Tuesday 7 April 2020

Leeds community tackles coronavirus

For many athletes, the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics put their dreams of sporting success on hold for another year.

But for Kim Daybell (Medicine 2018) it meant an opportunity to help those who needed him the most, as he joined the NHS frontline in the fight against coronavirus (COVID-19).

Kim is just one of many members of the Leeds community who are playing their part in combatting the crisis all over the globe. As the University of Leeds steps up to tackle coronavirus, alumni, staff, and students too are at the forefront of this fight. Nowhere is this better exemplified than Kim’s own efforts as an NHS junior doctor.

Leeds Paralympian on the frontline

A two-time Paralympian and a key member of Team GB’s Paralympic table tennis squad, Kim was due to compete in Tokyo this summer. But instead of stepping up his training for the Games, he is stepping onto the NHS frontline.

“I was working part time as a junior doctor, part time table tennis ,” says Kim. “The plan was to finish my Foundation Year and then start with table tennis full time in preparation for Tokyo. That’s when COVID-19 hit, the Paralympics were postponed, and they asked if I’d come on the full-time rota, which I did.”

Of course, for many athletes – Kim included – the postponement had serious implications. “Obviously people might say ‘well they just have to wait a year’, and it’s true, in the grand scheme of things, it’s not a big deal. But I can appreciate the difficulties athletes are facing now. A year is a long time in sport, especially in the Paralympics where athletes have deteriorating conditions. There’s a lot of stress and pressure in the build-up to this year, and it’s difficult for that to just dissipate.

“I was lucky to be in a position to fight back. I wanted to help as much as I could – we join the health service for these exact situations, and we have a duty to do our jobs.”

"The main thing is to come together. Be vigilant, be strong, and be safe."

Kim Daybell (Medicine 2018)
Junior doctor and Paralympian

The fight Kim refers to has seen him working as a medical senior house officer managing COVID-19 patients in the Whittington Hospital in North London. “Every day they open up another coronavirus ward, and every day they are filling up. It’s full on.

“The vast majority of the general public are doing the right thing and staying at home. People just need to be clear that social isolation has no caveats or loopholes – you’ve got to do it. We can learn from other countries, and we can see that it’s crucial to prevent our intensive care units from being overrun. It’s a big sacrifice, but it’s just how it has to be.”

Kim has already made his own sacrifices to help the general public. As someone who has witnessed the impact of the virus, he is well positioned to offer advice on the matter: “The main thing is to come together. Be vigilant, be strong, and be safe.”

Paramedics staying positive

There are countless examples of Kim’s advice being put into practice all across the Leeds community. Also on the frontline of the pandemic is Paramedic Emily Morris (Psychology 2015), who got in touch from Greater Manchester. “It’s dreadful, but we’re plodding on!” she says.

Helping communities to understand the outbreak

Another member of the Leeds community using their skillset to combat the virus is Law student Peng Wu. By charting the growth rate of COVID-19, Peng has helped thousands of health professionals and members of the general public to understand the pandemic, encouraging further action.

Ever since the lockdown of Wuhan in his home country of China, Peng has monitored the spread of COVID-19 across the world. After witnessing the speed of growth here in the UK, his home since April 2019, he decided to do something to help.

“At the end of February there were 20 or so cases in the UK. But by the time I looked again on 5th March, suddenly there were 115 positive cases. The numbers were growing very rapidly, and I felt like I needed to do something – the media wasn’t giving it enough attention. It’s been a hard few months where I’ve been worrying about my family and friends back in China with the lockdown and the virus, and suddenly it was happening here, too.”

Peng set about highlighting COVID-19 growth trends in the UK by plotting the expected rise in cases that would follow. “I used the daily report posted out by the government to create my graph, and I used the exponential curve prediction method to plot what would follow. After the first graph, I decided to keep doing it every day, and I haven’t missed a day since.”

Peng shares his graphs on social media within minutes of the data becoming available. His analysis predicted that the number of positive cases would double every three days until more drastic social isolation measures were introduced – and that is exactly what happened. “My predictions were correct over those first few days, which caught people’s attention. There have been a lot of people asking questions or commenting how useful they find my work. I’m continually improving the graphs to meet the requests.”

Peng, like many of us, is finding the changes to everyday life brought about by COVID-19 difficult. But it is this that drives him to do what he can. “I’m missing my family back home, and my community over here in Leeds, too – small things like Global Cafe, International Student Club and community activities every week. It’s a hard time for everyone, and I want to do what I can to help. On the one hand, I’m helping people to learn about the pandemic, and on the other hand, my graphs emphasise the need for everyone to be vigilant and take it seriously.”

With Peng’s 16,400 Twitter followers including NHS staff, university professors, medical researchers, HSE officials, and local councillors, there is no doubt his work is having the desired impact. You can follow Peng’s daily updates on Twitter at @Egbert_PengWu.

Finding real-world solutions to COVID-19

For Digital Media student, Jacklyn Biggin, a desire to help others during the COVID-19 outbreak led to the start of a global, virtual battle against the virus. Her efforts have seen over 3,000 participants from six continents join a global hackathon – an event which finds solutions to problems caused by the virus.

