Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Science and Research: IFS Board Chair’s Perspective

Published: 2021-03-26

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:

Nighisty Ghezae, IFS Director

  • 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 Prof Patrick Van Damme, IFS Board Chair.

I am mainly a Belgium-based professor in (sub)tropical agriculture and ethnobotany. My main position is with Ghent University, although I also teach and supervise students at the Czech University of Life Sciences, Faculty of Tropical AgriSciences. I say ‘mainly’ Belgium-based as, before the pandemic struck and confined us all, I was – as one of my students put it – professor of the seven seas, and travelling to lecture, participate in conferences, supervise students, and prepare, monitor and evaluate R&D projects. All of this stopped abruptly after 13 March 2020 when the first lockdown hit Belgium, and most of the other countries I worked in, or used to visit.

As I type, there is little chance of this old life and rhythm coming back. The irrationality and fear the virus induced in lots of people and politicians will remain with the public and societies at large, and restrict us in our freedom to move and act. I fear that the ‘new normal’ will not be that normal. When we went into confinement, most of our personal and professional activities came to a standstill. At the university, we were no longer allowed to have in vivo teaching interactions with students. Lab and field testing and experiments were also reduced. It took months before we were able to shift into a new operational mode. Overall, the university system in Belgium (and Czech Republic) has adjusted well to the new environment, challenges and restrictions. In Belgium, my own university, but also the one in Leuven, have actively collaborated with third private-industry parties to co-develop one of the vaccines. Presumably, they will continue to adjust the vaccines to mutations, something the ‘normal’ flu has shown us how to do.

In the meantime, I had started to review long-overdue students’ texts, addressing them for the first time in a more thorough way. I enjoyed it, as the months of March, April and May gave us the most wonderful Spring in years. I was sitting outside on the terrace overlooking my small city garden, basking in the sun and getting my vitamin D. Eventually, I finished most of what had been gathering dust before, and even to write some papers. However, after a few months I got a bit itchy. Numerous interesting assignments were reduced to sitting in front of a camera and looking at what has basically become a ‘flat earth society’. No more marauding, no more live action or fact-finding (sigh). I quickly agreed with myself that I would not fret about this new normal, that I would bravely accept I would not travel for months (first), the year (then) or even years (eventually) to come, but still. Homo erectus learned how to walk upright, so walking and travelling is what we should do!

As the virus hit us just before I entered my last academic year at Ghent University, I decided to invest more time in other activities – again, teaching in front of a camera without interaction not only seemed dull to me, but also not productive: no interaction, questions, problem-driven approach, active learning nor transfer of skills. I took the opportunity to clean out my office (some might say, my mess). In a way, this brought about reflection: having sat and worked here for almost 40 years, I had accumulated tons of documents, papers and books. During most of my active career, the paperless society was still in the making; I sent my first e-mails when on a research assignment in Sede Boqer, Israel, in 1995. Now, most of these documents will at best be recycled, whereas some ended up in filing boxes that might still be important in the (near) future. All of it is a material reference to my past. However, I am wondering how the current generation will end their careers, with all their documents lodged somewhere in the cloud. Will they get an immaterial end to an intangible career? Or was I mistaken all this time, and they on the right track? Following Victor Hugo: ‘The need of the immaterial is the most deeply rooted of all needs. One must have bread; but before bread, one must have the ideal’.

So, apart from confining me some, COVID-19 has not affected me much. I purposely lost lots of kilos, which supposedly makes me structurally healthier and should allow me to better cope with the virus. Physical exercise and healthy food have kept me in this new shape and thus I can recommend following this cue, and not to waste a good crisis!

The world has been confronted with the COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps not unprecedented but still hitting populations everywhere where it hurts. Although the media tend to focus on the numbers of casualties, the virus has also caused much collateral damage. Indeed, it is threatening the food security and nutrition of millions of people around the world, but especially in the ‘global south’. Citing FAO’s 2020 policy brief[1]:

Hundreds of millions of people were already suffering from hunger and malnutrition before the virus hit and, unless immediate action is taken, we could see a global food emergency develop in the months and years to come. In the longer term, the combined effects of COVID-19 itself, as well as corresponding mitigation measures and the emerging global recession could, without large-scale coordinated action, disrupt the functioning of food systems. Such disruption can result in consequences for health and nutrition of a severity and scale unseen for more than half a century. 

It is to be hoped that the global community will address these collaterals, and apply science-based, structural solutions to this chronic problem. In this respect, I hope that IFS’s donors will continue to provide us with the much-needed funding to allow us to fulfil our mandate of supporting early career scientists in Low- and Lower-Middle-Income Countries. In fact, right after the beginning of the pandemic, we launched a new programme focusing on COVID-19 and food security. Let this be the start of a new era of ground-breaking research by IFS grantees!

[1] FAO, 2020. The impact of covid-19 on food security and nutrition  (sg_policy_brief_on_covid_impact_on_food_security.pdf (

With thanks 

Nighisty Ghezae



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