Impacts of COVID-19 on IFS Women Grantees: Setbacks and Leaps Forward

Published: 2021-03-08

Celebrated annually on 8 March, International Women’s Day was created not only to honor the achievements of women from all walks of life, but also to highlight the inequalities that still exist between women and men, and the much-needed work that remains to be done to attain gender equity. We need a diversity of voices contributing to the discussion to achieve equitable and progressive solutions to current global challenges.

This month’s blog post is curated by Dr Jennifer Sjölund, Scientific Programme Coordinator at IFS. It shines a light on IFS women grantees who have shared their reflections in response to the questions:

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

  • In what ways has it been a leap forward for science and research in your country?


Ms Mulemba Samutela, Lecturer and PhD Candidate, University of Zambia, Zambia

Setback: One of the impacts has been on sample collection, whether from the community or within hospitals. Members of the community are afraid and have had reservations about being visited and having samples collected from them or their premises, lest researchers infect them with the coronavirus. With the number of cases and patients increasing, sample collection from hospitals was put on hold. With the need to combat the pandemic via testing, most laboratory reagents have been reserved for COVID; therefore, other areas of research remained without major reagents. Moreover, with restrictions on travel in many countries, acquisition and delivery of reagents has been a challenge. Early and middle career persons were also impacted with a seeming neglect from their supervisors and mentors who being senior were at the forefront of combating the pandemic in the initial stages. The other impact is fear of researchers themselves to go out to collect samples or to go to the laboratory. These all have caused delays in the timelines for research, especially for postgraduate students. Most of these impacts have affected both women and men equally. However, an impact which could have affected women more is working from home which makes the tackling of family, house chores and office work more taxing.

Leap forward: One good that COVID has posed is an increase in certain laboratory capacities in resource-limited settings, for example, DNA sequencing (specifically whole genome sequencing and bioinformatic analysis) in a bid to determine the sequences and strains of the novel coronavirus. Another opportunity is the multidisciplinary local and international collaborations that came up as nations have had to deal with the pandemic. Hopefully, these collaborations will live beyond the pandemic. With the need for social distancing, universities and other academic institutions have been forced to explore online teaching and delivery of education modules even for programmes where it was previously deemed impossible to use online modalities. This opens doors for enrolment of more students than before as well as offering part-time and distance learning programmes. However, the downside is that some students may not be able to access the lessons due to lack of resources such as internet connectivity and laptops.

Dr Bal Kumari Oliya, Researcher, Annapurna Research Centre, Nepal

Setback: We face problems from sample collection to laboratory work. In my institution, we purchase chemicals and instruments from abroad, but due to restrictions in air transport, we could not start our activities on time which caused a delay in the research. The costs of instruments and chemicals are rising beyond our initial budget estimations. In addition to this, most research laboratories at universities and in the private sector have limited activities because of the possibility of transmission of the virus. They were closed for long periods which caused a significant loss of their research efforts, especially for researchers and their students working in the biological sciences. This has left researchers frustrated.

Leap forward: Although the COVID-19 pandemic has had several negative impacts on scientific research in Nepal, it has brought many positive changes in society. People have become more aware of health measures. Almost every person uses a mask and the necessary sanitizing habits have improved, which reduced viral transmission as well. During lock-down measures, researchers had more time to spend with their families apart from their regular work and have been able to strengthen their family bonds. People have learned to work and develop their skills independently. Moreover, the number of virtual meetings has drastically increased, and involvement in virtual seminars and workshops has provided an opportunity to learn, share ideas, and interact with each other globally. Furthermore, this pandemic also brought researchers together on one platform to collaborate and to explore new avenues to tackle a number of local as well as global issues. In addition, the traditional higher education system also transformed to online-based education, formalizing the e-learning system in mainstream teaching and learning, and boosting efficiency. Schools also started to take classes via online, enabling education even in this difficult situation. These successful attempts to leapfrog barriers to education by improving IT has built trust in science and technology, allowing the continuation of activities and maintaining communication with the public. Furthermore, it seems that the pandemic has led to an increase in the consumption of plant-based, organic foods, and herbal medicine, which seems to have created a renewed interest in the scientific research of natural products and pharmacognosy in Nepal.

Prof María Eugenia Flores-Giubi, Head of Chemical Biology Department, Facultad de Ciencias Químicas, Universidad Nacional de Asunción, Paraguay

Setback: The pandemic in Paraguay had a significant impact on the speed of project management and the acquisition of resources to carry out research, basically because the staff cannot be full time in the laboratory and purchases require import procedures that were slowed down. No new general calls for projects were opened and research policies changed, giving priority to projects related to COVID-19 and leaving aside other priorities like basic sciences and technology. Activities had to be rescheduled in many ongoing projects. We also requested extensions for some projects because we were unable to access the laboratory for at least six months.

Leap forward: Definitively, the diagnosis and lines of research in molecular virology, or the search for new antiviral treatments alternatives, were promoted and there are currently efforts in these directions. The perception of the population regarding the development of science and technology improved, as great value was placed on research and development of vaccines, drugs, clinical trials, and diagnostic and epidemiology strategies. Many of the young students in health careers who are or were my students have a greater interest in health research, both for basic knowledge and applied to new perspectives for containing the pandemic.



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