The COVID-19 outbreak which started in December 2019 has set in motion unimaginable chain of events. Although international cooperation is vital to curb the incapacitating effects of Covid-19, the pandemic has not only led to the restructuring of global powers but has also seen many countries looking inward and retreating behind national walls.
Professor David Norris says Covid-19 must be a defining moment for the African continent and Botswana. Discussing University of Botswana’s response to the crisis and sharing best practices on how to move forward, he said he is not against African universities forging collaboration with universities in the west, but says Covid-19 must be an eye opener for African universities to take a path that leads to self-reliance and stop over reliance on western countries.
Speaking on an online virtual panel hosted by the Alliance for African Partnership (AAP) entitled “COVID-19 Pandemic: Responses and lessons learnt from African universities”, Professor Norris said Covid-19 has made higher education leaders conscious and aware of the fact that institutions of higher learning must lead the way when it comes to providing answers to society’s complex and nagging problems. He also reiterated that it is of vital importance for institutions of higher learning to be interconnected and work hand in hand with “governments and with industry.”
Professor Norris also says that “what is also very important, which is a good lesson, is that self-reliance is very important for African countries. We cannot be relying on people or on other nations to find solutions for us, to come to our aid. We must find solutions for ourselves. We must be self-reliant,” says Professor Norris.
True to his word, the University of Botswana (UB) has been at the forefront of Botswana’s national response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The institution developed innovative solutions towards responding to societal challenges by designing and producing clinically sound ventilation hood and face mask for COVID-19 patients. They also designed and developed a face shield for COVID-19 frontline health workers. The shields are already in production. Amongst other things, the institution also developed three computer software tools that will assist the Ministry of Health and Wellness in the management and monitoring of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country.
He also said most of the western countries that African countries rely upon for aid have been increasingly looking inward to curb the effects of the pandemic on their economies and citizens. “Western countries are thinking of how they can help themselves and only a few are thinking of how to help Africa,” says Professor Norris issuing a muted warning to Africa countries.
President Xi Jinping of China is pivoting away from the export-driven model to focus on developing the domestic sector. US President Donald Trump is also ‘building’ America around exclusion. Professor Norris says there is no reason for African countries to be vindictive with western countries looking inward. He says this must give impetus to African countries to resuscitate their economies and become self-reliant. He also issued a warning that if a vaccine for Covid-19 were to be found today, it would only be available in Africa at a much later date after the West has brought the coronavirus under control in their respective countries.
Another panellist Professor Paul Zeleza, vice-chancellor of Kenya’s United States International University–Africa also said Covid-19 has highlighted issues that most of the universities never anticipated, especially with regards to inequalities within and among universities. “Some have been able to move seamlessly from in-person teaching and learning to using online platforms; others haven’t been able to do so,” says Professor Zeleza. This is also one area that Professor Norris admitted that UB experienced some difficulties, adding that there were vast concerns of inequality among students.
“We do have capabilities for going online,” he says adding that there “is quite an array of challenges including connectivity”. Professor Norris also encourages African universities to team up, adding that if African universities conduct African centred research then it would be likely that governments on the African continent would avail more funds towards research and development.
Paul Musonda, a political commentator who spoke to this publication said Botswana should push for self-reliance in the manufacturing sector to produce medical products such as personal protective equipment (PPE) and masks in large quantities. “To prevent over reliance on other countries, self-reliance should form part of Botswana’s post-Covid-19 strategy to rebuild our economy,” he says.
Other Universities in Botswana such as Botswana International University of Science and Technology (BIUST) have already triggered a paradigm shift in their approach. BIUST manufactured Covid-19 products at the university laboratories and they are all the inventions of BIUST students and academic staff.
Alliance for African Partnership (AAP) is a consortium of 11 universities in Africa and Michigan State University in the United States. Other participants who took part in the virtual panel to share their institutions’ response to the crisis were Barnabas Nawangwe, Vice Chancellor, Makerere University; Ibrahima Thioub, Rector, Cheik Anta Diop University and Rose Mwonya, Vice Chancellor, Egerton University.