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Saluting all Witsies combating the COVID-19 pandemic

- Wits University

These Wits heroes represent just a fraction of the clinical, academic, professional and administrative staff, alumni and students responding to this disaster.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted life as we know it. But it has also galvanised our rapid adaptation to change and the adoption of new technologies. 

This newsletter acknowledges all those Witsies on the frontline in testing stations, hospitals, laboratories, computer centres, innovation labs and those who from their homes confront this pandemic and its effects on South Africa and the world.

The Wits heroes mentioned here represent just a fraction of the clinical, academic, professional and administrative staff, alumni and students who are contributing in multiple ways to respond to this disaster.  

We salute them all.

Practical protection for people

With personal protective equipment (PPE) in short supply globally, Wits engineers and students last week custom designed, manufactured and delivered their first batch of laser-cut face shields to protect healthcare workers. As COVID-19 infections and hospitalisations increase, respiration and ventilation become literally a matter of life or death.

These same Witsies have now turned their engineering prowess to devising assistive breathing devices for patients. We invite you to contribute to this life-saving innovation.

Students and staff in the School of Molecular and Cell Biology further advanced the PPE cause by sourcing and donating medical gloves for healthcare workers. This School also formulated a virus-killing disinfectant for Witsies on campus to prevent COVID-19 contamination.  

Combatting contamination through biomedical engineering, PhD candidate Michael Lucas pioneered a revolutionary self-sanitising surface coating. This infection control solution helps mitigate hospital-acquired infections and Lucas’ biomedical alchemy can prevent COVID-19 contamination.

Diary of a disease

Understanding the coronavirus pathogen is critical to protection and prevention. In concert with the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) and the National Department of Health (NDOH), Wits epidemiologists, virologists, biologists, and others at the vanguard of science are working to decode, predict, tame, and suppress COVID-19, and manage the public health and socio-economic impact.

Wits Professor of Epidemiology Cheryl Cohen analyses the distribution, patterns and determinants of disease. Now a household name, Cohen is at the forefront of COVID-19 case-finding, diagnosis and public health response, management and coordination. She recently delivered an on-air COVID-19 masterclass.

Cohen works closely with Dr Kerrigan McCarthy, a clinical microbiologist explaining here how the coronavirus is transmitted:

Amongst the virus sleuths is microbiologist Lynn Morris, a Research Professor in the School of Pathology and the Interim Executive Director of the NICD. Morris explains in this in-depth interview why COVID-19 is one of the greatest challenges of our time.

Fellow microbiologist, Professor Adriano Duse, Head of the Department of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases, gives insight into superbugs in this Masterclass.

Drawing Big Data battle lines​

Predicting and anticipating the trajectory of the virus to mitigate casualties and inform policy requires number crunching, modelling, and analysis of Big Data. Physics Professor Bruce Mellado leads a multidisciplinary team that developed the comprehensive COVID-19 South Africa Dashboard – a data dashboard to help track and visualise local COVID-19 infections, as well as in Africa, and the monitoring tool can be used to provide predictions for the virus’ spread and impact.

COVID-19 South Africa Dashboard

Similarly, the Gauteng City-Region Observatory (GCRO), of which Wits is partner, developed an interactive map showing the province’s vulnerability to COVID-19. In the Wits Biomedical Engineering Research Unit, Professor David Rubin and Adam Pantanowitzare developing a model to demonstrate the effect of intermittent quarantines, which may help maintain essential services and sustain economic activity.

Advocating mass testing

Test! Test! Test!” is the message from Professor of Vaccinology Shabir Madhi, who advocates physical distancing, mass testing for COVID-19, and quarantining the infected as the optimal public health strategy.

In this interview Madhi explains how the virus infects bodies and describes how big and bad the coronavirus is. In partnership with Gift of the Givers, Wits now hosts a COVID-19 testing station.

Helping the healthcare workers on the frontlines

Expert analysis informs us of the impact COVID-19 will have on our world but how will our healthcare workers in hospitals cope?

Professor Feroza Motara is the Academic Head of Emergency Medicine in the School of Clinical Medicine at Wits and the Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital. She has prepared her team and the hospital to care for those infected with COVID-19. Feroza explains how healthcare workers on the frontline cope.

Towards treatment 

Professor Helen Rees, the Executive Director of the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute (Wits RHI) and Professor Jeremy Nel lead the South African research team in the Solidarity clinical trials. Rapidly constituted by the World Health Organization (WHO), these 10-nation clinical trials aim to identify the most effective treatment against COVID-19. (Note: not a vaccine – this could take 12-18 months – but see why Professor Chris William Callaghan proposes scientific crowdsourcing as a promising approach to biomedical research and development).

Rees discusses South Africa's role in the global Solidarity study.

