At a time when science remains the only hope for humanity against a vindictive virus, the spotlight continues to be on those working tirelessly on the frontline. As the world observes international women’s day on March 8, FORBES AFRICA examines some of these intrepid women leading the charge with their services and solutions, combating dark nights and even darker days through the COVID-19 pandemic.
BY CHANEL RETIEF AND SIMONE SRIBRATH
WITHOUT A DOUBT, COVID-19 HAS EXACERBATED gender inequalities and deepened the chasm for women, as they continue to be disproportionately affected by the pandemic. These unprecedented times have highlighted raging issues around poverty, gender-based violence, and femicide. But these disruptive times have also brought into sharp focus the pioneering work of women in science, medicine, technology, and healthcare. A 2019 World Health Organization (WHO) report, Delivered by Women, Led by Men, states that 70% of people working in global health are women, yet only 25% hold senior roles. We believe that they all need to be celebrated.
FORBES AFRICA sat down with some of these resolute women who have been powering through health crises, unwavering, even before the days of Covid-19, and continue to contribute in their own unique way to quell the effects of the pandemic. The list on the following pages is in no particular order
METHODOLGY FOR WOMEN IN SCIENCE
Relevance in 2020
We looked at significant issues that had an impact on science over the last year, particularly related to the Covid-19 pandemic. We reviewed women across industries in both the public and private sectors. We cross-checked our nominees by their contributions and the impact they have had in science. We also reviewed professions that tend to be overlooked either for being too female-dominated or for not being known traditionally to employ women. We interviewed a single individual as a representative or subset of these professions across Africa to gauge their experiences. Several women are still doing ground-breaking work in science and technology, and their unsung contributions will continue to be featured on the pages of this magazine in the issues to come. Some of them work silently on the sidelines, trying to better the lives of others or coming up with solutions to save the planet.
Professor Quarraisha Abdool Karim
Professor Quarraisha Abdool Karim has been at the forefront of health crises since the beginning of her career.
“My career in science has never taken the usual trajectory.
I chose the career I did because I wanted to wake up every morning knowing that I was doing something I loved and knowing that I would be helping people in the process,” explains Abdool Karim.
Her contribution to science has seen awareness going to deserving causes. She began by raising awareness for Beta Thalassemia in the Durban community in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Her screening ensured parents with the genetic mutation were aware of the malformations it could cause in their children.
“Working at a population level showed me that science also had a social justice component to it and this is where I would find my calling,” says Abdool Karim.
Spurred on by this epiphany, Abdool Karim then went on to study epidemiology and this is where she found her passion as a scientist. This year, she has been at the forefront of the Covid-19 pandemic while still ensuring endemic diseases such as HIV are not forgotten. Her efforts were recognized by Christophe and Rodolphe Mérieux Foundation as she received the prestigious 2020 Christophe Mérieux Prize.
Professor Abdool Karim currently serves as chair of the South African National AIDS Council (SANAC) prevention technical task team, Vice President of the African Academy of Science, Southern Africa, and Foreign Associate Member of the Institute of Medicine (IoM) of the National Academies.
“I’ve always been single-minded when it comes to doing something and will do whatever it takes to get it done. This was the attitude I needed to have when it came to my study of HIV in southern Africa,” she adds.
The studies she conducted in the early 1990s pioneered awareness around the vulnerabilities of young women in contracting HIV and AIDS. Abdool Karim recalls how she spoke to vulnerable populations that had never been understood before and picked up on the gender inequities that existed in studying diseases.
I would get home, sit in my car, and cry from how exhausted I was
2020 has highlighted the importance of nursing staff more than ever before. A profession that mainly employs women, nursing and nurses have been at the receiving end of the chaos and devastation brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic. With hospitals overwhelmed even as numbers surged and beds ran out, the nurse-to-patient ratio has been at the highest it has ever been on a global scale.
Across Africa, nurses have selflessly dedicated themselves to Covid wards, making patients on ventilators comfortable or fighting to save the lives of those ebbing away.
Like other frontline workers, nurses to have had to sacrifice time with their families and loved ones. There have also been tearful losses in their own fraternity as the profession has experienced the highest rate of infections and death since the beginning of the pandemic in South Africa. KwaZulu-Natal has been one of the hardest-hit provinces in South Africa. From March last year to mid-January 2021, it has seen over 7,000 health workers become infected, a majority of these nursing staff. Surgical nurse Casey Moodley relates to us what it is like working in a Covid-19 ward and the fear she too encountered when she tested positive for the virus.
What influenced your decision to go into nursing?
