Healthy Together: these two words have helped students and staff at the College of William and Mary persevere through the COVID-19 pandemic. The College’s Public Health Advisory Team has emphasized that it takes a community effort to battle this pandemic. Professor Iyabo Obasanjo of the Kinesiology department is an integral part of the Public Health Advisory Team and has studied the importance of community in public and global health her entire adult life.
Born into a military family in the 1960s in Lagos, Nigeria, Obasanjo and her family were a part of the Nigerian military community.
“So we had military people gather in the house, you know,” Obasanjo said. “Then, of course, when I was a child, there was a series of coups, so the political leadership of the country became military. I was used to people I would see in the news come into the house as my father’s friends and things.”
During her childhood, Obasanjo’s father, Olusegun Obasanjo, served as a military officer, then as a general in the Nigerian Military. After Nigeria gained independence from British rule in 1960, the nation experienced a series of coups for power control.
“In most parts of the second part of the 20th century, after the independence of the 1960s, coups occurred almost every 5 to 6, 7 years,” Obasanjo said. “So, that generation grew up with it. The difference is that I kind of knew all the players in terms of that my father was involved. So each coup, it had a repercussion in my immediate family. In terms of what happened to my dad– Was he alive? Was he dead? Was he one of the people killed?”
This original military community exposed Obasanjo to political rhetoric and discussion about issues in Nigeria. Although her father stepped back from a main leadership role in the military for a few years during her adolescent years to start a farm, this would not be the last of the Obasanjo family’s involvement in the Nigerian government.
During her early education and life on her father’s new farm, Obasanjo developed a passion for veterinary medicine. She completed her early education in Nigeria and, in 1988, received a degree in Veterinary Medicine from the University of Ibadan. Obasanjo’s final research project in this program was on veterinary epidemiology, which sparked her interest in the field of epidemiology.
“I like the idea of looking at things at the population level rather than the single animal,” Obasanjo said. “That’s why veterinary public health is important, and veterinary epidemiology, because we look at things at the population level and I really like that.”
She then continued her educational career in the United States, receiving a masters degree in epidemiology from the University of California, Davis and a PhD in epidemiology from Cornell University.
“Like any young person, I wanted to find my own place in life and go somewhere where I knew nobody,” Obasanjo said. “I just wanted to find myself and being in a new environment and, you know, try out myself and see how I could succeed.”
Obasanjo’s knowledge in epidemiology and the way diseases function in a population helped her tremendously in her first Nigerian government job as Ogun State Commissioner of Health.
While helping her father campaign for president of Nigeria, Obasanjo became acquainted with many political figures of the nation. When the gubernatorial candidate for her home state, Ogun State, asked Obasanjo to take on a Commissioner role in his cabinet, Obasanjo saw this as an opportunity to practice public health at the community level.
“I told them, I would only come if I did health, because that was what I was passionate about,” Obasanjo said.
During her tenure as Ogun State Commissioner of Health, Obasanjo eradicated Guinea-worm disease in the state and worked on several vaccination campaigns. She explained that some citizens in the north had refused to receive their polio vaccines and discussed how the health department managed the issue.
“The state had actually eradicated polio long before in the 1980s, long before I became commissioner,” Obasanjo said. “But we had a resurgence because the northern part of the country, they had rejected polio vaccines and we had cases.”
In order to manage the small outbreak, Obasanjo’s health department implemented a polio vaccination campaign that educated citizens about the vaccine and held national immunization days. On the national immunization days, every household with a child under the age of five would be visited.
Furthermore, as commissioner of health, Obasanjo began two programs with a grant from the World Bank. The first was an educational television program to educate the citizens of Ogun State in the local language about various public health issues. The second was a training program for local nurses on how to live a healthier lifestyle — including fitness exercises, education on nutrition and lessons in cooking.
After serving as Commissioner of Health, Obasanjo was elected to the Nigerian Senate, where she represented the Ogun Central senatorial district from 2007 to 2011.
Looking back on her years in the Nigerian government, Obasanjo has many takeaways from the experience that have helped her in her professor position at the College. Specifically, Obasanjo notes the importance of education.
“I realize that an education is useful in a lot of things, in ways that you can’t think of,” Obasanjo said. “So I can bring different ideas from different sectors of life to look at.”
During her time in the Nigerian government, Obasanjo dealt with the issues of vaccine rejections, educational campaigns and the importance of the wellbeing of nurses — all pressing issues during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Public Health, as we could see with COVID, it’s not a science problem. It’s not even a medical problem,” Obasanjo said. “You have to look at social education: education is part of the social issues you have to look at because the vaccine rejection thing is communication, education level. You have to look at economics. You have to look at politics, because part of COVID was a political failure also.”
She notes that this pandemic served as a real-time example that her students can use to apply her teachings. The pandemic has exemplified her ideas about the importance of community in public health.
“You can’t do public health on the individual level. You have to look at us as a population,” Obasanjo said. “You have to look at the world as a population in global health and that it’s a sign that we need to cooperate as human beings across cultures, across countries to solve mutual problems.”
The COVID-19 pandemic and the importance of community-based health has also shaped Obasanjo’s professional research in the past couple of years. In collaboration with other individuals involved in Covid-19 work, Obasanjo has studied community health workers and how they have been helping during the pandemic.
“When we started working on the research, I didn’t even know that COVID would then be part of the things they want community health workers to be used for,” Obasanjo said. “I just thought that we need to do that because it’s good for the communities they serve and they help. The health will improve, but it turns out that they can actually make inroads and improve not just most social determinants of health, but they could also improve vaccine hesitancy. Acceptance of public health knowledge will be better.”
Obasanjo also noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has uncovered many issues of inequities at community, national and global levels. To an epidemiologist and believer in community-based health, it is vital to look towards population groups to see how the pandemic has impacted the world.
“We’re still learning a lot, but I’m not sure humanity will learn much,” Obasanjo said. “I hope I’m wrong. But I’m not sure humanity will learn what it needs to learn or what nature is trying to teach us. Nature is trying to say something and I don’t think we’re listening.”