The coronavirus has arrived – We are generally calm

Even before the Botswana government announced the closure of universities from 23 March and the subsequent “extreme lockdown”, the Botswana International University of Science and Technology had taken steps to minimise the spread of the coronavirus.

The coronavirus has arrived relatively late in Botswana, but it is now here. On 1 April, the government announced the first coronavirus death – an elderly woman who was discovered only after she died to have had COVID-19. Three days earlier the country confirmed the virus’s presence after three people tested positive (two having travelled from Thailand, another from the UK).

As of 6 April, the number of infections had risen to six, with five of them having recently returned from high-risk countries. The government announced an “extreme lock down” starting on 2 April and lasting 28 days.

As Robert Mugabe, former Zimbabwe president, is alleged to have once said: “The problem with Africa is that if they say nobody should go out, everybody will go out to see if nobody has gone out”. Personally, I think it is a human response, not an African response.

That aside, I have been in quarantine for two weeks, isolating at home since 22 March after coming into contact with people from South Africa whom I hosted at my home at the request of my university colleagues. They arrived on Saturday 21 March and left a few days later.

At the border post my South African visitors only had their temperature checked and they were let in. At the time tourism companies were even offering half price tours to travellers to convince them to come.

Soon after their arrival, however, an inspection team from the Palapye hospital arrived at my home, asked me and my visitors lots of questions and measured our temperature before announcing I must be in quarantine. I have no problem with that. I am comfortable with myself and had many things to do, to fill the time on the roster.

Time to think

There has also been time to wonder why the virus was late in arriving here? Was it the mild climate that discouraged the spread? Was it the smaller population and relatively lower volumes of overseas travel either in and out of the country?

The government had been cautious and started quarantining anybody from Europe from the beginning of March. Botswana had some breathing space before the virus became evident within her borders and now that it has arrived, it can copy from measures taken by other countries affected one month earlier.

There is no sign of crisis yet, but I think it will be difficult to cope with a crisis. According to the local Sunday Standard newspaper of 2 March, indications are that “if the corona epidemic were to take off … the country’s healthcare systems could get swamped and there are only so many intensive care units or ventilators available in the country. If all these factors [age, chronic diseases, distance from the healthcare facility] were to interact together, Botswana could be one of the hardest hit countries in the world”.

How did the Botswana higher education sector respond? I think it has done fairly well – at least in parts.

As early as 9 March, BIUST instructed the university community members not to travel outside the country and to cancel all events involving people from beyond the borders. The following day, the university announced further measures to minimise the spread of the disease, including the establishment of a crisis management committee, and implemented sanitising measures on campus.

Three days later, staff and students were told not to travel or congregate and three days after that, the government issued a notice stopping travel from high-risk countries and prohibiting travel by government and parastatal employees. It also suspended social gatherings involving more than 100 and recommended social distancing in all other situations.

Closure of universities

On 18 March, the government announced that all universities should close by 23 March and Botswana International University of Science and Technology acted accordingly, asking all students to leave.

Even before the government-imposed closures, BIUST was thinking about how to contribute towards minimising the impact of the crisis and helping to contain the spread of the virus. Several senate meetings, the last on platform, took place to decide the way forward. These included: online distance education, technological contributions to the Botswana health crisis, the closure of the dormitories and the closure of the university.

We grappled with what to do with our international students, and with those on industrial attachments. Also, in a country with quite a poor population, spread over a vast area, without widespread access to the internet and with students unable to access airtime, we recognised it would be difficult to continue the education process, but students represented by the Student Representative Council are to be commended by demonstrating an attitude of commitment to their studies.

For our module – Process Control in Chemical Engineering – staff have continued our communication with students on a WhatsApp group, posting the problems to be solved, sending presentations and simulations, answering queries.

Lifting of barriers

Of course, we may say that some of the measures taken today could just have easily have been taken two years ago, which is correct. But I think at the last minute, the reaction from the university community was good: the administrative and mental barriers were lifted. BIUST has even started to produce on a larger scale the sanitisers and soaps needed, especially by the poor communities, as a contribution to the fight against the virus.

Ongoing communication on the university’s website offers staff and students updated information about how to prevent the virus spread, and new rules for work.

The conclusion? People are a little bit worried, but generally calm. While government has taken precautions against the spread of the virus, the universities have different approaches with some being more proactive than others – as is the case everywhere in the world, no doubt.

Paul Serban Agachi is a Full Professor of process engineering, process control, modelling and optimisation in the Faculty of Engineering and Technology at the Botswana International University of Science and Technology and Professor Emeritus at the University Babes-Bolyai, Cluj-Napoca, Romania. Born in Romania, he graduated from Politehnica University of Bucharest (MSc) and the Institute of Petroleum and Gas Ploiesti (PhD). He has taught and researched in several universities around the world. He was a higher education expert for UNESCO Oil-For-Food programme, Iraq from 2000-03, and founder and member of the International Ranking Expert Group executive committee until 2018.