I’ve been in the nursing profession for 11 years now. Growing up, if anything was wrong, it would be the nurse in the family who was asked what to do. This is what I wanted to be as I found myself drawn to caring for people and nursing allowed for me to do that while exploring all the possible specializations the medical field had to offer.
What have your experiences over the last year been?
It has been nothing short of a total nightmare with no end in sight so far. When Covid-19 first started, we had no idea it would be this bad and I don’t know if it will ever be the same. It has been mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausting and we know that there’s no end in sight to feeling this way.
It forced a change in our daily routine and the care we can provide. To reduce our risk of exposure, methods of care have had to become extremely impersonal and right now, I can’t picture being able to do my job without
my personal protective gear. Added to this is how reliant patients have become on us as we have become the only link they have to their families and their only source of communication.
It has been extremely isolating as well, as I went from having colleagues and being able to go home and spending time with my family to experiencing no human contact for weeks at a time out of fear of infecting my family. I would get home, sit in my car, and cry from how exhausted I was.
What was testing positive like for you?
It was one of the scariest and most stressful experiences. Seeing what happened to patients and what it can do made me fearful of passing it on to my family. I insisted on taking care of myself until I eventually felt better and it wasn’t contagious anymore.
Dr. Sinead Delany-Moretlwe,
Research Director of the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute
I started to think about the people who are like me… All the women I know are incredibly impressive and capable.
Passionate about women’s rights, particularly HIV/AIDS and sexual and reproductive health, Dr. Sinead Delany- Moretlwe has had recent success too with the work her team did with the HPTN 084 (HIV Prevention Trials Network) study.
As of 2019, there are over 38 million people across the globe who are HIV-positive; and HIV/AIDS-related illnesses have claimed the lives of over 690,000 in 2019 and seen 1.7 million new infections.
The HIV prevention and treatment network collaborated with the Witwatersrand University Reproductive Health and HIV Institute in South Africa on a method that has proven to be successful in HIV prevention in women. With over 20 years of experience in the field of reproductive health and HIV prevention, it was Delany-Moretlwe and her team who came up with the findings giving women in Africa hope about keeping their HIV status negative.
“As a young doctor, I trained and graduated and my early experiences were sort of at the height of when HIV was becoming widespread,” she explains. “So my clinical experience was having a lot of people who did have HIV in our wards, and we didn’t have antiretrovirals. Many people were tested, and there was not much that could be done for them. And I think that kind of solidified my desire to do something around HIV.”
Delany-Moretlwe adds that the notion of being an African woman has given her the confidence to “trust her voice”.
“I remember recognizing that at one point in my career,” she adds. “I kept comparing myself to men and [thinking] I fell short. Because I wanted to have kids and that I had kids and was trying to kind of be a scientist. And then I started to think about the people who are like me… All the women I know are incredibly impressive and capable.”
Dr. Matshidiso Moeti,
WHO Regional Director for Africa
t the center of the Covid-19 global pandemic is the World Health Organization (WHO), and representing the WHO’s Africa region is Matshidiso Moeti, who has been working in public health for 40 years.
“When I reflect on how I entered this field, it seems strange to remember that public health is a career I rather stumbled into rather than one I’d intentionally sought out from the beginning,” she says.
Born in South Africa, Moeti tells FORBES AFRICA how she was always influenced by her parents who were both medical doctors. Before WHO, her introduction to disease prevention and control was when she worked in a Tuberculosis ward in a district hospital. Later, Moeti found herself managing the HIV/AIDS program in Botswana when the country had the highest HIV prevalence in the world.
“We got through it by convincing decision-makers to adjust policies so that access to treatment could expand, and today, Botswana is one of a few countries in the WHO African region to have achieved the global 90-90-90 targets for HIV control,” Moeti says. “Achievements like these encouraged me to continue this public health career path and work to help people on a large scale.” She tells us more:
In choosing a woman to lead WHO in Africa for the first time, it was apparent that the ministers who elected me were hoping for a new vision and transformative change.
What was it like being a woman in the medical field in Botswana?
I think being a female medical professional and essentially
a minority in a man’s world helped me learn fast how to be diplomatic, but also encouraged me to speak up and advocate for women and other vulnerable people. When I was the HIV program manager in Botswana, I remember looking outside my window and seeing young couples as they flirted with each other. I could see the young woman looking downward shyly as the young man started touching her hand or face. I would think – just say no! Don’t give in and have sex before you are ready and if you do, insist on using a condom. To ensure young women became more assertive, I took to the radio waves and became notorious for talking about sex and safety. Until then, this was a taboo topic, but I think being a woman,
I saw things needed to change and we would only defeat AIDS if we were ready to have an open discussion. I was following in my mother’s infamous footsteps as she used to speak about family planning to communities and in public spaces such as the radio.
