New, more infectious strains of the Covid19 virus are emerging in human populations. Multiple vaccines are being trialled and deployed across the world, more options for treating the disease are being developed and yet many countries are still in lockdown. How are we responding to this pandemic?
Sadly, since last writing global cases have risen to over 90 million. An end to lockdowns seems to be a distant dream here in the UK, as hospitals fill-up, schools close and many continue to work from home. Against this backdrop, research continues, new plant diseases are reported, new policies approved and crops harvested. We hear more from plant pathologists on their experience of research in the time of Covid. In Belgium, Dr Heba Ibrahim, fellow at the Division of Plant Biotechnics, KU Leuven reflected:
“The Covid-19 pandemic greatly influenced my work-life balance. The first lockdown meant a home office with my two children [present], which is not an easy task. For one, a 4-year-old does not understand the importance of focusing on work or of not disturbing an online meeting. On the other hand, a teenager suffers from being at home all the time with no chance to meet with friends, which causes its own troubles. In addition, being stuck at home most of the time affected my well-being, as keeping up a healthy life style is more challenging. Moreover, I became sick in March suffering from a suspected Covid-19 infection (at the time, only hospitalized patients were tested). This infection left me weak and fatigued for almost a month, affecting my life and research greatly.
…a long-term home office blurred the barrier between work and leisure and made me miss the feeling of just being at home and with family. A work day in the lab physically and mentally ends when leaving the institute. For me, working at home for a long time caused worry about work to last until late in the evening or even the weekends. This is one of the reasons I am grateful that I currently am able to work in the lab again.”
In contrast to March 2020, many of us now know friends and family affected by the virus. Many plant pathologists have personally experienced Covid. Carla Ximena from the last blog, has been finishing her PhD at the University of Copenhagen but had to face a new challenge last October and reflects that “like viral spread in plants, quarantine is the most effective tool but, inevitably, outbreaks occur…”
“Covid 19 sneaked into our home silently. Symptoms were not easy to discriminate at first, tiredness and joint ache…hints of the battle ahead. After test confirmations we felt confused, isolated, apprehensive and we did what we were supposed to do – quarantined and told all the people who we had been in contact with. We were so glad to hear no one got infected from us. The battle began for real 4 days later, fever day and night, pain and great discomfort. The virus was with us in a big way. Loved ones kept a close eye on us and prayed. At this time, we really needed a hug which we could not have but I was fortunate as I still had the children who became diligent nurses and enjoyed being the adults in exceptional circumstances. They emerged out of it very quickly but it stayed with me for 10 days, soon after pneumonia tried to establish, but of course we do have antibiotics. The disease lasted with me for three weeks and it took as much to recover. At the end of it, I felt a resetting to higher awareness, with important questions in my head such as: ‘Am I really healthy?’, ‘Do I share my life with the people that I love the most?’ ‘Do I enjoy what I do?’ I felt sustained by the presence of God in my life and I was fortunate to answer positively to most queries but I now put more focus on our health since excuses are not useful when face-to-face with the enemy. Nowadays, we joke about our uninvited – guest as well us appreciating the lesson it thought us…”
Despite the challenges of 2020, many researchers adapted to a bad situation and forged new and effective ways of working. As highlighted by Heba below, many researchers turned to bioinformatics or reviews to complement experimental work that was mostly put on-hold.
“In spite of the disappointment that I suffered when the first lockdown was announced and I had to cancel and throw away all the experiments that I had worked on for months, I took advantage of the situation to do the work I like the most, bioinformatics analysis, and to finalize several projects. Thanks to this, the number of papers I’ve published this year is the highest I’ve had so far in my career. Further, I learned to organize my work-days at home and to set daily and weekly goals – I found this very important to stay productive. Due to the severe restrictions on experimental work at the university I also learned to manage and plan very well future experiments and projects.”
Dr Stefan Kusch, fellow at the Unit for Plant Molecular Cell Biology, Aachen, Germany, represents the resilience of many plant pathologists:
“How did Covid-19 impact my research? Of course, all experiments were cancelled during the first lockdown in March and April, hence delaying pretty much every project. I have been fortunate since I was able to focus on writing and data analysis in these times. In fact, with altogether five co- or first-author publications accepted, this year has been the most productive of my career from this perspective. The most extensive change was the switch from in-person to remote Zoom/Teams meetings and teaching. While this has its advantages, I miss the in-person meetings nowadays.”