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University as catalyst for national devt in post-COVID-19 era – Part 3

By Oyewale Tomori
14 March 2022   |   3:39 am
Somebody asked me another but related question – One year into the COVID-19 response in Nigeria, what are Nigeria’s best practices and lessons learned? I wish one could talk of best practices in Nigeria.

Prof. Oyewale Tomori

Somebody asked me another but related question – One year into the COVID-19 response in Nigeria, what are Nigeria’s best practices and lessons learned? I wish one could talk of best practices in Nigeria. The apparent non-severity in terms of the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths in Nigeria, as compared with other countries, outside Africa, is not the result of what the government or the people did right, but more because of what the virus did not do. Indeed, we did more than enough to aid the unchecked spread of the virus.

Several factors may be responsible for the different epidemiology of the disease in Nigeria as compared to Europe or the Americas. Our response to the COVID-19 outbreak is different from the way we handled the Ebola outbreak in 2014. There was focus, coherence, and concerted national response to control Ebola. Not so with COVID-19. I can best describe the way Nigeria has handled the current COVID-19 outbreak, by referring to the “NEPA electric poles” we see at many junctions on our road.  All you see are massed jumbles of electric wires coming from every direction and tied to this one single electric pole about to tumble. This confusion best illustrates, in my mind, our handling of the COVID-19 outbreak. Our effort has remained incoherent. The government has failed to fully engage the people in working together as a team to respond and confront the epidemic. The government is having its different sayings, and the people are having their different ways, in parallel and in different directions. Up till today, a state of the federation claims the state is free of COVID-19 cases. With the operation vehicle for COVID-19 control and response in Nigeria, it is difficult to know the direction of the control and response efforts in Nigeria.

We have largely failed to comply with the basic preventive measures of washing hands, wearing protective masks, keeping safe distances, and avoiding large gatherings. Our laboratory testing has been inconsistent, varying from state to state. There has never been a national consensus and agreement on our response to COVID-19. It is more of lessons forgotten than lessons learned. I hear that the COVID-19 pandemic will soon be over and at worst become endemic. There is nothing to rejoice over. Yellow fever is endemic but still causes an estimated number of 200,000 cases and 30,000 deaths each year. Measles too is endemic, and 914 cases were reported last year, with 65 deaths. Cholera comes and goes, last time it visited, there were over 111,000 cases reported with nearly 4,000 dying. Of the 1,181 Lassa fever cases reported in 2021, 244 die including doctors and nurses. This year already, of 466 suspected cases, 11 have already died. So, there is no cause for celebration or jubilation on COVID-19 transforming from pandemic to endemic disease.

Health systems around the world have been overwhelmed by the number of coronavirus cases, and even the richest and most prepared countries have struggled. In the most vulnerable countries, millions of people have not had access to critical life-saving supplies, such as test kits, face masks, respirators, and diagnostic test kits.  The need for mass laboratory testing at the global level, to detect and confirm COVID-19 cases led to improvement in the technology and development of diagnostic test kits and reagents including supplies of swabs and virus transport media.  The urgency to ramp up laboratory testing globally, led to limited supplies of test reagents and consumables and supplies, with countries struggling to procure swabs, reagents, test cartridges and other commodities in the seller’s market and at the seller’s price.  The goal standard for COVID-19 laboratory diagnosis is the polymerase chain reaction (PCR). The manufacturers had difficulties scaling up production of PCR platforms quickly enough to meet global demands. New and rapid immunodiagnostic tests (RDT) with high specificity and sensitivity had to be developed and validated rapidly. As of January 24, 2022, over 355 million COVID-19 cases have been confirmed by laboratory tests worldwide in more than 210 countries and territories.

There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a serious and adverse impact on every aspect of our lives. Despite the relatively low number of cases and deaths, COVID-19 disease has a serious and far-reaching impact on every aspect of our life and living – social education, economy, and human development.  Indeed, the impact of the disease will last long after we have brought it under control. The full impact of the disease – the depth, the height and the breath of COVID-19 impact on our life and livelihoods – will not be appreciated until much later. Day by day, we will discover what devastation that COVID-19 has unleashed on our life. Unless we use the COVID-19 as an opportunity to positively turn our nation back to the path of development, we will continue to see deterioration in our development and advancement. There has been an over-emphasis on COVID-19 in our response to the neglect of other diseases. Not only are some of the wards and clinics for dealing with other diseases closed, people who are sick are wary about seeking healthcare out of fear of contracting COVID-19 in the health facilities.

However, we must also see the good side of the pandemic. Now everybody, from the government to the man and woman on the street, has come to realise the importance of health. The private sector now knows it needs healthy people to work efficiently and productively. Although the response of most governments is addressing the economic impact, many countries are including plans to improve the health system. However, it remains to be seen if these are not temporary measures that will be abandoned as soon as COVID-19 either disappears or becomes endemic.

Given some of the characteristics and attributes of an ideal university, it is best placed to transform her neighborhoods, cities, regions, and nations. Universities are hotbeds of innovation and entrepreneurship. In partnership with government and business, academic research and technologies help to drive an array of vital industries. Universities provide students with the skills to compete in increasingly global workplaces and are themselves major employers. During the 2011 to 2012 financial year, London’s universities contributed a total of 5.8 billion British pounds to the city and supported 145,921 jobs (directly and indirectly) across all skill levels. Well-established universities attract global talents to their cities and nations. In the better days of the University of Ibadan and in other cities where universities are located, they served as centres of employment and training opportunities for a diverse population. The situation has changed for the worse, now, but an example from the UK shows that 28 per cent of academic staff in the UK universities are from overseas.

In 2014 and 2015, while the UK was still in the EU, she hosted 125,000 EU and 312,000 non-EU international students who generated in excess of £25 billion for the national economy.

To be continued tomorrow

Professor of virology, Tomori, delivered this convocation lecture at the University of Medical Sciences, (UNIMED), Odosida Campus, Ondo City, recently.