Impact of COVID-19 Innovations on Development

Astronomer and OAD Fellow, Dr. Marie Korsaga, looks at how some of the tools and technologies being used to fight COVID-19 could be employed for long-term, positive impact on development in the post-Covid era. Contact her at: Dr. Marie Korsaga <marie.korsaga(at)lam.fr>)

It is no doubt that COVID-19 has affected – and continues to affect – the global health system, with most nations forced to take extraordinary measures to lessen the risk of collapse of some key sectors of the economy. Similarly to the health workers and researchers who actively work at the frontline to fight the spread of the virus and ultimately contain it, researchers and innovators of various areas around the world are developing innovative techniques and tools that have the potential to alleviate the effect of the pandemic. More interestingly, many of these tools and techniques could be the silver lining of the pandemic if they are efficiently used to create a long-term, positive impact on development in the post-Covid era. In this section, we focus on four main areas where these innovations are the most noticeable: the technological innovations, the new methods developed in the education sector, the change in social dynamics and the long-term economic advantage of the surge in solidarity.

 

  • Technology

The pandemic contributed to breaking the professional barrier, and brought scientists, engineers and healthcare personnel to work together using their skills and new technologies to improve the ability to fight, respond to and cope with the negative impact of COVID-19.

  • For years, robotics and automation have had a strong presence in various fields ranging from shipping to construction sites and operating rooms. The novel coronavirus pandemic could well be the disruption that accelerates the adoption of these technologies through further research in robotics to develop robots in order to help combat infectious diseases (e.g., telemedicine, handling of contaminated waste, room cleaning and area disinfection) unsuitable for human workers. More detail can be found in the paper published by Guang-Zhong Yang et al. 2020 and also on the website robotics online blog
  • UCT ViZAR has manufactured a number of transparent face shields. The device has been approved by SAHPRA (South African Health Regulatory Authority) and can be used across hospitals. Its advantage is that 1 device can be made from less that ZAR 10 worth of material in under 5 minutes and does not require specialised skills to manufacture. 
  • Virgin orbit designed and is manufacturing ventilators that can be used not only for COVID-19 patients with the most severe symptoms but also to treat moderate hypoxic and hypercarbic respiratory failure patients.
  • The UK based company Mologic in collaboration with scientists across the world has developed a reliable rapid diagnostic test for COVID-19 at an affordable cost, which can be done at home and can produce a result within 10 minutes without the need for special training, electricity or a laboratory. These tests will be useful for countries with limited access to laboratory facilities. 
  • In many countries, technology has been used to develop apps to track infected people. To respect the privacy and other human rights, the data collected using most of these apps will only be shared with consent and with no identifying data. Also, most of these apps have an explanation of the privacy and security measures in their setup. For example, in South Africa, big companies such as Telkom and Eskom work in collaboration with scientists to create a database that reports information from a person’s phone through their past movements and whereabouts, track the number of infected people and notify those who were in close proximity to them during the past two weeks. More information here.

 

  • Education

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the global education system through the closure of schools. Teachers around the world have had to learn to provide distance education to students by teaching virtual lessons. Several platforms, resources and educational applications are made available to help teachers, parents and school administrators to broadcast courses and conduct training in order to facilitate student learning and ensure pedagogical continuity during periods of school closure.

  • The World Bank has shared here a catalog listing methods and educational technologies such as online learning, radio, television, texting, used by countries to support access to remote learning for students during the pandemic.
  • In South Africa, the telecommunication company Telkom is zero-rating educational facility websites in order to allow learning and teaching to continue.
  • The Global Schools Forum (GSF) has gathered in one place school-related resources to support teachers, students and their family. For example:
  • OECD and Harvard’s Graduate School of Education has published a report based on a survey taken by more than 300 respondents from 98 different countries to guide an education response to the COVID-19  pandemic. It aims to support public and private educational organizations by formulating adaptive and equitable education responses to the actual crisis that significantly disrupt educational opportunities globally.
  • Schools Home Learning Portal designed by the South African based GSF member organisation is an academic public open platform which assists students for Grade R – Grade 9 to continue learning while they are at home.  
  • Scholastic has created a remote learning platform that helps students to learn from home. It provides many valuable and free home resources for students, teachers and parents such as access to digital books online, lesson plans, activities, learning tools.
  • Science kids, which is an online home of science and technology open to all children around the world, is a platform that provides science related topics for kids to learn science experiments, games, activities, lesson plans, quizzes, photos, etc.
  • Code.org has put together a set of resources in many languages to help students learn computer science at home. 
  • A list of educational applications, platforms and resources has been compiled by UNESCO to help student learning and provide social care and interaction during periods of school closure. The list can be found here.
  • After shutting its doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center in Hawaii has launched Imiloa@Home, which is a project that offers free online resources to remotely learn about black holes, the moon, and constellations, among many other topics.
  • Discover the Universe, a training program run by astronomers in Canada, is offering Astro at Home. This platform offers free online astronomy activities for children staying home due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Astronomers at the University of Maine have started using its planetarium to contribute to the fight against COVID-19. By displaying the proteins and the viral structure on the dome, the planetarium has found a way to be leveraged into a national system towards a possible vaccine. More information here.
  • The South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) is launching an e-learning platform which provides online teaching and learning content (such as pre-recorded lectures and presentation slides, hands-on tutorials on a range of topics that includes using MeerKAT public data, as well as problem sets and solutions) to students and young astronomy researchers at universities in South Africa and across the continent. This platform will also host online workshops and schools, with the aim of introducing radio astronomy concepts to young researchers with hands-on practical sessions using MeerKAT and other radio astronomy telescopes data. In addition, an e-seminar series of public talks will also be facilitated on the platform with focus on developments of radio astronomy on the African continent.
  • Astronomers from University of Toronto have created Cosmos on Your Couch which is a series of weekly talks on YouTube with topics ranging from old cosmic mysteries to the latest astronomy research.
  • To ensure the continuity of research and help academics and researchers have easy access to key research articles from their institutions when working from home due to the pandemic, EDP Sciences has opened their journals content from 2018-2020 which is freely available for all to read. More information here.

