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COVID-19 has spurred knowledge production in Africa – but to what end?

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COVID-19 has spurred knowledge production in Africa – but to what end?

Gilbert M. Khadiagala

01 Jul 2020

4min min read
  • Epidemics
  • Medical care--Research
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omentous occurrences such as the COVID-19 pandemic often create tremendous opportunities for major paradigm shifts in policies and approaches toward improving the management of political and social affairs. These events could potentially ignite innovations and learning that are critical to social transformations. Equally vital, such crises galvanise attention and resources that are significant in the articulation and implementation of reforms to address existing challenges. Akin to the Great Depression of the 1930s that helped jumpstart the welfare state, COVID-19 may contribute to new approaches to contemporary problems. Similarly, in the aftermath of the 2008 global economic crisis, new institutions such as the G20 and BRICS arose to spearhead reforms.

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Yet by the same token, global crises also have the tendency to lead to the proliferation of ideas and information that may ultimately cloud sound reflections on the enormity of problems and solutions to them. For the most part, the increase in information stems primarily from too many individuals who become instant experts on the crisis; too much information parading as knowledge is frequently unhelpful since knowledge emerges only after most of these ideas have been tested scientifically and their assumptions verified through rigorous processes.

For Africa in the context of COVID-19, the key questions around the spike of ideas and information are: How are ideas and knowledge about epidemics produced? Who are the producers of this knowledge? More pertinently, who consumes and benefits from this knowledge? These questions have gained salience because in just over six months since the outbreak of the pandemic, there has emerged a vibrant knowledge industry spanning science, public policy and the popular media.

"Too much information parading as knowledge is frequently unhelpful since knowledge emerges only after most of these ideas have been tested scientifically and their assumptions verified through rigorous processes."

In the realm of science, African institutions and entrepreneurs have risen to the occasion, innovating in making Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) and joining international experts in the search for preventative and curative products. Recent reports of Ugandan entrepreneurs who are manufacturing makeshift plastic face shields from discarded plastic bottles capture the ingenuity of local people in the face of a medical emergency. Some reports have indicated that there have been 192 innovations directed at COVID-19 in Nigeria and more than 90 from South Africa. African universities are demonstrating that despite years of underfunding, they remain central to ideas on building healthy societies. Less helpful, though, is the science that emanates from politicians such as Madagascar’s President Andry Rajoelina. Against the better judgment of Malagasy scientists and the World Health Organization (WHO), Rajoelina has advanced a concoction, COVID-19 Organics, as a cure for the virus. Similarly, Tanzania’s President John Magufuli has pushed pseudo-science around the power of prayer while abdicating responsible leadership on the pandemic. Both presidents underscore the problem of politicians mobilising nationalist and nativist tropes in efforts to overcome a crisis that they do not have much control over.

In public policy at large, COVID-19 has led to radical alterations in the production of ideas around the governance of pandemics. Research organisations and think tanks quickly responded to the pandemic by shifting their research priorities from the more boring questions of conflict resolution, early warning, transitional justice and peacekeeping to the enticing ones of public health and disease control. Institutions that had developed no intellectual and policy capacity beyond monitoring and evaluation have now jumped headfirst into epidemiological research, monitoring metrics and tracking indices, most of which mimic the methodologies of the WHO and the Johns Hopkins University.

Within the large social science academic community, COVID-19 has unleashed a robust public policy industry that contains a raft of prescriptions to guide government interventions. In anticipation of the vital changes in donor funding toward COVID-19, Africa’s best brains have retooled their skills and shifted their research priorities to respond to these needs. Most of the writings from these organisations have latched onto the COVID-19 crisis to probe the “gaps” in knowledge and practices about managing the pandemic. In a brief period of time, leading journals are, uncharacteristically, churning out academic papers focusing on topics such as combating corruption in times of COVID-19, budgeting for pandemics, effective policing and surveillance strategies to meet the imperatives of the disease, and reaching the poor during COVID-19. This pandemic has thus invariably increased the number of opinion makers adept at pontificating on the ethics of equitable resource distribution, investment in marginalised communities and progressive taxation.

"The social media dimension of COVID-19 has unleashed a combustible cocktail of misinformation and fake news that now pervades the public space, imperiling effective crisis management measures."

With regard to social media, COVID-19 has deepened the trend toward the democratisation of information production and its rapid dissemination, attributable to the presence of a gullible global community receptive to instant ideas. In the wired world of the internet, the democratic impulses of social media have crowded the information space and through a cacophony of disjointed and multiple voices, compromised rational policymaking. The social media dimension of COVID-19 has unleashed a combustible cocktail of misinformation and fake news that now pervades the public space, imperiling effective crisis management measures. Besides, the problem is compounded by the demonisation of independent media that is viewed skeptically. It is, in part, because of the nefarious impact of social media that South Africa criminalised the spread of misinformation at the beginning of the outbreak in March 2020.

Although the public policy industry around COVID-19 has flourished because of the profound socioeconomic costs it has exacted across the globe, the ultimate question relates to the beneficiaries of such disparate and inchoate information. What, in effect, is the substantive contribution of knowledge produced on the spur of the pandemic, the knee-jerk research that is driven not by careful and rigorous reflections but by the determination to be “on top” of the pandemic? It is not certain that most of these ideas and information are going to empower governments struggling with flattening the curve and redressing the consequences of COVID-19.

For academic disciplines, the COVID-19 “add-ons” certainly create a herd mentality that is driven more realistically by the dollar signs that follow epidemics, influencing knowledge creation and policy interventions. At worse, wholesale shifts in knowledge production toward COVID-19 may divert attention and resources from mainstream concerns that are not going away.

(Main image: Scientific staff members work in a secure laboratory, researching the coronavirus, at the Pasteur Institute in Dakar, Senegal on 3 February. – Seyllou/AFP via Getty Images)

The opinions expressed in these article(s) are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.