Grassroots Vol 20 No 3 | Page 6

CONGRESS 55 COVID “Curveballs”: first-time hosting a virtual congress during a global pandemic Debbie Jewitt 1,2 , Freyni du Toit 3 , Ed Granger 4 , Ralph Clark 5 , Kevin Kirkman 6 and Erica Joubert 7 Current Addresses: 1 Conservation Research and Assessment, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, P.O. Box 13053, Cascades, 3202, South Africa. E-mail Address: [email protected] 2 School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand, Private Bag X3, Johannesburg, WITS 2050, South Africa 3 dNA Solutions cc, 10 Church Street, Middelburg, 5900, South Africa 4 Themtek Environmental Consultancy, 10 Beaumaris Place, Dinsdale, Hamilton, 3204, New Zealand 5 Afromontane Research Unit & Department of Geography, University of the Free State, Private Bag X13, Phuthaditjhaba, 9866, South Africa 6 School of Life Sciences, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa 7 Grassland Society of Southern Africa, 10 Church Street, Middelburg, 5900, South Africa The Grassland Society of Southern Africa (GSSA) was established in 1965 with the aim of advancing rangeland ecology and pasture management in Africa. The GSSA is one of the premier and respected professional societies in southern Africa and represents the interests of a diverse, multinational cross-section of rangeland practitioners, ecologists, policymakers, emerging scholars, farmers and other interested parties. The first meeting of the Society was held at the Faculty of Agriculture of the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg in 1966 and attracted 96 delegates. Since then the Congress has been held annually. It is hosted by a different province in South Africa or a neighbouring country each year, to facilitate the attendance of delegates from different parts of southern Africa. In July 2019 the Eastern Cape Province was selected to host the 55th Congress of the Society between 29 June and 3 July 2020. Planning for each year's Congress begins a year before at the Annual General Meeting of the Society, which is normally held in conjunction with the Congress. By February 2020 planning was well underway to host our conference at Mentorskraal in Jeffreys Bay. The venue and funding were secured, Congress tours were being planned, and our scientific programme development was underway. In the first quarter of 2020, we were aware of the COVID-19 pandemic playing out, mostly in China and Europe, but it had not yet impacted South Africa. However, that changed on the 5 March 2020 when the first positive COV- ID-19 case was confirmed in the country. Shortly thereafter, the government restricted the number of people who could gather in one place to 50 people and imposed travel restrictions. Since our Congresses usually attract almost 200 delegates, the Council needed to consider alternative options. At a special Council meeting on 19 March 2020, the following four options were discussed relating to hosting the conference: (1) cancel the Congress, (2) hold a virtual online Congress, (3) host a hybrid event, or (4) postpone the Congress. Consideration was given to the Congress prestige, impacts on the Society membership, financial impacts, social impacts, impacts on the Society continuity (e.g. the election of office bearers) and the Annual General Meeting (AGM). The Society also took its mandate to disseminate scientific information very seriously. This, along with producing a journal (the African Journal of Range and Forage Science), form the Society’s most important function. Council anticipated significant hurdles with postponing the Congress to later in the year as many other congresses were being postponed leading to possible congestion later in the year. Further, the pandemic related disruption to work programmes might inhibit congress attendance e.g. changed academic timetables might make it difficult for academic staff to attend. Hosting a hybrid event significantly increased costs. After weighing the pros and cons of each option, the Council elected to hold a virtual online congress. Notwithstanding the challenges which this decision presented, it was felt that the benefits of hosting the Congress were in the interests of our members to further the aims of the GSSA, allow members to earn CPD (Continuing Professional Development) points which are a statutory requirement for professional scientists in South Africa, and generate sufficient income which is essential for the Society to continue operating as a Non- Profit Organisation. At this stage, we remained uncertain as to what further measures the government might put in place to curb the spread of COVID-19 and the levels of restriction for the rest of 2020. By 26 March 2020, the country was placed under a hard lockdown for 05 Grassroots Vol 20 No 3 September 2020