All these educational systems are important to ensure continuity of education around the world and mitigate the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, these systems favor privileged students and disadvantages most students from developing countries, especially those in rural communities who may not have access to electricity, internet or cannot afford phones or computers, meaning that they will not be able to have access to educational technologies such as Skype, Google Hangout, Slack, Zoom, Dingtalk, Google Drive, etc. These students will be in a break in learning during the pandemic, and this could affect their studies and future life since some of them (mostly girls and women) will be sent off for domestic work (housework, taking care of their younger siblings) or for marriage. To avoid these, governments must put tremendous efforts to provide remote learning opportunities such as television or radio to those students and sensitize parents about the importance to continue learning at home during the crisis period. This is already happening in some countries. For example, in certain regions of Burkina Faso, students from vulnerable families have received from the government, a donation of radios, mobile phones and televisions. Furthermore, many parents lost their jobs and businesses during the pandemic, they do not have enough money to send their children back to school and governments need to take measures to make school affordable for these children.

 

  • Social

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a surge of solidarity. People are becoming more united and are working together to help cope with the spread of the pandemic. 

  • Several initiatives have been launched to help vulnerable people. All around the world, for example, in South Africa, France, United States, a group of volunteers are delivering free groceries and pharmaceuticals to elderly citizens who are more vulnerable and at risk of isolation. More details can be found in this link and here.
  • Creation of a strong relationship between scientists, scientists and governments. For example, scientists have been mandated by governments to manufacture ventilators locally, this was an opportunity for scientists to show leaders that money spent on research is not wasted and good research always pays off at a certain time. 
  • The global trade association representing the biotechnology industry has created a Coronavirus Hub which is a public platform that connects companies and organizations, researchers, healthcare workers with those that need help or can help them.
  • The lockdown has impacted sectors like transport, industry, manufacturing and tourism, and especially contributed in reducing emissions in various cities and countries that bring a breath of fresh air for humans and animals.
  • According to the data, most of the peer reviewed scientific articles (over 60%) have been published by male authors than by female authors (particularly those at early-career stages) since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, and these could have an impact on their long term career and opportunities. This is partly due to the fact that many researchers are now working from home because of the lockdown measures, and women (especially in countries with high gender inequality) have less time to commit to research because of duties such as parenting, homeschooling, house cleaning, etc. More detail can be found here.

 

  • Economy

People are encouraged to stay home and most work is being done in remote mode, except for critical work that can’t be done remotely. In this case, the work is being conducted with appropriate safety precautions. However, the fact that people have to work from home and to improvise new ways to cooperate with their colleagues via skype, zoom, Webex, whatsapp, etc is not suitable for everyone who do not have appropriate workspace at home especially for those who are living with other people under the same roof. Most conferences, workshops, and meetings have been canceled, postponed or have been moved toward online versions (examples can be found in this link and here). The pandemic of the COVID-19 will have an important impact on the economy and we are already experiencing its impact on development (more detail in this blog). Workers are losing their jobs and businesses are closing during the lockdown. This increases poverty, with a hunger crisis in many countries, especially in the poorest countries. Also, children are more vulnerable during these periods of hunger and malnutrition, which can affect them throughout their lives. The governments of various countries have established a national solidarity fund to support businesses and households worst affected by the pandemic. This is possible thanks to the tools developed in the science and technology sectors. For example, in South Africa, companies such as Telkom and Eskom in collaboration with scientists and technology experts have been assisting governmental agencies like the South African Social Security Agency (SASSA) in the efficient distribution of food parcels, grants and other assistance using apps and other systems. Such infrastructure will be important even in the post-Covid era since they may be used in effectively reaching and aiding the poor and other vulnerable communities.