The Engineering Profession in a Pandemic by Engr. Bayo Adeola
An Epidemic is the rapid spread of a contagious disease over an area or a region. When the area is very large such as a subcontinent, a continent or indeed the whole world, it is called a Pandemic. Recent epidemics in the world include HIV-AIDS, Ebola and SARS. These were generally contained within regions and were not upgraded to pandemics. The viruses causing these diseases are said to have transferred from animals to humans who, not having any resistance to the infection, developed symptoms sometimes leading to severe illnesses and death. From one person who is infected, it spreads to others, and as we now have, to the whole world.
The current pandemic, COVID-19, is transmitted through contact with droplets from an infected person from sneezing, coughing, singing or talking. The virus, when left on surfaces, can last for days and therefore be transmitted through touching such surfaces. The symptoms are high temperature, dry cough, tiredness and difficulties in breathing. The peculiarity of COVID-19 is that 80% of those infected either do not show any symptoms or have mild ones; another 15% show serious symptoms and require medical care. Only 5% of those infected have severe symptoms requiring oxygen and hospitalization. Prevention is only by avoiding contact with the droplets of infected persons through wearing of face masks and physical distancing to prevent contact with the droplets directly, and frequent hand washing to remove inadvertent contamination from touching surfaces.
2. BRIEF HISTORY OF COVID-19 PANDEMIC
COVID-19 was first reported in China in December 2019, and by January, Wuhan, a city of over 11 million people was put under complete locked-down. The festival for the Chinese New Year was completely abandoned in the whole country. By the time the pandemic abated at the end of February, 79,284 people had been infected with 2,820 deaths. The world total was 88,439 cases and 2,977 deaths at the end of February. By March, the epicenter of the pandemic had shifted to Europe, with Spain and Italy having cumulative cases of 171,690 and 105,776 respectively. The total for Europe was 437,742, far in excess of China.
By the end of April, the epicenter had shifted to the United States which by then had over 1.1 million cases. The total for Europe was, however, still higher than that for North and South America combined at 1,443,495 and 1,246,190 respectively. By the end of May, the US had become the country with the highest number of infections by a wide margin with over 1.8 million cases or 22% of the world’s total and has maintained this position to date. In April, five countries spread across the five continents, the US, Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa had the five highest number of cases in the world.
Between May and June, Europe saw a dramatic decline in the number of cases and the lockdown measures were relaxed. This situation remained until early July when a resurgence of cases commenced in the region and the number of new cases became even higher than the first wave. The situation is yet to abate.
Key Statistics of Covid-19 Pandemic
World Number of Cases
World Number of Deaths
Throughout this period, Africa has had a very low number of cases relative to the other large continents with only 1,298,315 cases out of the 43,341,451 confirmed cases in the world. South Africa has the highest number of cases in Africa at 712,412. Morocco, Egypt, Ethiopia and Nigeria are next with 190,416, 106,060, 90,000 and 61,575 respectively. Algeria, Libya, Ghana, Kenya and Tunisia are now in the top ten in Africa with 83% of the total number of cases.
The first case in Nigeria was recorded on the 27th of February through an Italian who returned to the country from Italy. Since then, the number has grown steadily and now stands at 61,575 infected and 1,148,713 deaths as at 19 October. The epicenter of the infection in Nigeria is Lagos State with 20,714 infected and 207 deaths. Other states severely impacted are the FCT, Plateau, Oyo, Rivers, Edo and Kaduna states. The number of daily cases reached its peak by the end of June and declined steadily till the middle of September. It has remained steady at an average of 160 cases per day. The death rate has also declined.
3. MANAGEMENT IN NIGERIA
The management of the pandemic in Nigeria may be summarised in three parts as follows:
Identification and Management of Infected Persons
• Identification & Isolation of infected persons
• Contact Tracing and Monitoring of Contacts with Infected Persons
• Testing of those with Symptoms
• Hospitalisation of the Sick
• Testing of Drugs and Treatment Protocols
Prevention of Spread through Personal Behaviour
• Voluntary Stay at Home
• Physical Distancing
• Wearing of Face Masks
• Frequent Hand Washing
• Coughing & Sneezing to the Elbow
Prevention of Community Spread through Government Regulation
• Closure of Airports
• Lock Down of Businesses and Social Activities
• Banning of Public Gatherings
• Quarantine of Contacts with Infected Persons
These management responses resulted in the following:
• Suspension of most economic activities with its attendant loss of income and livelihood and decline in government revenue
• Restiveness of the populace, insecurity, social vices, etc., and people trapped in strange places
• Emergence of local & international donors
4. IMPACT OF MANAGEMENT RESPONSE IN NIGERIA
The first impact was on the need to improve the healthcare facilities. The private sector took on this responsibility and contributed to the construction of more hospitals, isolation centers and testing laboratories and the provision of critical equipment, particularly ventilators for intensive care units. Throughout the period, there has been no reported cases of shortage of hospital beds, equipment or drug.
The lockdown, however, brought severe hardship to the populace. Daily paid workers could not earn income. Most businesses, particularly in education, entertainment and transportation could not function and therefore could not pay salaries as there was no income. This led to serious restiveness of the populace. Again, the private sector supported government by providing palliatives. It became evident that the lockdown was not sustainable and had to be eased.
It was not only the populace that suffered from the lockdown. Except for a few sectors of the economy, very many businesses virtually collapsed, some to be recover. Economies of all countries suffered severe decline. The Central Bank announced a reduction in bank interest and suspension of payments for a year. Government revenue dwindled to critical levels. It is still not clear how long it would take for them to recover.
5. WHERE IS ENGINEERING IN ALL THESE?
On the surface, it is easy to assume that only the healthcare workers are frontline professionals in a pandemic. However, it does not take much effort to recognise several others including supermarkets and their delivery companies, security operatives, news media, banks, telecoms, electricity and water providers.
Engineers provide frontline services in operations and maintenance all the time. This is often taken for granted and not appreciated by the general populace. All healthcare facilities can only function when there are engineers to operate and maintain their equipment. Essential utilities including electricity, water and telecoms have to be continuously provided under all conditions.
Engineers are also contractors and manufacturers in a pandemic. In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, engineers had the responsibility to manufacture ventilators and other equipment in critical demand. Engineers had to build the additional healthcare facilities needed for hospitalization.
COVID-19 taught the engineer several lessons:
· A 1000-bed hospital was built in ten days in China. Why do building construction projects of the same scale take three years or more?
· A lot of design work continued on-line in the period. Do we really need as much physical meetings as we presently conduct?
· Significant quantum of on-line learning took place through webinars. Can we take more advantage of this mode of learning?
COVID-19 also threw a few challenges at the engineer:
· Solving the problem of physical distancing in public transport and classrooms; Can new design models to respond to this evolve?
· Design response to touching public surfaces – contactless controls for lifts, doors, etc.?
· HVAC Design response to confined spaces – Non-recirculating air exchange?
· Video-driven operational guides for engineering equipment
· Solving the challenges of Contact Tracing through apps development
· Design of remote supervision of projects with cameras
Engineering is a frontline profession in a pandemic as it is responsible not only for the operations and maintenance of the healthcare infrastructures, but also for the continuous provision of water, electricity, telecommunications and other utilities necessary for living.
However, while some design work can continue during the pandemic, location specific work such as construction and manufacturing may have to be suspended, depending on the particular mode of transmission of the infection.
A lot of learning and operational assistance may be given through webinar as has been adequately demonstrated.
Some improvements in design, construction and manufacturing processes were demonstrated during the pandemic, which must be sustained and improved upon,
- Engr. Bayo Adeola