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Africa’s scientific agility in the face of a pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic triggered a rapid curve not only for the governments tasked with containing it, but also for the scientists tasked with understanding it and its cascading effects.

Two years on, as countries still battle to douse the remnants of the pandemic fires as successive waves continue to rise, the pandemic offers learning opportunities for scientists and policy makers across the world. From the outset, it was clear that innovation and creativity would be key in the region’s quick and nimble response to the pandemic. And African scientists very quickly stepped up to the plate.

For every 1 000 innovations globally that came out in response to Covid-19, 13% of these were from Africa. This goes to show the strength of the African innovation ecosystem, though it’s still in its infancy stages. A creativity and innovation that Africa was able to tap into fast. Importantly, several of these innovations were low-cost and easily adaptable to low-and-middle income country contexts,” said Dr Uzma Alam, a global health researcher and partner with the Africa Institute for Health Policy.

She was speaking during a recent Sustainability Research and Innovation Congress (SRI) Inkundla, one of four curated conversations in the lead-up to the SRI2022 Congress to be held in June.

The Congress will be hosted by Future Africa and held both onsite in Pretoria and online from June 20-24. It brings together a dynamic and diverse group of professionals committed to driving global sustainability forward through transdisciplinary research and innovation.

The SRI Inkundlas address each of this year’s Congress themes: African science and innovation, New Horizons, Different Ways of Knowing, and Nexus Issues.

In the first session, Alam posited that innovation was especially important when thinking through the sustainability, research and innovation lens looking at Covid-19 as a case study, because it was able to bring in features that underpin resilient systems – such as our flexibility and adaptability as a continent.

Flexibility and adaptability were also key in the social sciences context too, particularly in anticipating and addressing the gaps in human rights, and the many vulnerable populations left out in the response to Covid-19.

Dr Leonore Manderson, a Medical Anthropologist and Distinguished Professor of Public Health and Medical Anthropology at University of the Witwatersrand, led a team of five researchers from the Consortium for Advanced Research Training in Africa (CARTA), to effectively mine out the social science impact the pandemic would have in the context of Covid-19.

“Our focus was on people who consistently slipped through the cracks or were on the margins of society where there were not societal mechanisms to support them – people whose lives have yet to be documented in relation to Covid-19 such as people living in refugee camps such as in East Africa for example, no one counts those numbers of who has been affected by Covid, let alone died from it,” she added.

“The challenge for us was to think through how one might engage populations whose lives were so precarious and who had no access (to societal mechanisms of supports such as grants),” Manderson continued.

And while many countries across Africa recognised the social cost of the pandemic and tried to mitigate against it by finding mechanisms to halt its impact – such as by increasing pensions and various social grants – there were populations of vulnerable people left out of that.

“Social science has an enormously important role in anticipating these kinds of pitfalls and creating conversations around addressing them,” she said.

Data would be a fundamental pillar underpinning healthcare system, and the resultant responses to Covid-19 and future disease epidemic.

“Without data you’re not really able to have an idea of where you’re going, how you’ve been performing or benchmarking and tracking progress,” added Dr Tom Achoki, a faculty member at the school of health systems and public health at the University of Pretoria.

Achoki emphasised how critical data was in surveillance and response, especially in epidemics and in determining what is working or not in identified hotspots.

Moreover, data was a key determining factor in the managing and distribution of resources, both human and financial in dealing with health crises such as epidemics and pandemics.

“Resources are not limitless, so we must make sure that we are able to allocate our resources in both an effective and judicial way so we can get the maximum bang for the cash we put out there.

“So, unless we are able to understand those differences at a subnational level and also are able to look at the outcomes of the healthcare systems (like the effectiveness of interventions), being able to see whether those are being delivered in a cost-effective way is fundamental to sustainability,” Achoki said.

He added that there needed to be a regional culture of data use, as an accountability mechanism.

“Because data can be there, but if it’s not being utilised for implementation at policy level then it becomes reports sitting on the walls. There has to be that culture of data use to ensure we are keeping different custodians of different health systems accountable,” he stated.

Alam re-emphasised the innovation coming out from African scientists, and that through the evidence that 13% of innovation during the pandemic came out of Africa, albeit relatively small, it was a significant marker that innovation wasn’t just one directional and flowing from developed countries.

“Africa has its own place in the innovation ecosystem. However, we do need to develop our innovation ecosystems including thinking through how we fund innovation beyond the normal grant mechanisms. Africa needs to set its own agenda in terms of research and innovation, and the policies to support innovation are African driven” she said.

Alam continued: “For far too long and for whatever reasons, it (the agenda) has been a process driven from the outside, as such the stakeholders are not the owners of that agenda so there is no sustainability. Also, innovation doesn’t occur in a vacuum, nor does science occur in a vacuum so partnerships are key, but they need to be equitable.”

The first session was moderated by Dr Richard Wamai, Associate Professor at Northeastern University where he co-leads the Integrated Initiative for Global Health.

He said that frameworks such as the African Union’s Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa 2024 – among others – recognised research and innovation as enablers for achieving Africa’s sustained growth and competitiveness and economic transformation.

“Africa is a continent on the rise. Some have said that this is the century for Africa. The push for science, innovation and technology is motivated by the need to find new solutions for complex problems including disease, population, climate change and natural resource management.”

For more on the informative Inkundla discussions around sustainability, research and innovation, visit https://sri2022.org/sri-inkundlas/ or register for the Congress here: https://sri2022.org/registration/.

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