A Pandemic and a Paradigm Shift:
Covid-19 and the New Realities of African Universities
Since the first human case of COVID-19 was reported in Wuhan City, China, in December 2019, the world has experienced unprecedented changes in almost everything that involves life and living. According to the WHO, the Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) is an infectious disease caused by the novel coronavirus which was subsequently named SARS-CoV-2 (WHO, 2020). This disease comes with mild to moderate respiratory illness with a global recovery rate of approximately 80.69% (Statista, 2021). However, older people and those with underlying comorbid medical conditions stand the risk of a more serious illness and death. SARS-CoV-2 was declared a global pandemic on March 11, 2020 (Cucinotta & Vanelli, 2020).
Adjusting to the new normal, caused by the global pandemic, has been one of the most outstanding surprises of the new decade. Worthy of these lifestyle vagaries are hygiene changes such as constant washing of hands, respiratory etiquettes such as coughing into flexed elbows, and other COVID-19 prevention protocols like observing social distancing and adhering to lockdown policies (WHO, 2021). In addition to these is the paradigm shift that has occurred in the world in terms of how technology has been leveraged in cushioning the effect of the pandemic. Although these technological transformations are present everywhere, they are predominantly harnessed in the health and education sectors.
With specific focus on the higher education sector, universities have influenced and have been influenced by COVID-19 in two major ways. One, the closure of educational institutions, as a result of the lockdown, has pushed many universities across the world to adopt online learning and set the tone for the espousal of online processes across various sectors. Two, the active involvement of academics, researchers and even students in the process of developing vaccines for the virus, treating patients, and developing tech ideas (THE, 2020). The efficacy of the pandemic and its effect on universities in various countries have shown the strength of national systems through an unplanned simulation of the realities in the larger society.
In Africa, for example, the effect of the pandemic on many universities has been rather adverse. Although the continent with the lowest COVID-19 cases in the world (Chitungo et al, 2020), Africa’s weak national structures, fragile health systems, and grossly underfunded public institutions (Sawyerr, 2004) have done a great disservice to the continent. As miniature African societies, African universities’ inability to contribute to the unprecedented changes has left it vulnerable and at the receiving end of the effects of the pandemic. Many universities were shut for several months at the confirmation of first national cases, and without alternative learning opportunities. With many students struggling to continue their education and lecturers becoming redundant and, in some cases, unpaid, the effects are dire.
Globally, it is argued that the pandemic has ushered in a new world built on technology and driven by new social realities (WHO, 2021). However, these new realities are divergent based on existing social structures, economic capabilities, and the efforts of stakeholders. In the case of African universities, this new reality can be best described as one characterised by a struggle. A struggle to conform to either the status-quo, adopt foreign developed solutions, or to emerge through ingenuity and transformation. The result, only time will tell.
Chitungo, I., Dzobo, M., Hlongwa, M., & Dzinamarira, T. (2020). COVID-19: Unpacking the low number of cases in Africa. Public Health in Practice, 1, 100038. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.puhip.2020.100038
Cucinotta, D., & Vanelli, M. (2020). WHO Declares COVID-19 a Pandemic. Acta Bio-Medica: Atenei Parmensis, 91(1), 157–160. https://doi.org/10.23750/abm.v91i1.9397
Sawyerr, A. (2004). African Universities and the Challenge of Research Capacity Development. Journal of Higher Education in Africa / Revue De L’enseignement Supérieur En Afrique, 2(1), 213-242. Retrieved April 5, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/24486132
Times Higher Education (THE, 2020). The Impact of Coronavirus on Higher Education https://www.timeshighereducation.com/hub/keystone-academic-solutions/p/impact-coronavirus-higher-education. Assessed on 5th April 2021
WHO (2020). Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Situation Report – 94. https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/situation-reports/20200423-sitrep-94-covid-19.pdf. Assessed on 5th April 2021
WHO (2021). WHO-convened global study of origins of SARS-CoV-2: China Part. https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/who-convened-global-study-of-origins-of-sars-cov-2-china-part. Assessed on 5th April 2021