Newsroom & Blog

Sep 8, 2021   |   Blog Post

Innovation in the Face of COVID-19

Drone operator loading up

By Emily Bancroft

President, VillageReach

In a pandemic, innovation is not an option. It is a requirement.

At VillageReach, innovation has long been a core value. We believe creativity and fearless exploration are essential to developing sustainable solutions that improve the availability of health services and foster lasting change for communities everywhere.

We also know that in times of crisis, innovation can take many forms — from new ideas and new ways of working, to new uses for existing tools. Over the past 18 months VillageReach has supported governments across the countries we work in, relying on our spirit of innovation to both respond to COVID-19 now and strengthen health systems for the future.

Securing Needed Supplies

At the start of the pandemic, many countries faced shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE). We know first-hand that community health workers (CHWs) play a vital role in providing health services, but that they often bear the brunt of PPE shortages. As the global need for PPE skyrocketed, procuring equipment at scale seemed out of reach for many low-income countries. To address this problem, VillageReach joined a creative new effort to deliver PPE to the last mile.

Through the Covid-19 Action Fund for Africa, VillageReach and 30+ organizations raised millions of dollars to procure and supply PPE for 24 African countries. Resources were pooled to purchase supplies en masse, while VillageReach used its delivery systems to distribute millions of masks, gloves, and other equipment. It was this radical collaboration that enabled countries to confront the first of many pandemic challenges: protecting the community health workers putting their lives on the line every day.

Countering Misinformation 

As the pandemic wore on, misconceptions and misinformation about the virus (and eventually vaccines) spread widely. To help respond, VillageReach focused on deploying existing tools for innovative use and piloting new ones. We partnered with governments, helping equip them with technology to keep their populations better informed. In Malawi, that meant expanding Chipatala cha pa Foni (CCPF)a toll-free health hotline that has been in service for many years. Malawi’s Ministry of Health has been relying on CCPF to answer community questions and provide accurate information about COVID-19 in the country. Since March 2020, some 75 operators have provided more than 1.2 million callers with needed information on the virus and vaccines. 

Expanding Systems at the Last Mile 

Last mile supply chain strengthening is the core of VillageReach’s work. In Mozambique, innovations piloted nearly 20 years ago are now part of a strong operational system that the Mozambique Ministry of Health (MISAU) uses to deliver needed health supplies, medicines and vaccines to health facilities around the country. 

When the country locked down and the pandemic tested these systems, operations weren’t just maintained they were expanded. In March 2020, VillageReach was supporting MISAU to deliver to some 536 health facilities in 3 provinces. By December 2020, some 880 health facilities in 7 provinces were receiving products, and today it’s over 1,200 across the entire country. Rapid shifts in work practices, delivery methods, and management strategies were key to this expansion, alongside the implementation of COVID-safe protocols and policies to ensure rigorous hygiene, cleaning and social distancing across all operations.

Looking Ahead

As we focus now on ensuring the equitable global rollout of lifesaving COVID-19 vaccines, innovation will again be needed. It’s not enough to get vaccines to countries — we must urgently find creative solutions to deliver them to everyone at risk. There is a critical need for greater investment in the delivery systems and health workforces that will conceive of and implement these solutions, to address today’s crisis and prepare for tomorrow’s.

One exciting innovation starting to take flight is the Drones for Health program, which operates a fleet of drones in southern Malawi (among other countries across sub-Saharan Africa). From the onset of the pandemic, the already existing drones network was leveraged to transport COVID-19 samples and accelerate the diagnostics. Today, the drones are delivering COVID-19 vaccines to 25 hard-to-reach health centers in two districts that are at risk of being completely cut off by floods. Between May and July of this year, some 1,800 doses were delivered to a population that has been disproportionately impacted by the uneven and inequitable global vaccine rollout. As the COVID-19 vaccine delivery campaigns continue in Malawi, planning is underway to reach an additional 20 districts with 105 health facilities using drones, ensuring we are getting more shots to the people who need them.

As the world faces its biggest battle yet, we’re standing at the frontline. And our fearless exploration will continue long after the pandemic ends.

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