The COVID-19 pandemic: revealing the resilience of Africa and its great potential

This article is part of Dr Marie Korsaga’s work researching the contribution of non-medical scientists, in particular astronomers, in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. A document detailing Dr Korsaga’s findings can be found here.

“What’s the world going to be like after Covid-19?” This is the million-dollar question that many of us ask ourselves, given the change in the world dynamics that the pandemic has brought upon us. Better yet, “what does the future of Africa look like now that we’re facing this pandemic?” This is a particularly important question, as the continent remains one of the most vulnerable given its lack of infrastructures, its socio-economic disadvantage and how much its economy depends on imported goods. It is in times like these that we must rely on endogenous solutions, particularly those offered by science and technology. However, one must admit that many countries on the continent do not make these areas a priority, translated into many African youths leaving the continent to pursue higher education and research overseas.

After completing my PhD in astronomy last year at the University of Cape Town, I decided that, before I go on to take up a postdoc position and continue my career in academia, I would take a moment to find out how I could learn some of the ways the science that I so love could contribute to the betterment of society, especially among socio-economically disadvantaged communities. This is particularly relevant with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, where even the wealthiest countries struggle to meet the needs of their populations. I then joined the International Astronomical Union’s Office of Astronomy for Development (IAU-OAD)¹ for a fellowship, during which I research the contribution of the science community, and in particular that of the astronomy community, in the fight against the pandemic. The IAU-OAD is generally tasked with using tools and techniques of astronomy to impact socio-economic development in various parts of the world. With a global office based in Cape Town (in South Africa) and eleven (11) regional offices all over the globe, the office constantly looks for ways to better translate astronomy into development tools, mostly to alleviate the socio-economic burden of the underprivileged communities. Besides its own activities, the office has, since 2013, funded and coordinated more than 150 projects targeting more than 100 countries around the world, with the goal of promoting sustainable development and creating a better society.

As part of my research, I attended on 27-29 May, a virtual symposium² hosted by the University of Cape Town as part of the Africa Month celebration. The three-day long symposium consisted of various sessions of rich and diverse panels, where researchers, experts and political leaders discussed topics related to Africa’s innovations in the global fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

While there was general agreement across most panels of the symposium that the extent of the pandemic in Africa has been less severe than predicted, it was nonetheless noted that the continent could and should do better, both in terms of preparedness and response to the crisis. This was particularly true for Dr Ahmed Ogwell Ouma, Deputy Director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, who stated that “we need to do a lot more work to get us to a place that we can say we have [the situation] under control”. As a specialised technical agency of the African Union, Dr Ouma’s institution has provided support to African countries in terms of preparedness and response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of the African countries that have had an impressive response to the pandemic include Uganda and Liberia. On the practices and techniques that these countries have adopted, Dr Diana Atwine and Dr Mokosa Fallah, respectively Permanent Secretary of the Ugandan Ministry of Health and Deputy Director-General of the Liberian National Public Health Institute, have both agreed that experience from dealing with past outbreaks was essential in responding to the current pandemic. Having faced the Ebola crisis, for which it was a hotspot back in 2014/2015, Liberia has built facilities and institutions to monitor and combat infectious diseases, which have helped the country in responding effectively to the COVID-19 pandemic. Similarly, Uganda has also had to deal with outbreaks over the past years, which the country has learned valuable lessons from. This is translated into the relatively lower COVID-19 cases to date in these countries, with little to no casualties.

This raises the question of the resilience of Africa as a continent and how it should harvest knowledge from its past experiences for the betterment of its populations. On the topic of resilience, Dr Gilbert Khadiagala, Professor of International Relations at the University of the Witwatersrand, thinks that the current pandemic particularly offers Africans an opportunity to be more innovative and rethink existing policies and approaches to how our societies are organised. While the re-design of policies is a task that mostly belongs to the leadership and policymakers, everyone can play a part in bringing innovative solutions. For instance, Prof Sudesh Sivarasu of the Biomedical Engineering Department at UCT’s Faculty of Health Sciences, who also spoke on a panel, presented medical devices that he and his laboratory have designed to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Certainly the most impressive aspects of the solutions presented by Prof Sivarasu is how effective and easy to locally manufacture they are. For example, the UCT ViZAR is a disposable transparent face shield that can not only be made from as little as R10 worth of material in under 5 minutes, but also does not require specialised skills to manufacture. Because of that, it presents an effective solution to contain the spread of the disease while offering an opportunity for job creation.

