The Vice Chancellor, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Eyitope Ogunbodede, is a professor of Preventive and Community Dentistry. He tells FEMI MAKINDE in this interview what the university is doing to tackle COVID-19 and what should be done to transform the nation’s ailing health sector among other issues
Is there hope of finding cure to coronavirus anytime soon?
There is what is called herd immunity anytime there is epidemic or pandemic. After sometime, the disease will no longer be deadly as it is now because people will sort of develop immunity to it. The first attack of every new pandemic is always very vicious but after sometime, the disease will become less severe. That is one thing that we can hope for in this type of pandemic. Some other epidemics and pandemics that ravaged humanity became less vicious after sometime and that is why malaria fever is no longer as deadly as it used to be in this part of the world. If malaria suddenly appears in Europe, it may wipe them off but we have grown some kind of resistance to it here. That is why some people will have malaria and will not consider it to be a very serious issue. Coronavirus is ravaging the whole world now and everybody is finding a cure for it and just like other diseases, a cure would be found.
The easiest one is vaccine. When one is vaccinated, antibodies are developed and that is the easiest way to tackle it but it takes time. You are to test such vaccines in animals and then you proceed to test them on some humans before you can use it for the general population. This will take nothing less than six months. Vaccines are not what one will produce today and will start using the same day.
Is the OAU also engaged in research to produce a vaccine for this virus?
We are not working in that direction now. But what we have been doing in OAU from time is that we have been looking at our natural products to see which of them is good against quite a number of diseases. That has been on in our Faculty of Pharmacy and we have quite a number of plants and natural products that are actually effective against bacteria and against viruses. What our people are looking at in our Faculty of Pharmacy is to look at whether some of these products are even effective against coronavirus.
Are they working towards that now at the faculty?
The Faculty of Pharmacy is doing that. Everybody at the university now is looking at what can be done to minimize the effects of coronavirus. But it is not everything you rush to give the media before the result is out. Some people are boasting that they have produced hand sanitisers but we have done that long time ago and we don’t need to make any noise about that. That’s not the kind of achievement we want to advertise. We want a product that we can say, this is what we developed at OAU and everybody will be proud of it.
What do you think is hindering Nigerian universities from partnering, for example, drug manufacturing companies to develop drugs that everybody will be proud of?
Universities are supposed to come up with research and then get patents for whatever they come up with and the industry can take it up. It is not the business of an academic to start marketing products. Academics are supposed to be in the laboratories carrying out research. The business aspect will be taken over by either the business arm of the university or by the industry. Last year in OAU, we had about seven patents.
Are these patents got for drugs?
They are for drugs but one is for machine that can be used to process a lot of things. Five of the patents are drug related. A former acting Vice Chancellor of OAU, Prof Anthony Elujoba, had one for a drug. We are looking at developing and marketing these as a university. The university is actually working and we are making progress.
There was a reported case of Ebola virus in Democratic Republic of Congo last week. Do you think Nigeria has any cause to be apprehensive about this?
Despite that we have shut our borders, we should follow what is happening there and in every part of the world so that that will make us to prepare ahead. In fact, every country should be apprehensive if something like that is going on in another country and the reason is because the world has truly become a global village.
The long distance used to be a barrier but the distance between one country and the other has been shortened.
Long before now, if you wanted to travel to the United Kingdom, it would take about three months because then people travelled by ship. But now, within seven hours or so, you are there. So, if there is a virus in the UK, what that means is such virus can get to Nigeria in about seven hours unlike before that it would spend nothing less than three months. Now, people can be in three continents in about 24 hours. For example, if you fly from Nigeria to London or Amsterdam (Europe) and from there to the United States, you left Africa and stop in Europe and get to America within 24 hours. So we are now close to the rest of the world than before. We need to be ever ready for things like deadly viruses because it won’t take more than 12 hours to come to Nigeria from DR Congo.
Before coronavirus came, we were battling with Lassa fever and even battling with it now and it is killing people. As medical people, there is what is called universal precaution and we have to take precautions. Most of these things don’t show on the faces of the carriers. Especially medical professionals have to be suspicious of every patient they are attending to because they don’t show on the faces at times. They need to do everything humanly possible not to get infected. Whether any patient test positive for Lassa fever, Ebola virus or coronavirus, medical professionals have to apply universal precautions. Quite a number jettison that principle because our hospitals lack personal protective equipment. We are Africans, we like to be nice to people but this must not be done at the expense of your life. You don’t attend to any patient without gloves but if you say the hospital does not have gloves and the patient cannot afford it and you go ahead and treat a patient with a deadly virus, you are exposing yourself to unnecessary risk. I tell my students, don’t help any patient at the detriment of your own life. If you cannot improvise, insist on doing what is right because if you contract any disease, you end up depleting the number of medical professionals that are inadequate. Certain things are so important like the masks, the gloves; they should be available in our hospitals. If doctors and others have been treating patients before without masks and gloves, they cannot continue doing that now. It is compulsory now.
Out of Lassa fever, Ebola virus and coronavirus, which one will you say is the deadliest?
Any disease that can kill is deadly, so you don’t rate diseases like that. Malaria can be very deadly in infants but when the child had developed immunity against it, malaria will no longer be that deadly to them. These three that you mentioned can kill and the precautions against them are almost the same.
But coronavirus is raging in the whole world now because it is highly infectious. When somebody comes across a person with Lassa fever, if the blood doesn’t touch their blood or saliva touches theirs, they won’t be infected. So, it is possible for a person with Lassa fever to roam about in a community for a month without infecting others. But when you have somebody with coronavirus, he will infect others easily. The rate of infection of coronavirus is about the highest that has ever been recorded and that is why it is threatening the whole world. So, that is why the government is asking people to stay at home and to maintain social distancing rule to stop its spread.
