#LionsStayHome: Perspectives from Butaro during COVID-19

Students eat lunch together at UGHE’s Butaro campus while maintaining distance to comply with COVID-19 campus safety protocol, and to align with the Government of Rwanda’s robust prevention efforts.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, UGHE has implemented measures on its Butaro campus to prevent coronavirus transmission amongst the nearly 100 students, staff, and faculty residing on campus. We spoke with members of our community currently living on campus to hear their thoughts on what campus life is like during this time, how the pandemic relates to UGHE’s mission, and more. UGHE is supporting the welfare of all staff, students, and faculty currently residing on campus and beyond through reassurance, mental health advice to combat anxiety in self-isolation, and transparent communication about all measures taken on and off campus to prevent the spread.

A notice board on campus instructs residents to avoid touching their face and wash their hands frequently.

Collins Fred Inkotanyi, Campus Operations Manager, Rwanda

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted universities all over the world recently. How have things changed at UGHE over the past few weeks?

Since the day the GoR requested all schools to close and follow the protocol, UGHE had to also quickly react on that,  being at the campus at this moment it feels safer because from the executive leadership to students everyone is supportive and understanding all the measurements that are in place. We put together an Emergency Response Committee, whose sole responsibility is to respond to an emergency situation on campus and ensure the safety and security of all students, staff, and faculty residing in Butaro. The committee is comprised of faculty, staff, and students from various backgrounds, including experienced medical professionals. This committee has been proactive by providing a protocol, having one channel of communication also help us at the campus to know reliable information and avoid rumors. Things have changed at campus — people can’t gather anymore, 2 people at the table in dining, all classes are online and having 2 people in the gym — all this has changed the interaction of the residents but good enough everyone understands the situation. People who are coming from Kigali are screened before they get to the car and when they reach the campus. 

What steps are you taking in your role as Campus Operations Manager to ensure the safety and security of Butaro residents?

We have put all measurements required by the GoR but we also have internal measurements. We have requested students, staff/faculty that wants to leave the campus in our away to reduce the number of people, most of the contractors have been requested to stay home for their safety and we remained with very few and they are all living at the campus in order to minimize the movements in the campus. The security and health services teams have channels of communication in case there is any issue or suspected case.

We have reserved rooms for quarantine in case we have any suspected case, we have stocked enough items we may need during this lockdown period. But in order to make sure people are not bored or feel lonely, our IT team member at the campus ensures the internet is working, encouraging people to do online games and discussion to keep everyone busy. We needed contractors staying at the campus (security, dining, and some cleaners) to make the basic needs and other activities are ongoing. we have sanitizers in different areas (admin and faculty office, public areas) and we have supplied hand wash soaps to every resident to make sure people are needed items. 

Campus Operations Manager Collins Fred Inkotanyi (center) meets with staff residing in Butaro to update them on the campus safety protocols.

Denise Wanyana, MGHD ’20, Rwanda

How is it being a student on campus during the COVID-19 pandemic? How are you adjusting to the situation?

Living on campus during the COVID-19 pandemic has been different. It is very apparent how things have changed since Rwanda had its first confirmed case of coronavirus. For starters, we are taking classes online in our respective housing units. One has to be very intentional about joining the online classes and staying engaged throughout because it can be very easy to drift off. My friends and I keep each other accountable with this. We also have a schedule for the cafeteria and are sitting 6 feet apart from each other while eating.

Our eating time has also been limited in order to make room for other people when their scheduled time comes. Butaro campus is already a small campus and the stricter policies on social distancing have made it feel even smaller. Visiting my friends in their units for that face-to-face interaction, even though meters apart, has been very crucial for my sanity and adjusting to the situation.

Can you share how the various responses worldwide by governments to the crisis provides evidence of the need for better, more equitable health systems?

This pandemic definitely highlights the need for continued improvements towards a more equitable health system. On one hand, you have governments like that of Rwanda taking precautions and putting in place policies to combat the spread of COVID-19 even before it had any confirmed cases in the country. Some argue that this is because low-income countries like Rwanda do not have the capacity and resources to treat an infection that reaches the scope of what is happening in Italy and what happened in China. Rwanda, and other low- and middle-income countries cannot afford to not be proactive and take significant measures before the pandemic gets worse.

On the other hand, there are governments that did not react as quickly to this pandemic. This can be seen in the US, where it is disproportionately affecting the less-privileged people who do not have access to health care to get tested because they are uninsured. In Iran, frontline healthcare workers have been working with no protective gear, further exacerbating the situation. Thus, different government responses to the pandemic and the impact that follows highlight the need for responses that value equity as a guiding principle. 

UGHE has implemented regular temperature screenings on campus as part of its coronavirus emergency response measures, along with rapid weekly physical and mental health screenings. 

