KANO, Nigeria—Inside the Abbatuwa cemetery where Abu Musa has dug graves for many years, the smell of damp earth fills the dry air. There are tons of mud heaped to the left and right, in front of us and behind us, piled up to cover the dead as they arrive. But the cemetery is congested. At one end elderly men are digging shallow pits on top of old graves to await new occupants, including fellow gravediggers who have died in recent days.
For many years, Abu Musa and dozens of laborers like him were used to digging around two graves a day in Abbatuwa, but the count suddenly rose at an alarming rate in late April as Nigeria saw a spike in coronavirus infections. Dozens of dead bodies began to arrive every day, forcing grave diggers to work past exhaustion.
"We started to dig more than 40 graves a day," Abu Musa told The Daily Beast. "It was strange and scary, something no one has ever seen in Kano."
As the days went by, the number of dead bodies arriving in Abbatuwa increased. By late May, nearly a month after the city began to witness mass deaths, close to 400 people had been buried in this one cemetery, including those put on top of other graves as diggers struggled to find fresh spaces.
You wouldn’t know any of this from the Nigerian government’s statistics, which are much, much lower. And in fact, there are few places in the world where the discrepancy between the toll taken by the virus and the reluctance of a government to admit it is so glaring as it is here among the grave diggers of Kano.
Low-balling COVID-19 fatalities certainly is not limited to Nigeria. Some epidemiologists in the United States believe that even though it has by far the highest acknowledged COVID death toll in the world—currently 123,000 and counting—the real numbers are higher, maybe even 50 percent higher. But the scene here in the Abbatuwa cemetery is an especially graphic example of statistical disconnect.
Across the city of Kano, as the number of people dying of supposedly inexplicable illnesses began to rise in April, state authorities were silent about the cause until late in the month when local reports claimed that more than 600 people had died in this city of four million in just one week. Officials responded by denying that the deaths were as a result of a COVID-19 outbreak, and claiming that the numbers were less than had been reported. But the symptoms exhibited by a number of victims suggest they probably died of COVID-19.
"They mostly had fever, cough and body aches before their death," Abu Musa said of about half a dozen of his colleagues who died between April and May. Others who came to bury their people here "also said they had similar illness before they died."
As the deaths kept increasing, fear grew across the city. Staff at hospitals and primary health centers were scared of attending to patients who showed symptoms of coronavirus, and some sick people who feared they may have contracted the virus were reluctant to seek treatment at public health facilities for fear of being abandoned or stigmatized. As the gravediggers became more conscious of the pandemic they requested gloves and face masks from the government. Those never arrived, but the diggers kept on working.
"We have to feed our family," said Abu Musa, who claims to be over 50 years of age. "We have had to create our own face mask and gloves from pieces of clothes."
As the unusual death toll in Kano approached a thousand, the federal government of Nigeria decided to act. An investigation by the country's health ministry revealed over a week ago that a total of 979 deaths were recorded in Kano state between April and May at a rate of 43 deaths per day and that "between 50-60 percent of the deaths may have been triggered by or due to COVID-19, in the face of pre-existing ailments.”
But even as the government insists that the death rate had gone back down to the normal rate, gravediggers say they are still digging dozens of graves, mostly for people who died after showing symptoms of COVID-19.
"Yes, the number of graves we now dig are not as high as they were a few weeks ago but things are still not back to normal," said Abu Musa. "We dig up to 11 graves these days, which is still high."
The situation in Kano is reflected in many areas in northern Nigeria, especially in the northeastern state of Yobe where 741 people were reported to have died between mid April and early May after most showed coronavirus symptoms. Like the victims in Kano, those in Yobe were never tested for COVID-19. Government officials in Yobe said the deaths were as a result of malaria and other seasonal ailments, a claim experts have rejected outright.
"Malaria has been in existence throughout our lifetime yet we haven't witnessed the number of deaths we are seeing right now." Jibrin Mohammed, a patent medicine dealer whose relative is suspected to have died of coronavirus in Yobe, told The Daily Beast. "These deaths are occurring in the period of coronavirus and that should send a message to the government."
Even as the Nigerian government says it is making testing available to those who show coronavirus symptoms, not many in Yobe who fall in that category are getting tested. And the story doesn't often end well for those in critical condition.
"Some patients are left in emergency sections of hospitals till they die," a senior police officer in Yobe who has visited a number of hospitals in the state since the outbreak told The Daily Beast privately. "Such is still happening till this moment."
Latest official figures released by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) show that this country of 200 million people has carried out 120,108 coronavirus tests of which 21,371 were positive, with the number of recorded deaths at 533—far less than what may be the actual figure in Kano alone.
The NCDC numbers, as of June 25, indicate that Kano has recorded 1,191 cases of coronavirus and 51 deaths while Yobe has 56 infections and eight deaths.
But the evident undercounts aren't the only controversies surrounding Nigeria's coronavirus counts.
According to NCDC's data, of the country's 36 states, only Cross River, a state with about four million inhabitants, is yet to record a single coronavirus case. One obvious reason: Cross River, which is Nigeria's tourism capital, has carried out only nine coronavirus tests to date.
"The increasing report of flu-like symptoms, respiratory symptoms and loss of smell/taste in various hospitals and the State metropolis is an indication of potential community transmission of an undetected disease fitting the epidemiologic pattern of COVID-19," reads a statement from the Cross River State branch of the Nigeria Medical Association (NMA) which also has called on federal and state authorities "to critically appraise the COVID-19 status of the State."
While gross under-testing is widely seen as the main issue affecting Nigeria's fight against the coronavirus, doctors maintain that it is only one of the many problems hampering the country's ability to contain the deadly disease.
"The COVID-19 infection curve is still on the rise and yet to peak in the country," the Cross River State NMA noted in its statement. "The lack of adherence to infection prevention strategies like social distancing, use of face mask, hand and respiratory hygiene at this crucial time is worrisome."
As local authorities continue to downplay the severity of the virus, the impact is seen in cemeteries like Abbatuwa, where grieving families struggle to find space to bury their loved ones, some of whom might have been saved had help come in time.