COVID-19: Closure of tertiary institutions is not the answer

Police arrest 71 for violating COVID-19 safety protocols

By Aare Afe Babalola, SAN, OFR, CON

The world is currently witnessing a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, and even countries that were not affected by the initial wave are seeing a surge in the number of infected.

Consequently, several countries have put up diverse measures to curb a further spread of the pandemic. In Spain, the government announced a fresh lockdown of the affected regions, sparking protests. In France, the government banned dancing at bars and weddings, as well as the sale and consumption of alcohol on the streets after 8.00 pm.

In Ireland, the government introduced a new plan for “Living with COVID” which essentially put regulations in place to curb mass gatherings of people in private and public places. Germany established a highly effective system of testing, tracking and tracing. In addition, the government implemented new measures including a five-person limit on social gatherings, ban on alcohol consumption in public places, and the imposition of curfew on restaurants.

Nigeria’s response: The paralysis of academic activities: One of Nigeria’s first response to the pandemic was the closure of all academic institutions, public and private alike. Without any consultation with the management of public and private institutions, the Federal Government of Nigeria ordered the closure of all educational institutions in the country on March 20, 2020.

At this time, ASUU had been on strike and only private tertiary institutions were affected by this sudden directive, forcing the institutions to adapt their educational structures to conform with the present-day realities. During this closure, several private institutions conducted online examinations, online convocations, among others, while the public institutions remained on strike cum lockdown.

However, when the prolonged closure worked dire hardships on the academic calendars of these private universities which, otherwise, had stable, predictable academic tenures, owners of private universities, their Vice-Chancellors and parents’ bodies wrote several petitions and held meetings with the Federal Ministry of Education. Consequently, the Federal Government announced October 5, 2020, as the resumption of academic activities.

As part of the conditions for resumption, tertiary institutions were directed to put in place measures for the prevention of COVID-19 within their campuses. In addition, State Governments were directed to set up committees to visit schools to check compliance. Private institutions immediately complied with the government’s directive in order to ensure a seamless resumption of academic activities on the appointed date.

For instance, Afe Babalola University, Ado-Ekiti, immediately put in place all necessary measures to ensure compliance with government directives. They include sanitisers manufactured by the university and approved by NAFDAC, automatic soap and water dispensers, nose masks, motorised fumigation machine, mobile fumigators to sterilise hostels and classrooms, infrared thermometer to test visitors and students at the gate of school, Polymerase Chain Reaction, PCR, machine, coronavirus test kits for antigen testing, RNA Extraction kits, nasopharyngeal swab sticks and liquid medium, biosafety cabinet, micropipettes and other accessories, isolation centre, disinfectant sanitary tunnel, holden bay, among others.

The Ekiti State COVID-19 task force committee, at its inspection of the facilities set up at our institution noted that: “The university’s (ABUAD’s) preparation is rated excellent and is, therefore, duly approved to re-open after October 2, 2020 in line with the governor’s earlier pronouncement.”

Upon the resumption of academic activities, having already lost seven months due to compulsory closure, ABUAD intensified academic work in order cover-up for the months of absence and after two months of rigorous academic work, students went on break on December 18, 2020, and were scheduled to resume on January 4, 2021, for revision, and first-semester examination on January 11, 2021, when the Federal Government, again without any consultation, announced the closure of schools.

Mass closure of private and public tertiary institutions: An unnecessary move: It is a well-known fact that public institutions in Nigeria are ill-equipped and underfunded to comply with government directives on the provision of adequate facilities for the prevention of COVID-19. Most public institutions in Nigeria have decadent hostels and classrooms which cannot accommodate the social distancing requirements for the prevention of the spread of COVID-19.

This is, however, unlike what obtains in top-notch private institutions such as ABUAD wherein adequate, cutting-edge preventive measures have been put in place. In addition, there is a world-class health facility, well-ventilated classrooms and hostel infrastructure, sanitary food service, as well as administrative competence to implement measures to ensure undisrupted academic learning. Against the backdrop of this sharp contrast, should the public and private universities in Nigeria be treated the same way?

The United States Centre for Disease Control, CDC, has recommended that universities are different in terms of size, location and available facilities. Therefore, there can be no uniform application of safety measures for both public and private institutions, such as mass closure. Rather, the CDC suggests that all preventive policies should be ‘feasible, practicable, acceptable and tailored to the needs of each university community’.

Initial failings of the Federal Government in preventing the spread of COVID-19: The advent of COVID-19 and its spread was largely due to the non-proactiveness of the government which failed to shut down the Nigerian borders despite hearing about the world-wide spread of the pandemic. So far, the government’s response to the pandemic has failed to reflect a proper strategic thinking in line with international best practices. Many nations of the world did not only shut their borders early to curtail the spread, but equally put in place structures to isolate, track, and monitor travellers from high-risk locations. There is an unchecked influx of travellers to Nigeria which has made any attempt to curtail the spread a herculean task.

Nigeria would have maintained a zero rate of infection if our airports and borders had been properly and transparently secured. Travellers are not subjected to any compulsory quarantine before being let out into the general public. I know that the Qatar government established a structure whereby any traveller has to apply to the government of Qatar in order to notify them of travel. On arrival, a passenger is picked by the officers in the Ministry of Public Health at the airport and taken straight to an isolation hotel facility when such traveller would remain for seven days at his own expense.

Recently, the Federal Government stated that some Nigerians who travelled into the country failed to quarantine themselves upon arrival, and that the passport numbers of such travellers would be tagged for tracing. However, there has been no news from the Nigerian Immigration Services that such passport numbers have been tagged or that there was any serious attempt by the government to track the said travellers. This again shows the failure of the Nigerian government in its primary responsibility of protecting its citizenry.

Recommendations: It is indeed true that pandemics are not alien to human existence. Since the 430 BC when the world witnessed the first pandemic, there had been several other pandemics including malaria (1880), smallpox (1492), flu (1889), influenza (1933), measles (1875), yellow fever (1793), polio (1916), cholera (1817) and typhoid (1880). The world has since learned to live with pandemics, thereby underscoring the need to learn how to live with COVID-19 which may not be totally eradicated.

Certainly, the government cannot close universities indefinitely, particularly private universities where there had been a religious world-standard compliance with all the measures put in place to curb the spread. No doubt, containment is more achievable in private schools than public institutions and, therefore, private institutions with these facilities must remain open, subject to period visit by government agencies to ensure that the highest standard of compliance is maintained.

Furthermore, I believe that the spread of COVID-19 can be curtailed if the discipline in our private universities can be extended to our homes and public places. One of the easiest ways is to compulsorily quarantine anyone coming into Nigeria particularly by air into Lagos, Abuja and other international airports. I advise the PTF to make surprise checks at international airports to determine how porous the airports are.

Vanguard News Nigeria

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