MAKHOASE Ranyali-Otubanjo sits edgily as gusts of the morning breeze blow into her Ministry of Health Headquarters office.
There is an air of determination around her but her demeanour betrays an underlying fear.
It is just after 8am and her office is already a hive of activity with droves of visitors coming in while her phone rings every minute. Some of those calls are from members of the public anxiously seeking clarification on the Coronavirus (also COVID-19) and reporting suspected cases. Ministers and senior government officials also demand her full attention.
The 49-year-old medical doctor is one of the three medical practitioners tasked with spearheading Lesotho’s fight against the deadly COVID-19.
As of yesterday, almost 900 000 had been infected with COVID-19 around the world and more than 44 000 deaths had been recorded.
Equally sobering for Dr Ranyali-Otubanjo is the fact that 66 doctors have died of the disease in Italy.
Closer to Lesotho, doctors in Zimbabwe recently downed tools fearing they too could contract the virus if they are not provided with protective gear. They demanded protective clothing and other perks before they can attend to patients. Here in Lesotho, health professionals have also given the government until tomorrow to provide protective clothing and risk allowances as they are exposed to the virus in their work with hospitals. If not, they will “protect” themselves by refraining from work.
But Dr Ranyali-Otubanjo is not deterred. Hers is a calling and like that of a soldier and she fights on the front line. A product of Cuba’s renowned medical training schools, she is inspired by the 52 Cuban doctors currently assisting the virus-ravaged Italy to beat the scourge.
“I have been in several emergency response programmes before and my seniors saw it fit for me to be part of the COVID-19 preparedness response team.”
“Soldiers have done it before, so we should not back down now,” she said in an interview with the Lesotho Times this week.
“We must push forward and do what is right by responding to our calling and save the world. I did not become a doctor by chance. It is something that grew in me. I have always wanted to help the sick and vulnerable.
“I have been watching closely the cases of COVID-19 around the world. I can’t sit here and lie that I am not scared. I am scared. My children are scared. My parents and relatives are frightened by the current situation. I had to make them understand that one day I’m going to die. But that does not mean I am going to back down from the fight against the virus,” Dr Ranyali-Otubanjo said.
She is and her three colleagues are up for the challenge of assisting the country to fight the virus as soon as it is detected in the country.
“I am committed and ready to dedicate my time and skills to ensuring that lives are saved but this is something I cannot do on my own,” Dr Ranyali-Otubanjo said adding that everyone must contribute to fighting the disease.
Although Lesotho is one of the few African countries yet to register any COVID-19 cases, Dr Ranyali-Otubanjo is not leaving anything to chance. She has seen what an epidemic of the magnitude of COVID-19 can do in her previous job as the District Medical Officer in Butha-Buthe from 2000 and 2004.
Her experience in dealing with the HIV and AIDS pandemic in Lesotho in the early 2000s ensures she never becomes complacent in the execution of her duties.
At the time, many doctors like Dr Ranyali-Otubanjo felt helpless as there were limited or no supplies of medical equipment and other necessities to assist HIV positive patients.
“Other opportunist diseases creeped in for most people living with HIV and lots of people died,” Dr Ranyali-Otubanjo said.
Feeling defeated at the time, Dr Ranyali-Otubanjo knew something needed to be done and decided to make a difference.
“Realising there was nothing I could do for patients, I decided to join Senkatana ART Clinic in Lithabaneng, Maseru,” she said.
The HIV scourge subsequently inspired the mother of two to go back to medical school and pursue a Master’s Degree in Medicine majoring in HIV and Sexual Transmitted Infections (MMED STI/HIV) in 2007.
She pursued her post-graduate studies at the University of Sydney in Australia.
She returned home a year later and took on various jobs including heading the Multi-Drug Resistant (MDR) Tuberculosis programme at Partners-in-Health in Maseru. All these experiences in dealing with epidemics have prepared her for what could be her greatest challenge- spearheading the fight against COVID-19 in Lesotho.