Dr Matovu: Ugandan microbiologist at heart of Covid-19 war in the UK

Sunday August 2 2020

Dr Elijah Matovu is a microbiologist working in

Dr Elijah Matovu is a microbiologist working in the UK. PHOTO | COURTESY  

By Tony Mushoborozi

Dr Elijah Matovu is a microbiologist working in the UK. His full designation is, Consultant Medical Microbiologist and Infection Control Doctor.

As you might have seen from his title, his occupation is viruses and infections. And considering that the UK was one of the deadliest coronavirus battlegrounds, Matovu has been having sleepless nights.

The last six months will always hold a special place in his diary. He works in Mid Cheshire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, which is a single unit hospital that also runs three hospitals.
As a microbiologist and infection control doctor, Matovu has been in the dirtiest coronavirus trenches.

If the Covid-19 pandemic was a world war, Matovu would be a fighter pilot; very impactful but at the highest risk of death. Like the Tuskegee Airmen – a group military pilots who fought in World War II – of the 1940s, Matovu has been (and still is) on the frontline of the fight against Covid-19 and his role in the war is nothing short of heroic. The impact of his work goes beyond country, the same way the heroism of the Tuskegee Airmen did.

Over the last six months, Matovu’s job has been to understand the novel coronavirus and find the right weapons to fight it. With the many unknowns that come with a new and vicious disease like Covid-19, Matovu has been burning both ends of the candle, like other microbiologists, to discover a lasting solution.

“As a microbiologist, I gather information that can be used to help inform how we assess, test and treat disease, as well as how a disease is transmitted. My role also includes providing guidance on which specimens should be collected and the best diagnostic tests to use. We are also exploring the possibility of testing the anti-viral properties of a new treatment we have developed to assist with the fight against Covid-19, as well being part of national trials,” he says.

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One can only imagine what a microbiologist in a hard-hit country like the UK went through in the first two months of the pandemic when the death toll was almost doubling every day. You know it is your job to outsmart this miniscule killer.

You know the hope of everyone is in your hands and yet things are getting exponentially worse every day. You feel like a general in a war that is being lost. But retreating is not an option. Because this is not a normal war where you can appeal to your enemy for clemency. You either win or die. The burden is simply hard to imagine.

That has been Matovu’s life for the last six months. He was there when the first cases appeared. He was there as the number of patients started snowballing.
The large team of medical biologists, lab scientists and infection prevention scientists that Matovu leads has been working overtime. And because he’s a high ranking microbiologist, his job went beyond the hospital in concerted (and often frantic) effort to stop the nebulous nature of this particular pandemic.

“I report to the hospital leadership but we also had regional and national calls to discuss policy. We also need to bounce ideas off colleagues regionally, nationally and internationally. I made friends in Spain, Italy, USA and South Korea,” he says.

That is on top of testing thousands upon thousands of swabs from the wider public in a race against time, trying defeat the virus. As of Friday July 31, the daily death toll from Covid-19 in the UK stood at 38, down from 1,500 in April. Matovu has been at the centre of this thing.

“Doing this work makes me proud because we are in a position to be able to help, not only during this crisis but also in years to come - unravelling the mysteries of this disease and learning how to better protect our community from future pandemics,” he says.

A man of very few words and muted emotions, Matovu talks about his fight against the coronavirus like a priest talking to a troubled congregation; very serious and calm at the same time. No need for speech that tickles the emotions, for lack of better word. Because as a doctor, he knows that emotions are fickle. They are counterproductive in dealings with patients as much as is the case in daily life.

“A disease like Covid-19 affects the vulnerable in society. And because we have a duty to care [for them], it weighs on you. There have been days I’ve been in the hospital for 14 or 16 hours. There were weekends when the virus was at its peak that my phone kept going off. I have had to use my home office on occasions to do my medical work. But it’s an honour to serve during these challenging times,” he says.

So how does a Ugandan, born and raised and educated here get to be so successful in the UK medical world? Matovu says “glory belongs to the Lord my God”.
“We were taught well at Makerere. If one tops it up with the European work ethic, the sky is the limit,” he says.

Grief was the motivation
Matovu’s passion for microbiology started from a painful place. He lost his immediate elder sister to an infection. The two were very close. That was the turning point. Young Matovu told himself, ‘this is where my battle lines should be drawn’.

He went to the UK in 1998 to pursue postgraduate studies in the field of bioinformatics and telemedicine way before it was a thing. He then did some studying at the University of Cambridge after which he found work with the NHS.

Matovu was born to a middle class Ganda family and brought up in Kampala. Lubowa to be exact. During the early 80s the family fled the country for Nairobi for about four years so he and his five siblings studied in Nairobi for a short while.

On return, he went to Kampala Parents School, Namilyango Junior and then Namilyango College. Matovu would move to Makerere University Medical School for his Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery.

There is this perception in some sections of the nation that Ugandan medical professionals take over the industry wherever they go in the world. People like Matovu make it quite easy to believe. And he affirms that it is the case.

“It is most definitely true. I have colleagues doing very well everywhere they go. Makerere trained medics are very good and the practice of medicine is a vocation they take seriously,” he says.

Matovu is happily married with three children; two boys and girl aged 9,7 and 6. He’s a rugby enthusiast as he has been since childhood. For now, UK is home for Matovu because home is where family is. But like all Ugandans in the diaspora, he misses the fresh food, the scenery and the kindness of the people.

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