Health workers responding to the Ebola outbreak, the Zika Virus and HIV, likely didn’t realize the tools, resources and lessons from those crises would eventually support them through a global pandemic in 2020. Yet Canadian organizations responding to COVID-19 in over 70 countries found exactly that.
COVID-19 is not the first public health crisis we have faced and, unfortunately, it likely won’t be the last. However, this is an opportunity to reflect on past experiences and learn how to respond better and prevent others in the future!
Here are the lessons learned from the global response to HIV, Ebola and Zika - and now COVID-19:
What do we need to avoid?
- Diverting resources: As tempting as it may be to relocate tools, supplies and people to respond to an outbreak. This allows other infectious diseases, like tuberculosis, to gain a foothold in vulnerable communities.
- The spread of misinformation: Be prepared for the potential need to respond to the spread of misleading information. There are many reasons for the rise of misinformation, whether it be to justify an action, inaction or to grab attention.
- Discrimination: Fear can sometimes lead to xenophobic and other harmful rhetoric, as well as the labeling of vulnerable communities as sources of infection.
What do we need to repeat?
- Meaningful and inclusive outreach to vulnerable communities. Drawing on experiences, from past public health crises, Canadian organizations now know an outbreak or pandemic can be a powerful opportunity to address social inequities by engaging communities directly, particularly those most at risk of being targeted by discrimination.
- Collection of data: Local health workers are often key sources of data and essential to program delivery but they cannot be burdened with extensive data collection requirements. This is not to say we should stop collecting data in emergencies. Rather, we need to acknowledge there may be weaknesses or challenges and do what we can to make short-term adjustments and expectations.
- Invest in strengthening data literacy. Good data supports good health for communities. However, there isn’t always a receptive audience for this work so it’s important to strengthen basic scientific capacity and data literacy of stakeholders and communities.
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