My COVID-19 Story: Prof Garba Habib

By Misbahu El-Hamza 

Professor Abdulrazak Garba Habib is the co-chairman of Kano State Taskforce (KSTF) on COVID-19 which was constituted by the state governor on the 21st of March 2020, 21 days before the state recorded its first case. Incidentally, Professor Habib was the first member of the STF to test positive for COVID-19, on April 15th, 2020. When the news broke, a day after he was admitted at Kwanar Dawaki (K/Dawaki) isolation centre, everyone on the team was shocked. “There was fear,” said Dr Imam Wada Bello, secretary of the KSTF who was also having symptoms at the time. Colleagues all around the world, including in the United Kingdom where Habib served as an international adviser to the Royal College of Physicians started calling. “My phone rang consistently for nearly one week” recounted Professor Habib. 

Professor Habib is a consultant and professor of infectious diseases at Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital (AKTH) and Bayero University Kano (BUK). At the time he tested positive, Kano state had less than 20 confirmed cases. After he was treated and discharged from the isolation centre, Professor Habib came home to learn that six members of his task force and 20 doctors from his Department of Medicine at AKTH had all tested positive to COVID-19. He noted that prior to him getting infected, all safety protocols at the time were strictly observed. “Truly I don’t know, and I think no one can really say how I got infected,” said Professor Habib. The last time he travelled outside Nigeria was between October-November, 2019 when there was no reported human case globally. 

Professor Habib is a consultant and professor of infectious diseases at Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital (AKTH) and Bayero University Kano (BUK).

Within Nigeria, he was at Usmanu Danfodiyo University Sokoto to give a lecture on COVID-19 to an audience of nearly 700 people on February 27 and in early March, he was in Abuja. “However, I am a clinician,” he explained, “and even though I was the chairman of the STF, every Monday, I had ward rounds with doctors at AKTH. On Wednesdays, I do clinics. We also held meetings within the KSTF involving groups like WHO, UNICEF, National Orientation Agency and others. In those meetings, we had colleagues who travelled to Lagos, Abuja”. Professor Habib said he still cannot tell how he got infected, after several self-interrogations, but admit that one cannot rule out whether it’s in the course of work. 

A sore throat was the first symptom Professor Habib noticed, which was why he did the test for Covid-19, the result took seven. He had to wait that long because, according to Dr Bello, Kano samples had to be taken to Abuja for testing at that time and the turnaround time (TAT) was six to seven days. Professor Habib had started experiencing fever before the results came out, which he thought was malaria. He took antimalarial medications and some pain killers, yet, no relief was experienced. “I recall clearly when we were having a meeting with the Deputy Governor, as my symptoms were evolving, at the government house, I had to excuse myself. I told him I couldn’t continue and left. That was when the cough started and with that, I knew it was no longer malaria,” he added. Even as his result wasn’t ready, Professor began to prepare for the worse. Professor Habib isolated himself at home. 

Professor Habib spent three weeks in the isolation centre. By the tenth day, he was feeling a lot better. He was hopeful despite the disturbing news they heard of the mysterious deaths claiming a number of lives including his colleagues in town and the other isolation centre. “Somehow, I felt like God wanted me to continue the fight against the pandemic,” he said. He began to read and exercise. He also prayed vehemently, this time, standing. He went to the isolation centre with two books: the Holy Qur’an and ‘Plagues and People’ by William H. McNeil. “I read these two books regularly. Plagues and People is about how civilizations have been brought down by major epidemics. And somehow, I started telling myself that God Almighty gave me the insight to say, ‘OK, you may win a battle, but you can still lose a war.’” Professor Habib punctured the bottom of the empty water bottles with a needle and used it to blow his lungs out as an exercise. “Ideally there is a machine to exercise your chest, it is called a Vitalograph or Spirometer. But since it wasn’t available at the time, I had to contrive and improvise.” Eventually, he developed as many and gave about 12 different patients in the centre. “I said OK, let’s exercise. And we did that for at least seven days.” “Gidan Corona” At this point his two wives were isolated at home. “One of them was pregnant and positive at the time,” he said. “She stayed at home because no one knew how to manage positive pregnant women. She took some of the medication I was taking. My brother and older daughter were around taking care of them and my older child, a medical doctor also, had to come back home and give her support. “Because of the way my house and the three mosques I attended were fumigated, Rapid Response Team coming in an ambulance, wearing the Personal Protective Equipment, tracing and testing my other contacts, people saw the house as an epicentre of the virus in the area. They called it Gidan Corona, meaning Corona house.” Professor Habib said he wouldn’t think such a label was necessarily in a negative way though.

When he recovered and was discharged, he didn’t hasten to the mosque, let alone resume work. He stayed for about three weeks before he rejoined the congregation. “And even when I started, there was no physical distancing in the mosques,” he recounts. Professor Habib believed that getting out of what he found himself wouldn’t have been possible without the prayer people made for him. He called on survivors of COVID-19 to be role models in fighting the disease by at least advocating for behaviour change. “I think people who have suffered should come out fully as role models, exemplars and champions to recount what they’ve been through so that at least people will know that it’s not some Oyinbo disease and change their attitude to avoid further spread.”

This narrative was done in January 2021 as part of the #COVID19NigeriaStories documentation project on state-level responses to COVID-19, implemented by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control and Nigeria Health Watch with support from the Ford Foundation.

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