COVID19 Lockdown crippled our research works
Abdulsalam Mahmud FASLN
To contain the spread of COVID-19, the lockdown in FCT, Lagos, Ogun and Kano states for almost five weeks, and still counting in others, affected the research works of some universities’ lecturers in the country. Abdulsalam Mahmud reports.
“He was on the verge of completing his research, and just about to test the anti-epileptic action of some natural plants he is monitoring. And after that, we will only be left with looking at the results and analysing them. But he was forced to suspend his research activities immediately the coronavirus pandemic stormed the country, and forced all schools to be shut,” Dr. Moses Ekong, a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Basic Medical Sciences, University of Uyo (UNIUYO), Akwa Ibom state, lamented the negative impact of the COVID-19 lockdown on the research work of one of his postgraduate students.
It would be recalled that President Muhammadu Buhari, following the rising cases of COVID-19 in Africa’s most populous country, on March 30, approved the lockdown of the nation’s capital, Abuja, Lagos, and Ogun states, as well as other states with alarming cases of the pandemic.
In a nationwide broadcast, Buhari said the stay-at-home directive was imperative as part of measures to combat the spread of the disease ravaging world population. Several governors also ordered the lockdown of their respective states, in a bid to stem the community spread of the pandemic.
Dr. Ekong, said though he and his students experienced hiccups in their research work when the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) of UNIUYO branch embarked on an industrial action, but the subsequent closure of their university as a result of the lockdown compounded their misery.
“The stoppage of various research and teaching activities in UNIUYO started since the ASUU members downed their tools. That is even before Federal Government and the state governments ordered everybody to stay at home. And ever since, all academic and research activities have been grounded. Only God knows when they will be activated again,” he rhetorically asked.
But the UNIUYO don is not the only researcher that was affected.
Dr. Emmanuel Esom, another Senior Lecturer, at the University of Nigeria (UNN), Enugu Campus, narrated how his doctoral student also suspended his research work, following the ‘unceremonious’ emergence of the lockdown, which halted important activities at tertiary institutions across the country.
Speaking to this reporter, Esom, a former Head of Department (HoD) of Anatomy Department in the institution, disclosed, “My PhD student would have completed his research work by now. Unfortunately, he has been stuck. The young man was carrying out a research on a plant extract which he characterised in Benue state. But due to restriction of movement as a result of the lockdown, he could not travel to Benue to collect the sample of the extract to be used for laboratory experiment and test. We are hoping that by the time the lockdown is relaxed a bit, he will find a way to transport the needed sample down here, and continue his work.”
Esom, who maintained that research efforts without adequate funds will suffer, expressed dismay as to why food items, medical supplies and other essential products are imported into the country amid lockdown, but chemicals and other reagents cannot.
He said the lockdown also frustrated the efforts of some of his colleagues who ordered for scientific supplies and other locally-sourced materials to complete their research works.
As for Dr. Kaisan Muhammad Usman, a lecturer at the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) Zaria, Kaduna state, the lockdown brought along some challenges that prevented him and a team of mechanical engineers from ABU Zaria and other sister tertiary institutions in the north, from quickly completing the fabrication of their 4-in-1 Automatic Sanitizing Machine.
“The lockdown, which affected countless scientists and researchers in Nigerian universities, also affected us. I and my team encountered minor challenges in the process of procuring, and swiftly transporting some of the materials we used to produce our sanitizing machine,” he said.
Usman, who is the head of Bio-fuels Engines and Emission Research Group in Mechanical Engineering Department, while strongly asserting that the COVID-19 lockdown negatively impacted on scientific research in the country, noted that some researchers find it difficult working conveniently in their homes because of distractions and non-access to some basic facilities.”
He said, “But again, the stay-at-home order will not allow researchers and some of us to go to our respective offices, laboratories or workshops. We all know that most designs, lab analyses and data computations require deep concentration and little or no distraction. So, how do we now expect to get the luxury of working in a conducive atmosphere and calm environment in times like this?”
According to Dr. Usman, those involved in the innovation of machines and other gadgets, especially engineers who have to first produce prototypes of machines, equipment and gadgets they intend to fabricate, will become handicapped without the working tools and raw materials, which can only be found in engineering workshops.