Matt Ames, Instructional Technologist and Assistant Professor, USA

Talk about your experience living on the Butaro campus during the COVID-19 pandemic. What is the feeling of solidarity like?

I feel like I’ve been adapting fairly well for a few reasons. The team here is strong and really looking out for each other, I think we’ve been able to keep a sense of humor but also recognize the seriousness of the situation. Everyone is trying to stay busy and I’ve worked on a song with some students, this weekend some staff went out and chalked positive messages around campus, Rex has been baking more than usual, Janna and I have been walking regularly. So, I think everyone is doing their part to stay connected, positive and active. 

Butaro is one of those places that feels as though you’re in a mountain paradise when you’re here and so there’s some dissonance being in this beautiful and tranquil place while there is so much tragedy around the world. I think everyone who stayed behind is happy with their decision. UGHE and the government of Rwanda have both made smart moves to protect students, staff, and citizens. 

As someone dedicated to e-Learning in UGHE, how does the current pandemic relate to what you are implementing for UGHE’s network? 

The practical application of e-Learning during this pandemic has been an enormous benefit for educational institutions across the globe because it’s allowed these institutions to continue teaching. The technology was there — Zoom, Google Hangouts, and Skype — for people to utilize and react quickly. The use of e-Learning during this time has allowed millions of people to be safer and to continue their education. 

However, these solutions are only loosely related to what we’re implementing here at UGHE because the method that MGHD and MBBS are using to lecture, video-conferencing, is not a way that UGHE can teach online with equity in mind if we’re going to consider the bandwidth connections of typical online students in Rwanda. We’re lucky that most of our students have remained in Butaro where the Internet connection is strong for everyone. So, it’s a temporary solution to a crisis situation.

Students. staff, and faculty greet each other from a healthy distance to comply with social distancing guidelines.

Dr. Agazi Fitsum Gebreselassie, MGHD ’20, Ethiopia

Campus life has changed dramatically given the restrictions put in place to maintain safety. What do those changes look like for you and how are you adjusting to the situation? 

A lot has changed since the rapid institution of measures by the Emergency Response committee a day after the declaration of the first case. Comprehensive steps have been taken to ensure social distancing and minimize undue contact between people. Some measures which I thought were ingenious were applied to risky areas and activities. One of the hotspots is the cafeteria. There is a schedule with limited slots to prevent overcrowding. Seats have been rearranged to be 2 meters apart, with students and staff being urged to eat in their units or outside. Classes have moved online, and group gatherings have become a thing of the past – for the most part.

It has been surprising to see how well people have adjusted to these changes. One could be forgiven for thinking that this new way of existence has always been the norm. Is humanity’s default setting social distancing? Many people would disagree with me. Personally, I have found the entire experience quite manageable. There’s ample space to prowl around, beautiful vistas, and delicious meals to gorge on. There is also little evidence of panic – apart from the occasional shout out to the heavens – not sure how effective that is though. However, as I frolic in privilege, I can’t help but think about the situation elsewhere.

As a doctor and a current student in the Master of Science in Global Health Delivery program, how does the current pandemic relate to what you are learning in the classroom? 

Many of the government responses to this epidemic have centered around the principle of social distancing and complete isolation – Rwanda is a case in point. This is understandable, especially for most nations in Sub Saharan Africa, as the health care systems would simply not be able to handle the proliferation of cases without severe measures. Not only are these health systems underdeveloped but they’re highly inequitable. I had noticed this firsthand as I worked as a doctor in a highly underdeveloped region in Ethiopia. Cholera outbreaks were frequent and had the most devastating impact on the most vulnerable.

Considering the current situation, many of the helpless segments of society are unable to adhere to the principles of social distancing. They cannot work from home. Their jobs tend to be mostly informal and they lack the safety net required to practice complete isolation. All this needlessly heightens their chances of infection. Add this to an already inequitable health system and the highest burden of morbidity and mortality will fall on this vulnerable segment. This clearly reinforces the need for developing more equitable health systems and societies. I wonder how many disasters required to drive home this point.

Health Services Coordinator Andre Ndayambaje and Campus Operations Manager Collins Nkotanyi talk with campus contractors about Coronavirus preventive measures, available communication channels, and support services on campus.

Whilst UGHE is putting every plan in place for an emergency response, the long-term impact of our vision will help strengthen health systems to fight this type of public health emergency in the future. UGHE knows the key to preventing and fighting any epidemic is a resilient health system, built-in partnership with local ministries of health. This means investing more into our most fragile health systems, supporting systems with the right staff, space, and stuff — resources — to provide quality services, all while providing support for the most vulnerable. The practical and biosocial tools to respond to public health emergencies are built into all academic curriculums at UGHE, including a focus on Community Based Education and a One Health lens that teach future global health leaders to view health challenges holistically, and respond with appropriate cultural sensitivities and care that is contextually relevant to those that receive it.