Africa: The Year of the Virus - 2020 in Review

30 December 2020

COVID-19 influenced global development like no other topic in 2020. SciDev.Net looks back at some of our best coverage this year.

At the beginning of 2020, the United Nations anticipated that climate change, conflict and food insecurity would dominate science and development news.

In mid-January, the horror of the Yemen flu outbreak took centre stage, but this particular epidemic was soon trumped by a new virus that shut down China in January. COVID-19 had entered the picture, and would go on to shut down much of the world over the course of the year.

While the world struggled to respond to the rapid spread of the virus, development news soon turned to the most vulnerable populations. In the first few months of the year, as the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic, it became clear that countries with poor border control and large numbers of refugees were at the greatest risk of COVID-19.

SciDev.Net reported that restrictions imposed on populations to curb the virus had been used to discriminate against people living with HIV, including arbitrary arrest and denial of medication.

Soon, the extra financial resources needed to respond to the pandemic started to affect spending on the Sustainable Development Goals and neglected diseases. Towards the second half of the year, conversations around the pandemic shifted from emergency responses to a long-term solution, including vaccines, and what contributions the global South could make to their development.

A global debate emerged on how to get vaccines to the poorest. The world grew suddenly familiar with vaccine hesitancy, the cold chain and the COVAX Facility, a global collaboration launched in June aimed at securing the equitable distribution of new vaccines.

SciDev.Net's newsrooms were affected by the pandemic, like many others. Reporters resorted to working from home and major international meetings, such as the climate change and biodiversity UN conferences, were cancelled. SciDev.Net chief editor Ben Deighton wrote candidly in September about attending the EuroScience Open Forum in Italy -- one of the first such events since the COVID-19 outbreak.

And a global Spotlight on the next pandemic, published in July, warned that global crop disease outbreaks, urban disease hotspots and new zoonotic disease outbreaks could be on the horizon without stronger monitoring and planning. A study published in November found that newly disturbed forests are a major source of diseases transmitted by animals - and may well be the origin of the next pandemic.

Yet, the other big debates in science and development lost none of their urgency under COVID-19.

One topic that dominated this year's news was gender. In February, SciDev.Net interviewed Rojas de Arias, an influential researcher of Chagas disease and leishmaniasis who became the first woman to lead the Paraguayan Science Society. In September, our Africa Science Focus podcast asked why so few women on the continent enter science, technology, engineering and maths careers.

New research on women's health and wellbeing emerged throughout the year, including a study on how a woman's health can deteriorate after the death of a child - a life-changing experience that more than half of women aged 45 to 49 in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa have suffered.

Often, gender and COVID-19 overlapped, as in the latest podcast episode on women losing access to antenatal care during lockdowns, or avoiding health clinics over fears of catching the virus. Throughout the year, SciDev.Net reported on the need for sex disaggregated data to combat COVID-19.

Despite the gravity of these topics, 2020 left some space for the curious and quirky.

A biofilm developed in Brazil could prolong the shelf life of eggs, fruits and vegetables. In August, a robot hiked across the Andes to provide children in remote communities with education after schools shut down. And in October, a study showed that the popular children's board game Snakes and Ladders can be used to teach behaviours that protect children against intestinal worms.

But, as we look to the new year, the news continues to be dominated by pandemics. Developed countries are beginning COVID-19 immunisation programmes, but communities in the global South are still waiting for their chance to access these life-changing vaccines.

This article was originally produced by SciDev.Net's Global edition.

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