African Physics Newsletter

Physicists in the Time of COVID-19

We asked the African Physics Newsletter Editors to tell us about their experiences during these unprecedented days. They have responded with an insight into their lives, their homes, and the shifting paradigms around them.

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. your own contributions for the next issue on your own circumstances.

Please do send articles on the response by your university to the crisis! Physicists are ingenious and imaginative, and your colleagues across the continent would like to know about what is being done.

KoborPhysicists Activities During COVID-19 Pandemic in Senegal

Since the start of the curfew related to COVID-19 in Senegal, universities and schools have been closed. So, I returned to Dakar to be with my family who resides there.

However, I continue to work on writing research projects and articles for publication simultaneously. During the day, I support my daughter to follow her online courses thanks to the educational continuity established by her school.

Child education

This work can sometimes keep me busy until 2 p.m. with, sometimes, the possibility of leaving my daughter to work alone and enjoying reading my messages. In the afternoon, I dedicate it to writing the research project until 6 p.m.

From this hour, I go out to do some football until 7:30 p.m. Then I come back to continue working on my research works, the papers for publication.

Online course try

I tried, last week, to do online courses with Materials Physics Masters. After two sessions, I had to stop because of connection problems for two students who could not follow and who felt aggrieved. As it was a personal decision, I preferred to wait for the decision from our university.

On the other hand, I participate in meetings, by skype or zoom, as part of the preparation of scientific events in which I am a member of the International Organization or Scientific Committee like ASP2020 (the African School of Physics), AfLS3 (the African Light Source Meeting), SOAPHYS (West African Physics Society) but also and specially the preparation of the second day of SOAPHYS to be held in November 2020 in Dakar. It is the Senegalese Physical Society that is responsible for the local organization and I am the Secretary General of this Society of Physicists in Senegal.

Ministry defense committee

Currently, I am also working with the Defense Committee of COVID-19 established by the Ministry of Higher Education in which I work in the theme "Engineering - Innovation – Modeling." This committee brings together all the researchers and innovators of the country who want to commit to work to set up products and solutions locally (masks, rapid testers, thermoflashes, etc.) to fight against COVID-19.

To sum up, here physicists like many academics try to work remotely and bring their skills to the Ministry of Higher Education, which has created a committee. But teaching is interrupted in all universities.

Diouma Kobor, Professor of Physics and Director of Laboratory,University Assane Seck of Ziguinchor, Ziguinchor, Senegal and General Secretary of Senegalese Physical Society.

KhafagyLetter from Egypt

As I’m concerned with higher education and its quality assurance in addition of being a university professor and a physicist, I have just been to Dubai to participate in the Higher Education Leadership Forum organized under the theme “Higher Education in the Era of the Fourth & Future Industrial Revolutions: Challenges and Opportunities.” Thank god I returned to Egypt just two days before international flights were discontinued due to COVID-19.

Otherwise I would have suffered a lot of being away from my little five year old daughter, which has discontinued her school and all the nurseries around the country are closed by law due to COVID-19. At first, I was considering coronavirus lightly and couldn’t imagine how dangerous and serious it is.

The hardest time ever

But after a while I realized that we are experiencing the hardest time ever. I have never met something like this before. Life has completely stopped.

I became far away from my lab and research projects, far from my students, stopped going to the university as requested by the ministry of higher education. The only allowed thing to do is to get some groceries.

A strict curfew

All restaurants and shops are closed - only supermarkets and pharmacies are open. We are not allowed, in Egypt, to go out from our houses after 7 p.m. otherwise we will be charged.

We started to find alternatives in connecting to life again. We started to reach our students through distance learning.

Youtube channel

I established a YouTube channel and started to share my lectures online for the first time. PowerPoint lectures with voice explanation are taking too long to be prepared and uploaded, but I was really happy to monitor the increased number of students subscribing to my channel, and to see that watching hours increased day after day.

All university meetings are performed online. Life is really changing.