It is now important, more than ever, that the search for solutions should not be exclusively left to the health specialists. Rather, every community must reflect on how to help cope with the negative effects of the pandemic. Every year the IAU-OAD issues a call for proposals where development-driven projects are selected and funded, based on their ability to use an aspect of astronomy to impact development in any part of the world. This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, an extraordinary call was issued besides the regular call, with a focus on solutions that help alleviate the effects of the pandemic on lives. Having reviewed some of the interesting proposals that were submitted to the extraordinary call, I believe that I somewhat better understand the necessity to prioritise local solutions and encourage local innovations. As Mr Saliem Fakir, Executive Director of the African Climate Foundation put it, we need to not only encourage development of analytical skills in Africa, but also put in place mechanisms for different disciplines to be exercised and practised, which are able to translate into knowledge and science tailored to specific needs and conditions on the continent. If we all think of ways to adapt our knowledge of science to our conditions and the needs of local populations, the solutions that we develop will be better suited to the continent than those that are imported.

On the specific topic of knowledge, Dr Khadiagala believes that the large amount of information that is being produced in this COVID-19 era must be distilled into useful knowledge for Africa, which will serve to build knowledge systems necessary to construct capable states – that are capable of having a reach and a resonance across our societies, that have authorities, and that are more trustworthy – and that have more inclusive and humane societies. Dr Khadiagala argues that we would not be able, as a society, to deal with an emergency of this nature in the future if we do not build infrastructures of humane and caring societies. This is in agreement with Dr Ouma’s more technical statement arguing that African governments should increase their investments into the health sector, “which should not only be [spent] on salaries and consumables, but also on research and innovation so that [the continent is] able to generate the type of material and equipment needed without having to rely too much on external countries.” It became clear from the different interventions that the COVID-19 pandemic is a crisis that “should not be wasted”, but should instead be used as an opportunity to reset the public health agenda and, like certain countries have done with the Ebola outbreak, to be better prepared in a more sustainable way to face future crises.

Earlier in this article I have mentioned that the data show that the African continent has been so far exceeding the expectations in terms of its response to the pandemic, with numbers of infections being far less than what experts had predicted. While this could certainly be partly attributed to the head start that the continent has had over the rest of the world, some panelists have pointed out that the swift action of most African governments and the historical resilience of the continent are among the most determinant factors. University of South Africa’s Prof Adewale Aregbeshola, from the Department of Business Management, believes that although the weather in Africa has undoubtedly been a contributing factor in curbing the spread of the virus, one has to look at four critical areas where the continent has been resilient in order to make sense of the current situation: 

  • firstly, it is Africa that has started the use of homemade face masks, thus solving both the economic and supply shortage problems;
  • secondly, the increasing research into locally manufacturing consumables on the continent has been a major advantage in some countries. A case example of some of this success is Ghana, which has been the first country in the world to use drones to collect samples, therefore speeding up the process of testing and analysing;
  • the third area worth looking at is the early response of the continent to the pandemic, thanks to the experience gained from Ebola. In agreement with Dr Fallah’s earlier statement, Prof Aregbeshola thinks that the continent has learned a lot from Ebola, which happened to be the first pandemic that truly originated from Africa, in the history of pandemics. Prof Aregbeshola explains that learning from the Ebola’s experience, Africa has established necessary institutions and instruments, which allowed the continent to effectively respond to the the COVID-19 pandemic at its early stage, thus tremendously contributing to preventing “the doomsday that was predicted”;
  • the fourth area, according to Prof Aregbeshola, is the mix of the continent’s social dynamics and the strong leadership that was provided in many countries (Liberia and Uganda are prime examples that were aforementioned), which has helped use the pandemic as an opportunity to strengthen the continent’s Ubuntu³ spirit of giving and its social culture and community coalition: Africans see one another as brothers and sisters and care for each other, and as a result there has been willingness in many communities to share COVID-related information while respecting one another’s space.

Prof Aregbeshola also argues that in terms of economic response, there has been a “preparedness to do what is right and appropriate” on the behalf of the populations – through e.g fundraising – to help governments in their interventions against COVID-19. Prof Aregbeshola suggests that the African leaders should help the continent take control of its destiny by leveraging upon this solidarity spirit in the future to galvanise financial support, instead of running to international institutions.

The panelists’ interventions that I attended during the virtual symposium gave me more hope about the future of the continent. It’s clear that although COVID-19 is a disaster that claimed countless lives and crashed the economy in many parts of the world, it came with a silver lining: it revealed (and is continuing to) the shortcomings of our current systems and teaches us lessons on our societies’ true priorities. We can only hope that the different governments have used the pandemic as an opportunity to readjust their plans, prioritise science-related areas that were so far left behind and, most of all, encourage innovations using local solutions. One of the ways to conduct the latter action is, similarly to the IAU-OAD funding method, to open funding opportunities to projects targeting and conducted with underprivileged communities that use locally developed solutions.

¹ More information on the IAU-OAD at http://www.astro4dev.org/
² The full proceedings can be found at https://www.news.uct.ac.za/features/uct-africa-month/
³ Ubuntu is a term originated from the Zulu and Xhosa languages, meaning “humanity” and generally translated as the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity.