Interview with Prof. Iyeopu Minakiri Siminialayi, Chairman of the University of Port Harcourt COVID-19 Task Force

COVID-19 Africa Watch speaks to Professor Iyeopu Minakiri Siminialayi, Provost, College of Health Sciences & Chairman, University of Port Harcourt COVID-19 Task Force, about mitigation strategies at the local level.

Interview

Key Takeaways

The following are a few of the main takeaways from COVID-19 Africa Watch’s conversation with Professor Iyeopu Minakiri Siminialayi, Provost, College of Health Sciences & Chairman, University of Port Harcourt COVID-19 Task Force:

  • The University of Port Harcourt is implementing temperature checks and mask requirements, while also encouraging faculty to work from home.
  • Isolation and treatment facilities quickly became strained and reached capacity.
  • The three major challenges have been 1) ignorance; 2) funding and resources; and 3) speed of implementation once mitigation procedures were agreed.
  • Lockdowns have proven less effective than hoped due to the large number of citizens who need daily income to survive. Mandatory mask wearing and extensive testing and contact tracing are recommended.
  • The most important lesson from the COVID-19 pandemic so far has been to prepare very early for the worst.

The interview was conducted by Kenneth Ohaeri, an IFC-Milken Institute Capital Market Scholar from The Nigerian Stock Exchange. A transcript is available below.

Transcript

Interviewer

Hello everyone. I am Kenneth Ohaeri, a scholar from IFC-Milken Institute Capital Market program here in Washington, DC. Joining us at COVID-19 Africa Watch today is Professor Siminialayi. He is the Chairman of the University of Port Harcourt COVID-19 Task Force in Nigeria and a professor of endocrine pharmacology. He has served the university and larger society in various capacities, including Head of Department, Dean of the Faculty of Basic Medical Sciences, and Director of the Center for Malaria Research. Currently, he is the Provost at the College of Health Sciences, University of Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Professor Siminialayi , thanks for joining us.

So you are the leader of the University of Port Harcourt COVID-19 Taskforce. What do you do? How do you coordinate your team and what have you achieved so far?

Prof. Siminialayi

Now in the team we have the Head of the Department of Internal Medicine, who is an infectious disease expert. We have the Head of the Department of Preventive and Social Medicine who was a public health physician. And we have a clinical microbiologist, and a representative of the Dean of Students Affairs.

How do I work? We meet weekly to assess the COVID-19 situation in our state and the rest of the country.

What have we achieved? My role is mainly to advise management on ways or means of protecting the community against COVID-19 and in the event of COVID-19 spreading to the university. So I advise on ways and means that we can continue very quickly. So what I am going to achieve with  funding that has provided? Temperature guns, so that everybody going into the office in the morning will have their temperature taking, and those with temperature will be sent back home for the evaluation. We have mask discipline, free of charge, for those of us who still need to work in our offices. The rest of us are working from home. We have provisions at facilities for frequent hand washing, hand sanitizing.

“The facilities that were provided to isolate and treat COVID-19 patients are overflowing right now, so that we are looking for space.”

So what are our achievements? When we started this project, we had only one case. As of now, we have close to 500 cases of COVID-19. The facilities that were provided to isolate and treat COVID-19 patients are overflowing right now, so that we are looking for space. And as a result we negotiated with a group of alumni to set up a treatment center that will also provide diagnostic facilities and PPEs for doctors. Another thing we’ve done is to provide an infectious disease laboratory, they’ll provide that emergency kit for COVID-19 until COVID-19 is over.

Interviewer

What would you say are the major challenges in the course of your duty or lessons learnt that you want to share with us?

Prof. Siminialayi

Major challenges have been ignorance, the lack of awareness for COVID-19. You’d be surprised how many people are ignorant in the university community.

“That was our first challenge: to teach the university community on what COVID-19 was, the causes, the symptoms, how it spreads. After that, the next challenge was funding and the lack of resources.”

So that was our first challenge: to teach the university community on what COVID-19 was, the causes, the symptoms, how it spreads. After that, the next challenge was funding and the lack of resources to implement our suggestions. And then finally, the third challenge was the lack of commitment on the part of the implementers. So you take a decision: we need to do this with face masks. It takes forever for that to get implemented. And that slightly defeats the aim of the suggestion. Those are the three main challenges we’re facing.

“The most important lesson we’ve learned is that in a situation like this, you hope for the best but start preparing very early for the worst.”

What are the lessons learned? The most important lesson we’ve learned is that in a situation like this, you hope for the best but start preparing very early for the worst.

Interviewer

I think there is an opportunity for Nigeria and indeed African countries to innovate and invest in infrastructure, especially in the health sector: research on treatment and the production of drugs locally. What are your thoughts on that?

Prof. Siminialayi

Innovation should have started yesterday, but as you pointed out, COVID-19 presents an opportunity for us to innovate. As citizens of Nigeria and as professionals, for a long time we will cry out to government to improve funding of the health sector and the education sector, but COVID-19 has proven to be a leveler. Because for the first time in the history of this country, our elite cannot escape to receive treatment in more developed economies. So we are all stuck with the same facilities. So I hope that with COVID-19, our people will begin to take their investments in the health infrastructure very seriously.

Interviewer

What are some priorities that you think African policymakers and thought leaders should be talking head-on today and going forward to better response to COVID-19 pandemic?

Prof. Siminialayi

We have tried as African countries locking down our economies in hopes that we can contain the virus. And we’ve seen that that doesn’t work. The reason being that we have large proportions of our population who have to earn a daily income every day. When you lock people like that down, how do they feel? How do they look after their families? So it’s been impossible to do an effective lock down of our economies. That hasn’t worked for us as Africans, particularly in our country, Nigeria. So the lesson to learn is what is effective against COVID-19 in Africa? I believe that mask wearing is the way to go. So we have implement universal mask wearing. Everyone must wear masks and wear them properly.

Secondly, the WHO has insisted that the backbone for containment of COVID-19 is testing, testing, and testing. And I agree completely. The only way to distinguish between those who have the disease and those who do not, is by testing. So if we test more extensively, we can identify early those who have the disease, and then remove them from communities, isolate them, and treat them, and then do proper contact tracing. I think this is the future for us in Africa to contain COVID-19.

Interviewer

That was Professor Siminialayi, giving us some incredible and great insights for COVID-19 Africa Watch. Professor, we are all in this together. We wish you good luck, success, and breakthroughs with your team, especially to all the health workers who are on the front lines, fighting this deadly pandemic. Please continue to stay safe.

Prof. Siminialayi

Thank you very much. And you stay safe yourself. Thank you for the opportunity.

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COVID-19 Africa Watch tracks major developments and policy announcements from across the continent and also offers a curated selection of analysis on how the pandemic will impact African economies and development efforts. The site is a project of the Milken Institute’s Global Market Development Practice.

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