Epidemic preparedness through connected transnational digital networks of local actors-small

Pandemic preparedness through connected transnational digital networks of local actors

Reda SadkiGlobal health, Learning strategy

In the Geneva Learning Foundation’s approach to effective humanitarian learning, knowledge acquisition and competency development are both necessary but insufficient. This is why, in July 2019, we built the first Impact Accelerator, to support local practitioners beyond learning outcomes all the way to achieving actual health outcomes.

What we now call the Full Learning Cycle has become a mature package of interventions that covers the full spectrum from knowledge acquisition to implementation and continuous improvement. This package has produced the same effects in every area of work where we have been able to test it: self-motivated groups manifesting remarkable, emergent leadership, connected laterally to each other in each country and between countries, with a remarkable ability to quickly learn and adapt in the face of the unknown.

In 2020, we got to test this package during the COVID-19 pandemic, co-creating the COVID-19 Peer Hub with over 6,000 frontline health professionals, and building together the Ideas Engine to rapidly share ideas and practices to problem-solve and take action quickly in the face of dramatic consequences of the new virus on immunization services (largely due to fear, risk, and misinformation). By January 2021, over a third of Peer Hub members had successfully implemented their immunization service recovery project, far faster than colleagues who faced the same problems but worked alone, without a global support network. Once connected to each other, these country teams then organized inter-country peer learning to help them figure out “what works” for COVID-19 vaccine introduction and scale-up.

Such a holistic approach is about mobilizing and connecting country-based impact networks that reach and involve practitioners at the local levels, as well as national MoH leaders and planners – quite different from conventional approaches (whether online or face-to-face) to building capacity and preparedness.

TGLF’s global health network and platform reach significant numbers of practitioners at all levels of the health system. It is not only the number of people who participate (47,000 as I write this) but also the depth of engagement and diversity of contexts that they work in. Globally, 21.2% face armed conflict; 24.5% work with refugees or internally-displaced populations; 61.6% work in remote rural; 47% with the urban poor; 35.7% support the needs of nomadic/migrant populations. This is across 110 countries, with over 70 percent in “high burden” countries. Many have deep experience in responding to epidemic outbreaks of all kinds. Health professionals who join come from all levels of the health system, but most are (logically) from health facilities and districts, the bottom of the health pyramid.

Through the network and platform, they build lateral connections, forging bonds not only of knowledge but also of trust. They do this not because they are from the same profession, but primarily (we believe) because they face similar challenges and see the benefit of sharing their experience in support of each other. Engagement is voluntary (ie people opt in and contribute because they want to), with no per diem or other extrinsic incentives offered. 

Individuals develop and implement corrective actions to tackle the root causes of the challenges they are taking on, drawing on both peer learning and the best available global guidelines. For the IA2030 Movement, our largest initiative so far, participants are simultaneously implementing 1,024 projects in 99 countries, learning from each other what works, sharing successes, lessons learned, and challenges. Here are four examples of what collective action through digital networks looks like :

  • In Ghana, TGLF’s alumni (including national and regional MoH EPI directors) decided to organize online sessions country-wide to share the latest information about COVID-19 with local staff, starting in April 2020. They had learned how to use digital tools to find the best available global knowledge and to combine it with their local expertise and experience to inform collective action.
  • In Burkina Faso, the national EPI manager entrusted the first “masked” vaccination campaign to the TGLF alumni team, which has organized itself country-wide, with over half of alumni working in conflict-affected areas. He told me no one else had the network and the capacity for change to figure out quickly how to get this right.
  • In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the TGLF alumni team is increasingly being asked by national EPI to contribute to various activities, due to their effectiveness in connecting and coordinating. The alumni network is country-wide and includes many from very remote areas. When Monkeypox was reported in Europe and North America, we were already seeing a steady stream of information through the DRC and other country networks.

We believe that this continuous learning and action is actually the definition of preparedness. Trying to imagine preparedness and response to new pandemics using old, failed methods of training and capacity building – whether face-to-face or online – is both dangerous and irrational.

Image: Remote villages illuminated by rays of light, with mountains beyond mountains in the background. The Geneva Learning Foundation Collection.