By Zandile Mthembu, Head of Experimentation
On 13 March 2020, the Ministry of Health of Eswatini announced the first confirmed COVID-19 case. On 20 March, the Government declared a 21-day partial lockdown with only essential services remaining available. Government ministries, private and development sectors have responded to the state of emergency with various interventions. The unprecedemted COVID 19 pandemic has not only brought about uncertainty but has challenged us to look for ways to manage on the go – each day at a time.
Since, 23 March the UN Eswatini offices has been telecommuting. We at the UNDP Accelerator Lab have been revising our 2020 plans for COVID-19 response. The Lab team is rethinking of innovative ways to conduct collective intelligence to map solutions that can be experimented.
Our first quest for mapping how the citizens are reacting and dealing with COVID-19 began on social media! We found that even though social media has been criticized for being a conduit for fake news, it has led us to good and on the pulse information from locals. While doing so, we came across brilliant posts and conversations.
1. New sources of data:
I came across this post by lecturer Dr Mdumiseni Dlamini, in Geography and Environmental Sciences, from University of Eswatini (UNESWA). He shared a COVID-19 susceptibility map – a geography information system, that shows interesting data that shows the vulnerable population reside in rural areas. I went straight to the spatial analysis platform ArcGIS, and learned that this site uses maps and other multimedia content to tell stories about geographical locations. I was pleasantly surprised to also learn that a colleague in the Global UNDP COVID-19 group on Teams, also identified and shared details about this resource.
The ArcGIS tool has become a reliable data resource for awareness of COVID-19; transmission risks, susceptibility, resource (healthcare) scarcity, exposure risk and risk profiling. It clearly identifies the areas that we should be focusing on and helps in the design of effective solutions that speak to the COVID-19 response plans for Eswatini country office. The plans are aligned to the COVID-19 UNDP Integrated response for helping countries to prepare, respond and recover, focusing particularly on the most vulnerable.
UNESWA collaborated with Wits University in South Africa, in developing the COVID-19 Eswatini Dashboard that uses data to inform the public about developments on confirmed cases and also provides predictions and transmission patterns of the virus in the country. The lab has been tracking the trends to also inform some of the planned country office interventions and situational analysis.
2. Citizen comments about initiatives that are rolled out
Following the safety measures taken by the Government to lockdown, schools were closed thus interrupting studies. The Ministry of Education together with UNICEF and other private sector partners, began broadcasting lessons on television and radio. Social media conversations centered on concerns on the reach of such services to rural communities began. This was in cognizance that the national coverage for radio and TV is not more than 70% respectively. This means that, there is a significant proportion of children that will be left behind, thus undoing some of the great achievements made in meeting SDGs 4, 6 and 10. The lab engaged with Ministry of Education to explore various interventions that will focus on inclusion and to ensure continuity of education for all learners, with special attention to rural or economically deprived areas, areas with no connectivity, and disabled learners. Discussions to explore solutions are still on going.
3. Informal sector support from Government
Municipalities such as Mbabane Council shared posts on work undertaken to ensure safety of market vendors (mostly women) through awareness creation of COVID-19 and handing out sanitizers and safety equipment. The Lab has already began mapping the economic impacts of COVID-19 on the informal sector given the decrease in mobility, access and disrupted supply chain. These issues among others are affecting livelihoods and prospects of businesses surviving beyond the pandemic. The predicted ripple effect on families and communities is predictably grave. The Acc Lab has started exploring existing solutions with private sector partners that can address issues of access to finance, to assist the informal sector’s recovery post COVID-19.
4. Innovative Covid-19 responses
The virus has disrupted several businesses as usual operations globally, however we have noticed that it has created opportunities for innovation and digitization of many services in Eswatini. On innovation: The University of Eswatini (UNESWA), Faculty of Science stepped up to the hand sanitizer shortages challenge by using their Chemistry lab infrastructure to mass produce alcohol based hand sanitizer according to WHO’s recommended formulation. They have been able to supply the nation with the much needed sanitizers at a very minimal price.
We noticed a growing trend of retail businesses switching to social media to advertise services for shopping and home deliveries to minimize movement of people to shopping centers. However, as a lab we noticed with concern that informal traders, rural based and small businesses do not seem to have an online presence. This is an area that we would be exploring further to ensure that food systems particularly are mapped to determine the state of food security in the country.
What else has the Acc Lab been up to since COVID-19?
1. Country Office response to COVID-19
The Acc Lab contributed in crafting the UNDP country office rapid response, by contributing interventions for informal sector. This was informed by research that the lab conducted which identified challenges and potential socio-economic solutions for the informal sector.
2. Mapping of rural community-based solutions for COVID-19
The Lab has engaged with NGOs working directly with rural communities, to tap into their structures, expertise and knowledge base for mapping solutions that enable them to conform to the hygiene and precautionary practices for COVID-19.
3. Experiment on digitization of distance learning
The Lab expedited discussions of experimenting on an eLearning platform with the University of Eswatini (UNESWA) that will enable interactive distance education. We also harvested information from our partner Accelerator Lab in Kenya, who live in a country that has been leading in designing a number of apps that allow people living in rural communities to access education through various forms of tech savvy tools and platforms.
4. Food security mapping and digitization
We are exploring a web-based dashboard experiment with a UNDP co-funded project named Climate Smart Market-oriented Agriculture Farmers, which supports farmers to build resilience against climate impacts while linking them to markets. This will enable farmers in the project to showcase their produce on a digital marketing platform as an option to advertise and sell products across the country. The Lab is mapping other subsistence farming communities whose data can be integrated in this platform for them leverage on this project as one of the ways they could sustain their livelihood.
Share in the comments what are the emerging COVID-19 trends in your country? Tag #EswatiniAccLab