Opportunities for universities in ‘harrowing’ COVID-19 crisis

What universities do today will determine how they emerge from the coronavirus crisis, says Professor Paul Zeleza, vice-chancellor of Kenya’s United States International University–Africa. While this is a harrowing crisis, universities must seize opportunities embedded within it so as to come out of the crisis stronger and more resilient, adaptable and flexible.

Universities should also be mindful that they are not only responsible for the immediate education of students but are also “part and parcel of the transformation of our societies, making significant contributions to our communities, countries and the world at large”.

Zeleza is a returnee from the diaspora, a Malawian historian and writer who rose through the ranks of American academia to become president of the African Studies Association and vice-president for academic affairs at Quinnipiac University.

He is the moderator for a six-part dialogue series launched by the Alliance for African Partnership or AAP, a consortium of 11 universities in Africa and Michigan State University in the United States, on universities and the COVID-19 pandemic.

The first webinar was held on 29 April 2020, titled “COVID-19 Pandemic: Responses and lessons learnt from African universities”.

Four African vice-chancellors shared their views on how COVID-19 has impacted on universities and higher education as a whole, and some of the mitigation measures they have taken or think should be taken in order to overcome this crisis and emerge stronger than before.

The pandemic has exposed problems

COVID-19 has brought chaos, said Zeleza. “None of us anticipated it and many of us were not prepared to deal with the magnitude of what has disrupted everything around the world – economies, health systems and of course the operations of institutions including universities.”

It has also exposed numerous issues. One is inequalities within and among universities and countries in terms of the ability to handle the crisis.

The pandemic has also laid bare problems around infrastructure and capacities in universities. “Some have been able to move seamlessly from in-person teaching and learning to using online platforms; others haven’t been able to do so.”

Within the issue of inequalities, another problem has been access to equipment and the internet for academics, support staff and most importantly students. Also exposed has been a lack of preparedness to mitigate the effects of COVID-19.

Further, the coronavirus has revealed challenges with regards to internationalisation, which has ground to a halt – “from international collaborations to the international flow of students. A lot of students have either had to come home or they are unable to return to the countries where they were studying, or they are marooned in those countries and are not on campuses.”

COVID-19 has also exposed challenges around research. Some universities have been able to participate actively in biomedical and other research and in trying to develop treatments; but for many researchers, lockdowns and travel bans have brought work to an abrupt end.

Research into the pandemic’s impacts on society is critical for institutions and governments, said Zeleza, to ensure that interventions are appropriately anchored on the socio-economic, political and health capacities of specific countries and communities.

Some challenges and some achievements

Despite experiencing several epidemics, including HIV-Aids and Ebola, the coronavirus pandemic came as “a shock and a new threat” to Makerere University, said its vice-chancellor, Professor Barnabas Nawangwe.

The university – Uganda’s flagship and one of Africa’s oldest and most respected institutions – closed on 20 March and all students were sent home, apart from some international students who could not travel and have stayed at the main campus.

As with many other universities in Africa and around the world, taking teaching and learning online was the immediate and major challenge. While there were some online programmes and they are continuing, the transition online has not yet been a success. An advisory board has been put in place to drive a shift to more online learning.

However, Makerere has been active in three main areas of response to the pandemic, said Nawangwe. Medical staff and graduate students have been providing critical services at teaching hospitals at a time of need, working on the frontline of the pandemic.

Other interventions have been in the areas of research and innovations. Nawangwe presented a long list of projects. For instance, Makerere is doing research into herd immunity and immunity responses and their implications for future prevention of COVID-19 infections as well as clinical management; and into chloroquine, hydroxychloroquine and other treatments.

Researchers are modelling the COVID-19 epidemic in Uganda to inform planning and intervention, are studying environmental sampling for public health risk evaluation, and there is a host of studies to try and come up with diagnostic and treatment solutions.

Nawangwe described three major innovations. One is a low-cost ventilator using an open source design from the University of Florida, which is in the process of being tested, so far successfully.

The ventilator will cost just over US$5,000 compared to between US$25,000 and US$60,000 for others on the market. Uganda only has around 55 ventilators. Once all permissions have been obtained, Makerere plans to produce 100 ventilators and then go into mass production.

There are two other innovations, repurposed from the Ebola epidemic. The first is an EpiTent – a prize-winning tented structure that can be used as an isolation unit or a mobile hospital. It costs around US$7,000 and 100 have been ordered by government. Second is a rapid COVID-19 testing kit, evolved from a kit developed for Ebola, which produces a result in 15 minutes and which will cost less than US$1 as opposed to the cost of US$65 for a kit procured from abroad.

Makerere is “ready to collaborate” with colleagues and universities across Africa and the world, said Nawangwe: “We are dealing with a common enemy, coronavirus, which knows no borders, and we are very willing to share the knowledge that we have.”

The Egerton experience

Professor Rose Mwonya is vice-chancellor of Egerton University, one of Kenya’s oldest higher education institutions, which closed on 20 March. All students left except for international students who could not travel.

The graduate school continues to teach masters and PhD students online, which is possible because the students had sponsor support and the equipment needed for online learning.

As with many other universities in Africa, Egerton has been producing sanitisers and masks. “So in our own small way we took care of ourselves and our country is ready to collaborate with us so that we can make more bottles of sanitisers and masks.

The pandemic, Mwonya told the webinar, had made the university realise that it had been under-using its college of distance learning. It has organised training in online teaching for lecturers. “So far we only have 11 courses in the college of distance learning. Now, because of the pandemic, we are developing more.”

A major challenge is offering examinations or assessment online. “How we mitigate security issues is a question that is giving us a little headache.” Another, shared by all universities, is how to ensure all students can access online learning at home. And yet another is the stalling of field and laboratory research.

All this at a time of curtailed funding because of the absence of students. Still, Mwonya is concerned about the return to normalcy, foreseeing problems with virus prevention measures such as social distancing. “I foresee problems if we bring students back too early.”

Last words

As a historian, Zeleza said, he would mention that the world came out of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. Countries that did well managed the crisis properly and were able to put in place systems, structures, processes and practices that they could use post-crisis.

Universities have to do the same thing, as thinking institutions that create and disseminate knowledge through research, teaching and learning.

“We are institutions that must be at the forefront of understanding the crisis” – its impacts, multiple germinations, mitigation forces and practices, prevention and treatment – and also at the forefront of creating “the kind of world that we want in future”.