Dear colleagues and students
On 5 March 2020, the country anxiously observed as Minister of Health, Dr Zweli Mkhize, announced that South Africa’s first positive COVID-19 case had been confirmed. The University of Cape Town (UCT) closed on 16 March, with term vacation beginning a week earlier to allow students to return home as the country went into national lockdown a year ago at midnight on 26 March 2020.
Undoubtedly the past year has been characterised by immeasurable loss, uncertainty, learning and unlearning, and resilience.
On Thursday, 25 March, the UCT executive held a special COVID-19 commemoration where we observed a moment of silence. The executive and I lit candles to remember the members of the UCT community we have lost to this deadly virus (and all lives lost during this period), and created a small space for each of us to reflect on the recent past and commit ourselves to a future of growth and healing as a community.
We salute the collective efforts of all our extraordinary staff, students and alumni who remained steadfast and focused in helping the university navigate one of its hardest times. This includes our experts and scientists who were in the frontline clinical work – whether it was treating patients, advising government through various ministerial advisory committees, or playing an active role in research initiatives and spearheading scientific efforts in the clinical trials for effective COVID-19 vaccines.
There were those who worked diligently in ensuring that the operations of the university ran smoothly despite the impact of the pandemic. These were our campus essential workers, such as cleaning staff and Campus Protection Services. This also includes all our staff working in the background, often online and frequently least noticed, to support our students and to ensure that UCT ran efficiently. I laud them for their courage and commitment.
I would like to thank UCT’s COVID-19 Coordinating Committee (CCC), chaired by the university’s Chief Operating Officer, Dr Reno Morar. It is tasked with continued close monitoring of any developments around COVID-19 and is working in partnership with the Department of Health, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, the Western Cape Department of Health, and other spheres and agencies of government, as well as the executive and departments across UCT.
UCT was fortunate that there were valuable and effective digital resources at the beginning of the pandemic, and that members of our teaching staff were able to adapt to remote teaching. It was not perfect, but it was effective under difficult circumstances. Many had to stop their research work to adjust their teaching. We are continually learning valuable lessons that we are applying to the 2021 academic year.
South Africa’s Sisonke clinical trial of the investigational single-dose Janssen COVID-19 vaccine candidate began on 17 February 2021, at Khayelitsha Hospital, with President Cyril Ramaphosa, Dr Mkhize and various frontline healthcare workers among the first to receive the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) vaccine. Professor Linda-Gail Bekker and Professor Graeme Meintjes, of UCT’s Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine in the Faculty of Health Sciences, were present for the auspicious occasion, and both played leading roles in the J&J vaccine trials.
The challenge now is to ensure that as many people are vaccinated as possible over the coming months. This provides a glimmer of hope following a year that has been filled with uncertainty.
I encourage all of us to remain vigilant, as the virus remains a reality. It is everybody’s responsibility to adhere to the COVID-19 regulations and protocols of social distancing, hand hygiene and wearing of masks in public, for the safety of all.
As always, let us not stop practicing kindness, understanding and empathy towards each other.
Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng
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