Benefits of online learning

I can still find a lot of positives in this crisis. I discovered that online and distant learning is not as bad as I was assuming.

On the contrary, it is very effective. The students can follow the lectures at their preferred time, and can attend the lectures as much as they want and can revise them before the examinations.

Hopes for the future

I discovered that most of the work can be done from home effectively – we can live with corona but can’t live without technology. People became more kind to each other, and afraid of one another.

Family life returned after being missed most of the time. We realized that our normal hectic life is a great gift. Even worldwide, the world realized the awful meaning of tragic death and the value of a human. I believe no wars will continue after corona ends.

Rasha Khafagy, Prof. of Materials science and Nanotechnology, Spectroscopist, and in love with Lasers and Optics.

AmoloLetter from Kenya: University of Kenya

Following the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic and closure of the university, I work from the house and online for a couple of hours a day. Kenya is under 5am -7pm curfew.

We have had several video conferences with two Kenyan colleagues and our counterparts in Spain over joint collaborative research as well as intended submission of manuscript to a journal.

Family life

My wife and son are with me most of the time. We take a one hour walk daily, outdoors, to break the monotony of sitting in the house, and just to experience a change of scenery.

Top of my agenda is pending research work that needed my attention but received almost none since my time was spread thin. Physicists in Kenya have a WhatsApp wall on which they are currently airing their views and suggestions on how science can help tackle COVID-19 and its related economic effects.

Unknown threats

The worst is not knowing from where possible threats of infection will come, since little is currently known about the virus. The best is that many Kenyan families have been reunited in ways that we have never known, with fathers taking turns to cook meals, which is unheard of in the traditional African context.

George Amolo, Professor of Physics, University of Kenya, Nairobi Editor, African Physics Newsletter, Eastern Region.

UsmanA Physicist’s Life Under COVID-19 Pandemic

Being away from South Africa since January 2020 for sabbatical leave at the Physics Department, Bayero University Kano, North-western part of Nigeria, I’m comfortably teaching MSc Nuclear Physics courses, and enjoying my interactions with students, as this is my first-time experience and exposure to Nigerian university.

Life deliberately stopped due to the COVID-19 pandemic and I found myself in a voluntary “self-isolation” in the university guest house, because all other occupants left for their respective homes all around Nigeria. I enjoyed the quietness for the first two weeks but thereafter the loneliness crept in.

Online conversations with a remote family

I tried to reschedule my return flight back to Johannesburg but unfortunately South African Airways had stopped all international flights. Coping with loneliness, I communicate through WhatsApp video calls with my family in Johannesburg at least twice daily.

Sometimes, the network problem doesn’t permit it, but at the end of the day, having assurance that my family is safe amidst this pandemic made me focus on other activities worth doing, like reading postgraduate students’ theses and preparing manuscripts for publication.

No teaching at all

Despite the daily average temperature of 42°C in Kano, provision of stable electricity through the rural electrification project of solar power in the university made life easier with a cool air conditioner in the guest house.

Unlike universities in South Africa, where preparedness for transition into Online Teaching activities has been a priority, those in Nigeria are stillwaiting for the COVID-19 pandemic to end before any teaching activity can resume. This can be partly attributed to very low IT resources in the institutions, as well as inaccessible internet connectivity for students at home.

A German stay postponed

Lastly, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, my planned research visit to Technische Universität Darmstadt Germany under the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (DAAD)-Bilateral Exchange of Academics programme for April to June 2020 has been postponed indefinitely. I’m just looking forward to the total eradication of this pandemic all over the world when individuals can begin embarking on their respective normal lives again.

From Kano, Nigeria With Love, Keep Safe and Keep Healthy,

Iyabo Usman, Nuclear Structure Research Group, School of Physics, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

GledhillLetter from South Africa

Like many colleagues, I have a lurking feeling that I ought to be opening up vistas of new research, but I haven’t reached even the frontiers of that land yet. I’m on a couple of task teams and working groups, who’ve taken the opportunity to be even more active than before –and yes, there are deadlines.

