The Sunday Mail
Phil Nyakauru Gona
The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted and put the world on edge.
The virus will not be the last pandemic to wreak havoc on humanity, if we continue to ignore links between infectious diseases and the destruction of the natural world. Global health and economies are both at serious risk without proper containment and mitigation measures in each country.
Moreover, panic is already on the rise, intensified by misinformation.
In order to mitigate the transmission of the virus and to intervene in the course of this pandemic and flatten the curve, the world needs to take rapid, synchronised international action.
It is crucial that governments, Zimbabwe included, consider the best science available to make informed decisions that are internationally coordinated and supported by local evidence.
The Global Young Academy (GYA) comprises 200 members and 258 alumni with multidisciplinary expertise from 86 countries.
The GYA is connected to more than 40 National Young Academies worldwide.
In GYA, just as in senior academies of scientists and academics, we strongly believe that we are well-placed to bridge the gap between international science and policymakers.
Scientists are well-placed to disseminate and translate knowledge to society.
The GYA prepared this opinion-editorial to deliver specific recommendations below for governments, the public, and the scientific community to share timely and accurate information about the Covid-19 epidemic in addition to opening a two-way communication space between scientists and the public.
Pandemics have no borders. While governments across the world are taking action to mitigate the transmission of the virus, such as imposing quarantines or self-isolation, we need greater engagement with science to support decision-making that directly and indirectly impacts health in the short, medium and long-term.
To this end, the GYA recommends the following actions to be taken by governments:
(a) Promote a shift from global health security to global health solidarity.
Although we may need to temporarily close local, regional and national borders to contain the spread of Covid-19, in the long term we need to change the current framing of health security.
Instead of believing that countries can protect borders from the incursion of disease, nations should build global partnerships that benefit our collective health. This can be achieved by strengthening international cross-border or regional corporations, and by facilitating an active learning and knowledge exchange, particularly between low-, middle-income and high-income countries.
This global pandemic will no doubt impact how we live together in societies around the world, as well as our politics and respective cultures.
The GYA encourages that decision-makers consider and include everyone in building more resilient societies so we can collectively determine common positive pathways for the future.
(b) Open information exchange and trade without restrictions.
Governments should exchange information about health crises immediately and openly. Governments should support permanent and robust science advice mechanisms that can reliably inform the population of the latest scientific insights. Even when diplomatic relations are strained, as the case is for economic sanctions imposed on Zimbabwe by European Union and the United States, science diplomacy and scientific networks should be supported as these will be essential in times of emergency.
The harsh obstacles presented by US and EU sanctions on Zimbabwe hinder the country’s ability to respond and contain the virus that has implications for the entire world. The financial strain caused by sanctions makes the funding of adequate prevention, diagnosis and treatment of Covid-19 impossible, and the country cannot take the same measures adopted by other countries to strengthen responses such as paying the full cost of obtaining treatment. Faced with the unprecedented Covid-19 emergency, we urgently need global consensus and action without crippling hindrance. It is logical to suspend all sanctions.
(c) Recognise the importance of input from different disciplines for decision-making.
The science used to understand Covid-19 pandemic is evolving rapidly, with new knowledge on the virus and disease being gathered daily across the globe. Therefore, effective and transparent communication with the scientific community in decision-making processes is vital, with an emphasis on what we know, what we do not know, and where there is uncertainty. The pandemic presents wide-ranging social and economic challenges, and it is imperative that we harness the potential of knowledgeable researchers from diverse perspectives to quickly assess and contribute to government decision-making prior to implementation.
To help avoid unintended negative consequences, the GYA calls on governmental agencies to seek, obtain and consider input from their National Young Academies —which exist in more than 40 countries — and National Academies of Science (which exist in more than 140 countries), including the Zimbabwe Academy of Science, all of whom are committed to science in service of society.
(d) Consider the long-term impact of the virus.
While at this stage there is a crucial focus on limiting the spread of the virus, the GYA urge governments to include in their planning the long-term impact of the pandemic and the importance of prevention.
