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Internet As A Medium Of Communication And Public Connection by Universities in COVID-19 era

Sunday Omeike PhD and Paul Adepoju PhD

Monday, 6 April 2020

The African Science Literacy Network, which aims to promote effective communication of academic institutions’ activities, investigated the contribution and actions of Nigerian Universities in the COVID-19 era. The two-part report investigated if Universities are using their online presence to make information available to the public, determine if available resources are directed towards public education, and followed the trail for possible action.

At the start of the year, the novel coronavirus, a new virus strain known to scientists as 2019-nCov and SARS-CoV-2, was reported from China. Few weeks later, it was confirmed to cause a pneumonia-like illness the World Health Organization, WHO, labelled the COVID-19 disease. Three months on and the virus has infected over million people and resulted in over 45,000 deaths worldwide, the USA accounting for highest cases and Italy currently the worst hit with more than 13,000 deaths. Nigeria had its first case of the virus, spread majorly by human-to-human contact, imported into the country late February, while the influx of infected returning citizens and other visitors resulted in the increased cases to almost 200 as at the time of this report.

The federal government, through the National Universities Commission, declared a one-month suspension of activities of Universities, the pinnacle of learning. Coupled with further social distancing measures advised by the NCDC and enacted by the FG, this has resulted in compulsory holiday for students and work-from-home lecturers. However, the conundrum remains whether Universities should simply down tools or respond through community contribution and adjust the learning process. Just as their counterparts in better-governed countries opened their doors for national sensitization, community education and public use across the globe, it could be time for Nigerian Universities to contribute similarly in a country that celebrates literacy but bedeviled by a myriad of social concerns.

Are Universities acting as potential truth serum for a disbelieving society?

According to reported figures from the United Nations Development Programme, UNDP, Nigeria boasts a 69.1% adult literacy rate (15 years old and above) as at 2019, but 23.1% of them are unemployed and this is projected to reach 33% this year. This, and combination of other factors, has contributed to a society in which 60% does not trust government according to 2018 Pew Research Centre poll. One pillar they still look towards positively are certificate-wielding tertiary institutions, and their first point of contact is via their websites. Truly, Nigerian universities invested in website designs to leverage on the ever-increasing number of citizens in this virtual space and all but three universities in Nigeria have a functional website. Some cite webometric rankings to celebrate online success but there is still lack of vital societal information for over 126 million citizens glued to the internet in search of entertainment and information, the latter our Universities looked to cash in on but have faltered in recent years, and are still not awake to in the COVID-19 era.

Of almost 40 federal universities scattered across the country, only 11 (28%) notified of NUC’s directive via their website, another ten which comprised some that posted the directive offered little information about the virus or COVID-19, while only four State-owned universities bothered about COVID-19 information. These figures are trumped by private universities’ despite their own relatively low numbers, many whom are not obliged to adhere strictly to government directives but one-third served as medium of updated COVID-19 information.

Meditating on Beach
Covid 19

Sunday Omeika and Paul Adepoju

Virtually all universities in the USA (including all Ivy league schools), and top African institutions used their website to the good cause of COVID-19 response, while most Nigerian universities’ sites are littered with news on graduation, convocation, inaugural lectures, workshops and filled with old events. Some have news updates stuck in 2015, many have not updated their website since last year, while an institution is still offering season’s greetings to staffs and students. Most State and Private Universities’ websites served as business arm poorly supervised at best. While they happily brandished awards to VCs, advertised programmes, announced sale of Sallah rams and displayed association with friends to the Pope, many regrettably postponed admissions but forgot COVID-19. Pillow and mattress was breaking news on a particular institution’s website, disclaimer about a personality who bears similar name to a former UN Secretary-General of African origin reigned on another, while there was also space to highlight dance competition news.

However, there were exceptions, with University of Ibadan, the premier institution in Nigeria setting the pace with a “Covid-19 Research and Emergency Response Platform” for situation report in Oyo State and Nigeria. The University of Lagos, currently the highest ranked Nigerian University in Africa, reports the virus trends and updates through its College of Medicine, Nnamdi Azikiwe University also updates news on the Nigerian effort towards COVID-19 and University of Abuja advised protective measures.

Federal University, Ebonyi, remembered only its staff in a message by the Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Chinedum Nwajiuba to prepare for the challenges posed by the disease. “We know that Nigerians are often comfortable with self-medication, but we plead that this is a period not to try that,” Prof. Nwajiuba stated. In a bizzare turn of public relations, Delta State University’s coronavirus update turned out to be a death scare for a fearful population they sought succor. Invoking Shakespeare, the school stated that “cowards die many times before their deaths, the valiant never taste of death but once.”

Private universities however offered more thoughtful communication, Babcock University putting up a sleuth of covid-19 information on the website and debunked fake covid-19 news of an active case on campus. Bowen University got creative with a four-minute video message of hope from the Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Joshua Ogunwole, Michael and Cecilia Ibru University published a detailed infographic about symptoms, the handwashing techniques and other preventive measures, while Nile University of Abuja provides live updates from Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering.

Others that used their website to offer terse information include the Obafemi Awolowo University, University of Illorin, University of Uyo, University of Port Harcourt, Federal University OF Technology Akure, Adeleke University, Al-Hikmah University and Usmanu Dan Fodiyo University.

Suffice to say that while some Universities have used their platform as medium of COVID-19 communication, others are missing the opportunity to connect with the public by giving them what they yearn for- constant flow of information from a trustworthy source while wishing for community presence.

Sunday Omeike PhD and Paul Adepoju PhD are Fellows of the African Science Literacy Network

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