Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Science and Research: Dr Beatrice Olutoyin Opeolu of South Africa

Published: 2021-04-23

Welcome to 2021! As the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences, we will use the next few months’ blog posts to hear from a range of IFS community members, in response to the questions:

Dr Beatrice Olutoyin Opeolu

  • In what specific ways has the COVID-19 pandemic been a setback for science and research in your country? In what ways a leap forward?

  • How has COVID-19 been affecting you?

This month’s perspective is offered by Dr Beatrice Olutoyin Opeolu, Professor of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, Faculty of Applied Sciences, Cape Peninsula University of Technology, South Africa.

With an academic journey that began in Nigeria, I am a researcher (C3-rated) and professor specialising in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry. I have been based at South Africa’s Cape Peninsula University of Technology since emigrating as a postdoctoral fellow in 2008. Now I lead the Environment, Climate Change and Sustainability Research Focus Area and coordinate the Extended Curriculum Programmes in the Faculty of Applied Sciences.

There have been several setbacks for science and research in South Africa. The lockdowns, physical distancing and travel restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic had negative consequences for field and laboratory studies. Many funded research deadlines were missed and graduate students with field and laboratory experiments have experienced prolonged delays and missed graduation dates. 

Before the pandemic, most researchers could separate work from family time. The situation forced us all to work from home with negative consequences on our physical, social and emotional well-being. We had hours of virtual meetings (and still do), teaching activities, workshops and national research grant reviews, among others. This necessitates switching among platforms such as Teams, Zoom and Blackboard. Unfortunately, many of us now endure screen fatigue, extended work hours, separation from family, loved ones, friends and colleagues, obesity and depression. The limitation on the maximum number of people that can meet at any one time makes networking difficult. Existing partnerships cannot be effectively nurtured and new ones cannot be initiated. Many conferences now take place virtually, but they are not the same as meeting in person.

Although everyone has been negatively affected by COVID-19, those with caring responsibilities were most affected. In South Africa, these usually fall on women. Many are carers for older family members and need to deliver on jobs that now require double time and attention because of the so-called “new norm”. Women are also traditionally responsible for chores like cooking and cleaning, and on top of that, must arrange the home-schooling of their children. Many families with working or single parents hire paid assistants, which alleviates the domestic burden placed on women. However, lockdown restrictions did not allow domestic assistants to work and this has particularly impacted many women in research and academia as they have had to take on extra unpaid labour on top of their regular work.

Even with such a tough year for all researchers, there have been some positive changes to the research environment in South Africa due to the pandemic. Institutions and researchers have been forced to embrace many of the technologies that were already available to us and to use them more optimally. Committee meetings, research engagement activities, staff and postgraduate supervision were delivered online. COVID-19 disease research ideas were quickly funded with several waivers on approval structures to encourage researchers. Investments are being made in the technology infrastructure of institutions. Provisions are being made for internet access for remote working and most students now have access to computers and laptops.

Personally, when the pandemic started, I initially panicked because the world was dealing with a new and unknown enemy – a disease that was killing thousands daily – and the little information available at the time was sparse and confusing. I missed opportunities, including one to speak as a panel member in a side event at the United Nations CSW65 in New York. The lockdown forced a sedentary life on me, and I gained 7 kg in 8 months. For most of the year, I was frustrated and in despair with many uncertainties about the future. I thought the whole year was lost due to the pandemic restrictions.

However, my reflections on the past year proved otherwise; I did more than I imagined. Apart from the normal routine work, I coordinated applications for three new programmes. I authored or co-authored five research and fellowship proposals. I started a new project and submitted my deliverables for the year. I received a new research grant. Two of my doctoral students graduated. I continue with the supervision of four masters students and a postdoctoral fellow. Six articles were published. I virtually delivered invited speeches and panel discussions, reviewed manuscripts and proposals, and served as external examiner for three universities.

Although the pandemic year of 2020 was a difficult one, it was also a highly productive year for me. I now know how to be more effective as a scientist under such circumstances. I also learnt more about self-care and love. I understand now that my holistic well-being is critical for my productivity. I am optimistic that with vaccine development and rollout across continents, there is now light at the end of the tunnel for physical interaction among researchers, and more scientific activities and engagements.


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