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Danai Gurira: The Celluloid Warrior Fighting Against HIV

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HIV/AIDS remains a global concern. International star and Zimbabwean playwright Danai Gurira is using her celebrity to battle for its elimination.


A superhero on the big screen and now a possible superhero in real life, actor and playwright, Danai Gurira, is making it her mission to join the fight against HIV/AIDS.

She is known for playing General Okoye in one of last year’s biggest films, Black Panther, which grossed over a billion dollars worldwide.

The famous Zimbabwean says the fight against the epidemic has been evident in her life ever since she was a little girl.

Recently appointed a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador, she chats to FORBES AFRICA about her work.

READ MORE | Danai Gurira: ‘Fully Feminine And Fully Fierce’

On December 3, 2018, a day after the Global Citizen Festival where Gurira made an appearance as a co-host to rapturous applause from an audience of 75,000 in Johannesburg, we meet her at an HIV clinic on the outskirts of the city in a township called Tembisa. It’s a trial clinic called Imbokodo for testing a combination of two experimental vaccines to prevent HIV.

At the clinic, Gurira meets with a group of women heading it, to discuss and learn how the trials work.

One of the women, dressed in a pink blouse, responsible for creating the trial vaccine, talks to Gurira about their work. Maria Grazia Pau is the Senior Director, Compound Development Team Leader, for the HIV vaccine programs at Janssen.

 Pau has over 18 years of experience in the field of viral vectors.

“We have seen responses in the body systemically when we check the blood but also we have checked other studies, and we do see responses there,” she tells Gurira.

Everyone in the room pays attention.

“The composition is complex, we want to protect from many different types of HIV because there are so many traits everywhere,” Pau says.

“Right,” Gurira nods attentively.

“It is the answer to elimination,” Gurira says.

The group of women join in the conversation.

They may just be on a breakthrough to finding an HIV vaccine.

The study is being conducted by the HIV Vaccine Trials Network, Janssen Vaccines & Prevention B.V., part of the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson, and all the participating study clinics.

These partners are working in collaboration with community stakeholders to ensure this research is acceptable to the local community and respectful of local cultures.

With 27 sites on the continent alone, they have clinics in countries including Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique.

Gurira has recently collaborated with them to help further their research and spread awareness about the disease.

Gurira was born in the United States (US) and later moved to Zimbabwe, when she was a young girl.

Growing up in Harare, she saw and heard a number of stories relating to HIV that touched her deeply.

The 1980s were a time when the disease had started spreading globally.

“I can’t really extricate my upbringing from understanding how this epidemic hit southern Africa and how it changed the tapestry of life,” she says.

The stigma around the disease and how women were treated were some of the issues that concerned her.

“Growing up, I witnessed how it was affecting, not only cultural dynamics, but also exacerbating issues around gender dynamics and various things that filled me with great passion,” she says.

“How women were dealing with a great amount of stigma in the family; if HIV was in the homestead, the involvement of even in-laws and how that was being interpreted –  about faulting a woman. [As well as] blame imposed upon women and the loss of a spouse and how that would affect how a woman was treated post that time. So there were a lot of things affecting me as I grew up and as I watched these things happen.”

 It was those personal experiences that shaped how she viewed HIV and the importance of eradicating it.

It was later that she moved back to the US and pursued a career in psychology and then a masters in Fine Arts.

How people perceived HIV there, was not what she expected.

“Coming to the US and seeing how the African was viewed as a statistic; I was seeing real people with real stories and experiences who were truly people who had aspirations and careers and had many things going for them that they were working towards.”

READ MORE | 2010 all over again: a musical extravaganza to honor Nelson Mandela

At the time, antiretroviral (ARV) therapy had not yet been introduced and there was no way to manage it.

“It was such a death sentence at the time,” she says.

“And to come to the US to find that what we were dealing with in southern Africa was statistical, that also gave a great amount of need to bridge that very unfortunate disconnect between the actual human experience of it and the value of people who were being affected by this… and how they were being viewed.”

While there, she connected with some of her friends who did field work around the issue while she was more focused on her advocacy in the field of arts.

She married her advocacy for HIV with her passion for the arts.

Gurira began writing plays in an effort to use her strengths as an actor, and tell stories about issues she felt strongly about.

She co-wrote and co-starred in In the Continuum, a play about HIV/AIDS from the perspective of a married Zimbabwean woman.

With this play, her aim was to break away from the “statistical component of how the African is viewed often”.

In December 2011, In the Continuum commemorated World AIDS Day.

Little did she know that was the beginning of her activism against HIV/AIDS.

The ‘golden age’ of HIV science

Glenda Gray, a National Research Foundation A-rated scientist, CEO and President of the South African Medical Research Council. Picture: Motlabana Monnakgotla

The same year, a woman in South Africa by the name of Dr Glenda Gray, was elected into the US Institute of Medicine, National Academies, as a foreign associate for her research on preventing HIV-infected mothers from passing the virus to their newborns.