What has your experience as WHO regional director been like in the African context?
When I assumed this post six years ago, we were at a critical global moment with the Ebola outbreak and it was clear we couldn’t carry out business as usual. In choosing a woman to lead WHO in Africa for the first time, it was apparent that the ministers who elected me were hoping for a new vision and transformative change. Now, again, we are at a major inflection point with Covid-19. What has remained consistent since the beginning is the focus on results, transparency, and accountability at the heart of our decision-making process.
How has the role changed over the past year during the Covid-19 pandemic?
Since Covid-19 is a new disease and its evolution hasn’t always been as expected, we have had to constantly fine-tune our response. I think one initial surprise has been how Africa has done relatively better than other regions. For example, the African region has about 14% of the world’s population, but as of early January, accounts for about 2% of global cumulative cases and 4% of deaths. Only the Western Pacific region has fewer cases and deaths.
Professor Sheetal P. Silal
Typically, men outnumber women majoring in most STEM (science, tech, engineering, and math) disciplines, but 2020 proved that the projections and mathematical modeling that have shaped our understanding and possible outcomes of the Covid-19 virus have been conceptualized by both men and women alike.
Mathematicians and data scientists have been at the heart of
the response to the Covid-19 pandemic as they have assisted with understanding underlying trends, mapping possible risk factors, and determining the possible rate of virus spread.
Professor Sheetal P. Silal has a PhD in the mathematical modeling of infectious diseases.
“I have always had a passion for helping people and the African continent has always been plagued by endemic, highly contagious diseases; being in the field that I am has allowed me to study this closely and contribute [in whatever way] I can to combat these diseases,” she says.
She has been part of the South African Covid-19 modeling consortium and of the team that has created a dashboard to map the underlying risks associated with the pandemic. This allows for alerting the public of infection levels and provides an analysis of second waves at a district and provincial level.
Silal, however, is no stranger to mapping out infectious diseases as her research into malaria has taken her across Africa.
She attributes her success to the encouragement she has received from her parents and mentors.
“At home, there was never a time when I was told I couldn’t do something or achieve something just because I was a girl,” says Silal.
Now as a lecturer at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, she attempts to provide the same encouragement to her mentees. “I had a supervisor who was always supportive and now with the students I mentor and supervise, I try to be there for them in the same way and encourage their ideas and ambitions.”
She believes that to attract more women to the sciences, they need to be encouraged to explore it at a primary level and programs need to be created for more awareness on the options available to them.
The motto that she swears by? “It’s impossible until it’s done!”
Dr. Melinda Suchard
Head of the Centre for Vaccines and Immunology, National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD)
I matriculated at the end of 1993 and all I knew after that was that I liked Biology,” laughs Melinda Suchard. Appointed the Head of the Centre for Vaccines and Immunology at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) in South Africa in 2013, what ultimately shaped her choice to embark on a journey in medicine was that both her parents had endured medical conditions.
Doctors have felt worried about bringing the infection home to their families…
“I think what interested me further in [the field of ] immunology was the commonality between the sort of unanswered questions. My mother had a stroke and my father had a heart attack. My mother’s stroke was put down to an autoimmune condition involving autoantibodies. And I think I’ve always been searching for the underlying cause of that,” she explains.
In addition to working at the NICD, Suchard is also a lecturer in the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg.
Working at Wits and the NICD is of equal importance to Suchard, especially at this time.
“For myself, the research and the lecturing are the same aspects because it is part of the academics,” Suchard says. “But I do enjoy teaching. We have developed a master’s course in vaccinology that has been very exciting because we have seen our second-years helping out and volunteering at the Covid vaccine trial sites and watching vaccines being developed in real-time.”
Suchard admits to underestimating how enormous the pandemic would be when at the end of 2019, Wuhan reported a mysterious virus and then eventually when South Africa reported its first case in March.
But that quickly changed.
“I downplayed the media reports a lot because I think there was quite a lot of media sensationalism, and there still is,” Suchard says. “The biggest challenge I think on a personal level that I have seen now [is that] doctors have felt worried about bringing the infection home to their families, elderly relatives, and so on. So I think that’s a big one. I think the practicality of working in PPEs (personal protective equipment) is very difficult. And the constraints of managing patients under containment without their relatives, and really having to deal with a lot of aspects over and above just treating the symptoms of the patient, takes a toll.”
