Richard Clarke’s book “Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes.” In his book, Clarke also talks about future crises, such as artificial intelligence, terrorist attacks, climate change — and pandemics! He suggests you can’t prepare for something you’ve never witnessed before. Clarke said that was why America was so badly shaken by the 9/11 attack. America had never witnessed a terrorist attack like that.

Americans have never witnessed shortages in their stores before — but I have. Now, I’m more concerned about what happens when people can’t get access to their medications. Things are manageable right now, but if the power and the water stops, that’s when you really need to start getting worried. And judging how Americans coped with the toilet paper shortage, most people won’t handle it well.

Manny Otiko writes about race, politics and sports. He has been published in Salon and LA Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @mannyotiko.

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