What universities are doing in the fight against Covid-19

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Universities do not know when they will reopen. Before President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the extension of the lockdown by a further 14 days, some said they would open on April 20. 

The extension of the lockdown now means that these higher education institutions have to go back to the drawing board. The higher education department has set up a task team led by Deputy Minister Buti Manamela to make recommendations on what can be salvaged from the academic year. 

For now, most institutions have taken learning and teaching online, with institutions such as the Universities of Cape Town and Stellenbosch loaning laptops to students who don’t have these at home. 

Other universities have held virtual graduation ceremonies, a trend that was ushered in by the University of Western Cape. 

None of this is conventional. 

And, with the national disaster, universities have been innovative and used their expertise to help in the fight against Covid-19. 

Rhodes University 

Vice-chancellor Sizwe Mabizela has led the way in academia by being the first leader in the sector to pledge 33% of his salary to the Covid-19 Solidarity Fund. 

Since March 20 the faculty of pharmacy has been producing sanitisers, which the Eastern Cape department of health distributes throughout the province. The team making the sanitisers includes postgraduate students. The aim is to make between 300 to 450 litres a day. 

The university’s housekeeping service staff members have been making masks for the essential services workers in Makhanda. 

University of the Free State 

The veterinary biotechnology research group in the department of microbial, biochemical and food biotechnology is working on a Covid-19 vaccine. The lead researcher, Professor Robert Bragg, said the aim was to get research out there so that pharmaceutical companies could take up the design of a possible Covid-19 vaccine and assist with its development.


Stellenbosch University 

Professor Coenie Koegelenberg, of the pulmonology division at Stellenbosch University’s faculty of medicine and health sciences, has introduced a robot known as Quintin to help specialists in the intensive care unit at Tygerberg Hospital. 

Tygerberg Hospital is one of the Western Cape’s designated facilities to treat people with the coronavirus. The hospital has a limited number of specialists in its general intensive care unit, according to a statement by the university. 

Koegelenberg said Quintin will assist immensely if any of the specialists get Covid-19. They will be able to do their rounds remotely by operating the robot from a phone or a laptop. 

The robot has already done rounds in the hospital without any of the specialists entering the intensive care unit. 

“It was truly an eye opener and a potential game changer in this and future similar pandemics. It was a remarkable success,” Koegelenberg said in a statement. “We … concluded that our physical presence was not required, and that the technology has great potential to be rolled out.” 

University of Pretoria 

The shortage of facial shields for use by healthcare workers in Gauteng prompted the university’s MakerSpace Centre to produce 3D-printed visor frames for facial shields. The frames are being produced for the Netcare and Mediclinic groups. 

The centre has also partnered with the Steve Biko Academic Hospital. The hospital is one of two facilities in Gauteng that have been designated to treat patients with Covid-19.

Final year medical students at the university are volunteering to run a hotline for people with questions related to Covid-19. The hotline is for people in Pretoria and is toll-free, running from Monday to Friday from 8am to 5pm. The number is 0800 611 197.

Nelson Mandela University 

The university’s Institute for Chemical Technology, InnoVenton, has produced sanitisers, which were donated to the Eastern Cape’s health department. 

The university has also made face shields and donated these to Livingstone Hospital in Port Elizabeth, which is the only dedicated facility in the province to treat Covid-19 patients. 

Central University of Technology 

The institution has designed prototype non-invasive ventilation masks and has also manufactured hand sanitisers, which were handed over to the Free State health department. 

University of Johannesburg 

The university has produced reusable surgical face shields, which were distributed to Netcare 911. 

Vice-chancellor Professor Tshilidzi Marwala has pledged 33% of his salary to the Covid-19 relief fund.

The institution’s Centre for Social Change, in collaboration with the Casual Workers Advice Office, has released a report on 35 companies operating as essential services during the lockdown, showing how a number of them are not looking after their workers. 

The University of the Witwatersrand

The university produced face shields that have been distributed to Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre, Rahima Moosa Mother and Child Hospital and Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital, one of two dedicated hospitals to treat Covid-19 patients in Gauteng.

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Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.
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