While the pandemic is extending on the longer term everywhere in the world, the international scientific collaborations carry on and the researchers have to keep their dynamics going. This is also the case for the IRD, CNRS and Cirad partnerships in Southern Africa. Doing science remotely entails both difficulties and new possibilities.

Cartography of the Covid cases in the region.

© World Health Organization

The Covid-19 pandemic is hitting Southern Africa severely, even though countries implemented travel restriction and social distancing measures relatively early, before the surge in infections. South Africa is the most affected country in the region, with 613,017 identified cases as of August 25th, making it the 5th worst-affected country in the world in terms of detected cases. Since March, research has been greatly impacted. Short-term missions were cut short or cancelled. For the researchers assigned in Southern Africa, the lockdown restrictions and the difficulty to travel within the countries made field trips almost impossible to conduct. While the IRD-CNRS-Cirad office counted nearly 450 scientific missions in 2019, this number will drastically decrease in 2020.

However, the 2 international laboratories, 5 international networks and 4 international research projects, alongside the many other partnerships of French researchers with the region’s scientists, have not been dozing for the recent months. Science and partnerships carry on their co-construction, thanks to communication tools.


Remote publications, signatures and trainings

The majority of French and African researchers took advantage of this period without any travelling or field trips to work on their publications. Dominique Gommery, head of the international laboratory in palaeontology HOMEN, is one of them: “The lockdown made us work on topics that we had left aside, such as the 1948 American archives on Bolt's Farm [the excavation site of the project]. We are also writing several articles." Researchers in Zimbabwe engaged in the Production and Conservation in Partnership research platform led by CIRAD and its partners have also made use of their remote working time to publish numerous papers from early 2020.

The last few months have also created the opportunity to structure some international collaborations. CIRAD, INRAE ​​and the South African Agricultural Research Council signed a memorandum of understanding on July 24th, by videoconference both in Paris and Pretoria. The research platform "Public policies and governance in Africa" (CIRAD) has also explored avenues for development. Last but not least, the AfriMAQUA research network (IRD), dedicated to marine aquaculture, has worked on the development and structuring of its partnerships in Africa.

Moagabo Ragoasha defended her thesis online on May 28th.

© Screenshot by Gildas Cambon

Serena Illig is an IRD oceanographer working closely with the University of Cape Town. She decided to maintain her training activities as much as possible. She is planning a one-week course of statistics in September, using videoconferencing tools, WhatsApp and her website: “I have been giving this course every year since 2016. I wanted to find solutions not to let the students down and to maintain strong links with my partners in Cape Town. I think that if we do not have any connection problem, the message will be as qualitative as in person and it will be much cheaper and less polluting than going to Cape Town. However, the courses that I usually give in regional modeling require my presence with the students, in order to help them with their computers. I will not be able to give them this year."

Other researchers have devoted this particular time to sharing their work with the general public. If their annual excavations were cut short due to the interruption of the archaeologists' missions, Guillaume Porraz (CNRS) and his colleagues, worked on the renovation project of the Leribeng Museum, that will present prehistoric environments and lifestyles to tourists visiting the Bushman Rock Shelter, in Limpopo. The museum renovation should take place in early 2021.

Jean-Pascal Torréton, head of the IRD, CNRS and CIRAD office located in Pretoria, continues to ensure that partnerships last and develop despite the circumstances: "Thanks to communication tools, science can carry on remotely. Partners can discuss, write and train students from one continent to another. Face-to-face exchanges are of course essential and desired by all, but they will nevertheless have to wait for more favourable conditions."

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Dominique Gommery (left) and Lazarus Kgasi (right), two of the partners of the HOMEN project.