SA women lead the fight against COVID-19

Friday, August 21, 2020

In times of crisis and uncertainty, it is human nature to bury one’s head in the sand with the hope that one will not cross hairs with an impending storm.

While there are those who will wish the storm away, others make a conscious decision to dive into the eye of the storm.

Monique Schoombie chose the latter.

The 34-year-old is among the many dedicated South Africans who have rolled up their sleeves to fight the COVID-19 storm.

She and her team have worked around the clock to ensure that a medical device, which is critical in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, rolls off the production line and into the wards of hospitals that need it most.

As a Senior Engineer, Schoombie is responsible for product lifecycle management, optimisation and automation at the Council for Scientific Innovation and Research (CSIR).

Thanks to her and her team’s efforts at the CSIR, thousands of South Africans infected with COVID-19 will breathe a little easier with the help of a local ventilator.

The ventilator is meant to assist patients showing respiratory distress in the early phase of COVID-19 infection.

Women like Schoombie have played an integral part in ensuring that ventilators, known as a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) device become a reality.

Coincidentally, as South Africa commemorates the achievements and sacrifices made by women this Women’s Month, the first batch of ventilators are set to make their arrival at state hospitals.

A solution of the CSIR, the CPAP is a device that uses an innovative design to provide a mild level of oxygenated air pressure to keep the airways open and assist with breathing.

With the COVID-19 storm having steadily gained pace since its arrival on South African shores in March, the team worked flat out to bring the device to life at a time when the pandemic has already claimed over 12000 lives.

“Seeing some of the components come off the line after so many months of insane hard work is invigorating,” she tells SAnews.

The units are non-invasive and fill the need for readily available breathing apparatus, deployed and applied easily – even outside of hospitals – for intervention in cases where patients are at an early, non-intensive stage of respiratory distress, caused by the Coronavirus.

Due to its ease of use, the device can be used in both high-tech clinical environments, as well as temporary settings, such as field hospitals and quarantine facilities that have been established across the country to handle COVID-19 cases. 

The mother of two has been critical to the entire industrialisation and production effort that will save many lives.

Having previously supported the University of Pretoria with the development of the CPAP device, when the virus arrived on South African shores, the CSIR team investigated the use of such devices for COVID-19 patients.

Putting their shoulders to the wheel in March, the team kick-started the process to develop a fast, reliable, easy to manufacture and easy to use CPAP device.

The team produced the first prototype in April 2020 and an application was submitted to the National Ventilator Project (NVP).

The development of the device forms part of government’s NVP under the auspices of the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition (DTIC) and is supported by the Solidarity Fund.

Jointly conceived by DTIC Minister Ebrahim Patel and Health Minister Zweli Mkhize, the project was born out of the need to ensure the country meets the rising health treatment demands while ensuring local manufacturing.

At least 20 000 of these ventilators came off the assembly line on 31 July 2020, as announced by DTIC Minister Ebrahim Patel, during a virtual national science and innovation conference on COVID-19.

“The device was qualified and in June, we also obtained our license to manufacture from the South African Health Products Regulators Authority (SAHPRA). We have now done industrialisation of the system and the production as well,” says Schoombie.

Like driving in a downpour, getting the device to the production line has not been an easy journey.

“Yes, it has been challenging but also it has been very rewarding. I firmly believe that when we go through something that is difficult, we learn from it and grow stronger from it,” she says.

After witnessing first-hand the difficulty and delays in sourcing materials abroad as countries, the world over, shut their borders to keep the Coronavirus at bay, Schoombie can attest to the importance of boosting local manufacturing.

“Initially during the design [phase] we were sourcing these components [abroad]. We have since localised some of them so that we do not need to source them internationally. [Sourcing them internationally] definitely affected design at the beginning. We are now sourcing these components locally as far as possible,” she explains.

Procurement and production meetings aimed at getting the CPAP device to the market, have consumed Schoombie’s life in these last few months.

While the diverse team at the CSIR has worked day and night to ensure that the device gets into the hands of health workers, it has done so with the backing of global technology powerhouse – Siemens AG.

A long-standing partner of the CSIR, Siemens backed the project as a technology partner providing the Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) software support to the CSIR.

The public-private partnership breathed life into the government’s call to strengthen relations between the public and private sector for a common cause. 

Siemens Southern and Eastern Africa Media Relations Manager, Boitumelo Masike says the company is keen on assisting the African continent to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Siemens sees an opportunity to play an effective role in helping Africa overcome the COVID-19 pandemic and embrace new exponential technologies combined with human talent to accelerate industrialisation and drive economic growth.”      

“Our role as a company is to use our solutions, technology and expertise to make a difference where we operate, says Masike.

Masike said in an ever-evolving world, change remains the only constant.

“Moving forward it will remain imperative for Siemens to stay abreast of changes and industry trends that will enable us to continue disrupting various industries with our innovative technologies and solutions, while continuing to empower and ensure a positive and lasting impact on the societies we operate in.”

For Schoombie, the gruelling months of hard, remote work compounded by the restriction put in place to curb the spread of the Coronavirus has come at a personal cost.

“The isolation from friends and family, from support have been a challenge, especially with the current pressures with not only the pandemic but with regards to the project and so on.

“What I have learned is that it really does take a village, not only to raise kids but also to create anything and I must say that even though we have been working virtually, I find that I have a renewed faith in our team. I feel we are a stronger and more integrated team.”

The aspirant pianist would have liked to spend more time with family - but managing a project of this magnitude while juggling her six year-old son and eight year-old daughter has left little time for life’s simple pleasures.

While the country still has a long way to go in ensuring the total emancipation of women, it is clear that gains have been made in making women’s voices heard.

At a time when the world is experiencing bleak times as a result of the pandemic, Schoombie is urging women to find their passion which will help them through the dark days.

“I really believe in finding your passion. If you find your passion and persevere through even those days that feel overwhelming once you take those overwhelming days and handle them one by one I think you can achieve almost anything” she says.

No doubt as we commemorate the 64th anniversary of the historic 1956 women’s march to the Union Buildings, future generations will look back on the strength of the current generation of women who are leaving their mark in the fight against pandemic.

While the country continues to battle the pandemic with 599940 COVID-19 cases recorded, Schoombie and her team can breathe a sigh of relief having afforded COVID-19 patients a chance to breathe a little easier.

No storm can ever erase that. –