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A whole new world: What a post COVID-19 economy can mean for young Africans

An opinion piece by Venita Januarie – Stellenbosch, South Africa

When we think about the state of the world: the way in which we engage, who we spend our time with, how we chose to spend our leisure time, it is clear that the world as we knew has undergone a metamorphosis. The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic can be regarded as similar to a fundamental change in the natural environment and countries can be compared to organisms within that changed environment. Countries differ in their capabilities (e.g. healthcare systems), their economy (e.g. central planning or market-based), and their method of governance (e.g. approach to lockdown).The impact of the COVID-19 spans through our healthcare and our education systems into our work settings, even encompassing our personal lives and preferences. In the face of challenges, we search for understanding—not just of the threats but of the character of our lives under threat. We need to know not just what to do, but how to cope, how to make meaning of all this.

The science of meaning

Many South Africans such as myself are cautious about our livelihoods, our families and friends, and the apprehension of "not knowing", we are also part of a global movement of people who are turning inwards, reflecting on mental health and social consciousness by partaking and engaging in issues such as our democratic rights, as well as recognizing the importance of taking care of ourselves and the environment. Several psychological researchers has termed this emergence of meaning in what we do as a "fight for survival", as the research on post-traumatic growth and resilience suggests that at least some people are able to “rise to the occasion” in this way. Psychologist Victor Frankl, who survived 3 years in a Nazi concentration camp, wrote of his experience: "He who knows the 'Why' for his existence is able to bear almost any 'How'.” Frankl called this theory Lagotheraphy. Frankl believed that humans are motivated by something called a "will to meaning," which equates to a desire to find meaning in life. He argued that life can have meaning even in the most miserable of circumstances and that the motivation for living comes from finding that meaning. Frankl believed that when we can no longer change a situation, we are forced to change ourselves.

Post-COVID-19 economy offers opportunities to young people

Since the outbreak of the corona virus pandemic, ventilators, face masks and gloves have become much-sought-after items around the globe. Sourcing medical and personal protection equipment is a huge problem for poorer countries. The pandemic has spurred on creative minds, though, including that of Ezedine Kamil, an 18-year-old natural science student from Welkite, a rural town 160 kilometres from the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. Ezedine has 30 inventions to his credit so far. Thirteen have been patented by the organization SaveIdeas. The onslaught of the virus presented a unique opportunity to Ezedine. He first designed an contactless electrical soap dispenser with a built-in sensor, which could also be operated using a mechanical pedal during power blackouts -- common occurrences in Ethiopia. Having never built a ventilator, he set off by searching open source manuals online. His invention used a plastic pouch known as an Ambu bag, a mechanical ventilator and a screen operated from a cellphone. After successfully testing a prototype, he started producing and delivering the new machines to the local community.

With all businesses forced to move their activities online, the post-COVID-19 economy offers many lucrative opportunities within the digital sphere. On that note, investing in tech that can facilitate online commercial and educational activity is a key step that businesses/individuals can take, even for after the crisis when organisations are likely to be much more efficient with communications. COVID-19 is acting as an accelerant for the adoption of digital technologies, as companies seek to boost competition by slimming down and reducing established costs in their business.

Quarantining and lock down has been a major disruption for the educational sector especially. Enter one of the greatest successes in digital education in South Africa: TouchTutor and GammaTutor™. These are offline systems pre-loaded with interactive learning material. These resources have been specifically designed for South African school conditions as completely independent of infrastructural and environmental difficulties in most public schools in South Africa, including security and internet access issues.

During lockdown, a team of students from UCT's Faculty of Engineering & the Built Environment invented a portable distillation vessel to make hand sanitizer, using the surplus alcohol from the ban. The prototype, which mimics the design of a Grainfather (an all-in-one brewing system), shows how breweries and distilleries can become producers of affordable hand sanitizers at a time of supply shortages. The device, called Corry, is a portable distillation vessel that produces sanitizer with the input of liquor, hydrogen peroxide and glycerol. The ingredients of the sanitizer, and their quantities, are based on recommendations from the WHO. Hydrogen peroxide and glycerol are affordable and can be bought at any pharmacy or cosmetics store. Thabiso Letlala, the team leader of this invention, said the idea is to get supplies into the country's most vulnerable communities, many with no running water for handwashing. Communities that are densely populated are at greater risk as they struggle to practise social distancing. "More than 55% of South Africa's population lives below the national poverty line," he said. "Flattening the curve could prove to be near impossible in many communities that are under-resourced and densely populated. Solutions are needed that will delay, if not prevent, the virus from reaching these communities."

The way forward

It is clear the world as we know it will never be the way it was before COVID-19. As the above stories show, the only way forward for us as individuals, and moreover, as African countries, is to be adaptive in order to navigate what is a constantly evolving world. Now is the time to empower and up skill ourselves. Most importantly, when we step back and take an elevated perspective on this crisis, this time is an opportunity for us to figure things out. And with this opportunity there is a responsibility to write our narratives, by being hyper-intentional about which needs we want to prioritize and the manner in which we want to fight for them.

When you look back on the COVID-19 chapter of your life, what will you want to have been fighting for?

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