Coronavirus outbreak – What should universities be doing?

Reports that the first suspected case of coronavirus infection in Africa has been found in an Ivorian student recently returned from China has put the continent on high alert and turns the spotlight on universities and their role in enhancing Africa’s epidemic preparedness and protecting the higher education community and beyond.

Wuhan, the city in which the virus is thought to originate, is a university centre in China, boasting more than 25 universities which attract international students from around the world. According to Quartz Africa, there are nearly 4,600 students from over 12 African countries studying at universities in Hubei, the province in which Wuhan is located.

They are among the 81,562 African students in higher education institutions in China, who account for 16.57% of that country’s international students.

Director of Policy and Advocacy for Nigeria Health Watch, Ifeanyi McWilliams Nsofor, said every university in Africa should have an epidemic preparedness and response committee to “advise the university community on how to detect, prevent and respond to infectious disease outbreaks”.

“This coronavirus outbreak will end but other outbreaks will happen, and nobody knows when,” said Nsofor, who is also a senior Atlantic fellow for health equity at the United States-based George Washington University.

Prevention rather than cure

He said the committee should “focus on prevention being better than cure” and work closely with local health authorities.

Taiyee Quenneh, Liberian adjunct professor of public health at the College of Health, Human Services, and Science of US-based Ashford University, told University World News the key to dealing with the issue among universities was “education and awareness”.

Quenneh said helpful information was available online.

Also emphasising the need for awareness, Morad Ahmed Morad, professor of medicine at Egypt's Tanta University, said African universities must issue guidance to staff, students and the public in the wake of the outbreak as part of their community engagement mission.

“Ensuring the safety and welfare of the community must be considered as a top priority for universities,” Morad said, calling on the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention to join forces with medical schools, teaching hospitals and university clinics for the purposes of detecting and responding to coronavirus outbreaks as well as strengthening health security across the African continent.

Country warnings

South Africa, Morocco and Liberia are among those African countries that have issued warnings to both students and visitors on how to handle the outbreak, and South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria say they have started screening people as a preventive measure. Calls have been made for the continent’s biggest airline – Ethiopian Airlines – to take similar measures.

The Egyptian embassy in China announced it had formed a committee to contact Egyptians in Wuhan, and a mobile application has been created to communicate with all Egyptian students in China, according to local reports quoting Banha University President, Hassan al-Maghrby.

Practical steps

Listing practical measures that can be taken by African universities, Nsofor said they can support their local communities in detecting, preventing and responding to the virus.

He said epidemic preparedness and response committees should be promoting the use of thermal cameras to screen individuals coming onto campuses.

He said there was a need to work closely with student unions to ensure accurate messaging reaches students, and universities with medical schools and teaching hospitals should update their training curricula to include newer ways of detecting, preventing and responding to the coronavirus.

“Epidemiologists within African universities can support national public health institutes in epidemic preparedness … This is being done in Nigeria through voluntarism opportunities at the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control for community health physicians undergoing residency training,” he said.

He encouraged African students still in China to ensure they observe all infection, prevention and control protocols being put in place by local health authorities and visit the website of the local health departments for regular updates.

“African students in China must have the number of the local public health department on speed dial and they must go to the local hospital if they feel feverish and or have flu-like symptoms,” Nsofor said.