On our best behaviour

Physical distancing, hand-washing, and cough etiquette govern our mobility and behaviour like never before. Listen to renowned HIV scientist and activist Professor Francois Venter, Director of Ezintsha and Deputy Executive Director of the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute (Wits RHI), discussing the fundamental role that behaviour change plays in reducing COVID-19 infection.

Distinguished Professor of Medical Anthropology and Public Health Lenore Manderson delivered a COVID-19 webinar applicable to public behaviour.

Behaviour extends to social relations and solidarity. Professor Jo Vearey from the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS) cautions against hypocrisy in a time of COVID-19 and advocates for foreign migrants to be included in the COVID-19 response. She explores what South Africa’s impending winter, a historical HIV/AIDS pandemic and xenophobic attitudes mean for the spread of the pandemic, while Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon and Siyabonga Mahlangu advocate for the protection of inner-city communities during the lockdown.

Influencing policy

President Cyril Ramaphosa has appointed Professor Martin Veller, the Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences to a Ministerial Committee to provide clinical management advice on COVID-19. He, together with five leading Wits professors proposed a blueprint to replace the current lockdown.

Several other Witsies including Professor Glenda Gray have also been appointed to government committees or sub-committees.

Professors Karen Hofman and Susan Goldstein from the SAMRC/Wits Centre for Health Economics & Decision Science, PRICELESS SA, in the School of Public Health have advocated for proper hand-washing hygiene, which has since become standard COVID-19 protocol. However, environmental lawyer Dina Lupin Townsend cautions that there is nothing simple about washing your hands when you have extremely limited access to clean water.

Economy on the edge

Economist Professor Imraan Valodia, Dean of the Faculty of Commerce, Law and Management says:

The COVID-19 crisis is first and foremost a health and humanitarian crisis that we are all living through, which is likely to have lasting impacts on how we live.

He explains how we can manage the economic impacts in a way that does the least long-term harm and writes with David Francis, that South Africa won’t flatten the curve unless all citizens have the means to stay home.

Seventy-eight economists and activists, including several from Wits, wrote an open letter to the President encouraging government to do more to stabilise the economy and to protect the most vulnerable in society, a view echoed by Professor William Gumede in the Sunday Times. He recently compared the COVID-19 emergency stimuluses of selected countries and analysed what South Africa could learn from these countries.

Wits economist Lumkile Mondi asks how we can save SA whilst Adjunct Professor Alex van den Heever analyses the health and economic ramifications of COVID-19Kamal Ramburuth-Hurt  wrote on the deepening economic crisis, while Wits Journalism lecturer Kevin Davie commented on the fragile economy as did Professor Keith Breckenridge, Deputy Director of the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WiSER).

Wits voices on COVID-19 

Wits researchers and academics across faculties have articulated the impact of COVID-19 in their disciplines and displayed social leadership to educate, advocate, influence, and inspire:

Brave new world?  Professor Achille Mbembe, renowned philosopher at WiSER, has commented as has Professor John Stremlau from the Wits Department of International Relations, has shared their views on the global impact of the virus.

So has Associate Professor Ivor Sarakinsky, political philosopher in the Wits School of Governance, in this interview:

Dr Bob Wekesa from the African Centre for the Study of the United States (ACSUS) wrote about what will happen to Africa after COVID-19. 

Winter weather or not – While COVID-19 aggravates an existing climate emergency, social and climate activist Professor Vishwas Satgar suggests that the coronavirus pandemic provides an opportunity to end the war with nature whilst Professor Matthew Chersich from the Wits RHI says that South Africa’s warmer weather could slow the spread of the virus.

Books not braais – Professor Chris Thurman has explained the impact of COVID-19 on the arts, while biomedical ethicist Harriet Etheredge tackles issues related to personal versus public freedoms during lockdown.

Family matters – Dr Ajwang' Warria explains how parents and caregivers can support children during the COVID-19 lockdown whilst the Centre for Deaf Studies is breaking the silence on COVID-19 for the Deaf community.

Lockdown language – Wits students also helped Jive Media to translate the Hay’khona Corona! Spreading the word, not the virus poster series into multiple languages and made freely available to all. Please share widely.

There are numerous other experts from Wits who comment regularly in the media.

Keep informed, safe and healthy

Visit regularly for the latest updates, news, analysis and expert opinions in our fight against the coronavirus.

Witsies are tackling the COVID-19 pandemic on all fronts and we laud each and every person who is playing a role in combating this pandemic. We are in a crucial moment in the life of this pandemic and it is important that we work as a collective for the benefit of our society.

We urge all members of the Wits community to heed the words of President Cyril Ramaphosa:

This epidemic will pass. But it is up to us to determine how long it will last, how damaging it will be, and how long it will take for our economy and our country to recover. It is true that we are facing a grave emergency. But if we act together, if we act now, and if we act decisively, we will overcome it.