He described the situation as a “great setback” to research and innovation in the country, saying, “Equally, we also have a serious challenge in the area of procurement. Some materials and spare parts that used to be readily available and essentially needed in the fabrication of a prototype are now difficult to procure. And it is because either the vendors stay indoor due to lockdown, or the online trading merchant cannot ship them to the researcher’s country as a result of the COVID-19 epidemic. Then, as our banks have also been closed, commercial transportation crippled, and other basic service became unavailable, how do one access funds, procure materials and deliver them to the supposed destination?”
ASUU Strike and Lockdown
On her part, Dr. Agnes Akudo Nwakanma, a trained anatomist from the University of Calabar (UNICAL), Cross Rivers state, said the COVID-19 crisis and subsequent closure of universities caught many scientists and researchers in the country off-guard.
She said, “Personally, I had started a research on “stress” with my students. We were to induce stress in experimental animals, and then study the effect on various parts of the brain and its functions. While the second part of the study was to investigate the ameliorative (or therapeutic) potentials of some herbs. This study was a very important study for me, because I have suffered stress and have experienced the neurological and other effects of stress. So, as a scientist, I needed to find simple solutions for stress.”
The lecturer, who specialises in Neurobiology, Immunohistochemistry and Histology, however added that the coronavirus lockdown, as well as ASUU’s nationwide strike, disrupted everything.
“The animals to be used for the study were already on ground and cannot be left to die. So, the students had to stay back and continue the work without supervision. So you can see that the aim of that study cannot be achieved. The lockdown made it worse. I cannot even go to school to do anything because I reside in Imo state, which is far from my university. I must also tell you that we have tissues that were to be sent to National hospital Abuja for analysis over a month ago, but because of the lockdown they are still in preservatives,” Dr. Nwakanma, Examination Officer of Anatomy Department at the Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu University in Anambra state, said.
The story was also not different with Professor Ahmed Adedeji of the Faculty of Basic Medical Sciences, Olabisi Onabanjo University (OOU), in Ogun state.
Adedeji, a Professor of Pharmacology, said no thanks to the lockdown, some students’ research relating to animals and model flies have been suspended in their research unit.
“Other research teams working with us had to defer some of their activities too. An example is the studies on how to use herbs in the treatment of jaundice in childhood using animal model,” he said.
The pharmacology professor, who is also the Head of Future of Medicine, Science, Technology and Innovation Group (FoMSTIG) at OOU, said his students at the Neurophytotherapy Research Unit could not proceed on their phototherapeutic investigations on neurodevelopmental rodent models of human psychotic disorders.
This he said, was because they could not move around freely to continue their daily administrations of interventions and periodic neurobehavioural assessments of previous administrations made.
An academic exchange programme between Gombe State University (GSU), and a group of Chinese scientists would have become a ‘done deal’, but for the lockdown in the country.
Professor Adepoju Oluwasanmi, who disclosed this to our reporter in a phone interview, said talks about an agreement between their university and the Chinese scholars were concluded, since last October.
He stated that the outbreak of coronavirus in both China and Nigeria forced the plans for the programme to be suspended.
The professor of Educational Research and Evaluation, added that though the online collaborations their university have with other tertiary institutions were not affected, the ones that has to do with travelling physically to other universities, were seriously affected, both locally and internationally.
“The thing is, research activities, including collaborations with others, both locally and internationally, will definitely key into the new way of doing things. That is less of physical interactions and more of e-interactions.
Again, researchers, and research organisations must embrace the challenges posed by the lockdown, and explore adequately, some hidden opportunities. They must re-strategize to ensure that their research activities are still topical and relevant to the new realities, while not neglecting the possible impact of the new norms in the conduct of researches, ” he said.
Weighing in on the issue, a professor of Biochemistry at the University of Ilorin (UNILORIN), Musa Toyin Yakubu, also agreed that research, innovation and academic advancement were all slowed down as a result of the lockdown.
“Some research had to be terminated while a host of others were suspended. This has led to wastage of investment because some of these experiments have to be repeated again from the beginning. Meaning additional costs will have to be incurred,” he said.
A Fellow of the Nigerian Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (FNSBMB), Professor Yakubu, advised government to always work with the sound pieces of advice offered by scientists.
“Britain, Sweden, Japan, etc, are following advice from their scientific think tanks in formulating their responses to the pandemic. Our government must be proactive in borrowing a leaf too,” he said.
Mahmud, a Fellow of the African Science Literacy network (ASLN) is a journalist with The Nation and PRNigeria.