The effects of physical isolation, social distancing and community containment measures on mental and physical health are likely to be felt. How do we protect vulnerable populations from the effects of Covid-19? Who is vulnerable? How about the population with pre-existing conditions or people without access to Covid-19 information? How will these measures sustain continuum of care for individuals living with HIV?
We suggest a preventative approach to address mental and physical health by involving strategies, such as online platforms, during the time of isolation and afterwards to assist the most vulnerable in society (for example, assistance in obtaining groceries and medicines for chronic conditions such as HIV, psychological counselling and consultation to address post-pandemic stress and mental health problems).
It is equally important to have an approach to address the strain on the physical and mental health of all the healthcare and other personnel working in the frontlines of the outbreak (extensive working hours, provision of personal protective equipment, exposure to the virus, as well as being separated from family). While some measures have already been implemented, additional structures and support will be required for urban and rural areas alike. After the worst of the pandemic has passed, subnational (rural, district and provincial) administration and national governments at all levels should reflect on collaborative strategies to prevent and reduce the risk of future pandemics through action across sectors (beyond the health sector) that influence health.
- The public
The rapid spread of Covid-19 requires concerted action from the public to prevent the exponential spread of the virus, and accurate information is the key. A few simple actions can help us all to reduce the impact of fear, misinformation and fake news. Individuals have a most important role to play by complying with official guidelines and directives put in place by Government to control the disease. Such cooperation will facilitate effective surveillance, as well as early detection, contact tracing, tracking and treatment of cases.
(a) Be a responsible citizen.
First and foremost, we should take precautions to avoid the spread of Covid-19. We can all play an active role in controlling the pandemic by taking individual responsibility for ourselves and our loved ones and acting in a way that is best for our community.
This includes following the precautions advised by the World Health Organisation (WHO), sharing resources and goods sensibly, observing the regulations during a Movement Control Order (or Restriction of Movement Order) or during lockdown periods such as staying at home, not stockpiling and protecting our most vulnerable citizens.
(b) Do not spread misinformation.
It is human nature to share any information, especially if we think the news is accurate and that others may need to know. But originators of such misinformation will inject a real story with a sense of conspiracy. We should be responsible when sharing information on social media and elsewhere and learn to distinguish fear-based from fact-based information to avoid spreading malicious and harmful rumours, misinformation, fake news, and unfounded conspiracy theories. As responsible citizens, we should verify information before sharing it, we should communicate openly and allow those with relevant expertise to provide guidance. We call for responsible use of social media and remind citizens that in a civilised society that we all aspire to live, spreading false news, half-truths or fake news is essentially a violation of people’s civil rights.
(d) Seek expert opinion or guidance.
Seek expert opinion and guidance about our local situations. Follow the recommendations of the WHO and its regional and national agencies. The WHO mediates a unified response that provides reliable information based on scientific advice and is therefore best placed to show the latest trends or information in the global context.
- Scientific community
Scientists across disciplines, such as our very own Zimbabwe Academy of Sciences, are part of the solution. As the national and global response to Covid-19 is likely to redefine the policy agenda, as well as political and societal priorities for years to come, the active participation of young and senior researchers is crucial. Recommendations for the scientific community include:
(a) Sharing knowledge on global platforms.
Giving these young and senior experts a platform to share and exchange information and experiences can help provide local news outlets with information that is based on science. Even researchers not working in health-related fields have academic knowledge and expertise that can help to filter out misinformation, to ensure sources are well-validated and to communicate effectively across different disciplines and countries. Young researchers are perhaps also best placed to rapidly adjust to new challenges caused by the required measures to contain Covid-19, particularly in sharing best practices on the use of social media and global platforms. Sharing carefully selected information on how to maintain health under isolation, how to work effectively from home, online engagement for teaching and learning, and pre-empting major issues could be an important role for researchers outside health-related field.
(b) Translating science communication to the local languages.
Scientists and researchers can play an active role in interpreting complex information for the general public and in adapting the message to local contexts. Together we can use our global network to provide summaries and translations of important advice and information to lay people.
(c) Bridging the gap between science and policy.