I’ve noticed that scientists’ biographies tend to involve more committees after a certain chapter, so perhaps that’s where I am at the moment: but it’s a set of learning curves all the way.

Hard to concentrate at home

Yesterday I attended a useful webinar on COVID-19, climate change, and the Water, Health, Energy nexus. Until the mikes were muted, it was a glorious connection of 63 houses, complete with enthusiastic toddlers, dogs, and presenters in unknown locations because their electricity supply had failed. (The presentations were outstanding.)

With all of our aspirations, it’s still hard to concentrate or meet great expectations at home. Sometimes humour is the best response ... colleagues have been pointing out that Isaac Newton may have worked brilliantly at home, but was without the influence of a 3 year old in the house.

Person at risk in the family

I had already been working from home for some time when lockdown started in South Africa. I should explain that my mother-in-law is 93, so my husband and I prepared early and went into semi-isolation about two weeks before everyone else.

My mother-in-law’s house doesn’t have wifi, and so whoever is on duty is unplugged for much of the day.

Learning super-fast

My university, the University of the Witwatersrand, sits on the top of a ridge which is the watershed between flow north to the Limpopo River and the Indian Ocean, and water going south to the Atlantic. It’s on another watershed now: my colleagues are deep in e-teaching and e-learning, and everybody is learning super-fast.

As one of my colleagues says, “Never waste a crisis.” I don’t think teaching and learning will be the same at Wits ever again.

Emergency remote teaching

About 15% of students don’t have hardware or wifi to e-study, so the university’s working on that too. It’s emergency remote teaching, not fully-fledged online teaching, and the temptation is to bombard the student with the entire course at one go.

The students are overthinking, and expressing stress: “NO, I am not coping.” There’s now a “Less is More” guide, and the principles seem to be helping.

Computational and theoretical students

I have just a few graduate students who are computational and theoretical, and as long as they have at least one coffee mug and a connection they are up and running. I think.

We live on an agricultural plot about half-way from Johannesburg to Pretoria, and it’s even quieter than usual –but now we host a wild rabbit and we see more birds: two species that we have never seen here before, whose official range is in Kwa-Zulu-Natal. Is thisthe nexus of climate change and COVID-19 restraint on human activity?

Igle Gledhill, Visiting Adjunct Professor of Flow Physics, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa

 OdariLetter from Kenya: Masinde Muliro University

The first case of COVID-19 in Kenya was reported in mid-March,2020. Two days after the announcement, schools and colleges were closed.

The closure of universities has disrupted ongoing research in laboratories and completion of the second semester of 2019/2020 of Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology (MMUST).

Scientific projects against COVID-19

In order to curb this pandemic, MMUST made an internal call for grant applications for projects in line with eradicating or curbing the spread of COVID-19. A number of projects are now under way and we are optimistic on the outcomes.

Some Kenyan universities are also in the limelight for developing ventilator prototypes among others. I expected to be a bit free when the universities were closed to curb the spread of COVID-19 but it has been the opposite.

Busy with online communications

I have been so busy organizing Materials Science webinars in Kenya, as well as drafting a number of grant proposals. I’ve also been going through postgraduate proposals, manuscripts for publication, and reviewing of articles for journal publication.

Online teaching and online meetings take a lot of energy. In order to come out of this pandemic period as a better person, I am also learning how to carry out computational physics (Density Functional Theory) analysis using the Quantum Espresso code to top up on my experimental physics background on renewable energy.

Two little boys

Working at home has proved to be more challenging with my two little ones (2 & 4-year-old boys). For them, it's vacation time and dad has to play with them, referee their fights and take them for nature walks where they really enjoy exploring and learning new things.

My wife thinks that I am working too much and has recommended a one-week break from work to relax.

Victor Odari, Physics lecturer at Masinde Muliro University, Kakamega, Kenya


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