Change the world


We need to mask up and ramp up local solutions to break the Covid-19 transmission chain in our diverse urban, township, informal settlement and rural communities.

To help achieve this, Nelson Mandela University has stepped up to vice-chancellor Professor Sibongile Muthwa’s call to mobilise our expertise and facilities.

Working closely with local and provincial government in the Eastern Cape, we are focusing on optimising citizen protection and patient care before it gets to the critical stage because we do not have sufficient critical care resources.

Speaking from a medical perspective, we cannot emphasise enough the importance of the entire population, adults and children, wearing face masks as much as possible.

Whether it is a medical or non-medical face mask or a scarf, wear whatever you have, wash it regularly, and do not step outside your home without it.

The Covid-19 virus particles spread in the tiny droplets produced when sneezing or coughing, which other people then breathe in.

The droplets can also spread when they fall onto surfaces such as tables or vehicle seats and people make contact with them. The droplets can also be suspended in air for up to eight hours.

Asian countries have shown that wearing a mask together with social distancing has positively contributed to controlling the virus spread.

Face masks together with regular hand washing and sanitisers (both of which kill the virus) are the first and most critical line of defence because the problem with the virus is that people who are Covid-19 positive can be asymptomatic for a much longer period than the normal influenza viruses.

During this time, they are passing Covid-19 on to others, and we are concerned that undetected infections could contribute 20 to 50 times the number of positive cases being quoted.

We have teams of chemists from our faculty of science and pharmacy teams from our faculty of health sciences producing 70% alcohol sanitisers in our laboratories for public distribution.

Our chemists and engineers are also using our 3D printer to print face shields for medical and health services teams, and our engineers are developing ventilators to bridge the shortage.

Our faculty of humanities is mobilising a team of fashion and communication designers from our departments of visual arts and media and communication to begin rolling out plans for multi-tiered community and garment industry collaborations.

Our fashion design team, led by lecturers Raquel Adriaan and Tyrone James, is engaged in the development and reverse engineering of patterns and prototypes for medical scrubs, gowns, aprons and booties, in anticipation of the need to facilitate the local production of urgently needed protective clothing supplies for medical teams.

The team is compiling a database of local cut, make and trim establishments, garment manufacturers and designers, many of whom are our alumni.

We need to facilitate collaborations between industry and the health authorities to determine the numbers of items needed, fabric type and fabric sources to develop an effective rollout plan.

The faculty of humanities is also initiating an exciting community project, inspired by the #Masks4all initiative and other global mask-producing movements.

In collaboration with our university’s communication and marketing division, a call will be sent out on social media to the university’s multistakeholder communities, colleagues, alumni and students, many of whom feel powerless to contribute to the greater good of society while confined in lockdown.

We are calling on everyone with a sewing machine to step up and sew non-medical masks for distribution to those most urgently in need of them, notably families who live in crowded and vulnerable circumstances, emergency staff travelling on public transport, and health-care workers tending to the sick.

Time is not on our side, and as a country we are going to need to considerably gear up our economic and emergency responses, including in the rural areas where many hospitals do not have any ventilators.

We commend the closing down of liquor outlets across the country, but what we also need to hear from government is that it is using part of the Covid-19 donation fund on food parcels that are distributed to the marginalised and poor, as millions of people are without food or money.

The lockdown has had a huge impact on the economy.

Business, industry and the financial sector need to come forward with solutions to help their staff and community.

It cannot be profit as usual — there needs to be a balance between sustainability and profit, with lowered bottom lines during this time.

We need to see price relief, and we need to see real financial relief from the banks and front-line companies such as the internet and mobile companies, the latter being key to the educational, business and communication needs of every South African.

Covid-19 is a wake-up call to act swiftly and smartly together on well-conceived strategies. Those who can afford it need to help those who have nothing.

We have the collective resources and skills to battle this virus. It demands of us to put our differences aside, put goodwill and commitment to the fore and come together for the health of us all.

If you would like to contribute to this initiative, please contact Professor Duker. E-mail

We are calling on everyone with a sewing machine to step up and sew non-medical masks for distribution to those most urgently in need of them

Prof Pepeta is dean of the faculty of health sciences and Prof Duker is acting dean of the faculty of humanities at Nelson Mandela University

This article appeared in The Herald (South Africa) of 15 April 2020 written by Profs Lungile Pepeta and Mary Duker. 

Contact information
Professor Mary Duker
Professor: Department of Visual Arts
Tel: 27 41 504 3406