Working collaboratively and across disciplines is the only way to beat the pandemics and crises of the future, UP’s Future Africa tells Galien Forum Africa

Posted on December 17, 2020

“COVID-19 will probably not be the last pandemic. If we don’t build resource capacity, we’re going to be in more trouble. And if we don’t build a youth that thinks transdisciplinarily, we are also going to be in trouble,” said Professor Wanda Markotter of the University of Pretoria (UP) at the Galien Forum Africa earlier this month.

Prof Markotter is Director of UP’s Centre for Viral Zoonoses in the School of Medicine, and she was speaking as part of the University’s Future Africa presentation at a satellite link-up to the forum in Dakar, Senegal.

Galien Forum is a gathering of top scientists, policymakers and industry executives:  the USA leg was held digitally and in-person in New York in October.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization, spoke at the inaugural opening of Galien Forum Africa, which focused on the COVID-19 pandemic in Africa, on 10 December. Later that day, it was the turn of Future Africa’s 45-minute presentation, ‘Transdisciplinarity to advance COVID-19 response’, where transdisciplinarity is about integrating and moving beyond discipline-specific approaches.

Prof Markotter emphasised that not only medical schools, but all universities need a transdisciplinary programme such as One Health, which she is involved with, because health cannot exclude disciplines such as veterinary science, ecology, climate change and the social sciences. “One Health needs to be a focus area embraced by an institution, and by funders,” she said.

Professor Cheikh Mbow, the Director of Future Africa, said understanding the importance of COVID-19 went beyond its medical aspects and even beyond its social, economic and political dimensions. This made it critical for Future Africa, a Pan-African institute, “to promote transdisciplinary, collaborative research to address issues that will harness lessons for current and future crises”.

The way Future Africa and the United Nations International Children’s Fund (UNICEF) brought together a diversity of young scientists to design solutions for COVID-19 “would serve as a benchmark to the way we establish transdisciplinary research in Africa”, he said.

Future Africa’s presentation provided a series of snapshots of this work, beginning with UP academics outlining their involvement in a video:

  • Daniel Bornman and Muriel Serfontein-Jordaan on the cluster Youth Entrepreneurship Development Skills.
  • Dr Osmond Mlonyeni, a project manager at Innovation Africa@UP, on food nutrition job opportunities, and agriculture enterprise skill clusters.
  • Stephan Dippenaar, a PhD student and the Secretariat for the Centre for the Study of Resilience (CSR), on transdisciplinary training workshops, called One Hope, which ultimately aim to develop careers in transdisciplinarity.  
  • Professor Stephanie Burton of the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences, and Future Africa, on the cluster she is in charge of that covers student support and cross-cutting skills, and includes mentoring, ethics and communication.
  • Professor Shakila Dada, a speech language pathologist and Director of the Centre for Augmentative and Alternative Communication, on the cluster she heads that focuses on forms of communication such as sign language, natural gestures, graphic symbols, and speech generating devices, during a health crisis. 
  • Dr Andeline Dos Santos, a music therapist and lecturer in the School of the Arts, outlined the seven projects of the cluster dealing with the social dimensions of the health crisis.

The video was followed by a Q&A panel discussion. Highlights include the contribution of Professor Liesel Ebersöhn, Director of the CSR, and a professor in the Department of Educational Psychology. She said transdisciplinarity was “the most natural way of being” that is unlearnt when people go to university.

She also drew a parallel between behavioural change with HIV/Aids and the pandemic: “What changed behaviour about HIV/Aids was social cohesion: not the fear of the illness, but the fear of the effects of the illness. So it will be interesting to see how COVID plays out,” she said. “What will stop people going into mass gatherings to socialise, potentially, is not the fact there could be infection, but that further restrictions will prevent them from engaging in life as usual, in leisure activities, in income generation.”

Introducing Dr Andile Dube, UNICEF’s Education Specialist, Prof Mbow said UNICEF’s Generation Unlimited, is “the heart” of their programme at Future Africa. Dr Dube concluded the presentation by saying: “If we cannot plug into the majority of the population in Africa (the youth), then social and structural changes or economic changes are not going to happen globally. GenU, as we call it, is a programme about giving platforms for young people to thrive.”

- Author Gillian Anstey

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