Not surprisingly COVID-19 related travel restrictions and bans now occur throughout the world, and for African researchers, this means inability to travel for research related collaborations, planning meetings and conferences. Thus, it becomes necessary to ask, “What can we do here at home,” especially considering increasing restrictions on local movement and gatherings.
In the very short time since COVID-19 was finally and officially recognized in China, many research articles have been published. Although these obviously focus on China, they raise possible research questions that need to be addressed in Africa, especially those countries still at the early stages of the epidemic.
Obviously, studies on the clinical management are needed, and one group of Chinese researchers are examining “biological products have broadly applied in the prevention and treatment of severe epidemic diseases, they are promising in blocking novel coronavirus infection,” especially based on reports from previous coronavirus experiences like SARS and MERS. Other studies have examined the role of managing blood glucose levels, anticoagulant treatment and the potential of antiviral treatment, among others. What aspects of clinical management will become important to African patients’ survival?
In the process of requesting adequate diagnostic, monitoring and treatment supplies and equipment generally for the country, the tertiary and research hospitals need to ensure they have made requests for the equipment and supplies that are needed not just to provide life-saving treatment, but also to test appropriate approaches in the local setting. Each setting is different and must be studied because already there are anecdotal reports of younger age groups being affected by severe disease in the USA compared to earlier reports from China.
Taking a lesson from the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, there is need to study how COVID-19 will affect the delivery of health care, especially malaria services. Patrick Walker and colleagues modeled the effects of health systems disruption on malaria including challenges in receiving based treatment when clinics were overwhelmed, seen as possible sources of disease and finally shut down as health workers themselves died. Outreach services like insecticide-treated net distribution were also stopped, and the efforts of community health workers were curtailed. To what extent is that happening with COVID-19?
Until there are proven drugs and vaccines, it is extremely important to learn about local epidemiology in order to develop appropriate strategies to prevent the spread of COVID-19. This effort should involve researchers from many disciplines such as public health specialists, anthropologists, sociologists, educationists, and psychologists.
While the medical research mentioned above is carried out in hospitals and clinics, people conducting social and epidemiological studies ideally should be in the community where we can observe people washing their hands or not, gathering in groups or not, and finding out why they do these things. We need formative research to help develop health education, and at the same time ensure social and educational scientists can gather information to evaluate whether the health education as appropriate and worked.
Likewise, research is needed on health systems and must involve political scientists, economists, public administrators, and of course public health specialists, also. A great danger exists for people who cannot keep a social distance from themselves such as those incarcerated in prison and living in camps for refugees and internally displaced people, a common problem throughout the continent. They too need to get into the organizations and systems that provide care and learn what the policy makers and decision makers are thinking.
As Bronwyn Bruton has observed, “Some 40 percent of Africans live in water-stressed environments in which obtaining access to clean water—let alone soap—is an insurmountable daily hurdle, and for those populations, even simple measures to prevent the spread of the virus, such as frequent handwashing, will be out of reach.” In addition he asks difficult questions about what happens to children who are home and cannot go to school, the vast numbers of people in the informal economy who cannot rely on a salary, if they stay home, and the many people in conflict zones. These are questions that urgently need to be studied in Africa.
Answers to our COVID-19 research questions are needed urgently, probably much sooner than funding can be found to support such research. The question for our African research colleagues is what can be done now with resources at hand in an environment where movement is restricted? We will definitely need speedy responses from our Institutional Ethics Review Boards and be creative in our use of research methods.
Roxana Elliott reports that data collection in the diverse African region “is difficult, especially when measuring statistics such as mobile penetration, which require face-to-face data collection in order to include those who cannot be reached via mobile. Language barriers, lack of infrastructure, and the sheer number of people throughout Sub-Saharan Africa make collecting face-to-face data nearly impossible due to cost and time constraints, especially in rural areas.” She, therefore, suggests that mobile-based surveying methodologies can alleviate these issues. She also recommends a country-by-country approach, and hence we see that in 2017 an estimate of 32% of the population had a smartphone 48% a basic phone, and 20% no phone.
How can social and health researchers design studies using this mobile resource to answer vital COVID-19 questions in the nearest future? If our students are now at home, can they, for example, be contacted to observe, at a safe distance, the human health related actions in their communities? Can they interview family members to learn why people practice prevention or not? Can they relate family experiences seeking health services for suspected respiratory illness? Can they report on the water supply situation in the rural and urban areas where they are staying?
There are the questions which African colleagues can debate at a proper social distance (via phone, zoom, Skype, WhatsApp, and others), and come up with creative ways to find answers to prevent a worsening epidemic in Africa.
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