Something puzzling caught the attention of the young doctor. After observing carefully he noticed a sudden rise in number of patients, dying from a condition all the books he had read back in medical school did not properly describe. Once bright and up on their feet, stricken patients soon after admission would wither away slowly into skeletal frames, of much pity, before drawing their last breath. The young doctor applied all kinds of standard treatment to bring relief and recovery but to no avail.
Finally, he approached the head of his department, Professor Nkumbi. “I am puzzled,” he sighed. “We are losing so many people and none of the standard treatment is working. I suspect we are faced with a new dangerous disease.”
Professor Nkumbi had also been noticing through his regular rounds of supervision and his concern was growing. Over the years he had seen batches of new viruses break out to cause new strange diseases. But even with scarce knowledge there seemed always a way out to manage any. Many times he would use his vast experience to apply a combination of different medicine and administer their properties in different amounts to help heal the sick.
The Professor was a lazy writer but on occasion once certain of his treatment he would author a paper packed with statistics which he had assiduously gathered as proof of the efficacy of his treatment regime. His findings were reviewed and published in leading medical journals. It is only after the scientific community had reached consensus that he would accept invitation locally and globally to promote his medicine. The Professor was now recognized as an expert in managing tropical diseases and some of his medicines had been patented by leading pharmacies.
“Perhaps we should get out blood samples and anything we consider useful to a partner laboratory in the US,” Professor Nkumbi advised the young doctor. The two agreed, and quickly sent samples out by DHL. However, after a week anxious for feedback, came a terse reply. “There is nothing we found giving us clue to this new disease.”
“If they can’t figure it out,” said the Professor. “Then we need to figure it by ourselves. They have their problems and we have ours. Sometimes we need to take the lead.”
In his long career of handling epidemic crises Professor Nkumbi had taken an interest in studying human behavior under odd circumstances. Although at an individual level there were observable differences, there were also commonalities. First, human beings in the absence of assured treatment, many started panicking. This would be accentuated as the diseases became viral. In this case, Professor Nkumbi saw it happen when sometime later, the young doctor who had taken it upon himself to immerse himself in treating the afflicted, fell ill. Then, as were others, he wilted away, and in no time lost his life.
The death of the young doctor made all the health workers pause. Putting in long hours, working under strained circumstances with poor equipment, tempers rose. “No one knows what this disease is,” said a young worried medic. “This disease will wipe us away before anybody knows.”
The Professor knew that one of the first things he needed in the midst of an epidemic was to bring reassurance and calmness. The day after the young doctor was buried he called on all staff for a meeting. “I know many of you are scared stiff and for good reasons,” he said to the hushed room. “But I want to assure you that if we stay calm and work together on this thing we shall find a cure. Let us keep our hands joined together otherwise if we left fear take over us, we shall all lose out. I say, the only thing to fear is fear itself!”
“But how can we work under these conditions,” a staff raised concern. “We are short on beds and gloves. Patients are sleeping on floors. Our pay comes in late. We are hungry. Don’t sell us on this hope stuff.”
“I do hear you,” the Professor said calmly. “How I wish I was the one managing the health sector. But for now our complaints won’t help much. We are at the frontline. Everyone is looking up to us. Let us do all we can!”
The next day about a third of the health care workers did not show up. Professor Nkumbi had seen it all. But he knew a certain critical staff would stick on. It is those few he embarked on a journey of finding a discovery to this unknown disease.
The Professor decided to close off one of his wards where he would carry out rigorous research. As he studied the disease he noticed that a majority of patients fell in the 15- 25 age bracket. He would ask them all sorts of questions about their lifestyle. Yet he couldn’t figure out why this new disease was more virulent in attacking this rather athletic age group. He wrote to the Ministry of Health asking for funds to research more on this age group but he was quickly rebuffed. “Maybe you should write to the donors,” the Permanent Secretary wrote back. “The funds available are for buying cars for political leaders to sensitize the population about His Excellency programs.”
In the meantime, without much research going on, all sorts of speculation started going around town, explaining this disease. There were those who quickly pointed the finger to witchcraft. “This thing was brought by those witch doctors from our neighbors,” seemed to be the chorus in local pubs. As many were convinced, they rushed to local shrines to fight off evil spirits causing this unknown disease. There, almost all would not survive, including some of the shrine ministers, which left as many perturbed.
“God is punishing us for our sins,” a number of Pastors claiming to be in constant contact with God now took center stage. “If you come here and we pray for you then you will be healed.” Added to this, there were those who claimed that racist White doctors had planted the disease in Africa to wipe out the population and recolonize the continent! Promoters of this conspiracy were drawn largely from the more educated class.
All this Professor Nkumbi had seen. “Human beings will always grapple for answers from all sorts of angles in the face of the unknown,” he had once written a paper. “In situations of anxiety, it is expected for opportunistic groups to thrive.”
As all was going on, one-day Professor Nkumbi discovered that a young man on his research team had pieced some of his data to put together a concoction claiming it as a cure for the new disease. This medicine was marketed across the country, especially at bus stops and popular drinking joints, where a number would always come up with testimonies of “being cured” by gulping it. No one would take time to probe their testimonies. Marketed intensely, the new “cure” soon ran out of stock. When Professor Nkumbi learned that the chap behind all was on his research team, he promptly fired him. “I have nothing to do with anyone who takes advantage of poor people’s ignorance promoting unproved gimmicks.”
Poorly funded, Professor Nkumbi pressed on with the few staff left on his team. After many months of gathering evidence, his data started coming together. He discovered the young people who were most affected tended to exhibit an aggressive sexual lifestyle. He found that in the absence infection rates tended to be minimal. With this in mind, the Professor now realized that lifestyle change was one line of attack to reduce infection. He started advocating sexual abstinence as one line of attack. He also found that by using condoms where one’s status was unknown, infections fell to almost zero. He became a serious advocate of condom use.
Not everyone was pleased with the Professor’s findings. For those who were marketing “cure” concoctions, using some of their profits, they started waging a campaign against the Professor. “This man shall put us out of business,” they seethed. Meanwhile, certain government officials displeased that reports of lower infection rates meant the country was earmarked for less aid, also started attacking the Professor. They knew less aid would mean less funds to maintain their expensive lifestyle which they dared not forsake, even in the midst of a ravaging epidemic…
It is now nearly four decades away since Uganda was at the center of the devastating HIV/AIDS epidemic, whose origins was initially a cause of so much speculation. However, after the rigorous work of dedicated research scientists in Uganda, it was discovered there was a link between the spread of the HIV-causing virus and unprotected sexual activity. Armed with this knowledge the doctors then started advocating abstinence, faithfulness and condom (ABC) use as a line of defense.
But as we all know the simple message of lifestyle behavioral changes, was not good news to everyone. All sorts of power centers rose up attacking ABC, without much else to show, but the power of charged emotions.
And so it is with Covid-19. A lot about managing this virus has simply to do with limiting its spread by observing simple behavioral practices – physical distancing, sanitization, mask-wearing, isolation of the sick, etc. More so, there are various tested vaccines fortunately now available which serious governments have quickly and without waste bought and ensured the majority of the population take immediate benefit of. Never mind all that. There are those places where things just never change.