Scientists and researchers can help to bridge the gap between science and policy, playing a crucial role in thinking through implications and providing pre-emptive solutions. We can take the initiative to approach governments to provide insights and offer help. As scientific knowledge rapidly advances, scientists are well-placed to understand these changes and adapt. In particular, the global network of scientists provides much-needed global and local expertise. We can approach our governments or local health authorities if we have relevant expertise, be this in direct health-related fields or more broadly, for example, in psychology, social sciences or science communication.
(d) Advising and promoting good practices.
Scientists and researchers can play an active role in promoting good practices and advising the people around them. By getting the right and correct information and sharing it with communities (both online and offline), we can help stop the spread of misinformation, and emphasise the importance of considering the source and verifying our information. This new pandemic, which will not be the last, could be the first step towards establishing strong real-time collaboration between health professionals, scientific researchers, policymakers and entrepreneurs to achieve better and faster responses against similar crises in future.
Members of the GYA will stand with scientists worldwide in promoting the importance of longer-term strategies to prevent similar future scenarios.
I conclude this piece with three low-hanging fruits that could be implemented right away and begin to make a difference immediately.
Change can happen quickly and locally. I am, therefore, calling upon the creative and innovative minds and generous funders and entrepreneurs to take up the challenge to help empower our communities, organisations and individuals to share up-to-date maps and data to help the population stay connected and informed during the Covid-19 outbreak:
(a) Set up a centralised texting facility.
Set up a centralised texting facility to where individuals could text “COVIDZW” or call a toll-free number and they instantaneously receive text message alerts 24/7 so they can stay up to date with the latest news and updates from the health ministry or a reliable independent body. Local areas, provinces and districts could similarly be assigned toll-free numbers.
(b) Empower communities, organisations and individuals to develop visualisation and prediction tools.
To help empower communities, organisations and individuals create web-based spreadsheets, online maps, visualisation and forecasting tools, including showing day-by-day cumulative numbers of confirmed cases, cumulative fatalities, case-fatality rates (moving averages) stratified by sex and age groups at national, province, and district levels. Such maps will help generate robust evidence that will support and inform public health decision-making.
Such data should be generated and contrasted for neighbouring countries, e.g., SADC member states. In the absence of a vaccine, the forecasts will help show demand for hospital services in each location, including the availability and demand of masks and ventilators, hospital beds, intensive care unit beds, personal protective equipment for health workers.
The demand for these services is expected increase exponentially and exceed capacity if the virus is not contained.
(c) Collect and curate high-quality open-access data.
Design open machine-readable high-quality data for research, analysis and innovation. This will be valuable both during the pandemic and in the years to come.
The suggestions above focusing on accurate data collection and dissemination do not require vast resources. For example, mobile phone corporations could be incentivised to help with #a, while polytechnical colleges and university students and faculty could take leadership on #b and #c. Our hope is the above will help address the disruption that is very likely to be caused in this country by the Covid-19 pandemic.
As urban and rural locations prepare for continued community spread and potential surge in Covid-19 patients, it is not too soon to consider new ways to convert existing spaces to treat more Covid-19 patients while finding new spaces to separate non-Covid-19 patients such as hospital tents.
How can we more efficiently and creatively provide new expandable places, flex existing spaces based on active needs? Could we take advantage of available data to help inform hospitals to plan for surge capacity?
How can we retro-fit non-hospital spaces such as hotels and other unused or underutilised spaces to support non-Covid-19 patients so that hospital-based spaces can focus on the care of Covid-19 patients?
On behalf to the GYA, I appeal to our scientists, especially the members of Zimbabwe Young Academy of Sciences and the fellows of the Zimbabwe Academy of Sciences, to step up and be head.
If scientists do not step up to occupy that space, there is no shortage of purveyors of misinformation and fake news who stand ready to grab that space.
The GYA concurs with the Global Call from Inter-Academy Panel (IAP) and its global network of more than 140 academies of science, engineering and medicine that these are extraordinary times that demand global solidarity with coordinated effort informed by the best scientific evidence.
The Covid-19 pandemic presents critical global challenges affecting individuals, families, communities, health services and economies. Our scientists should lead the way.
This article was written by Phil Nyakauru Gona on behalf of members and alumni of Global Young Academy (GYA), which gives a voice to young scientists around the world.