Most Lagosians use the mask as a decorative piece of clothing that hangs below the mouth, not over it.
Kabiru, 53, spits onto the marshy, grimy tarmac beneath his rickety yellow mini-van, yanks his face mask off to wipe his watery nostrils with one hand, and stretches slimy palms above the passengers to hand the conductor behind him a crumpled mass of dirty bank notes for use as ‘change.’
His eyes are bloodshot and daring; and he reeks of cheap alcohol.
For the rest of the journey from Mile 2 to Oshodi in mainland Lagos, Kabiru leaves his mask hanging from his chin, while his nostrils and mouth are left open for all the droplets in the world.
“I need to be able to breathe well,” he yells in an angry tone to one passenger in a black, over-sized suit who points out that he’s using the mask the wrong way.
His conductor, a balding man in his 40s with a white singlet that has turned brown round the armpits from overuse, also leaves his mask hanging on his chin while calling out bus-stops for passengers who have been crammed onto wooden chairs as always, with no regard for the physical distancing protocol.
Kabiru, his conductor and a host of other commercial drivers and conductors in Lagos, Nigeria’s most populous city and epicenter of the novel coronavirus, regard the mask as a decorative piece of clothing, only useful for averting the questioning gaze from law enforcement personnel who know no better.
Most passengers who use commercial buses to get to workplaces or for regular commute round the city, also leave their noses and mouths hanging open, with the face mask hanging loosely from the chin.
This sight is also pretty common as you take a brisk walk past suburban dwellers on the mainland and island of a thrumming, densely populated city.
“I am not used to it just yet,” confesses Jide, a carpenter on Akerele street in Surulere. “It chokes the hell out of me,” he gesticulates furiously, before dipping a hand in a pocket of his dusty trousers to bring out a mask, a dirty piece of fabric, which he would go on to place on his chin.
In April, Lagos Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu announced that using the face mask would become mandatory in the weeks ahead, as confirmed cases of COVID-19 continue to spike in his city.
“Dear Lagosians, even as we observe the lockdown, we are kicking off #MaskUpLagos; the compulsory wearing of face masks in Lagos. Face masks help to protect us from droplets and secretions from coughing, sneezing etc, as not everyone that is infected (with COVID-19) will show symptoms,” the governor said.
Health protocols like physical and social distancing have also been repeatedly reeled out by federal and state governments around the country in a bid to curb the spread of the contagious virus.
While some commercial bus drivers are obeying the governor’s directives to operate at 60 percent capacity for the moment, Muyiwa, a conductor in the Ogba area of Lagos, says his bus is yet to comply and probably wouldn’t. “Will the governor pay us for the remaining seats? This is a business and they should understand that we make returns to the owners of the bus,” he says in Yoruba, his mask tied to one ear. “Ori e!”