She is a National Research Foundation A-rated scientist, CEO and President of the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC).

She is a qualified paediatrician and clinician and co-founder of the internationally recognized Perinatal HIV Research Unit in Soweto, South Africa.

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Health

[IN NUMBERS] Coronavirus Update: COVID-19 In Africa

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While most cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus have been reported in the U.S. , Europe, and China, the virus is spreading rapidly across the African continent.

The confirmed worldwide cases for the virus have surpassed a million with the current figure being at 1,286,294.

The increase in new reported cases around the world has led the World Health Organization (WHO) to declare the coronavirus a global pandemic.

The death toll continues to rise globally, and is currently at 70,344.

Italy leads with 15,887. Spain is second with 13,055 . The U.S. is third with 9,620. France is fourth with 8,078, and the UK is fifth with 4,934.

China, where the virus originated from, maintains that its death toll is at 3,331.

The figure of the global recoveries stands at 271,867.

Here are the numbers in Africa:

Country Confirmed Cases Confirmed DeathsConfirmed Recoveries
Algeria1,32015290
Angola1422
Benin2215
Botswana61
Burkina Faso3451790
Burundi3
Cameroon658917
Cabo Verde (Cape Verde)711
Central African Republic (CAR)8
Chad9
Congo4552
Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast)261337
Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)154183
Djibouti599
Egypt117358247
Equatorial Guinea161
Eritrea29
Eswatini (formerly Swaziland)9
Ethiopia4424
Gabon2411
Gambia412
Ghana214531
Guinea1215
Guinea-Bissau18
Kenya14244
Liberia1333
Libya181
Madagascar722
Malawi412
Mali4751
Mauritania612
Mauritius22777
Morocco1,1137176
Mozambique101
Namibia163
Niger1841013
Nigeria232533
Rwanda1044
Senegal226292
Seychelles10
Sierra Leone6
Somalia71
South Africa 1,6551195
South Sudan1
Sudan1222
Tanzania2213
Togo52322
Tunisia574225
Uganda52
Western Sahara4
Zambia3913
Zimbabwe91

Note: The numbers will be updated as new information is available.

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This Entrepreneur Built Tent Floors After Hurricane Katrina. Now He’s Building A Pop-Up Coronavirus Hospital

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EverBlock Systems designed the nurses stations and patient pods inside this pop-up coronavirus ... [+] EVERBLOCK SYSTEMS

Arnon Rosan manufactures giant Lego-like building blocks, which can be converted into furniture or walls for offices, classrooms, and military training operations. They’ve been used to build a life-sized ice castle in New York City’s Bryant Park and a 17-foot-tall menorah in Washington, D.C. But now his company, EverBlock Systems, is sending truckloads of plastic blocks and interlocking wall units from New York to Louisiana to build a temporary hospital for coronavirus patients.

“We don’t wish for disaster, certainly,” Rosan says of the virus sweeping the country. “But we’re happy to be able to respond with something that we know people need and solves the problem quickly and efficiently.” 

State and federal governments and health systems across the United States are scrambling to find space to treat patients as coronavirus cases have quickly overwhelmed emergency rooms and ICUs. Convention centers and arenas from Los Angeles to Philadelphia are being transformed into temporary hospitals, as are outdoor spaces, such as New York City’s Central Park.Today In: Healthcare

The one thing all these places have in common? “They have enough room to set up safe and appropriate working environments for the medical staff … and the equipment and supplies that are needed,” says Dr. Irwin Redlener, Director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University. 

For his part, Rosan is busy working to fulfill an order to build 2,000 patients pods and 130 nurses stations for the field hospital under construction inside the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans.

Louisiana-based Dynamic Construction Group, the primary contractor on the hospital project, tapped EverBlock on March 26 to provide its products. At that point, Rosan had a head start: there were nearly a thousand wall panels and 60,000 blocks in his company’s warehouse ready to load onto the 53-foot trucks that would take them down to New Orleans. But he’ll need to provide a lot more. Rosan estimates the total project will require close to 6,000 panels and 150,000 blocks. In addition to 13 full-time employees, he’s recently hired 9 temporary workers to help scale up production at the company’s manufacturing facility and warehouse in the Bronx. 

“We’re being asked to deliver a year’s worth of product in one month,” says Rosan. Though his usual orders have dried up, he’s already expecting EverBlock’s revenues to more than double from an expected $7.5 million to more than $20 million by the end of this year. The convention center contract alone will likely come in well above $10 million, he says. 

