All sciences have a role to play to fight Covid-19

Johannesburg – It is vital that South Africa adopts a multi-disciplinary intervention from both sciences – natural sciences and human sciences – and humanities in combating the spread of the Covid-19, a special plenary session heard on Friday during the last day of the 7th Science Forum South Africa 2021.

The closing, which was held virtually, was organised under the auspices of the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), and included distinguished academics and scientists.

In attendance were Buti Manamela, the Deputy Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, and Dr Phil Mjwara, director-general at the DSI, as well as Risenga Maluleke, statistician-general of South Africa.

The leading experts at the session spoke of how their respective institutions were tackling Covid-19.

Also attending the event were Dr Jabu Mtsweni, manager: Information and Cyber Security Research Centre, Prof Sarah Mosoetsa, CEO of the National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIHSS), Dr Kobus Herbst, director of Saprin, and Prof Mark Collinson, co-director of Saprin, Prof Narnia Bohler-Muller, acting group executive: shared services & divisional executive: Developmental, Capable and Ethical State, Dr Benjamin Roberts, research director: Developmental, Capable and Ethical State, Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), Prof Reza Daniels, School of Economics, University of Cape Town, Prof Julian May, director: Centre of Excellence in Food Security, University of the Western Cape, Prof Shane Norris, director: Centre of Excellence in Human Development, University of the Witwatersrand, Diego Iturralde, chief director: Demography, Statistics South Africa, Prof Himla Soodyall, executive officer at ASSAf and Prof Priscilla Reddy, Centre for Critical Research on Race and Identity, University of KwaZulu-Natal.

A key thread in all the presentations was how collaboration between various disciplines and data collection played a major role in making the country ready to tackle challenges – from curbing the spread of the pandemic, to the effects the pandemic has had on daily lives of ordinary South Africans, and to understanding the reasons behind vaccine hesitancy.

The event took place against the backdrop of a new Covid-19 variant having been detected in South Africa, which may be driving the increase in infections, sparking concerns of a national fourth wave during the December holidays.

Yonah Seleti, the acting deputy director-general at the DSI, pointed out that the department was ready to face the pandemic on three levels: policy, investment made in the National System of Innovation (NSI) and leadership of NSI and cabinet level.

“At a policy level we have the White Paper on Science and Innovation that gave us key areas to focus on – coordination, partnerships and focus on social technical systems.
“All these interventions went beyond the departmental boundaries, leading to the multi-disciplinarity and translatability of science for societal benefit.”

Seleti highlighted that at the beginning of the outbreak of Covid-19, the initial focus was more on understanding the science of the virus.

Later, through the advocacy of the Minister of Science and Innovation, Dr Blade Nzimade, the focus moved to include the social sciences, hence the formation of the National Policy Data Observatory (NPDO), a secretariat under the CSIR, Stats SA and SA Revenue Service (SARS), that seeks to harness data produced in the fight against Covid-19.

Mjwara said it was a fortunate turn of events that the NPDO was backed by three institutions that are driven by data collection and the use of data.

“These three institutions [CSIR, Stats SA and SARS] have come together to provide a new way of looking at problems in government and society. We have a responsibility to continue to demonstrate the value of data and science. The Covid pandemic has helped us demonstrate that.

“It’s a start of using data and science to inform policy and how to do things differently,” said Mjwara.

The second responsibility is that natural science and the social sciences could contribute greatly towards the implementation of the Decadal Plan, he said, singling out
climate change as an example.

“While natural science can tell us about the warming of the planet, we need social scientists to tell us what it means for people in the street, what does it mean for job creation and for food security. We would need the interface of the natural scientists and social scientists to work together.”

Mtsweni, chair and technical lead at CSIR, said the aim of the data harvested from the NPDO was to enable South Africa to get ahead and have insights in various aspects of life.
“Data has proven that it is very critical towards decision-making and to be able to meet various demands and, as we collaborate more and tap into some of the excellent capabilities of the NPDO and other research institutions, we will be able to make more informed decisions and take the country forward,” said Mtsweni.

One of the concerns raised at the closing session was that in researching the pandemic, researchers often have to grapple with contradicting views about the pandemic, which prompted Sarah Mosoetsa, an associate professor at the University of the Witwatersrand and CEO of the NIHSS, to highlight that there were various ways of collecting data.

Mosoetsa said although it had been common to share numbers about the pandemic, mostly how many people have been infected and how many have been vaccinated, while it is useful data very quantitative and positivist in many ways, there were other ways of knowing and collecting data that should also be equally prioritised.

“The stories of individuals who are experiencing Covid directly and indirectly are still legitimate sources of data and spending time in communities is also a source of data collection that should be prioritised,” she said.

“Contradiction in data collection, whether it’s quantitative or qualitative, whether is storytelling, going to archives, puppetry, should exist and they are part of saying knowledge is a spectrum. As we try to understand complex matters that don’t have readily made answers, those contradictions should also be allowed.”

Mosoetsa said there was also a tendency to want to dispel myths around the pandemic, but she felt that “myths have a powerful way of educating us as we grapple with complex matters. When we think of new methodologies, we should not be elitist. Let’s go to these communities and ask them how do they make sense of their lived reality.”

Reddy said it was important to build capacity in communities to enable scientists to collect the right data.

“This will help with alleviating conflicting views. Because it is only people who come from those communities who will understand the determinants of the conflicting views,” said Reddy.

“When we develop interventions, we have a huge competition out there where we have a multibillion-dollar media industry that is harnessed by people who are paid to put across these conflicting views.

“For them, creating these conflicting views is not an innocent game; it is a means to an end, and I think any science has to approach data collection in a sophisticated way looking at theories. Community contexts is critical.”

In closing, deputy director-general of DSI Daan du Toit said although Science Forum South Africa will not take place next year, for the first time since 2015, South Africa was honoured and privileged to host the World Science Forum, in the legislative capital of Cape Town, on 5-9 December 2022 . Du Toit said: “It will be a hybrid format and the theme is “Science for Social Justice”.

He added that it will be the first time that World Science Forum would be hosted on the African soil.

He explained the history of this global event and said it was first hosted in 1919 in Budapest, Hungary, and was pioneered by Unesco, but the organising body has since progressed to become a consortium.

“We are thankful that the consortium trusts South Africa,” Du Toit said.

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