Friday, 31 July 2020

Pretoria: Mobilising support from medical experts, solidarity, and harnessing science, research and innovation have been highlighted as critical pillars in the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic.

These are some of the key outcomes from the virtual national conference on COVID-19, which took place on Friday, 31 July.

Hosted by the Higher Education, Science and Innovation Minister, Dr Blade Nzimande, and Health Minister, Dr Zweli Mkhize, the conference brought together scientists, governments, business and civil society from all over the world in open discussion towards a greater understanding of the impact of COVID-19 on society and the economy.

Under the theme ‘Harnessing science, technology and innovation in response to COVID-19: A national and international effort’, the conference focused on health innovations, technologies, and social and economic sustainability during and after the pandemic.

Speaking at the conference, Mkhize said despite the huge surge that made South Africa rank fifth highest in positive cases in the world (with 482 169 cases and 7 812 deaths recorded), there are reasons to be hopeful.

“We have mobilised support from medical experts, who advise on protocols to put in place for containment, to control cluster outbreaks and to guide day to day management.

“Lessons on case management and discovery of effective medications such as dexamethasone, early use of oxygen, including preference for non-invasive oxygen support and other treatment regiments have resulted in a low mortality consistently below 2%,” he said.

The country’s recovery rate has increased to 64%.

According to Mkhize, the Western Cape passed the peak and maintained a plateau for the past two months, whilst early indications of promising decline are observed in the Eastern Cape and Gauteng.

“For these reasons, we have to intensify the non-pharmaceutical interventions and emphasise behavioural change to force reduction of new infections in all provinces. As such, we have established a multi-sectoral Ministerial Advisory Committee, which focuses on ground mobilisation for behavioural change,” said the Minister.

The focus on behavioural change seeks to forge collaboration with behavioural scientists, civil society, communities, traditional leaders, traditional healers, religious organisations, labour and all stakeholders who are able to effect change at grassroots level.

The focus on behavioural change comes as the country continues to manage a number of concerns and challenges, including bed capacity, triaging mechanisms in facilities to ensure nosocomial transmission, and contact tracing for quarantine and isolation.

“We have now augmented our track and tracing functions to be supported by a digital system called COVIDConnect, where users can interact with the health care system on a digital platform for case identification, tracking and tracing and referral to quarantine, isolation or hospitalisation,” said the Minister.

Availability of personal protective equipment, Mkhize said, remains a strain due to high demand, over-utilisation, sometimes poor quality, corruption, price gouging and maldistribution. This, the Minister said, requires urgent attention and innovative stock surveillance solutions.

“This requires immediate resolution to protect our health workers, as they are the backbone of our health services, and also to avert labour disputes.

“We still need to work on increasing human resources for health of all categories, expedite the filling of vacancies and recruit new staff,” he said.

Solidarity

Addressing the conference, World Health Organisation Director-General Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus said in addition to science and technology, solidarity must drive communities and countries in their fight against the pandemic.

“WHO’s commitment is to bring scientists, researchers, innovators and nations together, in the spirit of solidarity, to bring shared solutions in this shared challenge. Science is the most powerful when it benefits everyone. After all, we are humanity; we share the same planet, and share the same hopes and dreams,” he said.

The conference further entered into three panel discussions.  The panel on health research discussed health innovation in support of COVID-19 therapeutics, diagnostics, testing and tracking.  It also considered research experiences and research collaboration in managing COVID-19 and pandemics in general.

The two other panels focused on data modelling and analysis in managing COVID-19, and on the socio-economic impact of the disease and possibilities for economic recovery.