Collecting Lessons Learned on the COVID-19 Outbreak

IANPHI is leading an initiative to identify and share preliminary lessons learned from national public health institutes’ responses to the COVID-19 outbreak.

COVID-19 continues to be a major challenge and opportunity for national public health institutes (NPHIs) worldwide. The pandemic has placed many institutes center stage in supporting national responses to COVID-19. IANPHI invited its member NPHIs to discuss their work, strategies, successes and challenges in a series of regional meetings arranged by the four IANPHI Regional Networks between September and November 2020. 

Forty-six institutes participated in discussions seeking to understand the roles and responsibilities of NPHIs during national emergencies like COVID-19; expanding NPHI capacity during the outbreak; public accountability, independence and transparency; and international cooperation. Participants aimed to share effective practices between institutes and regions, and to discuss the way forward for IANPHI and its members over the coming months.

Preliminary Insights and Focused Discussions at the Annual Meeting

A session of the virtual 2020 IANPHI Annual Meeting shared preliminary lessons learned from IANPHI members. Andre van der Zande, president of IANPHI, discussed some of the recurring themes identified, including the challenges of sub-national coordination, aligning scientific advice with political and economic considerations, accessing medical goods and human resources, and developing and scaling up contact tracing systems.

Shared opportunities were recognized as well, such as the way NPHIs have been able to capitalize on their leading roles in providing guidance to the public and the authorities. The pandemic has also prompted innovation and good practices for NPHIs, such as the development of online training modules for public health professionals and cooperation with the media to tackle misinformation.

Focused discussions followed the presentation to allow members to build on some of these common experiences. Colombia’s Instituto Nacional de Salud, the Saudi Center for Disease Control, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control and Public Health England shared their thoughts on NPHIs’ advisory role to policy makers and on managing medical goods and human resources.

Some of the key lessons related to workforce issues, such as the need for greater clarity on respective roles and for a scalable workforce to face surge situations. According to Natalie Mayet, deputy director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases in South Africa, the core competencies of NPHI workforce need to be reviewed and include more data scientists, data analysts, and epidemiologists.

Another topic discussed during the meeting was NPHIs’ role in social and regional health inequities arising from COVID-19, with presentations from Brazil’s Fiocruz and Public Health Wales. Paulo Buss and Felix Rosenberg of Fiocruz described how their institute is “relentlessly seeking to reduce social inequalities” and, through a public call to support emergency actions for vulnerable populations, it funded 145 projects in 85 cities targeting issues such as food security, mental health, and assistance to risk groups. 

Member institutes finally discussed how they will continue to adapt as they enter the second year of the pandemic. Tracey Cooper, chief executive of Public Health Wales insisted on the importance of increasing the focus through 2021 on the broader indirect socioeconomic and health harms of COVID-19. “These will have the greater impact on a healthy and sustainable society and are accruing every day,” she said.

Lessons Learned and Next Steps

IANPHI is developing a report on member experiences, which will illustrate the role of NPHIs since the COVID-19 pandemic started and lessons identified in the response to health emergencies. The report will be published on the IANPHI website and shared with our partners. Over the course of the outbreak, the report will be updated as needed, and IANPHI will continue to provide opportunities for members to exchange information and experiences.

“Rebuilding public health infrastructure is a top priority for everyone, and for IANPHI in supporting and making the case at national level and globally,” said Duncan Selbie, IANPHI’s incoming president.

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