Prof Zachary Gundu, Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of the Governing Council of Benue State University, (BENSU) who went down last week with Covid-19 infection among many top professors and top government leaders in the state has spoken from his isolation centre in Makurdi, the Benue State capital in central Nigeria. In a conversation that lasted slightly over 29 minutes Friday morning, (July 17th, 20202), he dispelled rumours about his health condition, disclosing that he has been stabilized. But he is offering an experientially derived list of areas where the dangers might lie ahead and speaking an uncomfortable truth to the university idea brought about by Covid-19 pandemic.
Benue State is where the Secretary to the State Government, the Head of Service, the Chief of Staff to the Governor, the Vice-Chancellor of the state-owned university, the wife and a son of the governor as well as top professors from the university are all in isolation. The Deputy Vice-Chancellor, (Administration), Prof Godwin Achinge died last week from the virus. Prof Gundu’s health has thus been of concern in the past week. Now, straight from the horse’s mouth is the news that he is in fine condition.
The professor of Archaeology from the Department of History at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria was admitted July 3rd, 2020 at the isolation facility following a Covid-19 positive status from his test. He got to the facility at 2 am that day, spending another four hours before he could be formally admitted. For Prof Gundu, surviving those four hours “was by divine intervention”. It was a dangerous gap when anything could have happened. The facility managers were in a state of ‘what to do with this man’ because the front line health workers had their own fears, legitimately so, because such fears are rooted in their own individual and collective experiences.
It defines the gap that is understood to exist between those in the isolation centres and the front line health workers. The insight is that contact between the two in most of the centres is minimal, to the point that contact is sometimes through the window and no more. When they have to go into the room of a particular patient, they do so “knitted as if going to the moon”.
In other words, the first and the main challenge for those suffering from infection is the very nature of the isolation centre due partly to the very nature of the virus or the fear of the virus, whichever is the case. A recovering patient is supposed to sit out so as to absorb sunlight but while this point is appreciated by the doctors, it is near impracticable. How can it be practicable when the door is locked and the key is with the health workers? And it is such that if there were to be a fire outbreak and the person holding the key has probably stepped out, then disaster could be the outcome. Prof Gundu had his own share of that. One night when his pre-existing condition got crazy, he had to call someone in Makurdi town to rush in with some nourishment. Somebody was able to do so between 2. 30 and 4 a.m and that was the saving grace. He could call someone in the town but not anyone in the isolation centre because a typical sufferer is locked up and the key taken away, again due to the mystique around the infection.
Luckily but contrary to the fear about community spread in Benue, there are not many Covid-19 infected persons in the particular facility. The figure is put around five or so. The facility has certainly lost a few people but it is not as if everyone who gets there is moving closer to his or her grave. Of course, true it is that some front line health workers have contacted the virus and it is understood they are, understandably, afraid.
Although community spread is not the issue yet in the state, Prof Gundu told Intervention that fear of community spread is something to be taken seriously and for good reasons. The first reason is his observation that not many people take Covid-19 as real. His second reason is that people travelling in commercial vehicles as well as majority of the people in the informal sector do not observe any social distancing. “So, the risk is real”, he says, adding the third point in the fact that some of them who are down with Covid-19 manifested no symptoms at all, meaning that such people could be spreading the virus. Right now, it is an inconclusive debate whether asymptomatic patients are contagious or not. The frightening disclosure from him is where he said older people are going down in the rural areas, especially those with underlining health conditions.
The situation is compounded by his observation on the length of time it takes between when blood sample is collected from those who submit themselves for testing and when the result comes back from Abuja. It takes as much as three weeks. His question is, “what does it cost to have the laboratory here in Benue, in nearby Nasarawa, in Niger (State)”, he asks, intoning how it cannot take so much, “considering the amount of money being spent by the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control, (NCDC)”. His argument is that testing would cover more persons more quickly if localized testing became possible. He makes the point about how he had to pile pressure on the Deputy-Governor (of Benue State who is heading the state Covid-19 committee) to have his result because he didn’t want to become another Susan Okpeh, (the British born Nigerian whose results took nearly two months to surface) but even then, the result of his test took no less than three weeks to come out. What that means is that someone who voluntarily sign up to be tested could transform into an endangered sufferer by the time the result comes. These are, for now, the hidden dangers he sees.
But Prof Gundu’s mind is not on the institutional underlay for the decisive blow on the pandemic. Rather, he is looking at the scientific community for that. “If we had a responsible scientific community, especially around the university, they could be meeting to see what progress we are making, with particular reference to local remedies”. There are no drugs for treating the pandemic yet, he says, adding that what has been most helpful is a person’s immunity level. So, he thinks attention to local remedies for improving immunity should have been identified as a challenge by now and it should be coming from the scientific community as far as he is concerned. He acknowledges that doctors allow materials believed to boost immunity such as garlic, ginger, lemon and so on. “Nobody stops that from being brought”, he says but then adds: if there has been a study group on this, then it would have been possible by now to say what such has done as to save a particular sufferer and what its absence has done for a different sufferer. “That’s the type of response I expect here from the scientific community”.
He is, however, hopeful. His hope comes from the experience that he says doctors and health workers are accumulating. He makes an example of his case, saying that doctors took stabilising him against his underlying health conditions first before going after Covid-19, a strategy he believes is a product of their experience with previous patients who ended fatally. In such cases, doctors were going after Covid-19 before attacking the underlying health condition(s). “They are accumulating experiences that I think when they start sharing such across the different parts of the country, there will be enough empirical details to put on the table”.
As Chairman of Governing Council of a rising Nigerian university, Prof Gundu was asked what he thought the pandemic has imposed on university education. He answers in a frightening one- liner suggesting that the pandemic has changed university education forever and insists on how the earlier we come to terms with this, the better. He doesn’t mean that content has been ruptured. He means that the campus dynamics and the administration as well as knowledge delivery systems will never be the same again. He might have struck at what is an uncomfortable truth, given what universities are coming up with across the world in the aftermath of the pandemic.
How long has he to remain in the isolation centre, he was asked. It would still take him another week or so for a decision to be taken on his health rating but, “otherwise, I am good to go”, he told Intervention.