Stay-at-home-order is being threatened by hunger and hoodlums who go about terrorising people. What do you think can be done to address this?
There is no single key that opens the doors in the whole world and that is why every community should study itself and come up with a strategy that best suits it. If you look at what they did in China, they allowed husband to go out one day and the wife would be at home and the next day, the wife would be allowed to go out while the husband would stay at home. They did not ask everybody to stay at home the same day. What the Osun State Government is doing now allowing people to go out on two days-Wednesdays and Thursdays but as from Thursday midnight, everybody goes inside again. We have to look at this situation in a technical way that is humane but solution still remains that people should stay at home and stay safe. There should be minimal contact and how we do it should depend on society and the environment.
Is there no way the university is positively affecting the lives of the people in its immediate environment especially at this time of lockdown?
We have sent out messages to the university community and our immediate environment to advise them on steps to take and things like that are important. We have also produced leaflets translated into Yoruba language and distributed to the people to enlighten them on how to protect themselves. We tell them coronavirus has not got a medication now.
We have produced hand sanitiser and have distributed this product to the people in the community and we are also encouraging them to wash their hands regularly with soap and water. We also have our COVID-19 Committee.
What is the function of the committee?
The committee developed the community enlightenment programmer and it is looking at whatever the university can do to support the government at this time. The committee is chaired by the Provost of Health Science.
What stage is the OAU independent power project?
In February, the Minister of State for Power, Jeddy Agba, came to this campus. You know the Ministry of Power was taken away from the Ministry of Works, Power and Housing
And when the minister came, he saw that the project was about 90 per cent complete; he went back and has approved certain things but this coronavirus is slowing it down. So, the people working there have not resumed because of the present situation but we are on course.
How much will the project save the university in a month by the time it becomes operational?
Our electricity bill now is between N45m and 65m every month. When our students are not on the campus just like now, the bill will come down to N45m a month but when they are on campus, the bill increases to about N65m per month. Now if we start generating our own electricity, our bill will come down to about N20m and that means we will be saving like N40m to N45m every month. The advantage is that we will have 24 hours electricity supply and this will help in research and other productive activities. We will also save money on diesel. There are too many smaller generators on the campus now that nobody can calculate how much is spent on fueling them on a monthly basis.
How many megawatts of electricity will the IPP generate for the university?
It will generate 8.03 megawatts but what we consume now is between five and six megawatts.
What will you do with the excess?
There are two approaches and the first approach is to generate six megawatts. There are four supplies there and each will generate two megawatts. We can allow three to work at a time and one to rest. But if we allow the four to work, we will supply our immediate environment. We will no longer be on the national grid by the time the IPP starts working and what we currently consume on the national grid will be available to be supplied to other users in our immediate environment.
We are also envisaging that by the time we start to have stable electricity supply, some will bring the companies to Ife because of this. This will also benefit our students in terms of practical exposure. We will also have to put a stop to it so that it won’t affect us negatively.
There is problem of cultism in Nigerian institutions and this has even spread out to communities. How do you think we can address this problem?
I can say that there is no cultism in OAU. About 20 years ago, cultists invaded OAU and killed some students and based on that, the university put a robust anti-cultism strategy that is still working. What we have also done to prove that we have zero tolerance for cultism is that whoever is caught to belong to a cult group is reported and is investigated. Some of them joined these cult groups before they gained admission to OAU and if any of them is caught, we send them on suspension for two academic sessions and counsel them. We show them love because what we have discovered is that when you send for somebody who is in 300 level away from school, they might go to the community and become a big problem to the society. We are tough on cultism but at the same time, we are careful so that we will not send cultists to the society to be tormenting the people. That is why we see if they can have a change of heart and it is working for us.
There are reports that OAU has refused to release the certificate of a post graduate student, Monica Osagie, whose audio recording of demand for sex for mark by Prof Richard Akinjide sent the professor to jail. Why is the university holding to her certificate?
Monica Osagie did not pass a course and we cannot award certificates to students who did not pass. The course she failed has nothing to do with Prof Akindele. She repeated the course and failed it. If she had met all the requirements, there would be no reason for the university not to give her her certificate.
When the story came out then, the university did not in any way support the lecturer. Everything was done and justice was served but we will not say because she has a peculiar case, we should give her the certificate she did not merit. OAU has zero tolerance for sexual harassment.
To what extent will you say the lockdown is affecting curriculum in the university?
What is happening now is a disaster and it is happening all over the world. What should be paramount in our minds should be how to survive this. Damage has been done to the economies of nations of the world. But despite the disadvantages in the situation, there are still advantages we can leverage on to work better when this situation is over. People now know that you can work from home, conferences and meetings can be held online and many other things like that.
We have our Distance Learning Programme but we have not extended this to our regular students. This situation has taught us that we can extend this to our regular students and anytime there is a situation which prevents them from being in school, we can teach them online. The world is learning from this situation.
There are reports that allocations to the health sector have always been low. What percentage of the country’s budget do you suggest should be allocated to the health sector to make it better?
The African Union and the World Health Organisation are agitating that at least 15 per cent of our budget as a nation should be allocated to the health sector. But we have to look at our own level of development before we can transform the sector. The fund allocated to the sector every year is used to pay salaries. The fund cannot pay salaries conveniently and still be used for equipment or other capital projects. When the University of Ife now OAU, was established by the government of the old Western Region, the government of the region earmarked 50 per cent of its budget to the university and that is what gave it an edge over other universities. The OAU by that time was able to do so many things and that is why it has remained the most beautiful campus in Africa till today.
Nigeria can say for two years, 30 per cent of the budget will be allocated to health sector and after then, it can go back to like 15 or 20 per cent. We have teaching hospitals and there are no simple tools there, we have to reorganise our priorities.