Is UNIBEN a COVID-19 Bomb waiting to Explode?

by Bob MajiriOghene Etemiku

The industrial hostilities between the Federal government of Nigeria, FGN, and the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU, seems to have come to an end. With that, academic activities revved full throttle all over Nigerian universities, even though under the evil genii of the Covid 19.

Prior to the cessation of that frosty relationship between the FGN and ASUU, the world entered the year 2021 with news of a ‘second wave’ of the Covid 19. Reports from the international and local media said that this was a ‘strain’ of the Covid 19 which could mutate and resist some of the Covid 19 Protocols – washing of hands with running water, social distancing and the wearing of personal protective equipment like facemasks.

At the federal government university in Edo State, the University of Benin, authorities seemed prepared to battle the ‘second wave’ of the Covid 19. During the ‘first wave’, UNIBEN put in place very strict measures to conform to the Federal government safety protocols on fighting the Covid 19. At both the Ekewan and Ugbowo campuses, visitors and students alike were made to put on face masks before entering the campuses. There were buckets of water and hand sanitizers at nearly all the offices we visited in 2020. The case was particularly stiff at the Ekewan campus – since there were no academic activities following the ASUU strike, only very essential services ran. Everyone else was turned back then.

But under the shadow of this deadlier strain of the Covid 19 in 2021, and with students milling onto campus for academic activities, what is the prevailing situation now in the university? Apart from earlier measures cited above in this report, a UNIBEN bulletin in January 2021 indicated that the university had set up a ‘Covid 19 volunteer force’ to try to enforce some of the Covid 19 protocols when the university would resume after the FG/ASUU face-off, and restrictions imposed by government of Edo State on schools’ resumption in Edo state.

Our findings however reveal a confusing scenario. Right from the gate of the university, to some of the classes, to student hostels (female and male) and business centres, we find large scale breaches of the Covid 19 protocols. Even though there is a big bucket of water at the gate of the university, and visitors and students alike were expected to use it, there is no serious effort to enforce it. Most of the visitors (to include this reporter) all just made a show of hand washing, and thereafter just sauntered in.  Private transport services at the gate of the university all just filled their buses and cars to the brim regardless of the need for some modicum of social distancing. Through the ride from the gate to the male hostels, the entrance and exit points of the university, we were to observe that with the inflow and outflow of students and visitors, only just a handful had face masks on.

The scariest part was at the Café basement where the JUBEP classes were holding. The lecturers and students only just hung face masks under their chins. The students were huddled close together, and the unmasked lecturers moved easily from row to row.

But if the situation in the classes  is anything to be worried about, that in the male and female hostels at the Ugbowo campus of UNIBEN is a Covid bomb waiting to go off any minute. We found two things: one, there is a banner hanging on each of the entrances of the male and female hostels, basically highlighting the need to stay safe. It includes all the safety protocols, which the students seem to ignore. Right in front of Hall 2 and under the trees, students hung around in clusters chilling and catching up. There are newly constructed faucets for hand washing at all the hostels. We tried to wash our hands before entering the male hostel, Hall 4 aka Abuja, but there was no running water.

As academic activities are revving in UNIBEN, so is the informal section related to student affairs. All the markets we visited in and out of the campus simply burst into life with little or no regard for social distancing, sanitizing and use of masks. With resumption, students willing to live on campus are often assigned a room. Most rooms in UNIBEN often have about eight students in one little room. Normal practice among students is to bring in a ‘squatter’, a student in need of accommodation but circumstances make it impossible. Now, if each student brings in a squatter, chances are that there would be as much as 14 students in that one little room. This scenario presents expected possibilities for only one room. If the university has up to about 500 rooms for male and female students at both the Ekewan and Ugbowo campuses for instance, simple arithmetic would therefore reveal that in the hostels alone, there could be up to 7,000 students living in social and academic conditions without any respect for the Covid 19 protocols.

Some of the students who spoke to us insisted that ‘disease no dey kill black man’. Others told us as well that even though some lecturers insist on the use of face masks during their classes, they often get tired wearing the masks all day through classes. ‘That is why they were always eager to pull them off whenever they are in the open’, one of the students told me.

Benedicta Ehanire, public affairs officer of the University of Benin initially refused to speak with us after I introduced myself as a journalist who was seeking clarification on some of the burning issues highlighted above. According to Ehanire, ‘you entered into this university without permission, and you are lucky that our security services did not arrest you for illegal entry. You must seek permission before going into ‘another man’s house’ whether it is public or private before entering’, she said. When we pressed further for clarifications on what the university is doing to protect students from the Covid 19 pandemic, Ehanire insisted that she would not respond to a phone conversation on the matter. She said I must list all my questions, get an appointment so that she could see my face before she could respond to my queries.

In January 2021, President Muhammadu Buhari signed the Coronavirus Health Protection Regulations 2021 as ‘part of efforts to boost the COVID 19 response in the country’. A Guardian newspaper report of 28 January 2021, Covid 19 defaulters risk jail as Buhari signs regulations,  said that ‘the guidelines state that any person that contravened provisions of the regulations commits, upon conviction, risked a fine or a term of six months imprisonment or both in accordance with section 5 of the quarantine act’. Various sections of the regulations, especially 1 & 2 say that ‘it is the responsibility of the person in charge of a workplace or school to ensure compliance with the provisions of the regulations’.

As things stand, the University of Benin,  Benin City, and indeed any university that has not put proper measures in place against the Covid 19 is only endangering the lives of staff and students – and especially the children of the UBTH Staff school and those of the University Demonstration Secondary School, UDSS – secondary schools on the UNIBEN Ugbowo campus. There are several things the university can do. The most important, and apart from the ‘measures’ already put in place is for the university to start a vigorous test and screening programme for EVERYONE going to live on campus either as a student or staff. Doing that effectively checkmates the onslaught of Covid 19. The university can also distribute hand sanitizers to all students, instead of asking the students to buy and bring them to school as a prerequisite for admission into the various hostels on the campuses.

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