Psychotherapist and Founder of PureLife Wellness
Born in the East Rand, Gauteng, a province in South Africa, it has always been about “the mind” for Thandi Mvakali, the founder of Pure Life Wellness located in Sandton, Johannesburg.
“I always saw myself as a healer,” she says, reminiscing the time she left the corporate world, to pursue her passion for helping people.
“People used to ask me ‘but you’re a clinical psychologist, what are you doing in corporate?’ So my answer would always be ‘ultimately it’s about the mind’. And whether you’re in clinical or you’re in an organizational setup, the unit of intervention is an instance of being a human being,” Mvakali says.
“And clinical, obviously, you may deal with people who are slightly more disturbed or not coping whereas, in an organization, it is people you’re helping to optimize their performance,” Mvakali admits that when she started as a young psychologist, she did not realize how “unready” she was, more specifically, looking at how she was taught such a “western model” of psychology but when practically being on the ground, that model would not work.
Another formidable challenge in the mental health space is that not everyone is willing to pay.
“People are not always willing to invest and pay for their wellness. So you find a lot of people wanting us to do what we do for free.
“During this time of Covid, we received a lot of requests like that. However, what we did try to do during this time is offer mental health services at a reduced rate,” she says.
This past year when anxiety has been all-pervasive, Mvakali has had to help many patients deal with grief and loss.
“We call it an ambiguous loss,” she explains.
“Because we don’t know when the thing [Covid-19] is going to end and who it will come for next. And so there’s a lot of ambiguity.”
This is why her advice to people, more specifically women, entering the mental health space is: “You need to be willing to work on your own healing and your own wellness.”
Nolukhanyo ‘Khanya’ Bovula
Sometimes science does not fix everything.
This is not something you necessarily choose, it’s a calling,” says traditional healer Nolukhanyo ‘Khanya’ Bovula to FORBES AFRICA. Born in the small town of Alice, situated in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa, Bovula says that ever since she was a little girl, her family would always tell her that she has “the calling”.
“I just never understood what that meant.”
Traditional healing as a concept is not something unfamiliar to people in Africa but it’s also not something that is completely understood.
In a 2015 academic paper, Understanding Traditional African Healing, by Maboe G Mokgobi, it is argued that traditional healers play a pivotal role in many spheres of people’s lives since they are “medical knowledge storehouses”.
“Traditional healers serve many roles which include but not limited to custodians of the traditional African religion and customs, educators about culture, counselors, social workers, and psychologists,” Mokgobi stated.
After spending 18 years in the corporate world, Bovula realized there was more to understand when it came to becoming a traditional healer. She tells us more:
What has your spiritual journey looked like thus far?
I started my spiritual training in 2011. After that, I did start doing some work as a diviner but still had a full-time job [in corporate]. But I wasn’t paying much attention to my spiritual work, I was more focused on the corporate side of life. And then at some point, I was told that it will come to an end if I didn’t start focusing on my spiritual work. Then in 2017, it became obvious that my employer and I could no longer work together so I started formalizing things… I put up my Facebook page, created my YouTube channel.
And I was then approached by SA Psychics, an online platform for psychic advisors. The owner of the platform asked me to join them and I was like, ‘but I’m only a sangoma, I’m not even a psychic’. He was like, ‘trust me’ because I had given him a reading. Well, I was like, ‘okay, let’s go for it’. Then I joined them and at the time, I was the only African advisor. And it went very well, I was making good money. So in addition to running my own practice, I advise them as well.
Has business during the present time been flourishing?
There is economic depression, people are getting retrenched. Plus, there is Covid and people are working from home. So there are a lot of people suffering from anxiety. And that’s where we come in as psychics.
What I do is mainly counseling, in the sense that I help people get through whatever situations they are going through. It’s mostly about facing reality. Because what I find is a lot of people that come to psychics, come thinking that there’s probably a magic answer to their questions. And I find that usually, the answers you are seeking as a person are within.
I think what I do is becoming a movement, you know, there’s a shift, basically now. Spiritual people or traditional healers are becoming more accessible. I think it’s because of technology and understanding. Sometimes science does not fix everything.
Founder of Majik Water
What inspired entrepreneur Beth Koigi to found Majik Water was watching her own communities struggle for clean water. A Kenyan innovator, she has become a renowned advocate of the cause, turning condensation or moisture into clean drinkable water for low-income households.
Her solution is especially relevant now when the world has a new hygiene awareness program that water is a big part of, in combating Covid-19.
“I first became aware of the water troubles some parts of Kenya had when I went to university. I visited a region that had been struggling to get access to water and this is when it hit me that water was not as accessible as I thought,”says Koigi.