“The goal is simple,” Jacklyn says. “We want to give participants the platform and tools to create real-world solutions.”

Jacklyn created Hack Quarantine, her own version of popular hackathon events. As Jacklyn explains, a hackathon is an opportunity for students and professionals to create technological solutions to challenges. “Generally, a hackathon is done over a weekend. I spent my year abroad in Canada flying around North America attending lots of in-person hackathon events. The Hack Quarantine is a little different, because it’s all virtual.

“The idea came to me when universities across the country began to move lectures online. I moved to Birmingham to stay with a friend, because both of my parents are key workers, so I've been unable to return home. It’s been really hard, and I wanted to do something to help others who were having a difficult time.

“I'm in a group chat with hackathon organisers across the country. I asked if anyone wanted to create a virtual hackathon, and the response was incredible – we pulled it all together in just ten days, organising the entire thing remotely, and we now have a team of 25 students from across the country keeping Hack Quarantine up and running.”

The Hack Quarantine team is working with medical and industry professionals to provide participants with the knowledge and tools they need to find solutions in key areas.

“People can submit solutions in set categories,” Jacklyn explains. “These are: supporting people quarantined or at risk; improving awareness and behaviour; solving problems in tech and health; and solving problems in remote working. So far, we’ve had some really great submissions.”

The submissions include a tool to forecast COVID-19 spread in different countries, a bot that connects co-workers through impromptu chats to help with social interactions, and a system which crowdsources wellness checks to ensure that vulnerable people get the help they need. In short, they are solutions that will truly make a difference in the upcoming months.

Hack Quarantine hosts a 24/7 livestream of workshops delivered by volunteer industry experts, partnered companies and community groups. “The livestream has had over 33,000 views since 23rd March, which just goes to show how far the project has come.”

With so many creative minds involved, thanks to Jacklyn, the potential for life-changing solutions is huge. Anyone can get involved in the hackathon by visiting https://hackquarantine.com, where mentors are ready to help newcomers from all backgrounds to make a difference.

Critical support in the USA

Just as the impact of COVID-19 has been felt worldwide, the response of the Leeds community can be seen globally, too. Don Macleod (PhD Electrical Engineering 1982), President and CEO of Applied Motion Products, has adapted working practices in his company to assist critical work in the USA.

Applied Motion Products, based in Watsonville, California, produce motion control products for a wide range of clients. When COVID-19 cases rose rapidly at the beginning of March, state and local government authorities issued a “shelter in place” order, meaning residents had to stay in their homes and Applied Motion Products was forced to close.

But for Don, it soon became clear that they needed to do something to help. “We supply products to the ‘critical infrastructure sector’ of the economy – so that includes medical products, healthcare, food supply chain, energy, communications and others – which makes us an ‘essential, critical infrastructure business’, too. We soon received letters from many of our customers, requesting we remain able to supply them with product.”

Don and his team set about making plans to do so. The team had to adapt their working practices in order to function as close to normal as possible. “We implemented strict training and protocol for all employees. This meant wearing masks, gloves, temperature checks, disinfection procedures, closed break rooms, no meetings, no visitors, no travel, increased social distance and implementation of maximum work from home practice.

“Our priority is employee safety. Conditions are not ideal and there are many restrictions, but no one has complained. Any employees that are at work now have volunteered to come in.”

And as Don points out, the fact they do so makes a real difference. “Some of our customers are directly involved in COVID-19 activities such as testing for the virus and blood analyzers, and we are also working with customers that make ventilators. Our team have really stepped up to enable this work to happen. This crisis will eventually go away, life will return to normal but the support of our employees, and their contribution will always be remembered.”

Addressing PPE shortages

Amidst the global surge in demand for adequate PPE (personal protective equipment), alumnus Ravi Toor (Environment & Business 2017) has been helping to supply frontline workers with protective facemasks.

His company, Filamentive – founded while he was a student at Leeds – makes the ‘plastic ink’, or filament, used in 3D printers. Ravi has provided filament at cost to 3DCrowd UK, a volunteer group committed to making facemasks, and he's paid for courier services himself. That’s allowed the group to produce thousands of facemasks for healthcare professionals.

“I’m grateful that I can work and contribute something useful during the pandemic,” Ravi says. “I was lucky enough to receive support from the University of Leeds to get my business going, and I’m always looking for opportunities to give back by supporting others when I can.”

The facemasks have been donated to hospitals, GPs, pharmacies, paramedics and social care practices. Although not officially endorsed, the demand for these masks has been enormous, with thousands already distributed around the country and requests for more being received each day.

We are proud of the efforts of alumni like Kim, Emily, Don and Ravi, and community members such as Peng and Jacklyn, as they do what they can in the fight against COVID-19. If you know of Leeds alumni, staff or students who are making a difference to their community, we’d love to hear and share their stories too. Email leedsalumnionline@leeds.ac.uk