This isn’t Rosan’s first time supplying material for disaster relief projects. His previous company Signature Systems Group, which he founded in 1999, manufactured temporary floor and roadway systems that could gain access to remote sites, such as oil rigs. Rosan says he supplied modular floors for tents used by the National Guard following Hurricanes Katrina, Ike and Sandy. He also worked on the flooring for a tent project for the World Food Programme in Haiti after the earthquake. 

In 2013, he sold Signature Systems Group to a private equity firmand was looking for something new to keep busy. He declined to disclose the deal price, but said at the time of the sale, the company had around $90 million in revenue. His current company began as a side project — the idea for developing the company’s giant blocks came from his kids. But when customers began to realize their potential, the company took off. 

“People seem to just engage and resonate with this concept of ‘Wow this oversized building block. I can build anything,” he recalls.

Inside the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans. 
EVERBLOCK SYSTEMS

EverBlock is delivering the walls and blocks that make up the tented structures in which patients will sleep. Each pod is an individual chamber that will have its own ventilation duct to ensure that patients with different viral loads are kept separate. Dynamic Construction is working on the ventilation, electrical and all of the other construction components needed to make the temporary hospital function. 

“These beds will be for patients who are not fragile. They don’t need to be on a ventilator, they don’t need an ICU bed, but they still need to be hospitalized,” Louisiana’s Democratic Governor Jim Bel Edwards said earlier this week at a press conference outside the convention center. While the original plan had been to care for 1,000 patients at the facility, Edwards had to quickly double that number a few days later in response to the surge in patients. The goal now is to have 1,000 beds set up by early next week and the full 2,000 beds by April 20. 

“My philosophy is when these things happen, you have to react in real time,” Rosan says. “That’s something that we’re just really good at — that quick rallying of resources to make it happen.”

Katie Jennings, Forbes Staff, Healthcare

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Health

Surge Of Smartphone Apps Promise Coronavirus Tracking, But Raise Privacy Concerns

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Topline: A pan-European team of researchers announced Wednesday their plan to release a smartphone app that would notify users if they’ve been exposed to someone infected with coronavirus, the latest example of tech-driven coronavirus solutions that have also raised concerns about user privacy.

  • A European project called Pan-European Privacy Preserving Proximity Tracing is working toward releasing a coronavirus tracing app in the next week that would use anonymous Bluetooth technology to track when a smartphone comes in close range with another, so if a user were to test positive for coronavirus those at risk of infection could be notified.
  • Contact tracing, or determining people who may have been exposed to someone with a virus, is an established aspect of pandemic control and was used effectively to tackle coronavirus in countries like China, Singapore and South Korea in the form of smartphone tracking.
  • University of Oxford researchers and the U.K. government are working on a similar project— but unlike other smartphone tracking systems, the British version in development would be based on voluntary participation and bet on citizens inputting their information out of a sense of civic duty.
  • The U.S. government is in talks with companies like Facebook FB and Google GOOGL and other tech companies about tracking if users are social distancing using large amounts of anonymous, aggregated location data— this information is less precise, and more likely to anticipate outbreaks rather than pinpoint individuals who have been exposed to the virus.
  • 1.5 million Israelis have voluntarily downloaded a mobile app that alerts users if they’ve come into contact with someone with coronavirus— but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has still ordered that potential coronavirus carriers have their phones monitored, a controversial move the government says is necessary, as the 17% of the population using the app is not enough to fight off the pandemic.  
  • Moscow , on a city-wide lockdown since Monday, announced Wednesday that a new phone app that will officials to track the movements of people diagnosed with coronavirus in the capital city would be launched on Thursday, saying the government will lend a smartphone to anyone unable to download the app.

Crucial quote: “We’re exploring ways that aggregated anonymized location information could help in the fight against [coronavirus]. One example could be helping health authorities determine the impact of social distancing, similar to the way we show popular restaurant times and traffic patterns in Google Maps ,” Google spokesman Johnny Luu told the The Washington Post. He made sure to note it “would not involve sharing data about any individual’s location, movement, or contacts.”

Key background: Private and public entities alike are looking for ways to fight off coronavirus as the pandemic continues. On Wednesday, there were more than 900,000 confirmed cases worldwide and nearly 50,000 deaths.Officials told The New York Times NYT that The National Health Service, Britain’s centralized national health system, is trusted by citizens— and paired with the strong data privacy laws in place, said they think people would agree to join the effort to share their private information to help trace infections. However, American tech firms are reported to still be skeptical about sharing substantial data with the U.S. government ever since Edward Snowden revealed the NSA was collecting information from the firms clandestinely. 

Surprising fact: The information tech companies have access to data that sheds light on Americans’ behavior in light of the coronavirus pandemic. According to a Facebook analysis, restaurant visits fell about 80% in Italy and 70% in Spain— while Americans only stopped eating out at a rate of 31%.

Carlie Porterfield, Forbes Staff, Business

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