Looking at how arid Kenya is and the water shortages that arose as a result inspired her to try and come up with a solution. Her first startup looked at providing water filters as a means of preventing diseases that are communicable through unsafe water sources.
A drought in 2016 inspired her decision as “we would go up to eight months without access to water and it was like nothing I had ever experienced, helpless on that level”.
It was this eye-opening experience that led to the inception of Majik Water. In 2020, she advocated for clean water on a global scale as she appeared in the Netflix documentary, Brave Blue World: Racing to Solve Our Water Crisis, alongside the likes of A-list Hollywood actors Matt Damon and Liam Neeson.
“I didn’t expect for it to be as big as it was, I agreed to the experience as I saw it as a necessary showcase of the sustainable solutions for water access and wanted to do my part in representing Africa and what we are trying to do with accessible solutions for water,” says Koigi.
The documentary focused on innovations being made across the world in providing easy access to clean water.
Majik Water featured and contributed to the possibility of a sustainable future.
Now, more than ever, clean water is a basic need and the need for hygienic sanitization is significant as one of the key methods of preventing the spread of Covid-19, and Koigi believes that “for clean water to become a sustainable resource that is freely available, the solution has to occur at every level and the gaps in water resource management need to be addressed as a matter of urgency”.
Her message to other innovators is simple: “This is the time women are receiving more support, and having the right support system will see you uplifted rather than put out of view.”
Professor Rudo Mathivha
Head of Intensive Care Services, Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital
To be able to lead as a woman in any field, the best advice Professor Rudo Mathivha can give is to remember your core principles. This is something she had to reiterate to herself when she became Head of Intensive Care Services at Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital in Johannesburg. It wasn’t easy, she admits, being a black female head of department in the largest hospital in Africa.
“There were such nasty, discouraging remarks being passed such as ‘oh, there goes the intensive care unit, and no, she can’t control the departmental funds, she doesn’t understand finance, or she’s going to pilfer funds’. People were basically just disrespecting me,” she says.
But what motivated Mathivha, who also happens to be “the first black South African woman to study Critical Care Medicine”, were the lessons she learned from her father.
“At first, I was on the phone every evening, sobbing to my father. And my father said to me, ‘what are you?’ So I said, ‘I’m an intensive care specialist’. So, he said to me, ‘then show them that they are not specialists in your field’. And I remember his words, and he said, ‘you stick to the correct principles and nobody can argue with you and nobody can trip you’,” Mathivha recalls as she sits in the boardroom with her mask on at Chris Hani.
And after that conversation with her father, there was nothing Mathivha felt she could not try to conquer. She has been an important part of the fight against Covid-19 and on the frontline of the pandemic. She speaks to FORBES AFRICA:
What were some of the biggest challenges you think doctors have faced in trying to treat patients who have tested positive and still trying to curb the spread of infection?
When Covid arrived and presented a challenge, we all worked together here at the hospital as heads of departments to establish a Covid ICU. Because we still needed to maintain the non-Covid ICU, we worked out a system, and the ICUs have both run seamlessly. However, as doctors, Covid was frustrating because we didn’t know what was happening.
And because there was so much to stress about, I wasn’t getting a lot of sleep in the beginning. Because I was worried about the staff in the Covid and non-Covid ICU wards. And when you stress and don’t get enough sleep, your immune system takes a knock and then you yourself get Covid. Which is what happened to me. I was in ICU for six days. And even after I was out, I was still so tired. My thing is that I am so used to being driven, this is not me. So the whole time, I just said I’m going to beat this thing and it’s not going to get me down.
What are some of your key takeaways from the pandemic?
Four things! Number one, is not to panic when you face an unknown and catastrophic situation. I think as a country, we did reasonably well. Number two is to learn to think on your feet. Number three is to try and teach society to cooperate with each other. And number four, to not adopt a very patriarchal approach, but also not to be too soft. Sometimes, hard decisions have to be made.
What has your experience been like as a woman in the medical field and voicing your opinion on matters around the pandemic?
It’s not that we [women] were absent, there is still a lot of male dominance in medicine, especially in the higher positions. And there is still that male preference when people go to seek special expertise or information. I think because of our societal patterns, people would rather receive news from a man than from a woman. And yet, we have the same expertise. So I think in that regard, raising our opinions, we get left out when we should be brought to the forefront. South Africa pays a lot of lip service to gender equality and to promoting women in high positions and we’re not seeing it happen. And that is the one thing that I would like to push. So, it is not like we don’t have those women experts, we have a lot of them!